A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC March 3, 2019, Transfiguration Sunday. “This Is Us” series.
Texts: Exodus 34:29-35, Luke 9:28-43
Jesus has been loving people back to life since he emerged from the temptations in the wilderness, calling women and men from all walks of life to follow in his way of compassion and justice. Signs and wonders have been witnessed, especially along the margins, with the outcast, among the tombs, in the places where people come out—out of hiding, out of shame, out of death. Healing and feeding, liberation and restored life are what Jesus brings. And from the very beginning Jesus is opposed by those with a different plan. Jesus’ radical, boundary-crossing, expectation-smashing, life-changing love is rejected by proponents of the status quo. Jesus knows his God-given identity, the way he loves, and his choices of where and with whom to stand are making the powers and principalities track his every move, watching and waiting for a time to do him in, to stop the mighty flow of God’s grace that splashes all over every time Jesus tears down another dividing wall of hostility. (Eph 2:14)
Jesus, knowing the score full well, told his followers that “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Lk 9:22) About eight days after saying this Jesus went up to a high place, a thin place, to draw near to God, likely needing some encouragement and guidance for what only he knew was brewing. As Jesus prays, something extraordinary happens. Luke doesn’t use the word “transfigured” to describe it, as both Matthew and Mark do, but rather says “the appearance of [Jesus’] face changed”—it was like Moses face shone after talking with God on Mount Sinai. (Ex 34:29). And then Moses—lawgiver and liberator—and Elijah—prophet and persistent presence to God’s wayward people—appear and have a little talk with Jesus.
Both Moses and Elijah spent time with God on mountains. Both were on the public enemy #1 lists of their day. Both were called by God to speak truth to power. In other words, these are two people who had some real experience to share. Their words must have been a balm and encouragement for Jesus in this moment when no one around him had a clue of what was going on. They talked together about Jesus “departure.” I’ve always found this word in Luke’s account of the story rather jarring and odd. I wonder what it means that the word translated “departure” is the Greek word exodos—the word used to describe the story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery to freedom...
It is often suggested that the departure is Jesus’ death and resurrection—bringing freedom from sin and death as a result. I don’t disagree, but I can’t help but notice that Jesus—his face shining like Moses—is preparing to march into the center of power—not to confront Pharoah as Moses once did, but to confront the hypocritical religious leaders of the day who hold people captive through neglecting justice and the love of God, who load people with burdens hard to bear but don’t lift a finger to ease them, who present themselves as shiny on the outside (like a washed cup) while on the inside they are filled with greed and wickedness (Lk 11:37-52).
The story we read today is a moment of strategic prayer and preparation for the new exodus drama to play out. Jesus was given encouragement in the moment he was turning his shining face toward Jerusalem where the forces of control, fear, exclusion, greed, and abused power coalesced in sinister ways. //
When I read this story after returning from the General Conference in St. Louis, the word “departure” struck me for new reasons. I thought of those delegates hell-bent on passing so-called “gracious exit” plans, those determined to leave or to force others to do so, those fixated on departure from the denomination and at the cheapest rate possible. And the Greek word exodos stirred thoughts of slavery; I thought of those determined to hold us hostage, to trap LGBTQ people and allies in bonds not of love and friendship, but rather with cords of control and coercion and fear and mandatory penalties and narrow thinking and threatened expulsion.
Some may hear my words today and cry “foul” at my implication. I readily acknowledge that there are people of deep love and faith who, out of a desire to please God and a cherished interpretation of scripture, cannot affirm same gender marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ persons. These folks who with real compassion seek to do no harm are not who I’m talking about. They are not the ones who drafted the heinous legislation called the “Traditional Plan” (even if some of them voted for it). Let me simply say that, in this struggle, there are those who I believe truly, deeply, fervently wish to rid the church of LGBTQ persons and their allies and who feel and say truly awful things about us in private and then couch their plans to kick us out in terms of grace.
Jesus has seen all this before. Jesus has seen beloved siblings get all tied up in fear and hatred and the need for control and, as a result, do great harm. And because of his steadfast love for the most vulnerable and also for those inflicting the harm, he didn’t avoid confrontation with the perpetrators, but walked right into it. There’s that classic moment in the story when Peter, not knowing what he’s saying, decides he should build some tabernacles for everyone so they can stay there in that shiny, happy place on the mountaintop. And it was then that the cloud rolled in and made it clear that something else needed to happen. Wake up! Listen up! Face up to who Jesus is and what Jesus is doing and where Jesus is going. //
Before General Conference, I experienced an old, familiar feeling. I felt like I was literally “gearing up” for a big game—like when I played basketball back in high school. There’s a certain kind of energy that comes with prepping for a contest. I felt myself putting on my “game face.” From time to time over the past weeks it made me feel guilty. I prayed my “beast mode” competitive drive wouldn’t overwhelm the light and assurance of Christ’s love I so wanted to bring into the General Conference space.
As I prayed with our text today, I saw Jesus being given a changed face, a face that could turn toward the struggle and pain to come with light and with compassion and with courage and with love. Maybe that is a kind of “game” face—not in a frivolous way, but a certain kind of face given for a certain kind of engagement. The face Jesus consistently showed was the face of love and patience, the face of forgiveness and peace, the open and inviting face that beckons others to turn toward love of God and love of neighbor—not with platitudes, but with concrete acts of care, justice, solidarity, and provision.
I don’t know what kind of face I showed in St. Louis. I’m sure it wasn’t pretty on any number of occasions. But the question that emerges for me in this critical moment following General Conference is: what face will we show the world?
In our story today, we see the disciples at the top of the mountain show sleepy faces. Is that the face we want?
In our story today, we see the disciples’ impulse to put on shiny, happy faces by staying on the mountaintop and avoiding the pain and struggle of the valley. I imagine some would want to cut Foundry off from the mess of our denomination and stay in the relatively happy place of our local experience. What about the countless clergy, laity, and congregations who look to us for leadership and hope as part of their beloved church? Can we truly put on a happy face if we abandon our siblings who look to us for support?
In our story today, we see the disciples shut their faces, remaining silent about the wonders they have witnessed. Will we do that? Or will we continue to proclaim the wonder and life-giving power of God’s inclusive love even in the face of challenge? Will we seek to expand our proclamation to always acknowledge the complicated intersections that emerge among God’s beautiful and varied human family? Will we show a face that is loud and proud and diverse?
In our story today, we see disciples in the valley showing a powerless face—unable to meet the needs of a suffering child. Is that the face we wish to project? Or will we serve and advocate and care boldly, trusting in the power of God’s saving grace and love to be at work in and through us?
There are those over the past number of days who have wanted to press or provoke me to show a face of fear. Friends, the perfect love of God casts out fear! Can we show our face with confidence and assurance in God’s love and protection?
Will we hide our faces by turning and running away in this moment?
What will be the face of Foundry in the days, weeks, and months ahead? If it’s anything like the Foundry I saw show up in St. Louis as we marched into that place of deep struggle together, it will be a face shining with faith even under assault, with compassion even in pain, with eyes-wide-open courage, with patience, with endurance, with fearless generosity, with determination, skill, grace, radical hospitality, humor, creativity, and a love so deep it takes my breath away.
Jesus turned his face to God and was given everything he needed to do the loving thing, the just thing, the brave thing, the saving thing. For the sake of the hurting ones and all who are oppressed, for the sake of our congregation, for the sake of the United Methodist Church everywhere, for the sake of this beautiful, broken world, let’s turn our face to Christ, so that face is reflected in ours...