03/05/2023 ~ Second Sunday in Lent ~ Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17 or Matthew 17:1-9 ~ VIDEO OF FULL SERVICE: https://vimeo.com/805194031
“Suddenly the disciples saw Moses and Elijah appear, talking with Jesus.” — Matthew 17:3.
A colleague once said to me before you go to bed on a Sunday read the Scriptures for the next Sunday. They’ll percolate all week and maybe your dreams will give you a sermon.
So what percolated, came bubbling out of my subconscious in a dream this week, is something which happened when I was a Senior in High School. I hope my dreams are not too frightening… but then again I’m not Stephen King. (Slight pause.)
I graduated from Richmond Hill High School, Queens, New York with a class of 792 souls. Graduates of note over the years from that school included Hall of Fame Shortstop Phil Rizzuto, comedian Rodney Dangerfield, Rock Star, Broadway composer Cindi Lauper… and me.
I was involved in a lot of extracurricular activities at school. One was something called the Discussion Forum. Somehow, as a Senior, I had the role of vice-chair.
Equally somehow, the group decided to have a Candidates Forum for people running for Mayor of New York City. Equally somehow, someone convinced William F. Buckley, Jr., who was running for mayor, to come speak at this local event. He was the only Mayoral candidate who showed up.
If you are unfamiliar with Buckley, he is thought of as one of the founders of the Conservative movement. Born to wealth, a graduate of Yale, he first came to public attention with the 1951 book God and Man at Yale. In 1955 he founded the magazine National Review.
From 1966 to 1999 Bill was the host of the weekly PBS show, Firing Line. Erudite and funny, when asked what he would do if he won the race for Mayor he famously responded, “Demand a recount.”
Well, this evening event was held in the school auditorium which had a capacity of about 800 and, given Buckley was to speak, the auditorium was full. I don’t remember why, but it fell to me to introduce a local politician who in turn introduced Buckley. I did my job, exited stage right, stood there and listened.
Having finished speaking Buckley glided off stage right where several of his aides waited and where I was standing. They exited into a hallway. I followed.
A number of people, perhaps several dozen, burst into the hallway from an auditorium exit some twenty yards away. They were shouting Buckley’s name and waving programs, probably seeking autographs.
One of Buckley’s aids turned to me and in a brusk manner asked, “What’s the exit closest to the street.” We were literally feet from an exit. I pointed at it. They pushed through the door. I followed.
The door slammed shut behind us. The same aide turned to me and said, “We parked on 113th street. Where’s that?”
I pointed back toward the door we had just exited. “On the other side of the building.”
He muttered something unpleasant and tried the door. It was locked. Buckley seemed calm and unconcerned but this fellow was really agitated. “How do we get to back 113th Street?” he demanded.
“Walk around the block?” I offered. He growled something contentious again.
You see, the school had a fenced in athletic field right next to the building but the field had no street access. Walking around the block meant walking around the field, a city block one way, across another block and a city block back.
It was early Fall and it was warm. We all set out on this journey walking together.
There seemed to be no local traffic, no cars. No one spoke. It was quiet in a very eerie way. The inner-city streets presented stretches of night and circles of light from the street lamps above as we passed under them from light to deep shadow, light to deep shadow, one by one by one.
We got to our destination. Buckley and the others got into a waiting limousine. Off they went. This whole episode seemed quite surreal to me, even then. (Slight pause.)
In a three way race Buckley lost with 13% of the vote. And I did not tie a lot of facts to the story really. Nor do I with any precision remember the details. These are vague memories from a long time ago. What I really remember is what the experience felt like. And I hope I conveyed that.
Perhaps that’s why it came to me in a dream. This happened so long ago what I remember is how it felt, not necessary facts. (Slight pause.)
This is what we hear reported in Matthew: “Suddenly the disciples saw Moses and Elijah appear, talking with Jesus.” (Slight pause.)
I want to point out a couple things we all know about New Testament times. Scholars believe Jesus was crucified in the year we would identify as 30 of the Common Era. Scholars think Matthew was written about the year 85, 55 years later.
Tell me, can you remember, in detail, anything from 55 years ago or even 10 years ago? If you do remember anything, you probably simply have a sense of what happened.
I was a Senior in High School 58 years ago. What I just related are simply vague memories. I did not tie a lot of facts to my story.
I, for instance, these many years later, have no idea how a school club got permission to run this kind of event or why a well known figure like Buckley would come? Also, I was the vice-chair, not the chair of the Discussion Forum. So why was I designated to introduce the person who introduced Buckley?
You think I’d remember important details like that, would you not? But what I really remember is what the experience felt like, how surreal it seemed. (Slight pause.)
So, is the story of the Transfiguration about factual data? Or is the story about something else? (Slight pause.) Having asked that, there are several other general statements to make about the New Testament, things we all know but things to which we mostly don’t pay attention. (Slight pause.)
The Gospels are stories about Jesus, who was Jewish, written by people who were Jewish, about people who were Jewish and largely meant to communicate with people who were Jewish. Further, the Gospel stories were written in light of and strongly influenced by the Hebrew Scriptures.
Everyone who heard this story knew the Hebrew Scriptures inside out and backwards. It was a common reference point. At that time what we call the Hebrew Scriptures was the only Bible, the Bible Jesus read. (Slight pause.)
That brings me back to words from Matthew: “…the disciples saw Moses and Elijah….” So, why are the disciples pictured as seeing Moses and Elijah? (Slight pause.) One answer is Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets.
Now, when we read Scripture we tend to read it with contemporary, modern eyes and ask Twenty-first Century questions of Scripture, like ‘Did this happen?’ That’s an odd question on two counts.
First, I don’t think the story is trying to tell us what happened. Second, it seems highly likely to me this is a story about feeling, a story that expressed something about what an experience of the real presence of God, a theophany, feels like.
Further, in the context of Matthew, this story happens shortly after Jesus asks, ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter responds that Jesus is the Christ, the Jewish Messiah.
And so, if you have the Law, the Prophets and the Messiah together what might Jewish people think? After all, a constant message Jesus offers is that the Realm of God is near. Perhaps people would think the Realm of God must be near.
Put another way, this story is not about a vision of Christ. This story is about a vision of God for our world, a message about the Realm of God, a call to us to help make our world a place where we endeavor to bring God’s vision for the world to fruition.
So perhaps the challenge posed by the story to early Christians and, therefore, to us is simple. What are we to do to participate in the Realm of God as it unfolds?
Scripture tells us what God’s vision of the world is, what it looks like. God’s vision of the world, for the world is one in which, with the help of God, we eliminate poverty, we eradicate inequity, we extinguish injustice— with the help of God.
Last, I think this story means we are all called to be in right relationship with God. What can we do to be in right relationship with God?
Love God; love neighbor. According to Jesus those words which are brought up in the very next chapter— love God; love neighbor— are summed up in the Law and the Prophets. And those words fully explain God’s vision for the world. Amen.
Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Well, unlike Stephen King’s dreams I hope my dreams are not too frightening. However, if the modern world proves anything to us it probably proves there are many ways of seeing reality. I want to suggest the one way of seeing reality I don’t think we try often enough is God’s reality for the world, a reality of justice, peace, freedom, hope and trust.”
BENEDICTION: God’s love will surround us even when we do not ask for it. God’s voice speaks to us. Let us be attentive to it. Let us share this with others, confident that God will be with us. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.