Sunday, February 23, 2020

Sermon: "Get It?" Matthew 17:1-9/Acts 8:26-39 (February 23, 2020--Transfiguration Sunday)


Some of you may not know this about me, but while I’ve been ordained for almost six years now, I’ve actually been working in churches professionally for more than ten years. The vast majority of the time, my career has been focused on Christian Education. I was also a Religious Studies major in college before that, so you might say that I have a bit of experience—both formal and “on the job”—learning and teaching about God.

One of my last professional church jobs before being ordained was at a UCC church in a Boston suburb. I served as the director of Christian Education for this tiny community. Their membership had been dwindling over the years, to the point that average Sunday attendance was probably about 15-20 people every week (I’m admittedly terrible at estimating numbers, but if I’m wrong in this case, it’s because I guessed too high). Most of the members were older folks who’d been a part of this church for their entire life. The number of children who attended with anything resembling regularity could be counted on one hand. To their credit, though, this congregation recognized that there was no point sitting on the unusually large endowment that they had, so they chose to invest in their children’s program.

That’s where I came in. I was a third-year seminary student with several years of church school teaching under my belt, so they thought I’d be the perfect person to help their kids grow in faith. The thing is, I had NO experience working in a setting like this. I’d grown up in churches with a different classroom for every grade level; this community had so few children that they used a single classroom all year, and there were some weeks that I had exactly two students. More often than not, those two kids were an overactive 5-year-old and a seemingly apathetic 12-year-old.

I bet you can imagine the challenge I faced (I bet our Sunday School teachers have a particularly good idea what it was like for me). But over the course of the year, these two kids taught me something important: when it comes to learning about God, people generally fall into one of two categories. The first category is made up of those who don’t “get it.” Not only do they not get it, but they don’t GET that they don’t get it, you know? My 5-year-old student was like this: I’d teach about Noah’s ark, and she’d list off her favorite animals. I’d explain that Abraham and Sarah were as old as grandparents when they had Isaac, and she’d tell me about the fun vacation she’d recently gone on with her grandparents. I’d tell how an angel appeared to shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus, and she’d interrupt to tell me that she wanted to be the Tooth Fairy in the Christmas Pageant (all true stories). The art of missing the point was taken to a new level with this girl. Of course, she was five, so none of this was particularly surprising. And it was actually pretty impressive that she was able to connect these ancient stories to her own very limited life experience so easily. But it got really difficult and frustrating trying to teach when she simply didn’t “get” what I was trying to tell her.

So this is the first category of “God-learners”: those who are taught, but don’t “get it” (and don’t get that they don’t get it). But contrary to what you might expect, the second category isn’t “people who DO get it”. If we’re honest, we have to admit that NONE of us really “get it”: God isn’t exactly easy to comprehend. Instead, the second type of learner is one who UNDERSTANDS that they don’t “get it”. One who asks questions. One who wonders and pursues illumination. One who SEEKS OUT teachers because they know that they need help.

Fortunately for me and my sanity, my 12-year-old student happened to fall into the latter category. Although initially acting aloof and disinterested—in other words, acting like a 12-year-old in church—he quickly discovered that there was a lot to unpack in these ancient stories. He wondered, “Why did God destroy the world in the flood instead of just making people nicer?” “Why was it so important to Abraham to have a kid when he was so old?” “Why would shepherds care about Jesus being born?” He asked easy questions and he asked questions that stumped me. He didn’t always ask the questions that I wanted him to ask, but he always asked the questions that he needed answered.

The categories that these kids illustrate so clearly aren’t new or unique to children. They date back to the very earliest days of “Christian Education”—at least, education about Christ. Consider the disciples. In every one of the gospel accounts, the disciples are consistently portrayed as people who just don’t GET IT. Not only do they not get what Jesus is trying to teach them at any given point, but they don’t even get who he is or what he stands for. None of Jesus’ many miracles or lessons—including the ones that he painstakingly explains to them—seem to clue them in. Sure, they have their moments of unexpected clarity, but in general, they’re pretty dense.

And then comes the transfiguration. In Matthew, Mark, AND Luke’s gospel accounts, Peter, James, and John all see Jesus transfigured with their OWN EYES, witness Jesus talking with the most important figures of their faith (who are long dead, by the way), and hear God’s voice claiming Jesus as God’s own son. Yet rather than rejoicing in the marvelous things that they’d seen and heard or asking Jesus to explain what was going on, they fall to the ground (and presumably covered their eyes) in fear. I can only imagine how frustrated Jesus the rabbi, their teacher, must have felt. After everything he’d told them, they STILL didn’t get it, and they didn’t GET that they didn’t get it.

Now compare this with our other scripture reading. Consider that as an Ethiopian, this man likely would have had little knowledge of Jewish scripture. And his status as a eunuch would have further distanced him from the Jewish community, since he couldn’t be circumcised. Unlike the disciples, he had never encountered Jesus personally. So he obviously didn’t get it. But when Philip asks him if he understands the scripture he’s reading, he replies “How can I…unless I have someone to guide me?” He doesn’t understand what he’s reading, but he KNOWS that he doesn’t know. And he recognizes that it’s something worth knowing. So, he invites Philip into his chariot to teach him.

The Ethiopian Eunuch didn’t have the same educational advantages that the disciples had. He hadn’t heard God’s voice like Peter, James, and John. He hadn’t met Jesus. He hadn’t seen Jesus’ miraculous transformation on the mountaintop. And yet in spite of all of this, he was the one who could see clearly that he didn’t get it, and he chose to seek understanding instead of diversion. Ironically, the word “disciple” comes from the Latin for “one who learns.” Of the people we’ve read about today, it seems that the Ethiopian Eunuch did the most to earn that title.

Transfiguration Sunday is a time when we recognize the divinity and glory of Jesus Christ as revealed to those three disciples on the mountaintop. WE, of course, can understand the implications of this miraculous event; after all, hindsight is 20/20, and we know what comes next. But might our hubris at “getting” more than Jesus’ best friends get in the way of the questions that we still need to ask and the lessons that Jesus still wants to teach us?

In the gospel of Matthew, the narrative doesn’t jump straight from the Transfiguration to Holy Week, even though that might seem like the next logical step: getting down to business. But instead, Jesus un-dazzles, goes back down the mountain, and TEACHES MORE. For another three chapters! Jesus insists that there’s still more preparation to do, more learning that needs to happen, before we’re ready to encounter the crucified Christ on Good Friday or the risen Christ on Easter. If Jesus thinks that, don’t you think there might be something to it?

Lent is forty days long because it parallels the time that Jesus spent in the desert preparing for his earthly ministry. This is why we so often associate Lent with self-denial, because that reflects the way that Jesus prepared. But the structure of Matthew’s gospel reminds us that there’s more to Lent than just stripping down the altar and our lives. We’re standing today with Peter, James, and John on the mountain, and there’s a serious tutoring session standing between us and the cross.

This is what Lent is about. It’s about being on top of the mountain, seeing who Christ is and what God’s doing, but being humble enough to come down again and admit that there’s still more for us to do. “Repent” doesn’t mean, “Act guilty for forty days!” It means, “Recognize the fact that you don’t get it, embrace your humility, and ask for help.” The Transfiguration invites us into this attitude, amazing us with God’s power and glory and showing us that there’s more to Jesus than we ever could have imagined. We can’t skip the next part, telling ourselves that we already get it. If we try, we won’t be able to recognize Jesus when he finds us on Easter morning.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that either the disciples OR my 5-year-old student were a lost cause. A 5-year-old can’t be expected to understand the nuances of thousands of years of Christian theology—at least, not right away (I’m not THAT good a teacher). And obviously, the disciples eventually came around and understood what Jesus had been trying to tell them for three years, and once they did, boy, did they ever make up for lost time! Their painfully slow maturation of faith eventually blossomed into a movement that’s changed millions of lives and taught countless people how to know Christ. But only because they finally started listening. They let go of their self-confidence and arrogance and opened themselves up to the Holy Spirit. They learned from each other. They listened. They studied, they argued, they prayed, but they never stopped learning.

Today, as we remember the Transfiguration and look towards the Lenten season, try to figure out where you are on your faith journey. If you think you’ve more or less got it figured out, you’re probably missing something big. As we gaze upon Christ’s dazzling white clothes and watch him talking with the prophets of ages past, use this opportunity to humble yourself and figure out what it is that you still need to learn. Who will be your Philip? What will be your questions? How is Jesus trying to prepare your heart? Amen.

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