February 11, 2024- sermon- Hamilton Throckmorton

Sermon Text...


February 11, 2024                                         Hamilton Coe Throckmorton

Mark 9:2-9                                                    The Federated Church, UCC


     I keep trying to imagine what they’re talking about. Off Jesus goes with three of his closest disciples, and up the high mountain they trudge. If I were one of those disciples, I might well be wondering what on earth we’re doing. Is it really necessary to embark on this arduous climb, or might we have been able to have this little chat down at the local coffee shop instead? But OK, I’d go along. And when we finally get there, who should show up but two crucial figures from our past, Elijah and Moses.


     The strange thing is Jesus, Elijah, and Moses ignore the disciples and have an animated exchange among themselves. And I keep trying to picture what they might be talking about. Maybe they’re discussing the weather. Or a recent TikTok video. Maybe it’s the war in the Middle East or the one in Ukraine. Maybe it’s hunger or inequity or intolerance. Maybe it’s the striking decline in church and synagogue participation. Maybe they, too, like half the rest of the world, are captivated by Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce. All we know is these eminent divines are talking with each other.


     This is a conversation like no other, though, because just as they’re talking, a cloud engulfs them and a disembodied, holy voice speaks to them. And immediately before they talk, Jesus, the one who has initiated this whole encounter, undergoes a startling transformation. “Transfiguration” and “transformation” are precisely the same word in Greek. And it’s a Greek word you and I would recognize: metamorphosis. Jesus metamorphoses. He totally changes in appearance.


     When I think of metamorphosis, my mind goes right away to a haunting short novel of that title by Franz Kafka, a story I read in high school. In it, a salesman named Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning having become a cockroach and has to deal with his entirely new life. I can only imagine that Jesus’ metamorphosis is radically different from that. The image that comes to mind when I think of Jesus on that mountaintop is that of a caterpillar, a creature who changes so entirely that it goes from a crawling, slithering being of, let’s face it, somewhat ordinary looks, to a flying creature of stunning beauty. You may rightly object that all God’s creatures are beautiful, and I would have to reluctantly agree. But I would still suggest that there is something radiantly captivating about the shape the caterpillar takes when it emerges from the chrysalis. The butterfly grabs your attention and wows you and won’t let go.


     When I try to imagine the change that happens to Jesus, it’s the butterfly emerging from its chrysalis that comes to mind. Now it’s certainly not that Jesus was ordinary before this. The gospel of Mark has told us from its very first verse that Jesus is the Holy Child of God. It’s fair to guess, though, that those around Jesus may have taken him just a tad for granted. They no longer see, if they ever did, the sheen that ought properly to mark Jesus. Familiarity may have bred more than a hint of contempt. They may well see him as “just Jesus”—ordinary, nothing special, maybe even odd or disconcerting or somewhat off-putting.


     So this encounter on top of the mountain is almost certainly something of an eye-opener for these disciples. It turns out Jesus really is unique, one-of-a-kind, sui generis. And the only way anybody knows this is because something in him changes. And then something in them changes. The shiny brilliance of this transfiguration shows the disciples who Jesus really is. And as they witness it, they’re led to their own kind of transformation. Change is at the heart of this central moment of the story of Jesus. The disciples see Jesus differently. And they see themselves differently.


     Years ago, while I was still in high school, in my first job I worked as a busboy at a local restaurant. There were a number of servers there, one of whom I hardly noticed. She was quiet and unassuming, and she just existed somewhere under my radar. It embarrasses me to say it now, but I’m sure I thought of her as pretty average and somewhat insignificant.


     One day, though, a small boy, a toddler, came into the restaurant. I have no idea whether this boy knew the server or not. But what I will never forget is that he leaped into her arms, and she beamed, and she held him. And he just melted into her, as if this was the most wonderful nest in the world. And suddenly I saw something in this woman that I had never seen before. Underneath what I had seen as a somewhat plain exterior, she had a deeply nurturing quality that simply invited people into her presence and made them feel at home. She provided a safe and welcome space for this boy. It was stunning to me, and extremely grace-filled. And I never looked at her in the same way again. Did she change? Or did I change? Or did I finally see her for who she truly was?


     I think what I saw that day in that woman—a woman I had looked right past and dismissed—was something of who she truly was. I saw something of her core—a quality I had never before seen. I have a sense that something like that happens to the three disciples who accompany Jesus up the mountain. He changes. They see his core. And they change.


     Years ago, I helped write a confirmation curriculum for the United Church of Christ. As the team of writers gathered to begin the project, the Rev. Tom Dipko, who preached here at my installation nearly two decades ago, met with us to talk about how important this curriculum would be. He said that when he was in high school, nothing about him stood out. He was an average student, a middling football player. One summer, though, he attended a church camp and devoured a book about Jesus. When he returned to school in the fall, his grades shot up as he dedicated himself to his studies. A few weeks into the fall, his football coach, who was also one of his teachers, pulled Tom aside, and he said, “Dipko, either you’re cheating, or something’s changed.”


     The truth is that when we are overtaken by a relationship with Jesus, something changes. Maybe an unhealthy addiction loosens its tenacious grip. Maybe we stop seeing our children’s accomplishments as validations of our own worth and allow them to be who they really are. Maybe we stop trying so hard to control the things we can’t control and trust that even the things that frighten us are somehow going to be OK. Maybe we become less attached to our things and more connected to each other. Maybe we cease looking at someone else as the devil’s spawn, and see them instead as a holy child of God. All this because we take in and are changed by the love of Christ.


     It’s so easy to get caught up in the way we think things are supposed to go and neglect instead to do the very thing that would give us a deep peace in matters that are ultimately out of our hands: to let go and let God. Twelve-step programs, as so many here know, bring a deep wisdom to life in this regard. We’re invited, you and I, to let go of what we may see as the only way things can be done, and to trust instead that God may have a way that comes out of no way.


     When God utters those remarkable words to Jesus on the mountaintop—“This is my Child, the Beloved; to this one you shall listen” (Mark 9:7)—those words let the disciples know who Jesus truly is. They also, though, let us know who we most truly are. You and I, too, are God’s children, “marked by [God’s] love” (9:7, The Message). You and I, too, are holy blessings from the first moment of life on. You and I, too, are adored for precisely who we are. It’s this we so easily forget, caught up, as we so often are, in performance reviews that may tear us down, in families who may not appreciate us, in neighborhoods who don’t know the slightest thing about us. In a world that so often fails to see us as we truly are, hearing this reminder again and again is crucial. Just perhaps, something changes in our perception of ourselves. Holy child of God: that’s you and I. That’s who we are at our core. That’s who God made us to be.


     So it may be a change for us to see again who we really are. And it may be a change for us to see the person across the church aisle or across the political divide or across the national border—the person we may not know at all, the person who irritates us, the person who stands for something we don’t believe in—as also a blessed child of the Holy One. If we fail to see that, change is what holy Jesus invites us to.


     It also may be a change for us to take in the unsurpassed joy of that mountaintop moment. Yes, those three disciples are frightened. We can imagine just how unnerving such a sight must be. I imagine, too, though, that they are overcome by the sort of relief and thrill and reassurance that they could only have dreamed of. Yes, it must have been unsettling. But it must also have been an incredible comfort: ‘This is what we’ve hoped, and it’s actually true! Literally: O my God!’ Underneath their stunned fear there must almost certainly have been a palpable glee.


     When things are a challenge in life, we so often get defeated by the endless difficulties and forget to rejoice in the simple beauty of this God-given life. And maybe we’re invited to receive the change that’s offered. Otis Moss III, a Chicago pastor who grew up in Cleveland, tells a story you may have heard. “Someone was in my house. It was the middle of the night but there was a noise that sounded like someone doing—I didn’t know what . . ..


     “I hadn’t been asleep anyway. My mind was racing. Some unstable people, stirred up by misrepresentations in the media, had lately been making threats against [my church] Trinity [United Church of Christ].

     “We’re going to bomb your church.

     “This was in 2008, during the presidential campaign. I was a young, unknown, rookie pastor, [and the media were drumming up fear and anger about our church, showing clips of sermons that raised white anxiety].


     “All that media attention had attracted unstable people and their threats. We were receiving at least a hundred threats a week, some by phone call, some by handwritten letter. . ..

     “We’re going to kill you.

     “Such violent words lingered in my consciousness, strange fruit demanding to be picked. And let me tell you: When you’re up in the night worrying about death threats, the last thing you want to hear is unusual noises in your home.


     “I heard them again. Like a good preacher, I reached for my rod and staff to comfort me. This ‘rod and staff’ was made in Louisville with the name SLUGGER on it. Gripping that baseball bat in both hands, I searched downstairs room by room. My heart pounding, I checked that the doors and windows downstairs were all closed.


     “Everything seemed to be in place. Maybe the sound was nothing?

     “[Nevertheless, I was filled with fear and despair.]

     “After searching the house, I yearned to go back to bed but I knew sleep would elude me. [Not much seemed in harmony for me in those days.] Not much that week and not a whole lot that year. All too often, I was an anxious, distracted man, alone in the dark with his baseball bat and his fears. . ..


     “That noise again! Coming from upstairs, clearly now, in the direction of my little girl’s room—the last thing a father wants to imagine. I climbed the stairs, clutching that baseball bat. My thoughts were focused on one thing only: self-defense, that raw, pragmatic form of justice. . ..

     “I reached my daughter’s bedroom and pushed open the door, straining to see in the dim light.


     “‘Daddy!’ Makayla cried.

     “My little girl was out of bed, twirling around the room, her pigtails spinning this way and that. She was making the noise I had heard. There I was, trying to face a serious threat to our family, and she was pulling me out of bed with this childish nonsense.


     “‘Go to bed, Makayla. It’s three in the morning.’

     “‘Daddy! I’m dancing!’

     “[In my irritation, I wanted to tell her to go back to bed.] But at that moment I heard another voice.


     “Listen to her. Look at your daughter.

     “She was dancing a strenuous, joyful routine . . .. Her movements were so jubilant, her spirit so free of worry or fear that I couldn’t even stay mad at my baby girl.

     “She’s dancing. The darkness is all around her as it’s all around you—but she’s still dancing. . ..


     “What we forget, faithwise, in our fear—what I was forgetting that night . . .—is that even in the darkest night, when we see no light at all, the light is still there. . .. What we need in the darkest nights is to keep walking along the path until we can glimpse the stars again. . ..


     “I watched [Makayla] dancing in darkness until she came to a natural pause, and as I watched, my love for her washed away my fear. I scooped her up and carried her back to her bed. After I kissed her goodnight, I made my way back to bed to see if I could possibly catch a few winks before the sun came up. Some of her joy, some of the light in her, was still with me as I lay down. I let go of my worry, closed my eyes, and slept until morning” (Dancing in the Darkness, pp. 91-96).


     What we see on the mountaintop when we go there with Jesus is that there is something beneath the strife and the loneliness and the tension and the worry and the fear, something deeper than that that’s the stuff of beauty and hope and trust and connection and love. I think that’s what Jesus and Elijah and Moses are talking about when they get together on that mountaintop. I think that’s what we can talk about, as well. I think, indeed, that it’s that beauty and hope and trust and connection and love that we can practice with each other. May we go to the mountaintop and be the grace-filled and tender people God made us to be.