Listen to Him
A sermon for Transfiguration Sunday
The Rev. Mercedes Clements
Why did the Romans occupy Israel? Most of the area is desert wilderness unable to support large populations. What value did this desert land have to the Romans?
First, Israel was a crossroads. It was conquered numerous times over the millennia because it sits at the crossroads of access to the Mediterranean sea from the Mesopotamian region (modern-day Iraq). And it was the overland crossroad between the breadbasket of North Africa and the large population centers of the Roman empire.
The empires expanded and took over other lands because they believed it offered better security and safety to their homelands. Holding buffer lands between them and their greatest enemies theoretically protected the heartland.
Empires subjugated and oppressed the people in surrounding nations so that native citizens closer to the capital might live relatively safe and fruitful lives.
This was true for the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans, and empires today. Large power structures have grown through exploitation and inequality, allowing some people to live more comfortably than others. Even the major Western powers, including the US, grew through this paradigm to some degree or another.
But there's another aspect we must also name: authoritarian regimes. Those who rise to power through tyranny are consumed with power and rule through fear and intimidation. Dictatorial regimes by nature concentrate power at the point of the pyramid, making the leader both all-powerful and highly vulnerable. Once ensconced, fear becomes a necessary tool to maintain the seat of power.
Such tyrants come to believe the rhetoric that instills fear in those around them, and everything becomes subordinate to their power, especially religion. Religion becomes a tool to instill fear and control the masses. Consider the emperors and pharaohs that were likened to or styled as gods.
The further out from the center of power, the more oppressed the people are, and if the tyrant feels threatened or senses weakness, they will lash out to expand at the expense of the subjugated masses.
Hence, the Romans used the brutal torture of crucifixion to terrify the masses and force conformity. The bodies of the condemned remain on the crosses for days, forcing a slow and agonizing death. And the crosses lined the roads as a public sign to all who would dare step out of line.
This was the reality that Jesus and the disciples journeyed through every day. Every time we see a crucifix, it should remind us of the tools of oppression used to instill fear in a repressive empire.
Today is the last Sunday after the Epiphany. We traditionally recognize the last Sunday before Lent as Transfiguration Sunday. Moses and Jesus are each transfigured in the presence of the Lord on a mountain. Those that witness the events recognize their nearness to God by the radiant and dazzling glow of their faces.
Luke describes how Jesus and the disciples retreat to a mountain to pray and rest. Then, for a moment, Jesus stands glowing in a dazzling white, talking to Isaiah and Moses. The image is so powerful it stuns Peter into inarticulate babble about building shelters.
But that glimpse is quickly shrouded in clouds, as Moses veiled his face, and the ancient temple would be covered in a thick cloud at the presence of the Lord.
Jesus's divinity is openly acknowledged with the words from God echoing the revelation at his baptism. "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"
Jesus is recognized as the son of God, not for praying on the mountain, but for walking in the ways of the Lord as he serves the oppressed.
This revelation flusters Peter and the disciples, and their response was confused; do we build shelters for our guests?
I think we can recognize this desire to retreat sometimes when the news of war, terrorism, natural disaster, racial conflict, and pandemic become seemingly endless.
We are not expected always to have answers but prayerfully to stay attentive where God calls us next. It's okay to take each day, one moment at a time, trying to stay present to God's direction.
But Jesus does not linger on this mountain top. God has not called us to stay in retreat but to engage with the world and listen to Jesus.
Jesus immediately returns to ministry. He is chosen. With him, the Lord is well pleased, not because he climbed a mountain, but because he preaches good news to the poor, casts out demons, heals the sick, forgives the sinner, and feeds the hungry. Jesus is serving the victims of the empire. Lifting up those persecuted by the violence of repressive regimes.
Jesus knows what is coming in Jerusalem, but he leads them down the mountain to continue his ministry. Was he pondering the future and grieving his fate? Possibly this is what leads to his harsh retort. But who are we to take away his grief and pain?
The revelation of Jesus's divinity does not strip him of his humanity.
And it does not stop him from continuing his journey to the cross.
It's been a long week. After weeks of maneuvering, Russia invaded Ukraine, a sovereign nation, and Vladimir Putin claims this is a defensive move to protect the security of Russia.
For those old enough to have memories of World War II, the echoes seem all too familiar.
Those who lived through the Cold War are all too acquainted with the unending tension and threat of escalation.
It is heartbreaking to witness the devastation and strife, yet we are called to listen to Jesus.
To follow my call is to believe that God's creative power is greater than the destructive power of sin and evil. Just because this feels familiar and scary does not mean it all leads to the same outcome.
We do not have to repeat the cold war.
We do not have to imagine World War III.
It is up to us to imagine the possibilities for true peace and the Kingdom of God, the Beloved Community.
However, given the current reality, to follow Jesus means that we must pay attention to injustice and consider the victims.
We are called to prayer and contemplation. To listen for God's guiding spirit.
Over the last week, you've probably seen the images and heard the stories…
In just two days, 160,000 civilians fled Ukraine, mainly to Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia, and Romania. Thousands are still waiting to exit the country. The UN believes up to a million people may flee
And because there is no such thing as a pure "battlefield," we cannot avoid the images of buildings destroyed, civilians injured, lives destroyed.
While we may feel powerless in the short term to change the situation, Jesus offers a model for response.
Prayer. Discernment. Then action.
As we enter a new week, I offer you permission to retreat sometimes.
Do not overload on the news. It's okay to protect yourself. I have found, at times, the need to grieve. At unexpected moments the news of the world simply breaks my heart.
Also, pray. Pray for peace. Pray for the victims. Pray for the aggressors. Pray for our leaders. Pray for the protectors.
And listen. Listen to Jesus. Consider his ministry and his journey. Like Jesus, we may seek to serve the oppressed and protect the victims of violence and oppression in all its forms.
Finally, discern. Discern where God calls you to respond.
The Golden Rule
A sermon for Epiphany 7, RCL C
The Rev. Mercedes Clements, Vicar
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
I’ll wager that almost every one of us here was raised by the golden rule. Some people note that this compassionate way is defined in every major religion.
Recently, the golden rule has even been adapted to treat others as they want to be treated. Maybe this makes some of us uncomfortable, but I think there is value in this updated wording.
Often, we are ignorant of the pain our words and actions cause others. I want to be honest. I have had good friends challenge my choices when I’ve used seemingly “harmless” terms to describe others. I’ve felt the anger and hurt of someone who has experienced verbal abuse and name-calling and doesn’t consider a term harmless. And I’m grateful they trusted me enough to correct me respectfully.
Sometimes, real life doesn’t fit into the tidy guidance of our well-worn moral compasses.
I’m reminded of a story that Brené Brown shares in her work:
There was a man in his late twenties headed to visit his parents.
During the morning drive, he committed to being more patient with and tolerant of his father. They had a long history of not getting along.
The afternoon the son arrived, he was standing in the kitchen making small talk when he asked his father, “How are your new neighbors?”
His father said, “We really like them. We’ve had them over for dinner a couple of times, and we’ve become friends. They’re cooking us dinner next week. They’re Oriental, and she’s going to make her special dumplings, so your mom is really looking forward to it.”
Stunned, the young man ripped into his father. “Oriental? Jesus, Dad! Are you kidding? Racist much.”
Before his father could even respond, he went back at him. “ ‘Oriental’ is so racist! Do you even know where they’re from? There’s no country called ‘the orient.’ How embarrassing!”
The man’s father stood in the kitchen with his head down. When he finally looked up at his son, he was teary-eyed. “I’m sorry, son. I’m not sure what I’ve done or not done to make you so angry. I just can’t do anything right. Nothing I do or say is good enough for you.”
There was total silence. Then his father said, “I’d stay and let you tell me what an asshole I am, but I’m taking the neighbor I supposedly hate to pick up her husband from cataract surgery. She doesn’t drive, and he took a cab this morning.”
This awkward exchange undoubtedly brings up a lot of latent tensions both in that family and in our society.
Now, before we assume the wrong of the young man in this story,
It’s worth mentioning that during the pandemic, in particular, the increase in violence against Asians and corresponding hate speech became a scary trend as innocent people were made the scapegoats of political speculation.
However, we are not justified in answering hate with hate. The interaction between the young man and his father highlights what can happen when we become so self-righteous in our sense of right and wrong that we respond with cruelty, scorn, and contempt.
I wonder if Jesus could foresee that kind of splits we find in culture today as we somehow have fallen into groups deeply divided by the political and moral lines.
There’s no doubt that the media culture is driving a wedge that portrays the extremes of human behavior. Listening to the talking heads that drive an endless news cycle can make us feel that the country is fractured, broken beyond repair.
We often the fault lines on the Internet and social media, though bumper stickers and billboards are also common irritants. Whether driving or perusing the Internet, we can find ourselves flooded with opinions that we disagree with.
Depending on your personality, this might make you feel either indignant about the unwelcome assault of opinions or smug about your own beliefs. But either way, it leads to a weird assumption that a whole lot of “other people” are wrong. Maybe even immoral.
I want to pause, though and really take that in. Do we really believe that half the population of our country is bad? Immoral? Or amoral?
Social psychologist Jonathon Haidt challenges many assumptions that undermine society’s polarization and our convictions about right and wrong.
Haidt points out that our self-righteous sense of morality misses the reality that moral behavior operates on a spectrum of values. While many Christians might list altruism as a moral requirement, others greatly value a sense of order and peace. And they are not mutually exclusive.
In short, it’s not a black and white definition. Morality has many attributes based on the values of each person.
Would you disagree with any of these statements?
It is moral to be caring and compassionate.
It is moral to maintain order and peace.
It is moral to be virtuous.
It is moral to respect authority.
It is moral to be loyal and fair.
Personally, I often struggle with falling into rigid definitions of right and wrong, and I have to make myself see different perspectives. I have a strong affinity for liberty, loyalty, and authority, which likely led me to the military.
But at some point, I came to understand that my privileges and ability to operate with liberty were at the expense of others. Then compassion and fairness started weighing more strongly for me.
The point is not that neither is right or wrong, but that we will meet very few people that are truly immoral or amoral. We will, however, talk to people every day that have a different perspective on moral choices.
If we truly believe that half the population is immoral and/or dangerous, we risk becoming what we vilify.
How, then, are we called to respond?
I noticed one article describing the movements of people to find like-minded neighbors. The article explained that red zip codes were getting redder, and blue zip codes were getting bluer.
Jesus challenges us not to sort into like-minded tribes.
Jesus exhorts us to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, pray for those who abuse us. Turn the other cheek.
Now, since you know that my moral tendencies lean toward law-abiding, I’m not condoning allowing abuse.
However, we follow a savior that ate with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. Jesus reminds us that God is the ultimate source of justice, and we are called to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
If we genuinely want to change the world, or simply the minds of our neighbors, we might find ourselves in the challenging situation of needing to listen without judgment, to understand their story, to spend a day in their shoes.
Imagine the outcome if the young man had simply paused and found a respectful way to share his concerns with his dad.
We are called in our baptismal covenant to respect the dignity of every person, regardless of whether we agree with them. And while we may not be equipped to have a patient conversation, we are called by Jesus to pray for those we hate because when we spend our private moments maligning them, we are simply poisoning our own soul.
If you have no idea where to begin, I invite you to join me in the prayer of St. Francis.
Let us pray.
Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
 Brown, Brené. Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Random House Publishing Group.
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