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.
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