Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
February 26, 2017
“Don’t Just Do Something”
Matthew 17: 1-9 – The Message
Six days later, three of them saw that glory. Jesus took Peter and the brothers, James and John, and led them up a high mountain. His appearance changed from the inside out, right before their eyes. Sunlight poured from his face. His clothes were filled with light. Then they realized that Moses and Elijah were also there in deep conversation with him.
4 Peter broke in, “Master, this is a great moment! What would you think if I built three memorials here on the mountain—one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah?”
5 While he was going on like this, babbling, a light-radiant cloud enveloped them, and sounding from deep in the cloud a voice: “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him.”
6-8 When the disciples heard it, they fell flat on their faces, scared to death. But Jesus came over and touched them. “Don’t be afraid.” When they opened their eyes and looked around all they saw was Jesus, only Jesus.
9 Coming down the mountain, Jesus swore them to secrecy. “Don’t breathe a word of what you’ve seen. After the Son of Man is raised from the dead, you are free to talk.”
Perhaps you have done this on vacation too. I just returned from two weeks in Cambodia. I had a conversation with myself on numerous occasions – “I feel like just laying around my guesthouse today.” But, as the conversation went, I reminded myself that I had just spent 19 hours in a plane to get here. So, I felt guilty that on vacation I occasionally didn’t want to get in a tuk tuk and discover yet another magnificent temple or glorious ruin or explore some aspect of this culture to which I am drawn again and again. On just two days did I succumb to the impulse to “do nothing.” And both days I thought, well, maybe I should just do a little something. I shouldn’t waste my time.
This is how deeply ingrained in me the notion that we should always be productive. Even on vacation. Add to that, as people posted pictures on Facebook of actions they were taking in response to one outrageous executive order after another, I felt torn that here I was on vacation while many of you were protesting at airports or ICE facilities or some other form of resistance. How could I be so selfish? Do something! Don’t just stand there.
Has anyone ever said that to you? Or, have you said to yourself: “Don’t just stand there. Do something.” It’s an important thing to consider. After all, as the maxim goes, all evil needs to thrive is for good people to say or do nothing. Should we do nothing as transgender students are picked on and Mexicans are rounded up and Jewish centers are bombed and health care for millions is eliminated and, and, and… I think it’s an exhausting list on purpose to wear people of faith and conscience out. Yet, I believe, our text from the Gospel of Matthew today has something to say to us at this very moment in history. And this last Sunday before we enter the season of Lent
This is a weird text. It’s called the Transfiguration of Jesus. In the version we heard Jess read, Eugene Peterson helpfully interpreted transfiguration as “his appearance changed from the inside out, right in front of their eyes.” Other translations are not so helpful. The New Revised Standard Version, the classic translation used in the UCC and most mainline churches, says “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
This is one of those texts that reminds us to take the Bible seriously, not literally. To look for clues in the meaning of the disciples’ experience. Did his face literally shine like the sun? Did his clothes literally become dazzling white? Were they literally enveloped by a “babbling, light-radiant cloud?” Did they literally hear a voice from that cloud?
And yet, I believe modern Christians can too quickly react to texts like this by trying to explain away such events as the transfiguration – focused on what can and cannot be literal. We may do the same thing to the many stories of healing and resurrection and ascension and even the birth of Jesus. But the mystery of God in Christ is too great for us to reduce it to those things we can explain with logic. God is bigger than our ability to even imagine, let alone try to articulate. We can try, but ultimately, explanations fail to grasp the mysteries of the universe. In matters of faith, sometimes we have to, or at least I have to, accept what I cannot believe.
Therefore, I accept that Jesus was transfigured. It doesn’t matter if I believe it can happen or not – belief is about what my mind can understand. And I accept that his appearance changed from the inside out. It doesn’t matter whether I believe it’s literally “true” or not – belief is necessarily limited to what my mind can process. Now, to be clear, this is not an invitation to reject the intellect. I agree when some forms of Christianity are criticized for being anti-intellectual, anti-science. I’m not talking about rejecting science. I am encouraging us to embrace faith. To move beyond the dualism of belief and non-belief. Possible and impossible. The world is simply too complex to say “I can’t believe it.”
Because whether he was or was not literally transfigured in front of their eyes, something happened. Something happened that caused Peter to say, “Quick! Don’t just stand there. Let’s do something!” It was while he was fumbling for answers as to what to do that he heard, “Don’t just do something. Stand there!” Or rather, as the text says simply, “Listen to him.” Before you go off and do something, listen.
Sometimes it takes an event as unexplainable as a transfiguration right in front of our eyes to get our attention – to see what has been standing in front of us all along. It often takes something quite as extraordinary as this for God to break through to us. Some of us have literally heard the voice of God. Others of us have interpreted our experience as hearing the voice of God – God spoke to me – without meaning they heard a literal voice. That is true for me. Some of us accept that people can and do have these experiences but haven’t had any themselves. And others of us need something a little more concrete. Something as nebulous as an inner voice isn’t going to do it. But an accumulation of experience, perhaps even “evidence” gathering, convinces that there is a reality beyond the realm of knowledge. Called faith. Or mystery. The enigmatic unknown. Ultimate and absolute Love.
Too busy doing something, we may miss a glorious sunrise or an innocent child or even a friend asking us, please just listen. Wanting to fix it, we may listen only for a way to respond, not to simply listen. Or we may try to listen in order to understand, when again, all that is asked of us is to simply listen. Trying to understand is like trying to do something. Books like Men are from Mars, Women are From Venus are among those who help articulate this.
But too busy doing something, we may miss the whole thing; the whole point. The Psalmist says it so beautifully – “Be still, and know that I am God.” But sometimes that doesn’t work. Sometimes we need something over the top, fantastical, something so in our face we can’t look away. And so in front of Peter, James and John, God transfigured Jesus. God made his face shine like the sun and his clothes look dazzlingly white – to get their attention. And their response was quite understandable: “We have to do something!” Build some shelters to memorialize this moment, or, or… But God’s request was simply, Listen. And the same words as at his baptism. This is my beloved. Listen to him.
For some people it hasn’t been until they had a heart attack that they finally listened to their doctor’s advice. For other people it wasn’t until tragedy struck that they appreciated the little things that had been around them all along. Sometimes it isn’t until we almost lose everything that we recognize that which is right in front of us – often as simple as a spouse or a parent or a friend, asking, what will it take for you to listen to me? What will it take for you to listen to me?
Even worship can seem busy at times, moving expeditiously through the liturgy in order to fit everything into exactly one hour. So I am cutting my sermon off here so that we have some time to spend in silence. I want to ask two very simple questions that we may otherwise be too busy to address: Who or what has been trying to get through to you? What have they been begging you to hear? Who or what has been trying to get your attention? What do they want you to hear?
(Silence for a few minutes. Then, in conclusion)
In many ways the election of Donald Trump represents this transfiguration-level event. Over the top, fantastical. In your face. An attempt by many in this country to get our attention and get us to listen. One response to such cries to “Listen!” has been an opportunistic manipulation of actions to further divide the nation. Blaming, scapegoating, informed by white supremacists, to “Make America Great Again” for wealthy white men. And Christian.
Or our response can be to wake from our slumber and listen in ways that bring us together – finding common ground to address real problems. But this text from the Gospel of Matthew tells us: First, don’t just do something. Listen for God. Only then shall we know what to do. Only after listening will we know what is our personal call to act. Yes, as an act of love and devotion to Christ, we must do something, but not everything. Because if we try to do everything, eventually we won’t do anything. And God is not served by that.
But if we do fall away from doing anything, don’t be surprised when God tries to intervene even by means of another transfiguration to get our attention back. And when that happens, once again: Don’t just do something. Listen.
For this reason, the season of Lent has arrived just in time. Before we get too overwhelmed. So come on Ash Wednesday that we may listen together to the God who speaks. Come to cleanse and clear away the distractions that hold us back from faith-fullness. Come and be reminded of the simplicity of our mortality. And let that shape and form our calling.
 A fantastic resource is the book by Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally, Harper San Francisco, 2001