“Courage in the Face of Change”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
3 March, 2019
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
A few weeks ago, I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. She looked different somehow. Then I noticed that her face was completely relaxed—it had been a long time since I’d seen it that way. The stress wasn’t visibly drawn around her eyes: they were bright and clear, instead of dull and weighed down with a thousand different thoughts. Her smile wasn’t forced or anxious-looking; she seemed genuinely content. In a word, she was glowing.
As we talked, she revealed that she was choosing to do things differently, paying more attention to what fed her spirit, instead of going through the motions of her “oughts” and “shoulds”—all those things she thought were her duties. She’d backed away from a few activities that felt like a burden to her, and it freed up time for her to pursue things that both stretched her and nourished her. She was making time each day for prayer and meditation—“intentional God time” she called it—whether walking in the woods and noticing God’s presence with her, or sitting quietly someplace where she could focus on listening for God’s voice. The point she said, was to get away from the endless distractions to concentrate on connecting with what brought her deep peace. Well, it worked: I could tell that she was more fully connected to her true self, less shackled to her fears of what others expected from her, or what her ego demanded from her, and delighting more in what God was doing with her as she lived into the spiritual freedom her soul had been yearning for. It was quite inspiring and genuinely moving.
Our faces tell stories about the state of our souls, don’t they?
Our lectionary passages this morning refer to the faces of Moses and Jesus, after they had spent time bathing in God’s glory. In our epistle reading, Paul was encouraging an early church community to remain strong. Not to hide their light or hope. Not to tune down the message of the gospel, nor the scope of their mission, in response to some resistance and criticism they were experiencing. He reminds his audience about a time when the prophet Moses went up to the top of Mount Sinai to commune with God and receive divine instructions for the people of Israel. When the prophet returned, his face had become so radiant from his concentrated time with God that he had to put a veil over it. The people simply couldn’t cope with the glory that emanated from him, so they asked him to tone it down a bit, to filter things for their sake. Maybe they felt uncomfortable because the way that Moses reflected God’s glory so visibly made them feel dull. They were amazed by the positive change they saw in Moses—a transfiguration, a spiritual transformation so powerful that it radiated right through his face. But rather than believing that they, too, were capable of drawing close to the God whose light and peace now poured out of Moses, they withdrew into places of fear and resignation, insisting with their lives that they could not, would not, change. After all, change is scary: it means letting go of what’s familiar, releasing our need to feel in control, or have things be just the way we’d personally prefer for them to be. But the sort of transformation our souls yearn for requires a demonstration of confidence that we trust God sees something we don’t see, and is working ahead of our sightline to help that divine vision come into being.
The people could see that Moses’ life had been changed for good by his encounter with God. And Moses could see the people’s potential for their own transformation, if they would only trust and believe. But even compelling facts really don’t matter to people who are shackled to a point of view they’re not interested in changing. And so, Paul says without pulling any punches, “Their minds were hardened.” There was no budging them, no hope for their own experience of divine glory, no possibility for their community’s transformation.
In our Gospel lesson, Peter has a similarly paralyzing initial response to Jesus’ transfigured visage. Luke says that Jesus “took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray.” While Jesus was praying, Luke says, “the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to [Jesus].” In that moment, the atmosphere around them blazed with glory. That happens sometimes when people get completely immersed in their prayer and meditation: there’s no stopping the glory. And, as some of you will have experienced in deep meditation or prayer, occasionally you experience a state of being where you are so at peace, so blissful and at one with God in that bath of glory, that you never want to move from the moment; you wish you could stay in that state forever.
In a sense, I guess it’s not so different from our resistance to changing what we like about the here-and-now, the little and big ways we find to counteract others’ attempts to reform things we feel perfectly comfortable with in the mundane world. But as Peter learned, it’s not ultimately up to us to determine what stays put and what needs to change. Peter proposed building some shelters on the mountain so the small group could all continue to dwell in that glorious place. But had they done that, then the people who needed them, whose lives were crying out for hope and healing down below, could not be served by their gifts. That’s what Jesus understood, but Peter didn’t. No sooner did Peter float his idea for maintaining the status quo than a dark cloud enveloped the disciples: they were terrified and confused. And from the midst of that cloud they heard God’s voice saying to them, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
As soon as Peter tried to take control of the situation, to nail things down and establish that things would stay as they were, God made it clear that that’s not how it works for the people of God. It’s neverbeen about hunkering down and getting comfortable. Because as soon as that becomes our agenda, our hearts start hardening. When we listen to the Savior’s voice, heed divine instruction, we’ll discover that it often takes us to places that feelrisky—wasn’t Abraham called by God to leave what felt safe and familiar, and venture to an unseen, unnamed, as-yet unknown place? But a central thread in the tapestry of our faith shows that when we listen for God’s voice, trust and obey God’s guiding presence and faithful provision, then we will always, always be drawn to places and states of being that are more alive, more connected to God, and to our best, most vibrant self. We will be led to places of more authentic community—of deeper communion with God and others.
Jesus understood this, which is why he devotedly took time to pray, but always went back to the needy crowds. The next day, Luke tells us, after the group had returned from their mountain-top adventure, an anguished man cried out to Jesus from the throng, pleading with him to heal his only child. The man said he had begged the disciples to do it, but they could not.
Jesus’ response reflects the frustration God must feel with all of us from time to time:“You faithless and perverse generation,” he says, “how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” The words are jarring; they seem harsh. Are these the words of a man who embodies love? But if the definition of perversemeans “showing a deliberate and obstinate desire to behave in a way that is unreasonable or unacceptable, often in spite of the consequences” (that’s what the Oxford English Dictionary says it means), then perhaps Jesus wasn’t being unduly harsh so much as brutally honest. How long will we—disciples and agnostics alike—continue to live in ways that clearly are destructive, alienating, dehumanizing, and rooted in fear, when we can practice love, and grace, and faith in God . . . especially when we know these are ultimately better for us: soul, mind, and body? Sometimes, I think, our fear of sacrificing control is so great that we wind up squandering true freedom, by stifling the Spirit’s movement in us and through us. Jesus had been trying to teach his disciples to risk new things in faith in order to experience greater freedom, but he could see that their faith was still full of fear, still resisting the transformation we’re here on earth to experience.
Mark tells the same story in his gospel account, in a slightly different way. He reports that after Jesus lamented the people’s lack of faith, the father responds by crying out, “Lord, I dobelieve; helpmy unbelief!” Those words express courage, honesty, and an acknowledgement of the man’s willingness to be changed for good.
Neither Luke nor Mark tells us what happened after the man’s son was healed. But in that moment, that father drew up very close to divine power. He asked for his soul’s deepest desire, and he received it. In that moment, he experienced God’s glory and power—and that will change a person forever. I bet he made it his mission to help others experience divine healing just as he had. And there is no doubt in my mind that his face was glowing. Amen.
The story is told in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible lectionary passage for today which we didn’t read in the service—Exodus 34:29-35.
2 Corinthians 3:13-14
Mark 9:14-24, italics mine.