Accepting the Mystery

Passage: Matthew 17:1-9
Date: February 26, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Author Reza Aslan, who wrote the book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” has been working with CNN to develop a “spiritual adventure series” which will premiere on CNN on March 5. He spends time not only learning about different spiritualities and religions around the world but (after gaining trust and developing relationship) also practicing the religion.

In an article on CNN about this, I learned about a new spiritual practice or religion – I’m not sure how to categorize it. It’s called Santa Muerte, and it’s related to Catholicism and many of its practices look Catholic. The largest gathering of Santa Muerte adherents is in Los Angeles. It has grown out of new migration patterns, as well as the disenfranchisement of those long on the margins of the church.

Of this new religion, Reza Aslan says, “What we discovered was that a great many undocumented immigrants who make the long, perilous journey from Latin America and Mexico to the United States, before they do so, … make a vow to Santa Muerte, make peace with Saint Death. They say to themselves, ‘I may not make this, there’s a good chance I may die on the way. If I make it to America, I vow that I’ll set up an idol or temple for Santa Muerte.’”

There is a lot to this that has intrigued me, but for the purposes of this sermon, what has intrigued me is the notion of making peace with death. Because I think that is a huge part of our human journey: making some sort of peace with the reality of death.

Making peace with death. Throughout the gospels, Jesus is very clear that he is going to die, and soon, and with much suffering. He minces no words, though the disciples wish he would. He does not veer off the course he is headed toward, which would have made things much easier. He tells his followers, again and again, that he will die. And then he tells them that he will rise too. I think Jesus made peace with death. The disciples weren’t ready to.

Today’s scripture about the Transfiguration of Jesus comes on the heels of two significant conversations. In the first, Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is. Peter answers, correctly, “You are the Messiah.” In the next conversation, Jesus tells his disciples that he will die. They are not pleased with the news. Peter, in particular, wants Jesus to say something different, to which Jesus replies, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Six days later, a strange thing happens. Jesus chooses three of his disciples to go up the mountain, the place where important things occur, a place of heights where one is closer to God, a place that is often mysteriously enshrouded in fog. They go up the mountain and something happens. Suddenly Jesus glows from within, and Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest heroes of Judaism, appear next to him, and voice from a cloud interrupts all of Peter’s busyness with the words, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” And then everything goes back to normal, and Jesus tells them not to tell anyone, not just yet.
I will admit to you, as I think I have before, that this is not my favorite story. And unlike other passages, this one comes up every year on the last Sunday of Epiphany just before Lent begins. Every year when I preach on this event, whether it’s Matthew, Mark, or Luke who’s telling the story, I try to find a new angle, glean a new bit of information, see if I can come to some acceptance that this story has something to say to us today.

And for a lot of reasons, this year I think this story has something to say to us about death and whatever happens after death. I think it is a reassurance to the disciples, who are trying to accept what Jesus says about his death, a reassurance that his being the Messiah, his being beloved by God, his “leaking light” and transfiguring, are all greater than death.

 It may be because I’ve been with you now for almost six years, and I’ve come to know you and love you, that when one of our saints dies, I grieve.

It may be because Gregg and I have parents who are aging, and while neither our mothers nor our fathers are near death, they are closer than they had been.

It may be because in last week’s episode of This Is Us, a new TV drama, one of the characters dies, as was expected, but still. I started thinking about the death of one of my beloveds, how awful and weird it will be when they won’t be here anymore, and you can’t pick up the phone and chat or send a funny e-mail. And I didn’t like it.

But as I often say to Sarah when she asks if I’m going to die, “Yes. I will die. We will all die. Hopefully not until a long time from now.” I am trying to make peace with death. Some days I do that better than others.

But back to the Transfiguration. There is one strain of scholarly thought that poses that this story is actually a post-Resurrection appearance that got misplaced in the middle of the gospel. The glowing Jesus and special appearance from Moses and Elijah would give that support.

Some believe that Matthew’s account is a nod to Moses receiving the law, that now Jesus is the purveyor of God’s law and everyone should listen to him, as they should have listened to Moses.

And then there are those who say this is an experience of divine mystery, meant to inspire and not meant to be explained.

Today I would say that this is a story about the experience of divine mystery that may have something to do with life and death. And today I allow myself, and by extension allow you all, to rest in that mystery without trying to explain it away.

In a wonderful sermon about the Transfiguration, Barbara Brown Taylor says this: “Most of us are allowed at least one direct experience of God (within bounds)—something that knocks us for a loop, blows our circuits, calls all our old certainties into question. Some churches even require you to produce one as proof of your conversion. But even in congregations that welcome signs and wonders on a regular basis, there seems to be a general consensus that life in Christ means trading in your old certainties for new ones.

“Once you emerge from the cloud, you are supposed to be surer than ever what you believe. You are supposed to know who’s who, what’s what, where you are going in your life and why. You are supposed to have answers to all the important questions, and when you read the Bible you are supposed to know what it means. You have your Christian decoder ring, now use it!

“But what if the point is not to decode the cloud but to enter into it? What if the whole Bible is less a book of certainties than it is a book of encounters, in which a staggeringly long parade of people run into God, each other, life—and are never the same again?”

Have you ever had some kind of mysterious encounter with God that you simply could not explain or recreate? As Barbara Brown Taylor suggests, perhaps most of us here have had one. Maybe not. But maybe. I hope so, because I think we good 21st century rational thinkers need some mystery in our lives to remind us that there is a power beyond us that cannot be fully explained. To experience that mystery can change us, comfort us, or confront us.

I have had two such encounters with mystery. The first was when I was 12. My sister and I had gone to stay with old friends in New Jersey who lived on a farm out in the country. I had a room to myself and made the mistake of staying up late reading a scary book that was probably not appropriate for me. The wind had been blowing, howling, and making all sorts of noises. I had stopped reading and turned off the light, but I had scared myself to death. And suddenly, at 2 or 3 in the morning, I heard a choir singing something beautiful and complex, something I had never heard before.

The next morning at breakfast I asked my hosts if there was a church choir that rehearsed nearby in the middle of the night. No, they said, with a sideways glance at me. To this day I choose to believe I heard the angels singing a song I never could have imagined in my adolescent brain.

The other story has to do with forgiveness, when I found the ability, after years of prayer, to forgive someone who had wronged me. I felt grace wash over me and flow out. It was a gift from God.

I think when we are vulnerable we are more able to receive God—when we are terrified, or grieving, or at the end of our rope, or lost. I think too when we find ourselves in that thin place between life and death, we may experience and even embrace the mystery. Perhaps the disciples were able to see this mystery on the mountain because they had been wrestling with what Jesus told them about his own death and resurrection.
This week the season of Lent begins, and there are many ways to experience these six weeks that lead us to Easter. The season of Lent may be a time of renewed spiritual practice. It may be a time of renewed generosity of service. It may be a time for personal reflection, or a time to embrace the mysteries of God. But in the grand arc of Lent, in the ways that Christians have practiced this season for thousands of years, it has something to do with walking with Jesus from life to death to new life.

In order to do that, we must admit that we will die. If there were ever a great common denominator, it is that: we will all die. We will not always be here. That can be sad and frightening.

But admitting we will die can also give us fresh eyes with which to see the world. We see our common humanity, the suffering and sorrow that we all know, whether we are Christian or atheist or Muslim or follow Santa Muerte; whether we read the Bible literally or do not believe there is any sacred scripture; whether we are Americans or South Africans or Vietnamese or Afghanis; whether we have great educations and great jobs or live month-to-month or wander the world looking for something we cannot name.

The mystery that is common to us comes in the moment after we draw our last breath. What happens then? For some, nothing. That is it. For some, judgment and sentence. For some, reincarnation. For some, resurrection. The apostle Paul put it this way: “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.”
I don’t know what that means, but I know that it gives me hope.