This sermon was preached by The Rev. Nancy A. G. Vogele on February 26, 2017, Transfiguration of Our Lord / Last Sunday after Epiphany. The Gospel reading was Matthew 17:1-9.
It gets really interesting once you’ve been preaching for a while. Since the lessons for each Sunday follow a 3-year cycle, every three years, we will hear the same lessons.
Sometimes, as I prepare for a sermon, I’ll see if I have already preached on the same passage and, if so, I’ll reread the sermon. Sometimes I think, “This isn’t half bad. I should remember to do what I preach about!” But other times I think, “Did I really preach such a simplistic sermon?” or “Boy, that ending was just a sappy cliché.” Sometimes I’ll reread a sermon and think, “I’m just not there anymore.” It’s really quite amazing and shows how I have changed in my faith and theology and preaching…but also how rich scripture is. You can keep coming back to the same passage and, each time, get something new out of it.
The lesson for today, the last Sunday after Epiphany – the Sunday immediately preceding Lent – is always about Jesus’ transfiguration. One year the Gospel reading is from Luke’s account. One year from Mark. And this year from Matthew. Same story every year, with slightly different details.
Looking back at my sermons for the transfiguration, I saw that they varied greatly from year to year…
Sometimes focusing on what this story tells us about Jesus – either what the event meant for Jesus himself or how this event expands our understanding of Jesus.
Some years I’ve focused on what this event means for us – either talking about the need for us to find times apart (like Jesus did) to reflect and pray and listen or about what listening implies: when we listen to Jesus, what is he saying to us? – feed the hungry, care for the widow and orphan, visit the sick, stand up for justice.
This story is rich in meaning and since a sermon can’t say everything, I guess I tried to focus on at least something each time.
But this time around, I am struck by the inseparable connectedness of all these themes. What would we see if we allowed all the events of this story – all the angles and implications and people to speak to us? Can we hold it all together?
The image for me that works is learning to play music – whether a new instrument or a new song.
When I took piano lessons as a child and got assigned a new piece to learn, my teacher would have me practice the parts separately before trying to play them all together. Even to learn the melody, I had to see what key it was in and then find and familiarize myself with the notes that were to be played sharp or flat. Then I had to learn the time and count it out as I started to play. Sometimes, it came easy. Sometimes I really had to slow it down in order to get it right. Remember those metronomes and how you could set it really slow in order to learn the tune and rhythm. And then, as you got the hang of it more, you could incrementally make the metronome go faster until, if you were diligent, you could play the piece at speed. And I did this with each part, each hand before putting it all together. Too often, the music felt outside of me. Sometimes, it felt like trying to rub my tummy and pat my head at the same time.
I grew up playing the violin as well, following a very similar learning technique. I started younger than most so I had a comparative advantage. But it was just too much pressure and angst. There was little joy in playing. All in all, it was a rather traumatic experience so I quit after 8th grade. But I never got rid of my violin, since it was a good one that my parents had given me for my birthday and Christmas one year.
Well, after almost two decades, I took the violin back out of its case and started playing again thanks to a friend who was a fiddle teacher. Since I had already taken classical lessons, she didn’t have to teach me technique – just tunes.
And I learned everything by ear. There was no sheet music. This was new to me. Sure I had memorized compositions for competitions, but I had always started with the sheet music. So, in a way, even though I had memorized it, I was still following the musical score but just in my head.
With fiddle, I was learning new tunes by heart. Carolyn, my teacher, would introduce a new tune or two each week and record it on a cassette tape. Then, all through the week, I’d listen to this cassette tape over and over and over again in my car and at home until I could easily and naturally hum it in my head. Then I’d start playing it.
It was amazing how, most of the time, it was like my fingers just intuitively knew where to go. Sure I had to practice and work on my intonation (always a challenge for me) and timing and bow technique, but it just felt so different. Each week, Carolyn and I would spend most of my lesson just playing the songs together – we’d start out in unison and then Carolyn would go into harmony and improvise. I loved it!
Was it so much fun and joyful because I was now choosing to take lessons and not forced to? Was it that I was older and could appreciate it more? Of course.
But it was more than that. I was learning in a radically different way.
I was no longer plunking it out, painfully trying to get the rhythm right and learn where the sharps and flats were. I was spending much more time just listening and listening and listening until I had the tune solidly in me – until I could hear the tune without having to play the tape… so that when I went to put bow and finger tips to string, it just felt very different – more organic, more natural, more joyful.
There had to be a significant amount of listening – of receiving – before any constructive playing or action could be possible.
Listening takes time – way more time than our culture feels comfortable with. The Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher from the 6th century BC, wrote,
“Do you have the patience to wait
Till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
Till the right action arises by itself?”
In a word? No, I can’t. I have been so conditioned to do, do, do, that listening and receiving feel awkward, unnatural, wrong. So we opt for what feels more comfortable and then wonder why it doesn’t feel like the Kingdom.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in New Mexico realized that “action and contemplation, once thought of as mutually exclusive, [had to] be brought together or neither one would make sense.” (CAC website)
I think we go about our faith in ways that actually make it harder than necessary. We jump in too quickly and try to do something and then wonder why it’s so difficult and why we get worn out. We impose expectations and timelines on ourselves that just aren’t realistic or necessary. Yes, there is much to do – as followers of Jesus and as a parish in transition. I get that; but what if we went about it differently?
What if we actually remained unmoving until the right action arose by itself?
What if we spent way more time listening? And listening until we got it solidly in us – until it became an integral part of us and we could just hear God’s tune in our head and heart. And what if we then allowed God’s music to flow through us, helping us put bow and hand to strings and just let the tune be played.
And as we gather for worship or a meeting or a book group or a funeral reception – or whatever, we get to play God’s tunes together, some of us still concentrating on the simple tune while others playing harmonies and improvising as the Spirit leads and perhaps some still simply listening – everyone enjoying it and being replenished – not worn out – by it.
It takes time for God’s music to sink in to our inner being – a life time, really. And at some point, we will need to get the fiddle out and play the tune or role up our sleeves and do. But if we jump in too quickly before listening deeply, the playing and the doing is just going to be more difficult and painful. We can tough it out and keep at it, but if that’s not working for you all that well – if it’s not making you feel more whole and joyful and alive, why not try to listen more and let the tune sink it a little more before playing and the doing.
For listening and right action are meant to be in a dynamic relationship with one another. Richard Rohr writes, “Th[is] pattern of dynamic relationship is the very structure of the universe. It is a pattern of mutual giving and receiving: in a word, Love.” (Richard Rohr, Trinity: The Soul of Creation)
And so we come back to this story of Jesus’ transfiguration and see that for it to make sense, for it to work, it can’t be taken apart into separate lessons or sermons and left like that. It is the dynamic relationship of these parts, of contemplation and action – of listening and doing – of receiving and giving – that makes it all possible – that transforms notes on a page into beautiful music.
May we take the time to listen to Jesus, as the Voice in the cloud commands. … until we’ve got it in our head. And then may we keep listening until it also descends into our hearts.
And may that deeper listening enable our actions to more deeply reflect God’s kingdom and will. Listening and acting and listening and acting, back and forth in a dynamic relationship of love over time – over a lifetime. Amen.