A sermon preached on the Last Sunday After Epiphany (A) on February 23, 2020 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY. If you want to read the scripture for today, click here. If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.
Today’s readings are about a phenomenon called a theophany – a visible manifestation of God to humankind. A theophany is usually a mountaintop moment because meeting God face-to-face is a big deal. We are awe-stricken, uplifted, filled and whole, feeling completely loved.
I’ve been on enough retreats to have had some of those moments – those mountaintop moments of utter peace and joy. A-ha moments when I suddenly saw things anew. And, I recall that my response was similar to Peter’s. Dropping to my knees followed by a desire to turn the experience into a one-size-fits-all answer. A solution to all my problems, all the world’s problems, really. A belief that I now knew the truth and I needed to freeze it, build an institution around it, devote my life to it, and make sure that other people saw the truth that I saw.
I don’t want to belittle or ridicule these moments. They are important to us and shift our worldview. They shake the ground beneath us and open up a window for us to another reality, another understanding. They are powerful moments that widen our faith and renew, for us, the experience of God’s Love for us.
But I wonder about mountaintop moments. About how they can become the thing we worship. Which is where Peter is beginning to go in his response to his experience, his need to set it in stone, quite literally, buildings of stone.
And I wonder about placing Jesus too concretely in the “fully divine” category and forgetting to recognize him as “fully human.” I wonder about how easy it is to get caught up in the “Jesus is just as important as Moses and Elijah” -OMG!-thing. And missing God’s exhortation to us, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Listen to him. Listen to him. Listen to him.
To listen, truly listen, is not as easy of a task as you might think. Because listening, on its deepest level, is ultimately a vehicle of transformation. A pathway for change. Listening is surrender, an active form of faith that opens us up to becoming something new, someone new. Listening is a spiritual practice that can lead us to become transfigured ourselves, becoming Christ for one another.
In your bulletin today is a print-out called the 4 Fields of Listening. I ask that you take it with you and place it somewhere that you can easily see it during the season of Lent. Our Lenten focus will be the spiritual practice of listening because God commands us: Listen to him. Listen to Jesus.
The 4 Fields of Listening comes from an MIT professor named Otto Scharmer who works in their school of management helping future leaders learn how to be more creative and more attentive to people and situations rather than to lead from past experiences, judgments, and established practices. In other words, he teaches people how to listen so that they can lead others into the future.
Scharmer’s model of listening helps us understand how transformational listening can be for us. To put it in Christian terms, this model of listening leads us to listen to God’s Holy Spirit, alive and active, present in the hearts, minds, and wills of God’s children.
Rather than coming into a situation with preconceived expectations or filters, which are usually based on our individual past disappointments and fears, we come to a situation open and ready to listen. We come willing to be changed, rather than trying to fix or control.
We begin in the first Field, listening to confirm, or downloading. Which isn’t really listening at all. It’s more about finding ways to reinforce our own thoughts and opinions. Consider, for a moment, the friendships we have, who we choose to go to when we need advice. I’m not saying that it’s bad to have friendships in which we feel seen and supported. Not at all. But are we willing to hear someone who challenges us?
Think about the news program you watch. Has watching the so-called news become a way to confirm our own thoughts? Downloading data to help shore up our opinions? Even Facebook and Twitter become echo chambers where we listen for the confirmation of what we think and feel.
The second field is a mark of an open mind. We have the willingness to take in new information and hear something that may challenge pre-conceived notions. Can we listen to a different or new set of evidence and allow that to change our concept of the world and how it works? We allow our opinions to be changed when we learn that the way we have been seeing the world is not entirely accurate.
This is different than listening with an open heart or empathic listening, which is Field 3. Here, we are listening for someone else’s experience. We are willing to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and learn from their experience, like watching a film or reading a book about the lives of people who are different from us. Or spending time with people of different backgrounds and listening to what they say without imposing ourselves into the conversation or trying to fix them in some way. We may put aside our judgment about someone who disappoints us, for example, and remember that everyone is going through something. This is when we are beginning to listen to Jesus.
And finally, we have generative listening, which is more of an active waiting really, a patience, a delay in decisions until the way forward is clearly discerned. We allow for something new to be born while we actively participate in collective discernment. We offer ourselves fully into the conversation without being attached to its outcome as we watch ourselves and others being changed by the process. This is when Holy Spirit is moving and we are being led. This is when we are listening to Jesus and this is when we are acting as his disciples.
Where we are on this spectrum probably depends upon the time and day, upon how stressed we feel or how tired we are and upon who is speaking to us. At least, that’s how it plays out for me. It seems, the more fearful I am, the more stress I’m experiencing, the more defensive I get and the more I need my environment to mirror my needs and opinions and feelings… the less I am able to listen. Perhaps this is your experience too.
It’s certainly the experience of Peter, James, and John. Peter is so overwhelmed by the sight on this mountain, so filled with awe that he starts babbling really… “This is good! We should memorialize this moment, create dwellings for all of you here on this mountain where people can come and worship you…”
And Matthew is brilliant here. He demonstrates the utter uselessness of this sentiment by having God interrupt Peter. As if God is saying no to the idea. Because God IS, in fact, saying no.
“While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
In other words, what’s the point of a worship of adoration only? It reminds me of Isaiah’s words from a few weeks ago… when we read Chapter 58 from the Prophet Isaiah:
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist…
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them…
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly…
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness…
and you shall be like a watered garden…
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt…
you shall be called the repairer of the breach…
Remember that Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, that he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets… to fulfill them. Not to make himself a new object of worship.
And God says, “This one, this is the one with whom I am pleased. Listen to him.”
Listen to him. Be changed by him. Be transformed… be transfigured by him.
And we know the challenge inherent in this. Most of the time we don’t want to change. And even when we do, we know our tendencies to remain entrenched in our opinions and needs. We know how hard it can be to give up what we take to be so precious.
It’s the same with the disciples. As Matthew tells us, “When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid. Get up and do not be afraid.
The Transfiguration is not just some story that happened to Peter and James and John. If that were the case, it would mean that Peter wasn’t interrupted by God and Jesus said, “Three dwellings sounds like an outstanding idea, my friend!”
The Transfiguration is an event that continues happening across space and time. It’s a process that we participate in as we confess our sins and come to this Table of Reconciliation.
We bring ourselves and our entrenched fears each week, we offer them to God in the form of confession, and we ask to be changed. We ask to be transformed. And at the Table of Reconciliation we are, indeed, changed. We are transformed to be Christ in and for the world that God has made.
So that in those moments, when we are sorely needed, we become transfigured. We become the visible manifestation of God, visible to humankind. We become the theophany for someone else, maybe just for a moment, maybe across the span of a life-giving relationship. Offering hope and support where none existed before. Becoming a source of Love where none was experienced before.
It may not be a mountaintop moment for us. On the contrary, we may feel quite inconvenienced by it, at least, at first… but for another person, it’s made all the difference.
And it begins with listening.
Listen to him, God says. Listen to Jesus.
Learn to move away from our own fixed and limited perspectives and practice listening more deeply, more generously and generatively, learning more about who we are called to serve.
Learn to follow Jesus. Learn to listen to Jesus.
Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.