Sermon–February 26, 2017


Last Epiphany ,February 26, 2017

William Bradbury

Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 2, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9

I’ve been noticing lately TV commercials by a company called Ancestry encouraging folks to sign up for DNA testing to uncover what they call “your ancestry mix”, covering 26 ethnic regions. My mother would have been all over this since she spent a lot of time in retirement researching our family tree. She would have loved to compare what she knew with what the DNA results show. My mother’s hobby, however, never held much interest for me…until that is, I reached a certain age when I could see that my approaching annihilation was not fake news but real as gravity. Now, 12 years after her death I’ve got all sorts of questions for my mother.  

I had no interest in knowing about my origins because the dominant narrative of our culture teaches that what’s important is to be a self-invented individual who owes no curiosity and no gratitude to those who came before. The only reason I would care about my great grandfather, a South Carolina dirt farmer, is if he did something that improved my self-image, like being wounded at Antietam while carrying the regimental standard.

This lack of curiosity and gratitude may help explain why so many in our country know so little about U.S. History.  The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) found in recent surveys of college graduates:

Less than 20% could accurately identify—in a multiple-choice survey—the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Less than half could identify George Washington as the American general at Yorktown.

Over one-third of the college graduates surveyed could not place the American Civil War in its correct 20-year time frame.

The dominant narrative says everything must serve and protect the self-invented Me. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says “this dominant narrative works by coercion and manipulation”, “teaches we must trust none and fear all”, and that there is no “truthfulness that outruns self-interest”. The Practice of the Prophetic Imagination, Page 32

On the homepage, above a button that will take you to information about the DNA testing, it doesn’t say, “Take this test and explore how you are connected to a diversity of peoples and places and expand your connection to the human race.”

No, instead it says: “Discover what makes you uniquely you”, which is a not very subtle appeal to the ego’s need to be seen as special and important.

This focus means that a Jew named Jesus who lived 2000 years ago won’t be very important to me except as I can co-opt him into my self-invention project.  If I can turn Jesus into a Southern gentleman who wants to preserve the Old South or into a New England sophisticate with all the right secular values, then he can help my ME.  On a darker note there are always some who imagine Jesus as a white supremacist who hates Blacks, gays, and Jews, just like in the Third Reich and in the KKK. 

This dominant narrative, as Brueggemann says, is “preoccupied with our well-being, or variously, [with] the god of nation, party, race, gender, or ideology.” Ibid, page 3

The gospel story we hear today of the Transfiguration challenges all our “cleverly devised myths”, because in the Transfiguration Jesus is surrounded, not by white guys in sheets but by two Jews in glory: Moses who embodies the Covenant God made with us on Mt. Sinai and Elijah who embodies the prophetic imagination that calls us back to covenant faithfulness. These heroes are the spiritual ancestors of Jesus, who is the fulfillment of all their hope in God.

Moses, Elijah, and Jesus bear witness to an alternative narrative, as Brueggemann says, that “imagines the world as though YHWH, the creator of heaven and earth, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom we Christians name as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is a real character and the defining agent in the world.” The Practice of the Prophet Imagination, page 23

Of course the whole Bible proclaims this alternative YHWH narrative, so that it is not surprising tyrants and dictators often prohibit the reading, or even the owning, of a Bible because of the radical story of another King who sets people free.

A 1979 story in Time Magazine said that said, “ for harassed Christians in the Soviet Union, a Bible can cost more than two weeks’ wages on the black market. Things are almost as bad, and sometimes worse, in many satellite nations. To fill the deeply felt need of millions, at the height of the cold war freelance couriers began systematic efforts to smuggle books to Christians in Eastern Europe.”,9171,947040,00.html

In the West we are stopped from reading the Bible, not by the power of the state, but by the power of entertainment which convinces us that the Bible is too primitive, or too violent, or too difficult for busy people to waste their time reading. Television and movies present Christians and clergy as shallow, bumbling, and mean-spirited people who only use the Bible to hate and hurt.

As an aside–It is notable that two Oscar Nominated movies, “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Silence” both portray Christian faith in positive and powerful ways, and next week the movie, “The Shack”, based on the novel of the same name, which portrays Triune God in an unforgettable way, is being released. I don’t know if the movie is any good but I know the book can change your life.

But now Christians face the challenge of how could reading the Bible ever compare with the endorphin rush of being liked on Facebook?

Social media empowers the myth of self-invention and self-sufficiency, so that I can ignore any story that says I am created and dependent on God to find my purpose and place in life.

Back to the story: Peter, James, and John are overcome with awe as they disappear in the bright cloud of YHWH’s Glory. But when the vision ends Jesus touches them and tells them to not be afraid. But then on the way down the mountain he gives them a reason to be afraid. He says, “tell no one about this vision until I have suffered, died, and been raised from the dead.”

They will never understand Jesus’ glory in the transfiguration until they have experienced Jesus’ glory in the crucifixion, because they interpret each other. Just look at the two stories side by side:

  • In the Transfiguration Jesus is revealed in glory, at the crucifixion he is revealed in shame.
  • In the Transfiguration Jesus’ clothes are shining and white; at the crucifixion his clothes are stripped off and gambled for.
  • In the Transfiguration Jesus is surrounded by Moses and Elijah; at the crucifixion he is surrounded by two criminals.
  • In the Transfiguration there is a bright cloud; at the crucifixion there is darkness.
  • In the Transfiguration Peter speaks; at the crucifixion Peter is unable to speak the truth.
  • In the Transfiguration the voice of YHWH proclaims Jesus as the Beloved Son; at the crucifixion a pagan soldier names Jesus as the Son of God. See N. T. Wright’s Matthew for Everyone, Part 2

John’s Gospel doesn’t have an account of the Transfiguration because Jesus’ glorification is the cross.

Inside the Biblical narrative you and I get to play the part of our lives, but God is the central character. In God’s story we are freed to question the dominant narrative and freed to investigate the story that proclaims that our genealogy is embedded in Jesus, and his genealogy is embedded in God.