Sermons

By Pastor John Johnson

Forecast: Cloudy, but changeable (the Transfiguration of Jesus)

February 28, 2020

It was sad news for me to read this past week that the Boy Scouts of America are filing for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection, in which they hope to pay for various claims filed against them for alleged sexual abuse by scout leader adults over the decades of Boy Scouting.

And while I ended up leaving Boy Scouting following a few months as a Junior Assistant Troop Leader early urban my freshman year in high school, after I had moved from Mundelein, Illinois, to Clarence, New York, boy, did I enjoy and, I believe, benefit from, my six years as a Cub Scout and Boy Scout, including two years of summer camp experience in what to me was a foreign country: Wisconsin.

I had picked up belief in the Scouting program from my dad, who had fallen short of becoming an Eagle Scout when a small dam failed and the man-made Lake Calhoun in Galva, Illinois, went dry, so that there was no place for him to earn his life-saving merit badge.

I had planned on completing that effort, and I had my Star Scout and just about all of what I needed to become a Life Scout with about eleven or twelve of what were called “merit badges” when I did drop out.

“Merit badges” were earned in any of a number of different areas, and one of my merit badges that I can remember was my Weather merit badge, in which I do say I learned a great deal that was only reenforced once I took earth science as a high school freshman. One of the requirements for that badge involved being able to recognize different types of clouds.There are three — or at least that is what was held in the past — basic cloud forms: cirrus, stratus, and cumulus, and these give rise to what I guess one would call “sub-forms,” such as stratocumulus clouds and cirrostratus clouds and thunder clouds, and while the names sort of give these away, thunder clouds are formed from cumulus clouds, metamorphosed from cumulus clouds..

As an erstwhile Boy Scout, I would enjoy looking at the sky and trying to determine how the clouds on a particular day might be classified, and while the extremes of cirrus and cumulus were easy to pick out, whether I correctly distinguished that mid-range from cirrostratus through stratocumulus, well, that was and remains another matter.

And I honestly believe that over the more than fifty years — wow, sixty years — since my initial interest, whether due to pollution or rising average temperatures (not to get into any argument about climate change, save that for when Al Gore comes here), I swear for many years I never saw a cirrus cloud until a few years ago when, exercising in my garage, I looked out and saw some perfect cirrus clouds high in the sky, and was so excited I took a photo that I subsequently used in a Sunday bulletin.

Clouds are real, physical stuff: water! Well, water in different forms, for water of course has three forms, as we all know: solid — ice, liquid — water, and gas — steam, or water vapor. Three forms, and every one of these three forms can metamorphose into one of the other forms, and, for instance, though we usually think of, say, ice melting before it becomes water vapor, it does not necessarily do that, and even here in the land of 114 degree summer days, we know that water vapor can go directly to ice — or frost, as we observe on some January mornings.

Metamorphose. Both metamorphose and clouds play into our Scripture readings today. [quote from Matthew]. As I point out frequently, the New Testament is written in Greek, a particular Greek known as koine Greek, which differs in ways unknown to me from classical Greek, but which was the most important language in the eastern part of the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus. For those who have studied Latin, once the Greek alphabet is learned, koine Greek is fairly easy to learn, and it is easy to recognize that metamorphose, as used in our Gospel reading, is also a Latin word.

This does raise an interesting question, however: metamorphosis, at least in English, is a change in more than appearance, it is a change in form, similar to, as I have said on previous Transfiguration Sundays, that of a caterpillar to a butterfly, yet the writers of the Gospels — the transfiguration story is told in all three of the synoptic gospels, which suggest to me that it originated in Mark the writers of Matthew, Mark, and John employ the word metamorphosed, but go on to describe Jesus’ appearance, including that of his clothes, as the change that took place on the mountain. A change in appearance is not, to us, a meaningful change, at least not a metamorphosis.

But this is a fascinating story, and one that must have certain elements of factual accuracy to it if we can believe that the account in the epistle of  2 Peter is actually based on testimony of Peter. While I find it hard to comprehend how Peter and the sons of Zebedee could have recognized Moses or Elijah, as the Gospels record — there are few surviving photos of either, and the Jews would not have painted pictures of humans, — the epistle most definitely refers to “hearing a voice.”

Which makes me wonder: These changes, the metamorphoses, is the Gospel passage, the story we have read, about what happened to Jesus? Is it about what Jesus looked like in an objective, “He would look that way to anyone looking” sense, or is this passage not about what happened to Jesus, but about what happened to the three disciples, about something that caused them to see Jesus not merely as another “person,”  and is its purpose to tell us about what can happen to us when we are “alone” with Jesus? Was the change that matters in this story the change in the appearance of Jesus, His transfiguration, or is it the change in how the disciples perceived Him and how they were changed, were metamorphosed — and about how we are — or can be changed — when we see Him, see Jesus, as truly our Lord and Savior, and not just as someone we talk about on Sundays?

To return to the clouds, and how interesting a role I see them as playing in both the Moses story and in this story, is it perhaps that Jesus is the figurative sun that burns away — well, causes to metamorphose from ice crystals or water droplets to water vapor, to steam, — that Jesus can disperse or remove the clouds that can cover us, the clouds of ignorance or indifference or fear that limit us? That Jesus can come through the clouds that keep us from seeing Him and understanding God?

But how does that happen, this “burning away”? For some of you, there may have been a particular moment in your life, a “Eureka!” moment when somehow you were able to understand that there was a divine presence in your lives that you then recognized as Him, and I am not going to get hung up right now on Trinitarian distinctions; some of you might not yet experienced Jesus as a presence in your lives, and if that is the case I hope you will be open to such an experience, which might come as I believe it did for me, not in a sudden happening or event or discovery, but in a more gradual sense that is truly like the fog — and what is fog but a low lying cloud — like the fog lifting, like the fog being burned away.

For me, I suppose a good part of the transformation came from being engaged in prayer — I was hardly an unbeliever, — but particularly being engaged in prayers where I acknowledged that I was at fault for something — “sin” is an appropriate word, — very akin to the acknowledgement I hope we make as we do our collect and silent prayers of confession, a ritual which, at least to me, is an indispensable part of our worship, not because I am a fire and brimstone preacher, you know that I am not, nor because I love the harsh sounding Calvinist term of “total depravity,” but rather because I believe that in acknowledging our sins, our “imperfections,” if that is an easier term for us to bear, we acknowledge to ourselves that we cannot buy our own way into heaven, and who among us is not hoping for heaven; in this ritual we acknowledge that we cannot earn our way into heaven based on our own too-imperfect virtues, yet someone has provided for our way in!

Someone, Jesus, says to us, “Here is your ticket! I have arranged free entry for you.”

And of course, when we realize how that was done 2000 years ago, then I think we are sufficiently metamorphosed that we can begin to see Jesus as our Lord and Savior, and feel thankful.

Feel thankful, and be further metamorphosed to ask, “What do you want of me?”

Jesus has not changed, Jesus himself has not been changed, we just are enabled to see Him differently.

I have to chuckle a bit. The previous seven days, I attended two different Catholic masses, the first last Sunday with my oldest granddaughter, who converted to Catholicism in college, the second just yesterday, a funeral mass for a cousin who died much too early of a progressive disease of forty years duration. I was not uncomfortable, the music — the hymns, all but one — were hymns we sing, but in Catholic Churches, Jesus is still on the cross in the front of the sanctuary.

I prefer our empty cross to show that he is risen, but too easily we Protestants, which I am to my core because I find thankfulness the core of how I believe I have been metamorphosed, I believe we Protestants too easily forget that Jesus went to that cross for us!

For you, for me, and in that act, in my grasping that act, I recognize how much God must love us, and I see through any clouds of doubt that we are blessed to know God through Jesus, and any questions or confusion about His transfiguration to the side, I know that through faith in Him, we are  the ones who are changed, metamorphosed, and whatever is clouding our lives is made just a bit easier to bear knowing that He is indeed with his.

And in His name. Amen.

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