Not the mountain, the plain

Reading
Luke 9.28-43

There is a terrible cruelty to it. Baptizing them as children, teaching them in Sunday school, hosting lock-ins & game nights in youth group, encouraging their calls to ministry, and then, when they work up the courage to tell the truth about their sexuality, kicking them out. — @rachelheldevans, Twitter 28.02.19

The society in which we live suggests in countless ways that the way to go is up. Making it to the top, entering the limelight, breaking the record—that’s what draws attention, gets us on the front page of the newspaper, and offers us the rewards of money and fame.

The way of Jesus is radically different. It is the way not of upward mobility but of downward mobility. It is going to the bottom, staying behind the sets, and choosing the last place! Why is the way of Jesus worth choosing? Because it is the way to the Kingdom, the way Jesus took, and the way that brings everlasting life. — Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, p.186 (https://henrinouwen.org/meditation/downward-mobility/)

The transfiguration is something any old atheist could understand: ‘glory’ is a body and face shining with supernatural light. This does not unsettle my pagan presuppositions of what ‘divinity’ and the ‘supernatural’ mean. What we need faith to see is this: that the dead Jesus, forgotten and abandoned, naked and hanging on the Cross, is truly the Love of God Incarnate. In the wounding of his fragile being is the fullness of the divine glory. He is not ashamed to be our God. — Brad Jersak, A More Christlike God, p.135

______________________

There’s a tradition in preaching on the Transfiguration of Jesus, that we talk about ‘mountaintop experiences’ that we take down to our everyday lives on the plain.

So where do we start today, on this Day of the Transfiguration of Jesus? Do we start on top of the mountain, along with Peter, James and John, with Moses and Elijah in glory? Do we begin bathed in the reflected heavenly light coming from Jesus? Do we start with a privileged glow mixed with strange feelings of awe or even dread?

Well no, not today. Today, we must start on the ground, along with the helpless, hapless and confused disciples who couldn’t expel a demon from a young lad, the only son of his father. That’s where we are today, at the bottom of the mountain. 

We have to start—and stay—on the ground today because as Christians in Australia, as members of a mainstream church, many people see us as representatives of something that is not only wrong but despicable. There’s a man I know who frequents the same coffee shop I do. We get on, we pass the time of day. The first time he saw me in a clerical collar he wondered if I should be wearing one, because it could make me look like a ‘paedo’. 

This week, Cardinal George Pell was found guilty of child sexual abuse. The charges relate to acts committed in 1996, while he was Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne. Pell had forcefully denied all charges, but now that a media ban has been lifted the news is known within Australia. 

A number of prominent figures have leapt to his defence, he will mount an appeal, but the fact remains: today, Pell is a convicted child abuser. 

We have to stay on the ground and not go to the mountain today because last weekend one of our sister churches in the USA, the United Methodist Church, discussed the place of LGBTIQ people in their church. Their special conference began with hopes of full inclusion of people regardless of their sexuality. Instead, the conference voted to accept the so-called ‘Traditional Plan’ which keeps the current exclusions of LGBTIQ people in place. 

I think it’s terrible to make any group of people the objects of a discussion on whether to include or exclude them from every part of the church’s life. Our church has done that too. 

I think it’s terrible that the plan that prevailed is called the ‘Traditional Plan’. 

Now, it seems that the Traditional Plan will face a legal challenge within the church’s processes, and may be ruled unconstitutional. Conferences that already authorise queer ministers and conduct same-sex marriages will in all likelihood continue to do so. The standing of a lesbian bishop who has been appointed by her conference will not be under threat. So news of a conservative takeover in the United Methodist Church is hopefully exaggerated. 

But it really grates that this exclusive plan is called ‘Traditional’.

One person (@paigehanks) wrote on Twitter: 

I really despise the use of ‘traditional’ to mean institutionally sanctioned oppression of an entire group of people. Not sure that is a ‘tradition’ worth hanging on to.

Surely our tradition is to follow Jesus the risen Crucified One, the Liberator in whose flesh the Reign of God comes to earth. Our tradition is freedom in Christ. ‘Tradition’ should never have come to mean beating people with a big stick. 

This misuse of tradition is part of the reason why churches in the west are being perceived as being against things. We’re seen as being against queer people, against the full participation of women in the church. 

We might say, We’re not like that here. Yet many simply assume that we are, just because we are a church. 

We might say, People from the Uniting Church marched in the Sydney Mardi Gras last night. But they will face hurtful criticism from other members. 

Churches in the west are having a hard time catching up to what the community expects of us. We’re often running around in confusion, like the disciples at the foot of the mountain. 

The world beyond the church’s walls doesn’t think a lot of us. The news about George Pell doesn’t help at all. 

In the Australian Guardian this week, I read this: 

As Cardinal George Pell walked out of a Melbourne County Court on Tuesday he was confronted with shouts of ‘burn in hell, Pell’ and ‘you’re a monster’. 

And I heard people call him a ‘maggot’ as he walked into court on Wednesday.

Of course, the politicians were a bit more restrained: Scott Morrison said he was ‘deeply shocked’. Bill Shorten called it ‘a gross betrayal of trust’.

Sadly, only one of Pell’s victims was able to give evidence at the trial. The other died of a heroin overdose in 2014. 

There has almost been a strange sense of inevitability that one day, our nation would reach this point. I don’t know about you, but all this leads me to feel that my place is with the helpless disciples on the plain. 

These disciples are the same ones who had only just been commissioned to have 

power and authority over all [demonic powers] and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. (Luke 9.1–2)

Jesus had given them all they needed to address the oppression of suffering people and to proclaim in word and deed that the kingdom of God was coming near. But they were unable to help this poor father who had brought his only son to them. They didn’t have a clue what to do. 

Today, the boy’s story would make most doctors think of something like epilepsy, but in those days he was thought to be oppressed by a demon. 

But even with all the authority they had been given by Jesus himself, the disciples couldn’t relieve this suffering. 

Perhaps they were wearing their authority in the wrong way. There is a tendency in the Catholic Church to think of cardinals as authoritarian figures, even princes of the Church; it is a name that fitted Cardinal George Pell very well. The Age wrote during the week:

Pell was exactly the sort of resolute bishop beloved of popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI because he shared their rejection of post-modernism and moral relativism.

The journalist and commentator David Marr even wrote a book about Pell called The Prince. 

Is our authority like that of a prince? Some Christians seem to think so. We’re children of the King, after all…

But we’re staying on the plain today, feeling inadequate in the face of evil. I imagine looking up at the hill where Peter, James and John are, wondering what is going on up there. I imagine looking up and seeing a strange glow in the sky and wondering more about what that means. 

I’d never guess that Jesus had been met by Moses and Elijah ‘in glory’. And I’d never guess what the glory of God truly is. 

I’d tend to think of ‘glory’ as something achieved by great people. But God’s glory is the glory of self-giving love. God’s glory is seen in the naked Jesus hanging on a cross. 

Luke says that Moses and Elijah 

were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

They were talking to Jesus about his ‘departure…at Jerusalem’. Jesus departed on the cross. That’s where he breathed his last.

The New Testament was written in Greek, a foreign language; but you already know the Greek word that Luke uses for ‘departure: it is ‘exodus’. Yes, it’s the name of the second book of the Bible. 

This Exodus was the journey of deliverance for the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. It was good news for the Israelites! 

But not for the lambs. 

Remember how the Exodus began with the Passover Meal? Lambs were slaughtered for this meal, their blood was daubed on the lintels of people’s doors, and they were eaten in a hurry. No dignity for the lamb.

When Moses and Elijah talk to Jesus about his ‘exodus’, they are talking to the Lamb. 

To the one who would suffer and give his life for the people. 

To the one whom the ‘righteous’ and ‘holy’ would kill, but who would rise on the third day.

To the One who would set us free from the need to dominate others, the need to control the doors into the family of God. 

A lamb can’t adopt a dignified pose. But God’s true glory is here; in this suffering, in this dying, Jesus would fully reveal what the glory of God is—it is love that never gives up giving.

Surely this is a bedrock part of the Jesus tradition. 

But of course, we’re still on the plain. We don’t feel any glory. We’re still unable to help this poor lad whose epilepsy is out of control. What do we do?

Why don’t we race up the mountain to ask What Would Jesus Do? 

We’d only be more confused if we did. We might hear Peter wanting to build shrines for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Friends, we’re not going to get out of this with a shrine-led recovery! More shrines means more dust to clean. 

But we don’t need to go up the mountain today, because Jesus is coming down, looking the same as usual. What a relief! We need his help.

Jesus heals the boy, but not without a stinging rebuke for the disciples who had failed. 

Let’s just look a little further on in Luke’s story. The very next thing is this:

While everyone [else?] was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples, ‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands’. But they did not understand this saying… And they were afraid to ask him about this saying. (Luke 9.43b–45)

So the disciples remain confused. Nothing sinks into their ears. They must wait for the events of the cross and the third-day risen life before they can begin to grasp Jesus. 

What can we say today, we who are the local mob of disciples on the plain in West End Uniting? 

Firstly, we in West End Uniting are on the plain today with the crowd: the misfits, the outsiders, the left aside people. We work and pray for their wellbeing, and the wellbeing of all—and yes, including those who use their power to damage others.

Secondly, we are welcoming the misfit crowd. It doesn’t matter what or who you are, you’re welcome here.  

The United Methodist Church says it has 

Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.

And many UMC congregations and conferences still do! We can do it too as part of the Uniting Church.  

Thirdly, we can applaud institutional responses that make appropriate responses. For example, The Age says:

Cardinal George Pell’s former school will remove his name from a building and revoke his status as an ‘inducted legend’.

In the wake of the St Patrick’s College alumnus being found guilty of sex abuse, the Ballarat school will also strike a line through Cardinal Pell’s name on an honour board for ordained former students.

I think that is a brave step, one to be applauded. However, according to the Sydney Morning Herald,

St Mary’s Cathedral authorities will keep a plaque of Cardinal George Pell celebrating his time as a Sydney archbishop despite his child abuse conviction.…

A spokesperson for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney said the church has ‘no reason’ to remove the plaque while the court dealt with an appeal process.

I don’t applaud this decision, but I confess that I understand it. Many of the parishioners of St Mary’s are coming out in support of Pell. Yet it’s not a brave call, it’s an insult to people who have been abused in the life of any church. It’s time for churches to make brave calls. 

We don’t need to be apologists for Pell and other convicted child abusers. We don’t need to be apologists for the people in the United Methodist Church who are making life hard for the children who have grown up nurtured by their life, their pot-luck dinners, their youth groups who have come to discover that their sexuality is under a cloud. We can and should say this is wrong. 

Finally, down on the plain West End Uniting stands with Jesus, who today is the risen crucified One. His risen life is one that carries the wounds inflicted upon him. He has the nail prints in his hands, the wound in his side. 

That’s why he identifies with the hungry, the poor, the sidelined, with those who experience exclusion from the church. 

He calls us to this life too. Our place with Jesus, and not with the princes of the church, nor with church people who are trying to monitor and control the sexuality of others. 

Let us take to heart what the United Methodist Church says of itself:

Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.

It’s a good statement. We can make it so true of us that we become known for it. 

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Filed under church year, RCL, sermon, the risen crucified One

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