OLD WINE   Feb. 26, 2017
Sermon - First Presbyterian Church of Skaneateles


Today is Transfiguration Sunday. This is the day God himself spoke directly to Jesus' disciples and said, "This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him." First, let's go to the mountain top with Jesus and see him Transfigured before our eyes. Then, let's see what becoming transfigured means for our own lives. And finally we'll look at how transfiguration impacts the world around us.

This isn’t the first time God reveals who Jesus is. But, the revelation we celebrate today is different. Today, God not only reaffirms Jesus is the Son of God; the voice of God from heaven commands: Listen to him! So, let’s get into the scene. Picture yourself along with Peter, James and John. Jesus says, "Follow me," and we follow Jesus as he leads us from our everyday world down on the plain, up the mountain trail. We arrive at a high plateau. We're tired. Way down below is the lake, the Sea of Galilee. On the mountain top, the rest of the world is out of sight and sound. On this mountain top we are alone with Jesus. Then suddenly Jesus is transfigured, changed before us, into a creature of light. His clothes glow; we can't look at his face because of the brightness. We see Jesus is not alone - he's accompanied by two other figures, Moses and Elijah, walking, speaking with Jesus.

Peter is amazed, awestruck. What does he do? Does he rest in the moment, in awesome silence, meditating on what he is seeing and experiencing? Does he listen, learn, absorb the meaning and message in what he is seeing and hearing? Nope. Helpful Peter blurts out, “Jesus, can we build three little shelters – one for each of you?” How down to earth! And that's what Peter does. He brings the scene crashing down to earth.

What’s Peter's plan? Leave this place of wonder? Scramble back down the mountain? Forage in the brush below and chop some branches? Good old practical, pragmatic Peter. But, as Peter babbles, the scene vanishes from sight. A bright cloud descends, covering everybody on the mountain top, and the voice of God speaks from the cloud; This is my son, Listen to him.

Peter and James and John have accepted the invitation and joined Jesus on the mountain top, away from the distractions below. Peter, James and John saw the Law of Moses walking as Moses himself. The Law of course, was the first lesson to humanity of what it means to be a human being. The three also saw the Prophets: Elijah, who listened to God's still, small voice; Elijah, a persistent, nagging reminder to humanity that we haven't been listening; we're missing the mark, sinning.

And they saw Jesus transfigured, in radiant light in all his majestic divinity, so bright and holy the disciples could barely look at him. The disciples saw Jesus changed that day on the mountaintop. He glowed with a divine light. Jesus walking and talking with Moses and Elijah signaled Jesus would teach us at a new deeper level the meaning, the heart of the Law. Jesus would teach not just Israel, but the world, that the Law of Moses was sent to change our hearts, not just our behavior. Peter and James and John accepted the invitation to the mountain top, but they weren't quite ready to fully understand what they were seeing.

"What can I do?" Peter asked. The implicit answer; "Nothing. Don't just do something, sit there." Peter wasn't yet awake to the meaning of Jesus being the Son of God. He recognizes who Jesus is. But he hadn't really listened to him. God the Father pointed that out.

God quieted Peter by enveloping the scene in the great cloud of unknowing. This is the cloud that keeps us from seeing the face of the divine. This cloud appears when, like Peter, we try to give God a hand he doesn't need, when we get talky and busy when God wants us to be quiet and listen. The voice of God came from the cloud, instructing Peter and James and John. "This is my son. LISTEN TO HIM."

God offers each of us time and place every day to join him on the mountain top. We're usually pretty busy, so we often don't hear God's small voice inviting us. Or, if we do hear something, it's often drowned out by the distractions and demands of everyday life down here. Or, like Peter, we want to do something, jump into action before asking what God is telling us. Listening is hard for us. We are people of action. We value doing something. Being productive. "What did I accomplish today?" The cloud points out to the disciples their blindness, their lack of vision. Peter's idea of life and usefulness as a human was work, productivity, exercise of his skill. We are, after all, a people of works, of action. But God says, "Don't just do something. Sit there. Listen to him."

Listening changes us. Listening transforms us, and listening begins our transfiguration. Transfiguration is an unusual word. We use words like transformation or alteration to signal something different is happening. But, transfiguration implies a deeper change, a change in nature - a metamorphosis. A familiar example of metamorphosis is the caterpillar becoming a butterfly. We humans go through an incomplete metamorphosis. Changing from child to adolescent to adult is incomplete metamorphosis - incomplete, because our natures have not completely changed. But, Jesus transfiguration signaled to us another stage in our human life cycle. Jesus invites us to become sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters with Jesus. I think this may be the final step in human "becoming." We become ripe, fully mature human beings. As the Bible describes it, "Full of years."

Katie told me about Jane Barratt. Dr. Jane Barratt has been Secretary General of the International Federation on Ageing since 1991. She represents 50 million elderly people in 62 countries. Recently at a UN conference she had an epiphany. After over 35 years leading the charge, she suddenly announced to the UN conference, "We've been doing this all wrong." She went on to say: We've been arguing for the human rights of our elderly and no one is listening. We are ignored. We have no respect. We do not even have credibility.  She has a point - the world doesn't value our elderly.

So, if you've reached age 50, I'm talking to you. And if you are younger? Listen up. God willing, you will some day join us elderly. The world does not value the old. At the United Nations, each interest group has its own NGO which makes the case for its members' value to society as a whole. This is important because human rights - laws, education, benefits, and protections follow from this.  My wife, Katie, is a member of the United Nations NGO Committee on Ageing  struggling for the human rights of an under-recognized population; older persons. From the world's perspective, productivity ends at 50. We are lumped together as 50 plus. After 50, we are a social cost rather than a plus. "Governments - invest in your kids." They have many years of productivity and economic and social contribution ahead of them. Yes, invest in the poor, the disenfranchised, the refugees, the dispossessed - but only if they are young. Us old folks? Just a problem to be managed. Dr. Jane Barrett called that out.

People across the world, America included, are productivity junkies. The old just don't cut it. Our value as a human being is calculated in the net economic benefit of our future productivity. The young have years of productivity ahead of them. Youth is both beautiful and useful. What could be more important? The old? The world doesn't measure the productivity of supporting family, passing on culture, teaching, caring. The old are seen as just wrinkled, saggy and sapless. The world's advertising is focused on feeding our obsession with youth - to look, feel and act young. And, we older are often complicit in this. It's as if we all want to be transfigured into youthful gods and goddesses. I think God wants a different transfiguration for us.

Unless we slow down, stop doing for a moment, take time away from "productivity, sit and listen to God's small voice, we cannot really get to know God and what he offers us. God wants us to get to know him.  God makes us an offer we can't refuse. He wants us to be friendly with him. Not just acquainted, but friendly, best friends. A warm, intimate relationship.

He already knows everything there is to know about us. No secrets. In fact, when you sit with God, he'll even help you see things about yourself you were blind to. What a friend. Non-judgmental. He sits and listens to us, then he speaks quietly and gently to us. And he teaches us as a gentle teacher.  

But, do we accept this offer we can't refuse? Today there is a warning in our gospel, Listen to him. How often do we really sit and listen to him? Craig often describes how God is found in relationship. Relationship takes both work and presence. Thinking takes physical energy. The mind must be prepared.  Martha knew. She sat and listened, she drank in Jesus words and presence. But we're usually Mary, hustling around, busy, complaining about the unproductiveness of others.

I believe the transfiguration to which we are called is one we need to begin now, while we are young. It's much harder to begin when we are already old. As Tolstoy observed in War and Peace, if we do not begin to prepare for our transformation when we are young we may not have the strength to begin later. Because of illness or failure of the body, we may not have the physical strength to begin to develop a relationship with our Creator when we are old. Start now. It takes wisdom and strength to make choices, to bind and control ones thoughts and feelings. The mature and wise have learned to make difficult choices. The ripened elderly have practiced spiritual discernment through prayer and effort. It takes physical strength to control ones thoughts and feelings. If we do not prepare now, it may  be difficult though not impossible to begin to focus when we are elderly and frail. 

I also want to speculate on why we discriminate against the elderly, why we hide the old and why we lump us into the 50 plus age group. I believe it is because the elderly remind us of our death. And, we still fear death. So, we set the elderly aside and keep ourselves busy. We want to build little shelters, booths, like Peter. We get productive. That will keep us from thinking about death. But, God did not ask. He commanded. "This is my Son; Listen to Him!"

Jesus destroyed death. Fear of death should be gone for the Christian. Fear of death is more than just a source of anxiety. Fear of death is the father of sin. When fear of death is gone, the engine of sin disappears. When we fear death we subconsciously think that if we are admired enough, we will live. If we acquire enough, we will not die. If we have enough power, accomplishments, people who love us, who fear us, respect us, we are alive and will live forever. Fear of death is the engine that drives all seven deadly sins.

The prince of these deadly sins is Pride - Me, me, me! Look at me. Admire me, respect me, love me! The proud want to be like God. To  live forever - in this life.

Fear of death leads to our worship of youth. Attractiveness, sensuality, sexuality, popularity, belonging, being loved for what we do, not who we are. We act as if old age is a disease cutting off our rightful youth. But as Christians we know that youth is not the reason for living.  The goal of life is becoming, growing, ageing, maturing, ripening, becoming full of years and wisdom. Transfiguration.
The great and final irony is we elderly are extremely productive. We are productive economically, we are productive socially, productive culturally, productive morally and productive personally. Whether paid or unpaid, the contribution of the elderly to life is precious and lasting.

And with lifelong transfiguration, we ease our fear of death. We know He is Our God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.

So, young and old, don't just do something. Sit there. The Creator sees you and knows you. He wants to talk things over with you. Listen to him. He makes you an offer you can't refuse, an offer of Transfiguration. This eternal home our God has given us is a new life, a life with no death. Listen to God, build that relationship, be part of the transfiguration. Then, as we listen, freed from fear, we can sing because we are happy, we can sing because we are free.

Let's stand and join in singing Hymn #661.