Sermon – March 12, 2017

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyVision

by Rev. Joe Connolly

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“Suddenly the disciples saw Moses and Elijah appear, talking with Jesus.” — Matthew 17:3.

Bangor Seminary was known for training pastors because the school sent many students to small rural churches to be pastors long before they graduated. This, thereby, provided O.J.T.— on the job training. One great piece of practical advice I got when I had just entered Seminary came from a student who was serving a small rural church and was about to graduate.

On any given Sunday night, she said, you may be dog tired. But read the Scriptures for the following Sunday. That way they will percolate all week.

I’ve always tried to do that. I did that last Sunday. They percolated right away. That night a story about an incident which happened when I was a Senior in High School came bubbling out of my subconscious, out of my memory, into my dreams. This is that story. (Slight pause.)

I attended Richmond Hill High School, Queens, New York. We had a club called the Discussion Forum. Somehow, as a Senior, I had the role of vice-chair.

Equally somehow, the group decided to have a Candidates Forum for people running for public office that year. One of the elections that year was for Mayor of New York City.

Equally somehow, someone convinced William F. Buckley, Jr., who was running for mayor, to come and speak at this local event. If you are unfamiliar with Buckley, he is considered one of the founders of the American Conservative movement.

Born to wealth, a graduate of Yale, he first came to public attention with the 1951 book God and Man at Yale. In 1955 he founded the magazine National Review.

From 1966 to 1999 Buckley was the host of the weekly PBS show, Firing Line. Erudite and funny, when asked what he would do if he actually won the race for Mayor, Buckley responded, “Demand a recount.”

Well, the event was held one evening in the school auditorium. That venue seated about 800. Given Buckley was to speak, the auditorium was nearly full.

I don’t remember why, but it fell to me to introduce a local politician who in turn introduced Buckley. I did my job, exited stage right, stood there and listened.

Having finished speaking Buckley glided off stage right where several of his aides waited and where I was standing. They exited into a school hallway. I followed.

A number of people, perhaps several dozen, burst into the hallway from an auditorium exit some twenty yards away. They were shouting Buckley’s name and waving programs, probably seeking autographs.

Knowing I was a student, one of Buckley’s aids turned to me and in a brusk manner asked, “What’s the closest exit to the street.” We were literally feet from an exit. I pointed at it. They pushed through the door. I followed.

The door slammed shut behind us. The same aide turned to me and said, “We parked on 113th street. Where’s that?”

I pointed back toward the door. “On the other side of the building.”

He muttered something unpleasant and tried the door. It was locked.

Buckley seemed calm and unconcerned but this fellow was really agitated. “How do we get to back 113th Street?” he demanded.

“Walk around the block?” I offered. He growled something contentious again.

You see, the school had a fenced in athletic field right next to it with no street access. Walking around the block meant walking two city blocks one way, across another block and two city blocks back.

It was late Spring. It was warm. All of us walked around those blocks together.

No one spoke as we walked. There seemed to be no local traffic, no cars. Around these inner-city streets there were stretches of darkness and circles of light from the street lamps above us.

When we got to the other side of the building Buckley and the others got into a waiting limousine. Off they went. This whole episode seemed quite surreal to me, even then.

I never saw Buckley in person again. John Lindsay won the race for Mayor. Buckley came in third with 13% of the vote.

Now, I did not tie a lot of facts to this story nor do I with great precision remember a lot. These are vague memories from a long time ago. All I really remember is what the experience felt like.

Perhaps that’s why it came to me in a dream. The story is from so long ago that, by definition, it’s about how it felt, not about facts. (Slight pause.)

These words are found in Matthew: “Suddenly the disciples saw Moses and Elijah appear, talking with Jesus.” (Slight pause.)

I want to make a couple points about how the story of the Transfiguration is told. The first point has to do with when the story was written.

Scholars believe Jesus died about the year we would call 30 of the Common Era. Scholars believe Matthew was written about the year 85. That’s 55 years later.

Tell me, what do you remember, in detail, from 55 years ago or even 10 years ago? If you remember anything, you probably simply have a sense of what happened.

The story about my Senior Year in High school happened in 1965. That’s 52 years ago. As I indicated, what I said about that incident— those are simply vague memories.

I did not tie a lot of facts to the story. I, for instance and these many years later, have no idea how to answer the following questions.

‘How did a school club get permission to run this kind of event at a Public High School?’ ‘How did we get a well known figure like Bill Buckley to come?’ ‘I was only the vice-chair of the Discussion Forum, not the chair. Why was I designated to introduce the person who introduced Buckley?’

You think I’d remember important details like that, would you not? But what I really remember is what the experience felt like, how surreal it seemed. (Slight pause.)

So, is the story of the Transfiguration about factual data? Or is the story about something else? (Slight pause.)

Having asked that, there are several general statement to make about the New Testament, things we all already know. These are also things to which most of us pay no attention whatsoever. (Slight pause.)

Here we go: the Gospels are stories about Jesus. Jesus was Jewish. The Gospel stories were written by people who were Jewish, about people who were Jewish and meant to communicate with people who were Jewish. Further, the Gospel stories were written in light of and influenced by the Hebrew Scriptures.

You see, the people for whom these Gospel stories were written knew the Hebrew Scriptures inside out and backwards. It was a common point of reference for them.

Indeed, when these stories were written, the work we call the Hebrew Scriptures was the only Bible. It was the Bible for Jesus. It was the Bible Jesus read. (Slight pause.)

That brings me back to these words from Matthew: “…the disciples saw Moses and Elijah….” So, why are the disciples pictured as seeing Moses and Elijah? (Slight pause.)

One answer to that question is Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets. Another is, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, both Moses and Elijah, themselves, had experiences of the real presence of God. The fancy word for that is a theophany.

This is clearly a story about the real presence of God, a theophany. So for a Jewish audience it would have sounded strange if Moses and Elijah were not there and yet there was a theophany.

Additionally, when we read Scripture we tend to read it with contemporary, modern eyes. Therefore, we ask Twenty-first Century questions of Scripture, like ‘Did this happen?’

That’s an odd question on two counts. First, the story is not trying to tell us what happened. ‘Did it happen’ is a moot point since that’s not what the author is writing about. Second, this is— probably— a story about feeling, a story that expressed something about an experience of the real presence of God, a theophany.

There is one more connection here that is clearly Jewish. In the context of Matthew, this story happens shortly after Jesus asks, ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter responds Jesus is the Christ. The Christ— that’s the Jewish Messiah.

All this comes back to understanding the Transfiguration the way people who first heard and read this story, the Jewish people, might have understood it. If you have the Law, the Prophets and the Messiah together this means one thing: the Realm of God is with us. And what is a continual message of Jesus? That the Realm of God is near. (Slight pause.)

I want to suggest if this story says the Realm of God is with us, here, now, perhaps the real challenge posed by the story to early Christians and, therefore, posed to us is simple. What are we to do to participate in the Realm of God?

Put another way, this story is not about a vision of Christ. This story is about a vision of God for our world. And this vision is a message to us about the Realm of God. This vision is a call to participate to help make our world a place where we endeavor bring God’s vision for the world to fruition.

And Scripture tells us what God’s vision of the world is and what God’s vision for the world looks like. God’s vision of the world and for the world is one in which, with the help of God, we eliminate poverty. God’s vision for the world is one in which, with the help of God, we eradicate inequity. God’s vision for the world is one in which, with the help of God, we extinguish injustice.

Last, I think this story means we are all called to be in right relationship with God. What is a right relationship with God? What can we do to be in a right relationship with God?

You’ve heard me say this hundreds of times. Love God; love neighbor. According to Jesus those words— love God; love neighbor— sum up the Law and the Prophets. [1] And those words are God’s vision for the world. Amen.

03/12/2017
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, NY

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “If the modern world proves anything to us it probably says there are many ways of seeing reality. I want to suggest that the one way of seeing reality I don’t think we’ve tried too often is God’s reality for the world, a reality of justice, peace, freedom, hope and trust which needs to reside among all humanity.”

BENEDICTION: God’s love will surround us even when we do not ask for it. God’s voice speaks to us. Let us be attentive to it. Let us share this with others, confident that God will be with us. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.

[1] It should be noted that (although not directly stated in this sermon) Jesus reiterates that the Law and the Prophets are summed up with love God, love neighbor in the next chapter of Matthew, suggesting a continued flow among these stories and these chapters.

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