Sermon, February 26, 2017

The Beloved and The Beloved Community   Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
February 26, 2017
Last Sunday after Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday
Verses from Psalms 50, 104, 36 & 139 and II Corinthians 4;
II Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 16:21-17:7

The Transfiguration Story comes at the center and turning point of the gospel. The teaching leading into it is at the heart of Jesus’ entire message. Jesus began his ministry saying, “Repent, for the realm of God is at hand.” In today’s passage in Matthew we see what that means.

Remember that the word repentance is an inadequate translation of the Greek word metanoia. Jesus is talking about metanoia when he urges Peter to set his mind not on human things, but on divine things. He is talking about metanoia as the way into the realm of God when he says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”

Metanoia means to give up the life we live with our heart and mind and soul set on human things, and choose to lose it all for the sake of the way that Christ is showing us to live, a life that fills our heart, mind and soul with the love of God and neighbor, a life that loses itself in that love. Setting our mind on human things we may gain the whole world but we forfeit the life that truly is life, and there is nothing we can give other than our whole life in order to gain that life.

The way to enter the realm of God is to allow our heart, mind and soul to be changed by setting them on God’s love and life and light—that is the essence of what Jesus meant by his message of metanoia or repentance.

This is not about dying and going to heaven, or leaving our home and work and entering a monastery. Jesus said, “There are some standing here who will not taste death” before they see the realm of God on earth. Metanoia opens the door to God’s realm within and around us. It is here right now. The world is waiting for us to see it transfigured, with the light and love of God shining through it. Jesus is waiting for us to see him as he truly is, as he lives today in this world, in the hearts of those around us, in nature, in ourselves.

The 20th Century Catholic monk and best selling author, Thomas Merton, had an experience of seeing the world transfigured. He described it this way:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…. Now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

Many over the centuries have seen this divine spark in people and nature and in what Jesus called “the least of these” in whom he said he lived. This vision is available to anyone who sets heart, mind and soul on divine things. It is not a hallucination, it is not an exaggeration, it is who we really are, “the true life of all,” as the hymn says.

Think about it. The cosmic force of love and life and light that we name God created the universe, every element and particle and bit of energy in it. It created us, too, as beings of its love and life and light. We are children of God, we are inseparable from God, we are expressions of the Spirit and force and elements of God, and yet one of the miraculous features of our mind is the ego that is able to pretend that other things are gods, or that we ourselves are the god of our own little universe.

As Paul said, “The gods of this world blind people’s minds and keep them from perceiving the light shining from the image of God in Christ. But the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

We live most of our lives in forgetfulness of who we truly are. The church exists to help us remember. It reminds us of metanoia every week, turning our hearts and minds back to focus on divine things to fill ourselves with love for God and other people and this world. Christ reminds us that this is the life that really is life, and the fabrication of our egos that we call our lives is the illusion.

All we have to do to have the life Christ offers is keep returning to the truth that God summons us into being as children of God. God’s fountain of life wells up in us, and in that light we see light all around. Jesus came to open our eyes, he comes in every moment to open our hearts to fill with that fountain of the Holy Spirit and let its love flow through us into the world. God wants us to know that we are the Beloved. God wants us to see it or at least live as if we believe it is true.

The passage from 2 Peter today began, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” This was the “lamp shining in a dark place” that the disciples handed down to us. It was not a doctrine, it was not a cleverly devised myth or theory, it was an experience of transfiguration, it was an encounter with God incarnated in Jesus that the disciples felt and saw and heard.

The light of God is in you and in everyone and everything around you. Transfiguration and transformation happen when we believe enough to open our eyes and hearts to experience that light as our truth. The power of Christianity has always risen from the experience of God that we share by letting its light shine through us.

I told a story in my first sermon here and have told it again since then about a monastery that had dwindled from one hundred down to six aging monks. They were sad and afraid that their monastery was going to die out. An old hermit lived in the forest nearby who was reputed to be very wise, so the brothers begged their abbot to go ask the hermit what they should do.

The abbot returned to the monastery disappointed. All the brothers gathered around him and asked if the hermit had any wisdom to offer. The abbot said, “No, I am afraid not. All he said was that the Messiah is among us.”

The monks went on with their daily labors and prayers and their grief, but they remembered what the hermit had said. Every time one of the brothers did something virtuous the others would notice and think, yes, I believe he could be the Messiah.

Something miraculous began to happen. The monks started treating one another with so much love and respect that the visitors who came to tour the great old monastery thought to themselves, these must be holy men. Some of the younger visitors lingered to listen to the old monks’ conversations, and asked questions, and began to learn. Then one of the young men asked if he could join, and then another, and soon there were twenty monks, and then fifty. Within a few years it was once again a thriving monastery.

It was as if the monks heard God speaking from the cloud of their fearful uncertainty, saying about each of them, “This is my child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen! Look!” They saw one another transfigured into the Beloved, they saw the true divine goodness beneath the flawed human surface, they set their minds on those divine things, and something happened. It filled them with the light of love for one another, and that love helped each of them live a more light-filled life, and it formed a beloved community of light that attracted others.

Look for the light of Christ in yourself and in one another here and love all the goodness that you find, and you will become an ever more radiant beloved community.

Churches are called to be the body of Christ living in the world. Imagine God saying, “This is my congregation, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Miracles happen when we love our congregation the way the monks loved one another, when we love the ideals that it proclaims, when we love how this congregation holds us in its love, when we love how it serves the world, when we love the beauty of its lighted window shining into the darkness. Seeing this congregation through the lens of transfiguration fills us with more light and love to share.

Today’s bulletin has many words in it that describe this congregation’s ideals. We have not passed the Open and Affirming covenant, but I have not heard anyone say that it goes against who we are. The poem “The Lighted Window” was written about us many decades ago, and still holds true. The Identity and Aspiration Statement reflects this church’s deepest truth. I invite you to read these words as if they were new to you, and see with the eyes of transfiguration the beautiful light of this congregation, and let your heart fill with love.

The disciples fell, but they got up. They strayed, but through metanoia they returned to the way. They set their mind on human things, but then they caught a glimpse of the light and set their mind on divine things again and refilled with so much love that we are here today, two thousand years later, following the same path. We have our imperfections, and the dark days of Lent loom ahead, but thank God for this beloved community, for this beloved church where we can come and fill with love to shine.

Let us pray now, opening our hearts wide in faith, asking God’s light to flow through us, giving thanks at the same time…