Sermon for Sunday, 26 February 2017
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith
sentiment draws people to Jerusalem than the desire to see and touch the places
where Christ was physically present, and to be able to say from their very own
experience: 'We have gone into his tabernacle, and have worshipped in the
places where his feet have stood.'"
—Paulinus of Nola (5th century)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I can’t remember exactly why, but for some reason, I was the last one to leave my grandmother’s house after her funeral.
As in, it was my job to turn out the lights, lock the door, and drive away. Everyone else had left for the airport, or wanted to get on the road early in the morning. But I had two small children with me, which always slows things down, so there I was, closing up the house. By myself.
It sounded like a fine plan, until that last moment. It was all good until that moment when I walked out the door and heard it “click” shut and realized this place, this holy place, would soon belong to someone else.
I hesitated there on the porch, and started to think: Maybe I could buy the house. I could keep it as a summer home. Because who doesn’t want to spend summers in a village of 300 people in the middle of the Iowa cornfields?
No, that wasn’t practical. But I desperately wanted to keep that house, to preserve it as the holy site it was. During a childhood filled with constant moves and changes, Grandma’s house was safety, security, history, family. It was home.
Eventually, the kids calling from the backseat of the car ended my dreaming. I locked the door of the house, started the car, and reluctantly drove away.
A few years later, my mom and I traveled back to rural Iowa for a family reunion—a very special event, because the relatives who had stayed in Sweden when the rest of the family emigrated to the US would be joining us for the first time. During a lull in the reunion activity, Mom and I drove down the road to Grandma’s house.
I remember being so excited. I was filled with anticipation of the sights, sounds, and smells from my childhood—I could imagine the house, perched on top of the hill across the street from the Lutheran Church, and the apple tree in the back yard with the rope swing my Grandpa hung for me. I could hear the sound of the awful community tornado siren, which stood in the backyard and pointed directly at the rooms upstairs, whose ear-splitting scream announced not only tornados, but also daily lunch and supper, at noon and six, so the farmers knew when to come in from the fields.
I could even smell the beef roast and potatoes cooking on the stove.
But when we drove up to the house, it was all wrong. The tree and the swing were both missing. Someone had removed the white stucco and the black wooden shutters and had put up modern siding. There was a fancy porch around the front of the house now, replacing my Grandpa’s humble lawn chair and ashtray. It wasn’t right at all.
It wasn’t right, of course, because my grandparents weren’t there. It wasn’t right, because it never was the house or the tree or the tornado siren which mattered—it was the people. I had always thought this was a holy house, but now I realized it was my grandparents who made it home. It was their love that made it holy ground—and now, because I carry their love with me, every step is made on holy ground.
On this Transfiguration Sunday, we have heard how Peter, James, and John were confused in much the same way.
Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
In other words, when Peter saw Jesus shining in all this divine glory before them, his instinct was to say, “This PLACE is amazing. Let’s stay HERE forever! Let’s even build some houses, because if Moses and Elijah are here, this must be a holy mountain. If Jesus shines here, this must be holy ground.”
Today, we still love the idea of special holy places and uniquely holy ground.
Those of you who are living, working, and studying in Jerusalem have likely been asked many times what it’s like to live in the “Holy City.” I meet often with visiting groups after worship, and I always try to share a bit of the reality of living in this place. I tell visitors about Palestinian Christians, and how they are affected by the occupation. I tell them about our church receptionist, how it takes him 2 hours to travel just a few kilometers across the checkpoint to work each morning. I tell visitors about where I have met Christ in my neighbor, on both sides of the wall. I especially want them to know about the people I have met who are carrying the cross of Christ today.
But invariably, someone always raises his hand to say,
“But Pastor, it must be so wonderful to walk where Jesus walked two thousand years ago. It must be so thrilling to work here, to pray here, to preach here. It must be so good to be here.”
Like the disciples on the high mountain with Jesus, it is natural for us to be attracted to holy ground and holy places and even holy cities. Our spirits long to connect with God, to experience the divine, to glimpse the beauty and peace of heaven in the midst of this painful and broken world. We want to know exactly where to find that connection. It would be nice if the holy land tourism companies could really deliver on their promise. If only we could buy a ticket and stand in line and be guaranteed a revelation, an epiphany, or a vision of Jesus shining like the sun before us.
It would be nice if we knew exactly where to find holy ground—and how to preserve it forever.
But, even though this morning’s Gospel lesson takes place on a high mountain, close to the clouds and seemingly close to God, the message of Transfiguration Sunday is not about identifying a holy place. Yes, this is the place where Jesus is transfigured before the disciples. Yes, this mountain is where he shines like the sun, and holy figures from the past appear with him. Yes, this is where God reveals something important to encourage the disciples before they follow Jesus down the mountain, into the streets, and ultimately to the cross and the tomb.
But what is the revelation exactly? What is it that God the Creator of all things wants the followers of Jesus to understand before they enter Jerusalem? Is it that nothing will ever live up to this “mountaintop experience”?
The answer comes after Peter suggests building holy houses and preserving the holy ground of this holy moment for all eternity. It comes when a voice from the clouds says:
“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
The voice from heaven says “This is my Son!” Not “this is where I live”. Not “This is my mountain.” Not “This is the site of my future theme park and convention center and gift shop” but “This is my Son. Listen to him!”
Scripture tells us that when the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
Jesus came and touched the disciples. The power of that simple touch is the most important revelation of all! It was Jesus, not the mountain, who was transfigured that day. It was Jesus, not the ground he walked on, who was revealed to be beautiful, unique, and holy.
Shining like the sun, Jesus was revealed to be the light of the world. Appearing with Moses and Elijah, Jesus was revealed to be continuing the tradition of the great prophets. Called “beloved” by the voice from heaven, Jesus was revealed to be the Son of God.
And through a simple comforting touch on the shoulders of some fearful disciples, our God was revealed as One who is big enough, powerful enough, loving enough, and merciful enough, to come among us in humblest of ways—as a baby, born in Bethlehem.
Because Jesus walked among us, all earth is holy ground.
Because Jesus had a body like ours, all bodies are holy ground.
Because Jesus had parents, and friends, and teachers, and neighbors, all relationships are holy ground.
Because Jesus ate with sinners and outcasts as well as disciples, all tables are holy ground.
Because Jesus knew pain, sorrow, and suffering as we do, not one moment of our lives is empty of his holy presence.
This revelation is especially important for us on this last Sunday of the season of Epiphany—the season of revelations. On Wednesday, we will gather as a community to begin the season of Lent. At noon or at 6 pm, we’ll be marked with ashes in remembrance of our mortality, and will pray for strength and courage for our personal and communal journeys of repentance and spiritual growth.
As always, when we begin the Lenten season and prepare to hear the story of Jesus’ own temptation and his journey to the cross and the tomb, we need to know that God is not only present with us on the mountaintop. The grace and mercy of God do not only shine in moments and places of beauty and transcendence, but are present with us in our struggles, in our doubt, in our mistakes, in our grief, in our darkest hours—and in Jesus’ darkest hour.
Dear sisters and brothers, our Lord Jesus is beautiful. He himself is our holy ground. And by his love, every moment of our lives, from the mountaintop to the valley, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, and from the cradle to the grave, is filled with his holy presence. Thanks be to God.