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Let Us Make Three Shelters

Exodus 3:19-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36

Bigfork Community United Methodist Church

March 3, 2019 –Transfiguration Sunday

Peter is the one who is ready to do what needs to be done. He sees Jesus speaking on the Mount of Transfiguration with Elijah and Moses and it is certain that we need to preserve the moment, put some structure around the event, and keep this moment in time frozen in time forever.

We read it is about eight days after something. Christ’s resurrection is referred to as the eighth day of Creation. Eight is an important number. What happened eight days ago?

Eight days ago, Jesus asked his disciples who people said he was. They said Elijah, John the Baptist or an ancient prophet.

So Jesus asks who they say he is and Peter replies, “The Messiah of God!” So Jesus tells them that he must suffer, die and be raised from the dead. That was eight days ago.

Now Jesus takes Peter, John and James up the mountain to pray. While Jesus prays his face begins to shine and he is enveloped in dazzling white. This is a jaw-dropping development. Peter says let us make three shelters.

We might chuckle at it. But we have the benefit of knowing the rest of the story. We are no less helpless to express our awe at Jesus’ appearance than he was.

We have always tried to set up a structure to preserve our story of the risen Christ. Without that effort on the part of many people we never knew, the story of Jesus would never have come down to us.

Peter is trying to do what the saints have done since the resurrection of Jesus. He knows he will be gone one day, but he also knows that what is happening before him is more important than he is and that the story must be told from generation to generation forever.

We call this church. It is an awkward contraption to illuminate and perpetuate a great source of understanding and hope. But it is not perfect. As civilization changes, as our understanding of the heavens and the earth unfolds, we are continually reshaping the way we translate the story of faith into our everyday lives.

Sometimes it takes a long time to make changes. Galileo was under virtual house arrest for the last three decades of his life for theorizing that the sun did not revolve around the earth, but vice versa. He would not be pardoned for 359 years, until Pope John Paul II did it in 1991.

Peter was the first to try to build a structure around Jesus, with one eye on Jesus and one eye on the world. But, we read, “Peter did not know what he was talking about.”

We have come a long way since then, but we still have a long way to go. We hear a part of the secret in our reading today. A voice is heard in the clouds around them, saying, “Listen to him.”

If we listen to him, we can hear him calling all people to him. He got into trouble in his own home town by making it clear he did not come only for his own people, but for all people, as Elijah had saved a widow from Sidon…Gentile country…and as Elisha healed Naaman, the commander of Assyrian troops occupying Israel.

If we watch him, we see him actually reaching out and touching an untouchable leper to make him clean. We see him healing a beggar’s withered hand of on the Sabbath.

If we listen to him, we hear him tell us to love our enemies, and care for the poor. He cures a Syrophoenician woman who has been an outcast for twelve years with hemorrhages, another untouchable whom he took into his arms and called her “daughter”.

Phyllis Tickle, in The Great Emergence points on that the church has a huge garage sale about every 500 years when our understanding of Jesus and our understanding of who we are and what we are gets out of sync.

Thomas Jefferson offers his flash of insight, based on deep and long reflection, on this point: “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and Constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.

“As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.

“We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

In Jesus’ day, he stood the church hierarchy on its head with his healing and teaching…with his concept of ministry and his resurrection. His teaching finally became the official religion of Rome.

500 years later Rome would stand in ruins and the victory of Christ on earth would be re-cast. In another 500 years, about 1000 AD, the church would go through the Great Schism and split into the Roman church and the Eastern Orthodox church over whether the Pope had to share his authority to decide church matters.

Our American Revolution was notice to the world that all people are created equal and kings should not have absolute authority.

In 1500 the printing press would revolutionize the world by making the printed word available in virtually every village, although the world literacy rate would still be only about 12 per cent as late as 1820.

Today, it is the internet that has changed the dissemination of information in a fundamental way. People gather their understanding of how the world is not by talking to their neighbor, but by watching television or surfing online.

When these things happen, the church has to reconstitute itself again and again, but always for the same purpose: to share the story of Jesus with a new country or a new generation or a new world.

The United Methodist Church came under considerable criticism when it began to ordain women…in 1956. Today, 60 years later they comprise about 30 per cent of United Methodist clergy worldwide.

One of the arguments cited against this bold step was that in one of the Letters of Paul, it says that women could not be permitted to speak in church. The Bible says at 1 Corinthians 14:34, “For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the Law says.”

Bob and Alita Phelps graduated from seminary together and Alita could have been one of those first women to be ordained. But instead, Bob was ordained and she took on the role of preacher’s wife. They were a “two-for- one” deal for every church they served.

Change comes quickly sometimes and it plods along slowly at other times. There is an ebb and flow to all things, and the way the church relates to the world is no exception.

Still, we want to make three shelters to contain the church in a space the size and shape of our understanding of God and Jesus.

It’s like the three men who were marooned on an island for five years. When they were rescued, the rescuers wanted to see how they had lived and they were taken to the shelter they had made to protect them from the elements.

But there was another hut not too far away and the person showing them around told them it was their church. As they approached it the rescuers saw another, smaller hut a little beyond it.

“What is that?” they asked. “Oh, that’s Harry’s church,” they were told. “We disagree on too many things.”

In the United States, the UMC ranks is the largest mainline Protestant denomination, the largest Protestant church after the Southern Baptist Convention, and the third largest Christian denomination. In 2014 it had 7 million members in the United States, and 4.4 million in Africa, Asia and Europe.

This past week there was a special session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in St. Louis where a vote was taken on whether to change the church’s historic position on human sexuality.

The traditional language was retained by a vote of 53 to 47 per cent. About 2/3 of the delegates from the United States voted to change the discipline in this regard, but 40 per cent of the delegates come from other countries and they voted by an even wider margin to retain the traditional language.

So we have a continuing discussion on this issue in the church, just as we have one ongoing outside the church. But as I have noted, differences of opinion are nothing new to religion, and all the church still has the same unifying leader at the head: Jesus Christ.

The vote of the General Conference has been referred to the United Methodist Judicial Council…our supreme court for church matters to determine whether the traditional plan is in accord with our denomination’s constitution. That decision is expected in late April.

In the meantime, and before this issue was debated in St. Louis, we have the same call to ministry. If we decide to fight among ourselves and abandon the local mission field, we have become our way.

All of this happens as we turn in an intentional way to ask ourselves as a local church how we can be united in ministry, how we can reach out to the widow and the orphan and the sojourner to make our communities stronger and more faithful to the call to love God and neighbor.

How this will all play out is unclear, but it has been playing out in General Conferences since at least the 1970, and we are still together, still one with Christ, one with each other and one in ministry to all the world.

Much has changed in the world since Christ walked the earth, but still he calls all who are weary and heavy laden, for his yoke is easy and his burden is light. At this local level…we have work to do and an exciting year to come together in a new vision, with new…and old… resources, and the same Lord and Savior who claimed you on the day you were baptized.

O Lord, what is it in the world that you want to do through us… through me…today? Amen.