A colleague asked for advice recently about Candidating Sermons.  In the United Church of Christ, we reach a point in our Search and Call process where a ministerial candidate leads a worship service for his or her prospective church.  It’s a chance for the congregation to experience worship with you and hear you preach, a central moment in worship services for most Mainline Protestants.  From my experience (limited though it may be!), you want the congregation to see you as their pastor and yet this is the first time most of them are worshiping with you.  You want to introduce yourself and share what you’re about, but you want it to feel like a “normal” Sunday simultaneously.

To top it all off, you are excused after worship for the congregation to have the opportunity to speak to the Search Committee (who has had the most contact with you thus far.)  The congregation hears a presentation about their process, can ask some questions, and then votes on whether or not to extend a call to you to serve as their pastor.  It’s an important experience, but it’s intense and nerve-wracking both for the minister and the Search Committee.

I went back to read my Candidating Sermon I preached for my current church on March 6, 2011.  Truthfully, 2013 was not a fantastic year for me.  It’s helpful to gaze into 2014 with hope that transfigurations have happened, are happening, and are on the horizon for me and for those I love.  Here’s to light breaking forth in 2014!  Here’s to being open to God and to the world around us!  Here’s to transformation!

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“The Remover of Obstacles” Pilgrim Church Candidating Sermon
March 6, 2011 (Matthew 17:1-9 and Exodus 24:12-18)

 Today is Transfiguration Sunday.  We remember the story of Moses on the mountain with God for 40 days and 40 nights receiving instructions and the Commandments.  And we remember Jesus on another mountain being transformed before the eyes of his companions into a figure of divine light.  For modern Mainline Protestants this may be a strange Sunday, just another miracle story to explain away because it makes us uncomfortable.  Because how can we even wrap our heads around Jesus’ face shining like the sun, his clothes becoming dazzling white, and the voice of God booming out of a cloud?

Yet, the Transfiguration is actually a hopeful Sunday.  It’s celebrated with an all-night vigil in the Eastern Orthodox tradition and is one of their 12 Great Feasts.  Because for Eastern Christians, Christ on the mountain represents deified humanity.  The Transfiguration of Jesus Christ cements the belief that humans were created in the divine image of God and are part of God’s good creation.  Humans are most human when we are united with God—and that unification is shown outwardly when Jesus is bathed in heavenly light on top of Mt. Tabor.  The Transfiguration is one of the best Biblical stories to hold up the inherent goodness and worth of humanity—which is actually a belief that many Christians hold.

And let’s face it; the imagery in the Transfiguration is remarkable when you think about it.  Light as a literary metaphor can often mean knowledge, prosperity, or a sphere of the Divine.  We hear Biblical phrases like, “The Lord is my light and my salvation” or we hear Jesus declaring himself, “I am the light of the world.”  So the Transfiguration as literature alone is full of imagery that points to the holiness of humanity, to the divine light of God found within all of us—maybe not such troublesome concepts after all.[1]

But perhaps we have trouble seeing the Transfiguration in modern terms because it still seems like an isolated incident on a lonely mountain thousands of years ago.  And perhaps the Transfiguration just seems so far-fetched that we can’t really take it seriously these days.  Well I have my own mountaintop moment to tell . . .

A few months ago, I went to Karnataka, India to experience the work that my mentor from Wellesley, Pash Obeng, has made the center of his life.  While there, I will admit that I was incredibly distracted.  On day 4 of my trip, Pash asked, “My friend, what’s on your heart?”  And I found myself start to cry and incoherently stammer something about transitions and my uncertain future and I’m an unemployed loser living at home with my parents….  He listened and advised that I try to be fully present in the here and now.  The problems would certainly be there to come back to, but maybe I would come home with a different perspective and new vigor for life’s challenges.

The next day we traveled to Hampi to see the ruins of one of India’s Empires and a famous Hindu Temple.  I found myself walking around this temple in my bare feet (you have to take your shoes off inside temples.)  And I was just feeling the warmth of the stones underneath me, and looking around at the monkeys wreaking havoc as they ran around, and the men and women praying to statues of Hindu gods and goddesses, and the incense sticks left burning at altars, and so many new religious expressions.

And then I saw him.  At first, I had to remind myself where I was because it was so disconcerting, but I saw a huge male Indian elephant in a vestibule of sorts happily munching on some hay.  Pramod, our friend and driver, asked if I would like to give an offering to the elephant.  So he and I walked up to this huge elephant all painted with traditional Hindu symbols on his head and ears and we fed him bananas and even got to pet his trunk.  Then Pramod said, “Okay, now the elephant will bless you.”

I was confused at first and the elephant’s handler assumed my hesitation meant that I was scared and related, “Elephant is nice elephant, trained elephant, not scary.”  Part of the reason the elephant handler reassured me of this elephant’s apparent kindness was because I was soon to witness children screaming and writhing around in their parents’ arms when the parents attempted to have the elephant bless their babies.  But I was not about to make a scene at this Hindu temple.  I figured that if the elephant attacked me and I survived, well it would be a hilarious story to tell one day anyway.

So Pramod put 10 rupees in my hand, only a quarter in our country, and I extended the money out to the elephant as instructed.  The elephant took the bill out of my outstretched hand with his trunk, flipped it behind him to the trainer, and gently laid his trunk on my head to bless me.  He kept his trunk on my head for a few seconds and then he lifted his trunk away from me and seemed to study me as intensely as I was studying him.  Pramod then bowed to this mighty symbol of the Hindu god Ganesh and we went on our way.

The rest of the day I found myself absolutely elated.  I was just so happy and seemed to be emanating joy from within.  My burdens had somehow lightened.  I kept saying to Pash, “I got blessed by an elephant today, how cool is that?”  I even kind-of wanted to add it to my resume, it was that amazing.

So here’s the thing, I think that the Transfiguration is not just about these one-time miracles on Mt. Sinai in the case of Moses or Mt. Tabor in the case of Jesus.  I truly believe that we all can and sometimes do have moments of transformation in our lives.  Our mountaintop moments can often be difficult to share with each other and sometimes seem beyond language itself.  But we can all have experiences where the glory of God is revealed or we somehow come back into the inner peace of our best selves.  The Transfiguration is not just about the divinity of Jesus or the holiness of Moses, it is about the inherent goodness of their respective humanity’s.

Theologian Scot McKnight argues that, “The Transfiguration is one of those moments when a full disclosure of life’s mystery bursts open, brushes up against us, and reminds us that ‘all is elsewhere’ . . . What we see in Jesus’ transfiguration is not so much his deity, but the glorification of his humanity—what all humans really and potentially are.”[2]  We all have the potential for transformation and we are those dazzling figures in light basking in the presence of God right now.

Both Moses and Jesus go up their respective mountains not just to experience God but to get centered again in their glorious humanity.  They weren’t just religious experiences from without but also ended up being moments of renewal and reawakening from within.  And in order to have these moments of renewal, both Moses and Jesus had to prepare themselves and those around them for what was to come.

When Moses leaves to trek up Mt. Sinai with Joshua he literally sets his affairs in order.  He knows that he’ll be gone for awhile, so Moses says to the elders, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.”[3]  Moses is telling the leaders that he and Joshua are going away for awhile and that they need to fend for themselves in the meantime.  He’s preparing himself for this journey and goes up with only Joshua to eventually come face-to-face with God in the cloud alone.  When he eventually comes back down, his face glows with a divine light.

In the case of Jesus, he goes up the mountain with just three of his disciples—Peter, James, and John.  And fittingly, when the disciples witness all of this glory with Elijah, representing the Prophets, and Moses, representing the Law, and then Jesus glorified in divine light—well, they basically pass out in fear.  Jesus has to wake them up by saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”[4]  By the time the disciples come to, Jesus is again there on the mountain by himself reassuring them to not be afraid of all that they saw.

In both stories, Moses and Jesus go up to their respective mountains to commune with God and to be at peace with themselves and the heavy burdens they often carried.  Even Moses and Jesus had to have moments of calm in the storms of their lives.  Even Moses and Jesus had to have moments where they could revel in the delight of God’s presence and bask in the light of their divine humanity.  But in order to have these miraculous moments, they had to get their hearts and minds prepared for what was to come.

In my moment of Transfiguration, I know that the elephant blessing me wouldn’t have been as joyful had I not had my conversation with Pash first.  I had to admit out loud both to Pash and to myself that I was distracted, that I was carrying some burdens with me, and that I needed to find a way to let them go while I was in India.  I wanted to be aware of all the amazing sites and people I would witness.  I needed to leave some things behind in order to walk up my own mountain and just sit there in the presence of God and appreciate all the experiences we can have as human beings.

And here’s the funny thing—Pash looked at me the next day after that elephant blessed me and commented that my face seemed to be glowing.  I attributed this glow to being a bit sunburnt, applying a ton of sunscreen and mosquito repellent, and just being hot and sweaty in India in general.  But he laughed and said, “No, no, no, you look like Moses when he came down the mountain.”

We both got a good laugh at that one, but I suppose the elephant somehow blessed me back into myself.  This apparent outer glow was all because I felt joyful from the inside out.  What I found especially fitting on top of everything is that Ganesh, the Hindu god often depicted with an elephant’s head, is known as the Remover of Obstacles and the Lord of Beginnings.

Transfigurations are about beginnings.  We probably shouldn’t think about the Transfiguration as only one isolated incident in the life of Jesus long ago and even before that as a couple of times that Moses came down Mt. Sinai after communing with God only to glow before the eyes of his people.  No.

Transfigurations happen in our lives today when we open ourselves up to God and the world around us.  Transfigurations happen when we set our affairs in order as much as we possibly can and even leave some of our burdens behind to walk up our own mountains.  Transfigurations happen when we can stop what we’re doing sometimes and sit in the Divine presence, renewed and ready to climb back down the mountain to face the challenges of life again.

And if we try, just try; to see ourselves the way that God sees humanity, maybe we’ll realize that we are dazzling and awe-inspiring.  In the eyes of our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer, it seems that we are glowing and emanating divine light every minute of the day.  We look like Jesus on top of the mountain, with faces shining like the sun.  For we are sons and daughters of God, with whom God is well pleased.  Thanks be to God, Amen.

[1] James Rowe Adams, “Light” in The Essential Reference Book for Biblical Metaphors: From Literal to Literary, 178-180.
[2] Scot McKnight, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others, 259-260 and 261.
[3] Exodus 24:14, NRSV.
[4] Matthew 17:7.