Sermon by Rev. Dr. John W. Mann | February 23, 2020
When I read stories in the bible that I can’t explain, then I think, “That’s a good story.”
Good stories don’t need explaining so much as telling. A good story tells us something, maybe because we imagine ourselves in it.
Jesus and three of his friends went walking in the hills. Along the way Jesus changed. It was as if he was filled with light from the inside out. Was it gradual or sudden? As the story goes it just was.
And it wasn’t just Jesus but the whole world seemed to change because there he was talking with Moses and Elijah. When did we notice that they joined the group? But there they were.
If that weren’t enough a cloud overshadowed them all and the voice God spoke out of the cloud. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Perhaps they were reminded of what Jesus told them about what happened when he was baptized. Maybe they thought, “This proves it!”
Peter wanted to capture the moment. He had said, “Let’s build a shrine to this moment!” That way we can institutionalize it. We can make a religion out of it. We can capture it and relive the moment any time we please.
But God had said, “Listen to him.”
When they made their way back home that day Jesus suggested that they not tell anyone about what had happened. Probably so as to let the story sit for a while. Listen to it; remember it; don’t try to wrap it into a neat package and someday it will speak for itself.
We look back on the stories of our lives and in that view we see what we might have missed the first time around. How we go through an experience that changes us, but we might not understand it fully at the time. How we see people with a new clarity. How some stories need time to grow on us before they are ready to be shared.
I try to be a good listener. We know that sense when someone is just not hearing what we are saying.
One time Lindsay had to spend a couple of days in the hospital and I was visiting her one afternoon. There was a woman in the next bed over who had just come through major surgery. The curtain was drawn, but we could not help but overhear the conversation that was unfolding.
We heard the woman next door say, “Oh hello pastor.” We looked at each as if to say, “This ought to be interesting.”
My father-in-law Perry Biddle wrote a manual for pastors on the art the pastoral visit. I don’t think the pastor visiting the next bed over had read it.
His first words were a cheery, “So, how are you?” As if any answer other than, “Great!” would fail the question. He tried to maintain a cheery demeanor, as if cheering up the patient was the task at hand. The volume level of his voice would lead one to believe that the patient was hard of hearing. A friend of the patient was also visiting and he engaged her in a conversation about church. She told him about all the wonderful things happening at her church and he told her about all the wonderful things happening at his church and then there was a general comment about all of us worshiping the same God. Then she left.
Now we were going to get down to the real pastoral care. The pastor continued with a series of questions. At first he asked about her children. They were young adults. Then he inquired how she was getting along since the divorce. He asked about her ex, how he was doing, and what he was up to these days, as if talking about the ex-husband the day after major surgery is what someone wants to do.
Then the conversation drifted to church attendance. He had noticed that she hadn’t been around much since the divorce. She said it was hard to get back into it and that she had tried a couple of churches but wasn’t really in the habit of going anywhere. He replied with a little scenario about how the first time you miss church you feel it, but then the next time is a little easier, then after a while you realize you just don’t go any more. Finally he prayed and left.
Later on, when there was conversation between her and Lindsay and she learned that Lindsay was a minister, she said something along the lines of, “I think it’s apparent why I don’t attend that church anymore.”
When Jesus took his followers up to the mountain top and they saw him shining from within, maybe what he was trying to show them was, “This is how God sees me. When I came up out of the water that day I was baptised and I heard the voice of God say, ‘you are my beloved child in whom I pleasure.’ this inner light I showed you is the light I recognized in myself. This is who I am.”
Listen to him when he tells you that you also are God’s beloved child.
Listen to him when he tells you that God is love.
Listen to his welcome and affirmation.
Listen and don’t worry about thinking you have to say anything in response; maybe other than, “I hear you.”
In January of the year 2000 when I lived in St. Louis Park there was a big news story about a 14 year old girl in south Minneapolis who had a baby and then put her newborn infant in a garbage can and left her to die in subzero temperatures. It was one of those stories that inflamed people’s passions.
Like a lot of stories in our world, there was more to this one that what the newspapers and television news stations were willing to report. The girl who had the baby lived with her brother, her mother her mother’s partner.
She did not realize she was pregnant. She thought she was just putting on weight. One night in the middle of the night she began having terrible pains. She had no idea what was happening. She went into the bathroom and after some agonizing moments she gave birth to a baby girl. Talk about shock. She picked up the baby and the baby slipped out of her hands hit her head on the edge of the bathtub. Added to girl’s shock was her horror in believing that she had just accidentally killed this newborn infant.
What’s a fourteen year old girl to do in such a circumstance? She tried to clean up the mess. She wrapped up the baby in the towels she used to clean up with and took everything outside and put it in the garbage can. Maybe it would all just go away.
The girl’s younger brother had woken up and suspected something wasn’t right. He saw his sister put something in the garbage can outside and he woke up their mother and told her. The mother went out and found the bundle, in which the baby had revived and was crying. She called emergency services and that brought the story to light.
The reactions were fairly predictable.
People said, “Teenagers! What can you expect?”
People said that girl should go to prison for the rest of her life.
People said, “This is why we should bring back the death penalty.”
People said it’s the end of the world as we know it.
After the story broke, there were three neighbors who went to the other houses on that block and put a note through their letter boxes that said, “You have heard about the family on our street who had a baby. If you would like to contribute either groceries or money to help them, we’ll be around tonight to collect.”
When the three went around collecting, they gathered up many bags of groceries and over five hundred dollars in donations. People said, “We don’t want this story to be defined by what we read in the papers or see on the television news.”
The baby survived and was placed in foster care. The fourteen year old mother had to go to court. But when the whole story came out, she was not charged with a crime. The man by whom she became pregnant was much older than she and he was subsequently charged with rape. Eventually the young mother and her baby Alexis were reunited.
The part about the neighbors rising to the occasion and reaching out to that family was never reported in the news. The part about the young mother taking parenting classes and sex education was never reported in the news. The part about people trying to make something good out of a bad situation, of not jumping to conclusions and not labeling people was never reported in the news. The part about lives changed, redeemed and transformed was never told in the news.
Ultimately the real story never came to light. But those people along the street knew it, because they witnessed it firsthand. They were part of it. I heard about it because I am well acquainted with one of those three neighbors.
When Jesus took his followers up to the mountain top and they saw him shining from within, maybe what he was trying to show them was, “This is how God sees me. When I came up out of the water that day I was baptized and I heard the voice of God say, ‘you are my beloved child in whom I pleasure.’ this inner light I showed you is the light I recognized in myself. This is who I am.”
Sometimes the people we see in a new light are ourselves – when we act in ways that enlarge the realms of love and justice; when we share another’s pain or offer comfort to a friend in need; when we try to overcome differences with understanding; when we look for the good in other people and in ourselves; when we fight despair and side with hope; this is the light that Jesus revealed to his friends. This is who you are. Amen.