Bishop Will Willimon tells a story about a friend of his who received a grant that enabled him to take a few months of Sabbatical for a time of personal study and reflection. For his time away from his church responsibilities, this friend decided to travel around and listen to other preachers. For a dozen Sundays he traveled from church-to-church and heard others preach. When Willimon saw his friend at the end of his Sabbatical he asked, “In listening to so many sermons from others, what did you learn?” To which his friend replied, “I learned that if anyone hears anything from a sermon, it’s a miracle.” Sort of like the comment a parishioner shared with the pastor following worship one Sunday, “Pastor, every Sunday your sermon is always better than next Sunday’s sermon.”
“If anyone hears anything from a sermon, it’s a miracle.” Willimon suggests there is another way to hear what his friend was saying about the miracle of hearing anything from a sermon. In this analysis of the miraculous, a miracle is not defined as God’s voice being heard in spite of a sermon being preached. Instead, miraculous is defined as the eternal presence of the eternal God being experienced through the mortal words of a mortal preacher. Every preacher prays that the miracle of God’s eternal voice will be heard through his or her sermon. The reason every preacher prays for this miracle is because every preacher knows that the miracle of encountering God through a sermon begins with God and ends with God.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday – the last Sunday following Epiphany when the light of the Star of the East guided the magi to pay homage to Jesus who had been born as king of the Jews and the Sunday preceding Ash Wednesday when the shadow of the cross foreshadows the Christian journey of Lent.
The assigned lectionary text for Transfiguration Sunday is about the miracle of the eternal God’s presence when Jesus glowed as bright as the sun as he prepared himself for the journey that was going to take him to the darkness of the cross.
Transfiguration Sunday is the day when:
- the miracle of God’s voice is heard as the veil between mortal life and eternal life is pulled aside and Jesus talks with Moses and Elijah.
- Peter, James, and John hear God saying that Jesus “is my Son in whom I delight. Listen to him!”
Did you notice what Peter, James, and John did when they heard the miraculous voice of God telling them to listen to Jesus? They stopped talking. There was no talk about the miracle of seeing Jesus with Moses and Elijah. There was no talk about building three tabernacles so they could remain on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus. There was only silence as they heard the miraculous voice of God.
Over the course of serving for 47 years as an ordained minister, I have learned to appreciate the importance of silence when I am listening for the miraculous voice of God. I have found that when I am standing beside people in life’s encounters when God’s presence is praised or times of grieving when God’s presence is questioned, it is best to speak only when necessary when you are listening for the miracle of God’s voice. Perhaps this is why Jesus told Peter, James, and John to tell no one about what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. Perhaps Jesus wanted them to hear his voice after the miracle of the resurrection when he spoke as God’s crucified and risen Son. Perhaps Jesus told them to be silent until after he had torn the veil between mortal life and eternal life in two and they had heard his voice as God’s crucified and risen Son.
American Biblical scholar Marcus Borg offers two metaphors which he believes are central to hearing the voice of Jesus: Open hearts and Thin places. Together, they express a transformational vision of the Christian life. The word “heart,” often used to refer to the whole self, appears well over a thousand times in the Bible.
“Thin Places” is a term we inherit from the tradition of Celtic Christianity, a form of spirituality that flourished in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and northern England beginning in the 5th century. Thin Places involves a particular way of thinking about God, as the encompassing Spirit in which everything is and affirms that there are minimally two layers or dimensions of reality—the visible world of our ordinary experience and that of God, the sacred, Spirit.
“Thin places” are places where these two levels of reality meet or intersect; places where the boundary becomes very soft, permeable; places where the veil momentarily lifts, and we behold God and experience the one who is both all around and within us. A thin place is any place where our hearts are opened because the sacred becomes present to us in a way we didn’t expect. It is a means of grace: nature and the wilderness, music, art, poetry, literature, and dance—experiences where the boundary between one’s self and the world momentarily disappear.
What we do here in this sacred space offers the possibility of encountering a thin place where our hearts are opened. Thin places are all like cracked doors between this world and some other brighter place where God is a palpable presence and each time that veil becomes sheer enough so that we are able to step through it and our hearts are opened, even if only a little bit at a time.
Novelist Mary Gordon tells this story about the miracle of hearing God’s voice as we listen to Jesus on this Transfiguration Sunday.
I wandered once by chance into a Catholic church in San Francisco where the Mass was being said half in Chinese, and half in English. The priest, who was Chinese, preached on the Transfiguration. “We don’t know whether this really happened,” he said, “but if it did, it was one of those moments where the veil between the invisible and the visible is torn away.”
He spoke of a mentally challenged man with whom he worked. When he asked the man if he prayed, the man said he did, and when he prayed, what he meant was that he listened. The priest asked what he heard. The man said, “I hear: ‘You are my beloved.’” The priest told the congregation, “This is what we should always be hearing.
On this Transfiguration Sunday, may we hear the miraculous voice of God calling us as we listen to Jesus.
Listening to Jesus
by Pastor Marc Brown
February 11, 2024
Accompanying Scriptures: Mark 9:2-9
Fort Hill United Methodist Church
Order of Worship for February 11, 2024
Scripture Lesson Mark 9:2-9
The Good News “Listening to Jesus”
Music “Let Your Light” by J. Dishman
Closing Music “Jesus, Priceless Treasure” by Charity Putnam