To Believe

Last Sunday after the Epiphany
February 19, 2023
Matthew 17:1-9

“Six days later, 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…suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matthew 17:1-3, 5).

Now, doesn’t this just all seem too good to be true? Jesus’ face starts shinning, his clothes become white. Two guys who’ve been dead for hundreds of years suddenly appear, and there’s a voice from heaven telling us to listen to him. And isn’t it awfully convenient, that this story took place in private, that it’s only Peter, James, and John to see it all. I’m no conspiracy theorist, but couldn’t this come across as, well, magical?

And stepping back, a lot of Christianity sounds like that. A god we have never seen created heaven and earth. That god had a son, born of a virgin. That son performed miracles and did lots of great stuff. Then he died, and somehow came back to life. And his disciples saw him raised from the dead, but then he ascended into heaven so we can’t see him anymore. Years after that, some other people wrote letters and books about that guy who now lives in heaven. And so we come to church and pray and read those stories and base our lives off them. I mean, a skeptic could easily say, and they do, that it’s all made up. Or at least, that it’s an exaggerated fairy tale of something that was probably a lot less fantastical. You all know people who think that.

Charles Taylor, who is a modern philosopher, puts it this way. He notes that a few hundred years ago, it would have been been almost impossible not to believe in God. But now, today, it seems fantasy to believe in God. Say, five hundred years ago, every bit of the human experience was imbued with a sense of God – politics, community life, eating, drinking, marrying, giving birth, dying – everything was an encounter with God. But today, well, you could go your whole life without giving a thought about this God, or any god for that matter, and do just fine. How did we get from Point A to Point B?

Of course, some might say that we know more science now, so we don’t need God to understand the world around us. But, I think that ancient people were much more in tune with nature than we are. Or maybe because of technology and medicine, we don’t need God anymore. We have X-ray machines and laparoscopic surgery and antibiotics. We don’t need a god to heal us. But even with all our gizmos and pills, people still get sick and die. Or it could be that, in western cultures, governments, institutions, and people have just moved on from God. But that doesn’t explain how the United States and Europe, both western cultures, have tremendously different attitudes toward religion. What has happened?

And I’m not taking about shifting ideas within religion. Like how hell has become passé, or if we should play organs or guitars in church. What I mean is, how is that believing in God seems so optional now, when before, it seemed so unimaginable? At some point in our history, when you heard about this man Jesus, shining like an angel, talking to Moses and Elijah, with a voice from a cloud, it would have made all the sense in the world. Whereas today, even we in the Church, have to wrap our minds around something seemingly so bizarre, so unnatural.

And that, I think, is the key to what’s going on. It’s not simply technology, or science, or culture. It’s that we have decided what is “natural” and what is “supernatural.” There was no going to church or deciding to be religious; there was no natural and supernatural, there was just life, the whole human experience. But now, we sort out what belongs to God and what doesn’t. We’ve dissected our lives between natural and supernatural. And we’ve decided that things like the Transfiguration are supernatural, and everything else we can explain is natural.

So when I’m faced with what to make of such a seemingly fantastic story like the Transfiguration, first I take a generous dose of humility. The universe has been around for billions of years. We have lived but a few decades. Except for a small handful of people who walked on the Moon, the entire human existence has been relegated to this little blue marble called planet Earth.

And yet we think we have all this wisdom? And yet we think that we can know the mysteries of the cosmos, of what is possible and what is impossible? We think that we can say what is a fairy tale, what is magical, what is religious, and what is true? I think that our pride is getting in our own way.

Mostly, we seem to have lost our imaginations. If we cannot think it through exactly as we would have it, then it must not be true. This is the height of human arrogance. So today, I’m asking you to use your God-given imaginations again. To see this beautiful and ugly, this chaotic and majestic, this cruel and lovely world as it is, God’s own creation. And to not so readily divide natural from supernatural, for who are we to make that call? I look in the mirror, and I see a man who has said some really dumb stuff; I see a man who misses emails and doesn’t always return phone calls; I see a man who forgets my friends’ birthdays; I see a man who has trouble parallel parking; I see a man who is sick and broken. Far be from it from me to say that God couldn’t create the world, or heal the sick, or raise someone from the dead, or transfigure into heavenly glory. For I am but dust, and to dust I shall return.

So do I believe these stories, like Jesus and his transfiguration on that mountain? Yes, I do. And the same goes for the healing and the miraculous abundance of food and the resurrection from the dead. Does it make sense? Not all the time; but then again, more often than not, I don’t make sense to me. It’s not even a choice, really, to believe if God exists or not. No, God just is. God exists whether we believe that or not. That’s not up to us. The only thing that is up to us is how to live with that knowledge.

Now, don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that you have to blindly believe everything in the Bible, or that everything in the Bible makes sense. I’m not saying that if you have questions or doubts then you’re wrong. What I am saying that is that questions, and doubt, and faith, and belief are all part of the human package; it’s all part of the human life with God.

And so my mind turns to what this means for today. If this is all true – that God created and loved and sustains the world we live in – how is that terrible things can happen like they did in Turkey and Syria? The tragedy and horror and evil is beyond words. It is not anything that I can comprehend. And that’s where I want it to stay. If I could comprehend it, if I could explain it, then that would make it too comfortable, too familiar. And I would be putting myself in the place of God. So what do I do instead? I pray. I send money. I do what little I can in my life now so that when another disaster strikes, I can respond with the love and grace that God has given me. And I pray that, when disaster strikes me, someone else would return the grace. 

Finally, I realize that this sermon lands somewhere between scriptural commentary, philosophical rambling, and existential angst. Be that as it may. Most of all, I hope that you have been up to the mountain with me, and that you have seen how it is that God loves you. No, it doesn’t sound rational; yes, it runs counter to everything we modern, enlightened people should think. But, as for me, I believe it to be true. For I have known the Son, the beloved, and I will listen to him. 

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