Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white. such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
Two years ago, today, I woke up like every other Sunday and got ready for church. Though I was enriched with theological education Monday – Friday in seminary, I looked forward to spending time in worship with people who were not from school on Sundays. Duke Memorial UMC is a beautiful church located right on the corner of downtown Durham and serves the needs of a wide variety of people. The sanctuary is wider than it is long, with a balcony, and a raised area above the altar for the choir and the organ. The church prides itself on its ability to worship faithfully, and engage deeply in the community.
Two years ago, today, I woke up like every Sunday morning, but this one would be different. While my roommates got ready to attend their respective churches, my phone began to ring and my pastor’s name appeared on the phone. Now, many of you might not know this, but if you receive a phone call from me on Sunday morning, it usually means there’s an emergency. I nervously answered the phone and through her scratchy voice I learned that both pastors of Duke Memorial were sick, and neither one of them would be able to preach. I had a feeling that I knew were the conversation was headed and I quickly glanced over at my clock; worship would begin in one hour. She continually apologized for their sickness and then finally asked if I would be willing to preach in a very short amount of time. “Of course” I said with a chipper voice, knowing full and well that I had not the faintest idea regarding what I would preach about.
The next hour was a blur.
I obviously did not have the time to write out a manuscript, I was not able to consult numerous commentaries about the text, and I had not spent an appropriate amount of time in prayer over the passage. All I knew was that the passage was the same as today’s (Mark 9.2-9) and that it was Transfiguration Sunday.
Duke Memorial UMC
I barely made it in time for the service to began with a 3×5 index card in my pocket with three key points that I wanted to make. Upon arrival I searched for a bulletin to discover what else would be going on during the service and I quickly said a prayer before entering the sanctuary. My eyes were still closed when organ began and an acolyte walked up to me and asked, “Where’s the preacher?” To which I responded, “You’re looking at him.”
The next hour was also a blur.
I led us through the usual motions of worship after explaining the lack of two ordained pastors. We prayed together; we sang together; we read together; I preached; and before I knew it, the service came to a conclusion ten minutes earlier than usual.
While people departed from the sanctuary, I did as all pastors do and stood at the door to shake hands with everyone. Many made comments thanking me for my service and willingness to preach on such short notice, but most of the compliments came in the form of, “Hey thanks for getting us out early!”
However, there was one older woman waiting around at the back of the line for her turn to come forward. Another thing you might not know is that if someone waits a long time to speak after a service, they usually have a critique or a criticism that they don’t want to share in front of everyone else. I waited and waited until nearly everyone was gone when she finally stepped forward and grabbed my hand; “Son,” she said, “I’ve been coming to this church my whole life to worship the Lord and hear people preach. I want you to know that you said more in 10 minutes than many could say in 45. Thank you.” And with that she left the sanctuary.
Two years ago, today, I woke up and got tapped to preach a sermon at a moment’s notice. Now, of course, I am the pastor here at St. John’s and I have plenty of time each week to work on preparing for Sunday worship. I have the time to be in prayer over the words of scripture, I have the time to consult commentaries about what’s happening in the deeper sense of the text, I have the time to write out a full manuscript of everything I will say from this pulpit. But this week, I kept thinking about what happened two years ago on Transfiguration Sunday, and I wanted to do something similar…
Instead of combing through numerous books highlighting the ins and outs of Mark 9, instead of doing all the things I normally do to prepare a sermon, I began by reading one verse: “Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”” and then I felt propelled to do something radical, something that I have not done in a long time, something that I want to share with all of you right now:
I listened to Jesus.
I spend so much time talking about Jesus, that I don’t spend enough time listening to him. Now, I have had some remarkably beautiful and religious experiences in my life, but I have never literally heard the Lord speak like on the mountain during the Transfiguration. I felt called to the ministry but it did not come in the form of a voice booming down from on high saying, “Taylor you need to be a pastor!” So, this week, I put away all the books, and tried to listen to Jesus speaking in my life.
I heard Jesus during my interactions with other people:
One of my best friends in the world found out he has cancer this week. As a young pastor, husband, and father of two young boys, he is more often on the other side of the hospital bed praying for people in the midst of suffering. I immediately wanted to shout with my clenched fists in the sky, I wanted to know why this was happening, but when he wrote to me about his diagnosis I heard Jesus telling me that I need to keep the faith. I remembered that even pastors need prayers and that all of us are called to be faithful and loving people toward those who are suffering around us.
A few days ago I visited one of our long time church members who is nearing the end of her life. Upon arrival I learned, from one of her helpers, that she had tried to get herself ready for the visit, but discovered that she did not have enough energy to get out of bed. As I made my way into her bedroom, and knelt beside her bed, I saw her smile for the first time in a long time; “It’s not everyday that I invite a young man into my bedroom” she said with a laugh. We talked together about her struggles, we reflected on the many blessings from her life, and we prayed for God’s peace to reign abundantly in the days ahead. While kneeling beside her bed I heard Jesus telling me to be thankful for my blessings. I felt convicted by her faithfulness to not wallow in my own self-pity, and strive to live my life as fully as she has.
I heard Jesus during my reading of scripture.
This might come as a shock but I am ashamed at how rarely I read my bible. Sure, I read scripture every morning as a devotional practice; Sure, I read the bible every day in preparation for sermons on Sundays. But it has been a long time since I just picked up the good book and started reading for the simple pleasure of reading. More often than not my reading of scripture is based on a requirement or using the text as a resource. Even when I tell myself that I am reading for the right reasons I find myself writing down notes about using this bit in an epistle article or weekly devotional.
So, one day this week, I carved out some time and sat down with my bible. It took a while to rid myself of the vocational tendencies I have when reading scripture, but eventually the words and pages started to flow through my mind. I read about the great acts of God during the life of Moses, I flipped ahead to the story of Samson when he toppled the pillars and destroyed the Philistines, I soaked up some of the psalms and let their words become poetry for my soul, I walked the streets of Jerusalem with Jesus as he prepared to overturn the tables in the temples, I entered the strange new world of the bible and felt it come alive. Through reading the scriptures I heard Jesus telling me to that all people are part of God’s cosmic plan. From the patriarchs in Genesis, to the crowds in Mark, to the disciples at St. John’s, God can use anyone to bring about his will on earth.
I heard Jesus in the silence.
I am not a quiet person. I am as extroverted as can be. I usually have music playing in my office, or I am tapping my fingers away in some sort of percussive rhythm, or I am humming a hymn or song out loud. But this week I tried to be quiet and listen. I turned off the radio in the car, I let my turntable collect some dust, and I left my headphones at home. Silence is uncomfortable. Even a few moments of silence can drive us to fidget in our seats. Allow me to demonstrate: (1 minute of silence from the pulpit)
How did that feel? Yet, even though it makes some of us uncomfortable, silence can be beautiful. Turning off the noise this week allowed me to hear things that I normally miss: the sound of children laughing in the preschool, the crisp sound of pages turning in my bible, I even heard my heartbeat. What did you hear during our minute of silence? Maybe you heard the wind blowing against the roof of our church, perhaps you heard people breathing beside you in the pews, or maybe you heard heard the faint murmurings of your heart beating. During my time in silence this week I heard Jesus telling me that life is precious and beautiful. Only God could have imagined something like a heart to give us life, constantly thriving and pumping to bring existence to our bodies, a constant reminder of the fragility and beauty of what it means to be alive.
The disciples thought they knew everything they needed to know about Jesus. They believed they had him completely figured out. But when they made it to the top of the mountain God made it very clear that their assumptions and expectations were wrong; whenever we think we know what God is up to, its usually more about us than God. Its like looking for something at the bottom of a well, when all we really see is a faint reflection of ourselves. The Transfiguration shines brilliantly as a reminder that we are called to listen to Jesus. We need to hear him through the people in our lives, through our prayers, through our bibles, and through the silence.
Listen to Him through the words of Thanksgiving at the Lord’s table. Hear what God has done in the world for people like you and me. Listen to the Messiah that speaks to us through the bread and the cup. Hear the Lord speaking to you as you come to gather at the altar. Listen closely, and you just might hear God speak. Amen.