February 15, 2015
Transfiguration Sunday Year B
Let us pray: O God, may the words of my mouth and the thoughts and actions they inspire be faithful to you and faithful to your will for us, your people. Amen,
Eternal, unchanging, We sing to your praise – that’s the opening phrase of a hymn that we might have sung at the beginning of today’s worship service. Our God’s a Fortress strong and sure – is another one – echoing the words of the great reformer Martin Luther.
One of the themes of the scriptural record, and one that seems to have gained even more traction in the faith record, is that God does not change.
We can imagine many reasons for this theological premise.
It is reassuring to have something of stability in our lives, especially in a world which is changing faster than we can keep up with.
It is discombobulating to imagine a divine presence which cannot be pinned down, which can shift with the wind, which can be conformed to the hopes and desires of the believing heart and mind.
The premise of a God who does not change is important at a high level for all the other reasons that we resist change. In other words, if we don’t like change for some important reason (to us, at least) then it would be even more important to us that God would also not change.
What’s wrong with change? There are probably as many reasons and more to resist it as there are people here today. Change is upsetting, unreliable, and distressing. Change is distracting, time wasting and depressing.
And not only does it seem important to ascribe God with the characteristic of being unchanging, it appears equally important for the church – the body of God’s people – at least the body that claims Jesus and Jesus’ vision of what it means to be a God follower – to be equally unchanging.
There is not much in this world which appears to be as small “c” conservative as the church. We preoccupy ourselves with the angst of trying to figure out how to survive, to keep the faith, to keep the membership high by attracting new followers by incorporating them into the community as it is, without bringing too much change with them.
Yes, there are some pretty strong arguments against change – arguments which call on the importance of tradition, which cite the value of an unchanging, steadfast faith, which claim an unchanging God as a way to keep our vision forward looking, unwavering and single-minded.
And yet, one of the strongest arguments that s made for the continued existence of the church, the Christian community, is the possibility of transformation. That is the hope and the promise that we offer to those who would come to be among us.
Does that mean transformation from one way of life into a new way of life that is actually a life which feeds on tradition, old practices, ancient language. Is the transformation offered by the church community, by the community of God followers, a transformation into something old, rather than something new?
For a modern people, experiencing change at an unprecedented rate, there might actually be an attraction to something old, something that draws on ancient wisdom, something that speaks a language and involves movement that is built on generations, that is founded on centuries, not moments of practice.
Perhaps the historians and archivists among us are leaping up with joy to think that we might give a bit more respect to tradition, that we might hold in higher esteem the importance of how our ancestors did things.
If you are getting the idea that this is not an either-or, that the impetus toward change, and the attraction to maintain old and ancient, well-tried and true ways of doing things is not a easy choice, then you are correct.
There is something to be said for traditions and traditional knowledge, for traditional practices, and traditional understandings. And so the small “c” conservative nature of the church is not only important but crucial.
But we cannot be a community based on transformation without the recognition that change is also important and crucial.
There church itself is based on change. Some two thousand years ago, a profound change occurred and a new community began. It took some of the old faith practices with it, but it was based on something new – a new vision of what God wanted for the people, a new understanding of a God who was among us, as well as above us, a God who called us forward, who called us to new ways of seeing, new ways of being together, new ways of understanding each other.
I can remember this very debate from my seminary days. My good friend at the time was my classmate Julia. She was a bright and thoughtful person, maddeningly so – for she would ask questions that evoked strong reactions – probably because I was trying to convince myself that she was wrong and I was right, even though I knew that she was shedding new light on something I had always just assumed, and that even if she wasn’t completely right, I could not rely on my old assumptions, that the questions she asked had to be answered even if I ultimately ended up with the same view that I had before.
I can still picture us, I don’t remember whether we had just come out of the same classroom, or whether we had met in the hall, but we were heading towards morning chapel. Her question this day was the one of whether God changed or not. Her answer was yes. Of course God changed. Her analysis of the way the church had evolved, and the way it needed to evolve, were evidence enough for her that God changed (and I recognize that I am probably simplifying and mis-stating her argument) – after all it was more than twenty-five years ago – so when you hear this, just remember that the discussion had a profound effect on me, whether or not I am remembering the conversation correctly, it was enough to stay with me all these years, even if the details of the arguments have been lost. So, back to the discussion. I was not as convinced.
It’s the kind of argument that seems to occur with alarming frequency in the hallowed halls of academia, and even more so, in the hallowed halls of theological academia. My argument, which I argued with a lot more sureness than I would today, was that just because change was all around, did not mean that God wasn’t unchanging. After all. I am sure I argued, we are on a search to discover the true nature of God, but we are humans, prone to make mistakes, prone to false assumptions and wrong paths. Just because we don’t follow a straight path and just because we make statements about who and what God is, statements that ultimately prove to be wrong headed or logically incorrect, doesn’t mean that God has changed, it only means that we have not perfected the search. Which in itself is reassuring, because we means there is still more to learn, there is still more to study, the quest is not over. I would argue today, that despite all we’ve learned, the goal of discerning who and what God is, is not really any closer. The more we learn, the more we discover that we need to learn.
And so the answer I am most comfortable with is this: I don’t know if God is unchanging or not. We are on a search to discover who and what God is – and we learn more about God as we go – in every moment, in every place. Sometimes new learnings will contradict old ones – but that could easily be about us, and not about God, But it could just as easily be evidence that God changes too.
Today we heard about transfiguration – which if you look the word up in various sources, will bring forward the word transformation – which in turn suggests change.
John the baptiser, preached change. Jesus showed a way of change – a way of understanding God from a new perspective, a more intimate perspective, a more grounded perspective, a more shocking and surprising perspective, a perspective that saw God in places where people would never have looked for God before. In the lives of people who would previously have been assumed to be separated from God.
Did God change in all of this? Maybe. The perception, the understanding, the place of God in the lives of people around Jesus certainly changed, and the ways that Jesus talked about, and related with God, have had lasting effect on all the generations of Christians who followed. They still have that effect. Transformation still happens. The way of Jesus still has power to change lives.
That’s why we are here – even if that translates into a desire at some levels to keep what we have going, to root ourselves in the ancient practice, to gather in ways that are reminiscent of the very beginnings of the community of God’s followers.
I want to end with a little coming soon….
In the cinema, the coming soons, the oxymoronically named trailers (even though they come first!) are shown before the feature presentation, but today I am giving them what I hope was the feature presentation….
This is the last Sunday before Lent. In this year of the three year lectionary – Year B – in case anybody wants or needs to know – the readings in the season of Lent tell the story of a series of covenants. I’m not going to spoil it for you by telling what those stories of covenant are, but I am going to suggest that those covenants, and yes, there are more than one of them – at least in the discussion that three of us had last week – bring forward the question about change – and whether God changes or just our understanding of God that changes. Stay tuned…as usual, the journey beckons…. Amen.