Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"What do we say?"

Message preached February 6, 2005
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Matthew 17:1-9

Order of Worship

            As you know, last month a group of us visited our sister church in the Dominican Republic, which is located in San Juan de la Maguana (not "Managua," as I mistakenly put it before). By the way, this is also the hometown of Sammy Sosa, soon to be a Baltimore Oriole. The resident sports expert in my family, Mitchell, clarified this detail when I returned, telling me that Sammy actually grew up in a small town "near" San Juan. What do I know?

            Anyway, on the evening of our first day with our sister church friends, at the end of the worship service, we were paired up with the families in whose homes we would stay for a week. It was my privilege to get to know Frank and Lucinda, and their three children, FranLuis, LuziDania, and little Anna. They were most gracious as hosts, LuziDania giving up her bedroom for me. The accommodations were much better than I expected, in a fairly modern 3-bedroom apartment. The major barrier we encountered as we got to know each other was language. I knew just a little Spanish. Their English was limited to what the two oldest children had picked up thus far in school, which wasnít much.

            What do we say to one another without a common language? Important things are happening, but how do you talk about it? The Spanish phrase book I purchased for this trip was written for tourists, full of all sorts of helpful comments like - "please send a porter to my room," "give me a table for two near the window," and "how much does this cost?" (a loaded question in a barter-based economy!) It wasnít much help for small-talk with my host family. Neither was my handy-dandy English-Spanish dictionary. It was very frustrating at times, but we managed. I have a new sense of appreciation for those who visit here without much English under their belt.

            What do we say? The disciple Peter had that problem when he, James, and John went with Jesus up that mountain long ago. Important things happened there, but how do you talk about it? "Transfiguration Sunday," we call this day in the church year, remembering this event in the gospel story as we have received it. On that mountain, Jesus was "transfigured" before their eyes. At least thatís how our English versions translate it. The word in Greek is "metemorphethe," from which we derive the word "metamorphosis." There was a "change of physical form," a "striking alteration in appearance," some kind of transformation which happened. But how on earth do you talk about what you see?

            What weíve received in the gospel story is a feeble attempt to describe this event, Jesusí face shining like the sun, his clothes becoming dazzling white. And there with him appeared Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the great prophet. Itís one thing to struggle with words to describe something like this. Itís something far more difficult to find the appropriate words to give meaning to it. What do we say? Peter fumbled with a response. "Lord, itís good that we are here with you." Duh! "Shall we busy ourselves with making booths for you and your friends?"

            Peter called those with Jesus by name, or so it says, but how he knew they were Moses and Elijah is beyond me. They didnít have pictures in Bibles back then. Howíd he know who they were? Lucky guess? What he said, though, was basically a bunch of gibberish. His spiritual phrase book, if you will, apparently didnít have anything in it to cover an experience like this. "I wish to make an appointment with Mr. Gonzalez," "where is the railroad station?," "I would like to speak to the manager." Nonsense!

            A cloud descended while he was stumbling over his words. It was just as well, because Peter didnít have the foggiest idea of what he was saying. From the cloud came a voice. "This is my Son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" Okay.... Hadnít they been listening before? What did this mean? All that those three disciples could do was simply to fall flat on their faces in fear. When they finally were brave enough to look up, it was just Jesus there with them. No longer "transfigured." No Moses. No Elijah. Just Jesus. Walking back down the mountain, he instructed them to tell no one about what happened "until after the Son of Man had been raised from the dead." That command probably made as much sense to them at the time as everything else. Who is this "Son of Man?" What does this "raised from the dead" mean? Their spiritual dictionary was useless at that moment.

            At the end of our trip to the Dominican Republic, Irv Heishman - my friend who is our denominationís coordinator there along with his wife, Nancy - sat us down to debrief us. It would take time, he said, for us to reflect on our experience - what it all meant. He was right. Just like it right for Jesus to have told Peter, James, and John as they descended the mountain long ago to hold off from speaking of what they had just experienced. Reflecting on it all in light of the death and resurrection of the Son of Man was a must. It takes time to make sense of it all. I know. I must have written 30-40 pages in my journal as we were going through each day of our visit. A lot of what I wrote, however, was a matter of remembering, not interpreting. Our last morning in San Juan has yet to be written down, for by then I had absorbed more than I could write.

            Part of my failure to record the rest has to do with re-entering my own culture. As I told my brothers and sisters in San Juan, they talk very fast, but they live more slowly. We - on the other hand - talk more slowly, but our lives race past much faster. I donít allow myself as much time as I need to in order to reflect, to put things into perspective. We want immediate answers, just like we desire fast food. One of my frustrations in the D.R. was how much time meals take there. But, you know, eating around the table is just as much about feeding the soul as it is about feeding the body. How much time and energy do I really spend on relationships? Is it a waste to do so?

            I find it interesting that this gospel story of the "transfiguration of Jesus" is really about relationships. Jesus was not alone on that mountain. He went up with his three closest disciples. While there he encountered Moses and Elijah. And the voice of God spoke of what? A relationship! "This is my Son, whom I love, with whom I am well pleased." ... Was this wasted time? No, it wasnít. Even if they struggled with words to describe it, even though its meaning still makes us pause to wonder, this event is remembered by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

            What do we say? ... My experience in the home of my Dominican hosts has got me wondering over the other places in my life where communication is too easily taken for granted. We assume so much, you and I. Culturally we are in the same place, or so we think. Last weekend I again became aware of the differences that do exist between my "adult," "parental" outlook and the culture of the "teen" world. If you donít think there is a clash in cultures here, youíre not paying attention. What do we say when our cultures clash? As adults, we assume the problem is that young people arenít listening. If I recall rightly, I thought the same thing as a youth, only it was the adults who werenít listening. Itís like a cloud that descends over us. We often havenít the foggiest idea of whatís going on. Still we babble on, without spending the relational energy and time it takes to bridge our differences. Relationships require patience.

            Living for a week in the home of Frank and Lucinda made me aware of the language barriers that exist even when we all speak English. A husband and a wife can talk with each other, parents and children can converse, church members can interact, but there are - in fact - different cultures within each. Itís a miracle that we manage to live together. We assume we understand each other, but do we? I, for one, am tired of all the assumptions we all-too-easily make in relation to one another, without spending the time to really listen. There are difficult barriers between us, even within a family. When we become aware of them, we struggle for words. What, after all, do we say? That question, my friends, is the beginning of wisdom.

            Coming home from the DR, I have returned to walk with some of our folks through some rough times. What do we say in the face of that dread word, "cancer?" What do we say to pain? What do we say when we hold an infant in our arms who is no longer breathing? That was a new experience for me this week, one that some of you know - having faced it yourself. "Lord, should we make a dwelling for little Virginia Rose Braun?" ... Thank God for the cloud. It covers our ignorance. It heals beyond our words.

            Through it all comes the voice that calls us to listen. "This is my Son." Listen to him... "Let the children come to me," Jesus said. We place this infant in his arms... "Come to me all you who have heavy burdens," he says. We bring ourselves, as well as those for whom we care - even when we struggle to find the words to express it - to Jesus. "Come and follow me." Christ is the Word we have received when all other words just arenít enough, when we struggle to know what to say. He is what connects us.

            To be honest, I didnít understand much of what was said during our stay in San Juan de la Maguana, though I surprised myself with how much I did recall from my Spanish classes way back in High School. I think I walked around a lot with a silly grin on my face, saying "Si." Iím surprised Iím not saying it more, for by the end of 11 days its seemed ingrained in my brain. I may not have understood a lot of what was being said, but I recognized that God was alive and active there, and my "Si" (which, in case you donít know, means "yes" in Spanish) was like an "Amen."

            I return with a heart that wants to say "si," "amen" to the Christ I hear everywhere - even in the dark moments when a cloud seems to cover everything and my eyes are blind. My heart wants to sing "si," "amen" even when I cannot find the right words to speak at a youth retreat, or at our dinner table, or in my conversation with friends and family.

            I hope you will not grow too tired of hearing of our visit to San Juan. Weíll try not to overload you. After all, like all experiences, you sort of had to be there to get the most of it. Still, we are a people of "the Book," which is like a travelogue of a trip, the journey of Godís people through Palestine and beyond. As we come back down the mountain with Jesus, Peter, James, and John, keep those words spoken from the cloud in your heart. Reflect on what they mean now. "This is my Son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him." ... "Si" ... "Amen."

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Matthew.


©2005 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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