Scripture Reading: Matthew 17:1-9 Common English Bible (CEB)
17 Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. 2 He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.
3 Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” 6 Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.
7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One is raised from the dead.”
Sometimes people ask me where on earth I got the idea for a sermon title, or for the direction my message wanders off into. And I totally understand why they might wonder. Sometimes I actually know the answer. Other times it’s more like, I dunno. I read something somewhere? Maybe a Facebook post? Or one of my daily meditations? But this season, this Lenten Season in the year of our Lord 2017, I have taken my titles and inspirations and scripture readings directly from the Lenten Devotional book you are all reading every single day. So when you come here on Sunday mornings for the next several Sundays you will hear an expansion on what you just read that morning.
So, this morning Lynette Johnson wrote about Peter’s response to Elijah and Moses joining Jesus on the mountaintop, noting that this is “one of those stories that highlights Peter’s shortcomings.” Given that most stories featuring Peter highlight his shortcomings, this is not at all surprising. She says, “You just want to shake him…!” Yup. That’s what I want to do alright. Most of the time. I mean, really Peter? You think that’s a good idea?
So, in this story Peter, James and John go with Jesus to the mountain top where he is transformed, and the two great prophets Moses and Elijah appear there to speak with him. Peter says, let us build you huts - or in the translation we used today, shrines - one for each of you. And you can tell he’s thinking, “Oh Lordy. Moses and Elijah are standing there with my rabbi! What can I do? I can’t just stand here. I have to do something. These guys need to have special recognition. I know! Let’s build something!”
OK, enough laughing at Peter now. I mean, which of us would have responded better, I wonder? I mean, it’s not like we daydream about going with our favorite preacher up to the top of the mountains and Jesus suddenly shows up to talk to her, and we plan out how we will behave, right? Of course, I’m not totally sure how he knew it was Moses and Elijah - it’s not like they had portraits of them in every synagogue or anything . . . Anyway, the fact that he didn’t immediately fall to his knees in humble adoration kind of makes sense. Plus, Jews wouldn’t automatically fall to their knees, as they stand up to pray anyway. But Peter was a do something kind of guy. When faced with an unknown situation, he looked for something constructive to do. We understand that perfectly. Someone dies and we start cooking, or planning how to help the family. A celebration is coming up? We start making lists of who is bringing the cookies, and who will open the building. We hear that a family has lost their home in a fire? We look for ways to replace what they have lost. If Jesus, Moses and Elijah should appear here, in this place, I imagine that we would immediately start running to bring out the best chairs for them to sit on and telling the deacons to make sure they are served first, and asking if there is a particular hymn they would like to hear . . .The idea of simply taking off our shoes, of standing quietly with bare feet, in the presence of the holy just doesn’t occur to us.
I mean, we don’t even always think of taking off our shoes as being a recognition of the sacred. Yes, Moses was directed to take off his shoes in the presence of the burning bush, as God was present in the bush and in the ground around the bush. And somehow that makes sense to us, but the idea that we should take off our shoes in the presence of the Holy doesn’t. Leah and I have a conversation almost every Sunday about shoes. She takes hers off the minute she gets here on Sunday mornings, and always tells me she’ll put them back on before worship begins. I always tell her I don’t care, and I’m pretty sure God doesn’t either. (That goes for you, too, Jordan. When I find a pair of shoes in the church office, I know that Jordan is around here someplace.) But in this place and time, keeping our shoes on in the presence of the Holy makes sense. Probably because we kind of believe that God is present every where and all the time. Taking off our shoes in the presence of new carpet, on the other hand . . .
My mother’s friend Eleanor was one of those ladies whose living room was totally off limits. It wasn’t a matter of taking off your shoes when you went in. You simply didn’t go in! Not if you were a kid, anyway. Kids were only allowed in the downstairs TV room and maybe the kitchen, but never in the Sacred Living Room, where everything was covered in plastic. I imagine some adults were allowed into the Sacred Living Room, like for Bridge Club, maybe. And maybe she even took the plastic off when the Bridge Club came over. I’m not sure. But Eleanor’s Living Room was a little bit like the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. Only the priests were allowed in there, and only one at a time, and only at certain prescribed times, and only if they were wearing the right clothing, because that room was the place where God’s feet touched the earth. Normal folks could be in the courtyards, although women and non-Jews were only allowed in the very outer areas.
I have long made it a practice to meet with a Spiritual Director once each month. She’s sort of a companion on the journey. She works with me on seeing where God is acting in my life, helping me seek discernment in situations where I am unsure where God is leading me. Sometimes she introduces me to new prayer practices or spiritual disciplines. My current Spiritual Director recently had new carpet installed in the room where we meet, and as a result we take off our shoes before entering the room. Last month - as I was wearing boots and she knows that my back is not always cooperative - she mentioned that she didn’t want to make the new carpet an idol, so if taking off my shoes would be a hardship we could wear our shoes into the room instead. On the other hand, my former Spiritual Director invited everyone to remove their shoes upon entering the space where she met with directees, as we would be welcoming Jesus into our conversation, thus making our meeting space a sacred space. There is a fundamental difference between these two ways of thinking. I will not say that one is right and one is wrong. They are simply different, and different is ok.
The thing about taking off our shoes, though, is that it makes us vulnerable. Exposing our feet to whatever might be on the ground, or to the cold, or other people’s view is a bit scary. I mean, our feet aren’t necessarily our most attractive feature. They aren’t usually something we go around showing off. We might show off a new pedicure, maybe. But not our ordinary, every day, raggedy toenailed, un-pampered feet. When Maundy Thursday rolls around, and Pastor Ochoa and I get out the basins and the water pitchers and the towels, and wait to see which of you all will come forward to let us wash your feet, as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, which of you will? Which of you will allow yourself to be vulnerable, to be touched in so intimate a manner, by another person?
Maybe Peter was feeling so vulnerable already in the presence of Elijah and Moses that he couldn’t even think of becoming more so. Maybe he wasn’t so much excited as fearful. And in his fear, he responded in the only way a man of action knows to respond - he looked for some familiar thing he could do.
Here’s the thing about Peter’s shortcomings that is really, really important for us to remember. Peter was the one whom Jesus appointed to be the foundation upon which the church would be built. Peter, with all his faults and shortcomings and even his outright denial of Jesus on Good Friday, Peter was the one whom Jesus appointed to be the foundation on which the church would be built. If Peter was the foundation, the cornerstone, the strong point on which all else would rest, what does that say about us? It says that Jesus knew, God knew, that we would make mistakes. He knew that we would get it completely wrong sometimes. But he believed in us. He had faith in us. Talk about a mustard seed! Only this time the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak. Jesus had faith that he could put the responsibility for teaching the world about him and his message, about God and God’s loving forgiveness, about how to live as God’s beloved and loving children, all of that, into our hands, and have it come out right in the end.
My sisters and brothers, the Good News here is we don’t have to have all the answers. We don’t have to always get it right. Jesus had faith in Peter, with all his faults and shortcomings, to lead the entire world into reconciliation with God and with each other, and Jesus has faith in us that we will continue to do that very thing. And if Jesus can have faith in us to do the right thing, even if it takes a bunch of tries, surely we can have faith that through Jesus, we will be transformed into the people God intends for us to be. When we go from this place today, let us go without fear, knowing that God is with us, and that God trusts us to carry the Good News of his loving care, his forgiveness, and his steadfast love for all, out into the world.