"Confronting An Immovable Mountain"

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – March 6, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9



    Our Gospel lesson for today is one of the most confounding in the New Testament.  In fact, outside of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, there is nothing else like it. Jesus along with Peter and Jesus’ second cousins, James and John, were on a mountain top when the four men experienced something quite extraordinary.  The disciples witnessed Jesus speaking with two individuals that were reported to be Elijah and Moses, the givers of prophesy and the Law. 


    This mountain top experience has always made me wonder what form Elijah and Moses used as they were conversing with Jesus.   Were they visible in a form that would have resembled what they looked like at the end of their lives or were they younger versions of themselves?  Did they identify themselves or did Jesus know who they were?


    If we scrutinize this story a little more, with Elijah and Moses becoming visible to Jesus and the disciples, we must assume that surviving death has been a natural extension of our physical lives from the earliest of times.  I have never seen this aspect of the story developed by either biblical scholars or theologians.   


    What terrorized the disciples was not seeing Jesus speaking to Elijah and Moses; it was a voice that came from a cloud that had descended on the mountain.  That voice said, “This is my own dear son, with whom I am pleased.  I want you to listen to him.”  They threw themselves to the ground and hid their faces.  Jesus told them not to be afraid of the vision.  He also hastened to instruct them not to tell anyone what they had seen.  What are we to make of this experience?  Is there anything in our lives that compares to it?  Perhaps there is and people are not sharing their experiences with too many people.


    For example, once I received a call around 8:00 a.m. from a young man who had been attending my church.  His wife of three years had died earlier in the year of breast cancer.  He told me that he wanted me to visit him as soon as I could get to his home.  I asked him if he was in any immediate danger.  He told me he was fine but he wanted me to explain an experience he had during the night. 


    When I arrived, it was obvious that he had not slept.  He was unshaven.  For his experience to make sense, I have to give you a little information about Jeff.  During the process of his grieving, he let it be known that his wife was his soul mate.  He publicly vowed that he would never marry again.


    He began his story by telling me that something awakened him during the night.  He noticed a circle of light on his bedroom wall that was about the size of a golf ball.  He initially thought that the source of the light was outside and was coming through his window blinds.  He checked and that was not the case.  As he was returning to his bed, the light began to grow in size.  He sat down on the edge of his bed terrorized of what he saw happening.  The light filled his room and his wife appeared inside that large ball of light.


    He said,


    Dick, her lips were not moving but she was talking to me.  Her words came into my mind as thoughts but they weren’t mine.  She told me that she was fine and that her experience is beyond anything she had imagined or could describe. She went on to say that I had been a wonderful, loving husband and she wants me to move on, find another woman and marry her.  She said, “I don’t want you to go through life without a partner.  Do you hear what I’m saying?”  She always used that expression all the time during our marriage and she used it three times last night.  I could not answer her nor could I move.  The light slowly faded and finally it was gone. I got up, brewed a pot of coffee and I have been sitting here ever since just waiting for you to arrive. Dick, have you ever heard of such a thing?  What just happened? 


    I told him that I had heard a number of stories like that from people through the years.  His experience was authentic because he showed me his pajamas that were still saturated from perspiration.  


    The one thing these stories have in common is that they are life-changing.  No one ever views the material world quite the same after having one of these out of this world experiences.  In fact, I have often thought how different our lives would be if all of us had such an experience.  Jeff did find another life-partner and the last time I heard from him, he and his new bride had started a family.  He also carried himself with a peace that he never had before. 


    Whatever the nature of this experience was on Mt. Horeb, it was life changing for Jesus, every bit as life-changing as was his experience during his baptism.  From this point on in Jesus’ ministry, he decided to leave the safety of Galilee where people loved him and take his message to Jerusalem -- the seat of Judaism.  His hope was to take the immovable mountain of legal responsibilities that Judaism demanded, and cast it into the sea. 


    Judaism had become so entrenched in legalism that it had wandered from the path of helping people to grow spiritually.  Judaism, as it had been practiced for centuries, had lost relevance for the lives of the Jews.   They celebrated their high Holy days but life for the Jews did not change very much.  Jesus wanted to change that.


    Jesus was convinced that Judaism was being led by spiritual leaders that were themselves blind.   The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law had to be confronted with a verbal mirror so they could see what they had become.   He told his followers “Don’t worry about them.  They are blind leaders who are leading the blind.  When one blind man leads another, both fall into a ditch.” (Matt. 15:14)   Once Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, he started a chain reaction that ever since has revolutionized how people think. 


     Because we want everything instantaneously, we forget that it takes eons for God’s Will to be accomplished.  Try to imagine, for example, how many times the entire population of the world had to live and die before Jesus’ message started to migrate out of Jerusalem and spread into Greece, Asia Minor (Turkey) and Spain.  There was no Facebook.  No Internet.  No media outlets to spread what Jesus was teaching.  Today Jesus message shows up in different forms and in the most unlikely places, but it has taken thousands of years for that message to arrive in every nation on the earth.  

    Jesus’ prime directive for humanity can be reduced to three words -- “Love one another.”  Love is the most powerful force in the universe and yet people still live as though they know little about its potential. 


    Exuding loving energy patterns makes absolutely no sense at all because we humans have always needed anger, weapons and the military to win major conflicts.  Values do clash as better ones replace the old.   When we review the massive changes that have taken place during the last sixty years, we may discover that love has been at the root of many of them. 


    Many years ago the U.S. President Ronald Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!”  That is exactly what Gorbachev did.  During the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced democratic reforms that greatly lessened his government’s oppression of the Soviet people.


     It was compassion for people that brought about the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. During an interview Gorbachev was asked, “What inspired you to tear down the wall?”  He responded, “There were a number of factors but the greatest inspiration came from Lech Walesa.”


    Walesa was a very average industrial worker that invited fellow workers of Poland to form the Solidarity Movement, a movement that changed the political landscape of his country.

Gorbachev said, “I accepted his invitation for radical change and took steps politically to begin the process of dismantling the Soviet Union.”


    When self-conscious Lech Walesa finally began to grant interviews to news anchors, he revealed that it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s concept of passive resistance that influenced and inspired him to unite the workers of Poland. Walesa enticed workers to put down all weapons and thoughts of an armed rebellion as a means of evoking change and it worked.


    As we continue to observe love’s chain reaction, what took place in Dr. King’s life that inspired such a strategy?  Dr. King had received his doctorate from the Boston University School of Theology and accepted a call to serve as the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.  Martin was in his late-twenties when, before Christmas in 1955, Rosa Lee Parks was arrested because she refused to move to the back of the bus.   She was arrested for sitting in seats that were always reserved for white people.


    King did not want to get involved.  A layman came to him and said, “You must get involved!  Please, Dr. King, show some leadership and fight this.  We are all Americans and this double standard for white and Negro people must end!”  Please help our people.”


    King reluctantly got involved and led the boycott against Montgomery’s segregated buses.  He was arrested, his family was threatened by bullies that later bombed his home. In 1959, King visited Mahatma Gandhi who had secured India’s freedom from England by passive resistance. 


    Gandhi said,


    Dr. King, I question why you have come to visit me.  You of all people must remember that the model for passive resistance came from the Master, Jesus.  I have been one of his disciples for years.


    We have something in common, Dr. King.  I was turned away from several Christian churches because of the color of my skin so I have remained Hindu.  It does not matter what we call ourselves.  Be patient.   God’s will does prevail when people respond with love rather than hatred.


    The woman who started this chain reaction was Rosa Lee Parks who died in 2005 at the age of 92.  During an interview on her 90th birthday, someone asked her, “What motivated you to refuse to give up your seat on that bus?”  It was then that people learned that she was not the beginning of a movement that would lead to the election of our first African American president of the United States.  Someone far less visible in the pages of history sowed that seed.


    Rosa Lee Parks remembered a Sunday school teacher who was in her late 70s.  Rosa Lee and nine other girls were in her class.  That teacher said, “I want all of you to remember never to allow anyone to take away from any of you, your dignity as a child of God.” Parks said, “When I was told to move to the back of the bus because of the color of my skin, I remembered the words of my saintly Sunday school teacher and I did not get up.”


    This revolutionary concept to initiate change started because a Jewish carpenter had decided to go to Jerusalem and confront the Jewish authorities about how sterile their rituals, customs and teachings had become.  That little grain of mustard seed has grown into a tree with many branches that have given form to how “Love one another” has become visible in our lives.  (Matthew 13:31)


    In our modern times, we have forgotten the power of love, particularly among the younger generations.  No one is teaching it.  Our young people are not in church; they are not getting such training in our public schools.    


    We must remain extremely hopeful, however, as we live in these days not only because of what took place on the Mt. of Transfiguration, but also because of all the events that have happened since that time to bring the world into a creative, diverse community. 

     There is one truth that will support our efforts for living the Gospel message – it is the Will of God that we eventually learn to love one another.  There is nothing in the universe that is powerful enough to prevent that from happening.  The simple truth is that nothing else works.   Let us carry this understanding into our Lenten season.