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Transfiguration: Pay Attention

March 2, 2014

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Transfiguration Sunday, March 2, 2014

Matthew 17: 1-9

I was stunned earlier this week to read that the average American watches more than four hours of television each day. That’s 28 hours a week, or two months non-stop TV-watching per year. In a 65-year life, that person will have spent 9 years glued to the tube.

At the same time, and I suppose not surprisingly, we are spending less time outdoors. In the last twenty-five years visits to our national parks have fallen more than 30%, with fewer of us hiking, camping, fishing each year. Only a quarter of us walk or ride a bike to work or to run errands.

It’s worse for our kids. A typical child only spends five to seven minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors. As it’s been said, the nature of childhood has changed. There’s not much nature in it.

And yet we know that playing outdoors, without coaches or parents, fosters imagination and leads kids to share, cooperate and solve problems. Even for adults, the evidence is overwhelming that time in nature is good for our health, creativity, handling stress, and for learning. Nature is fuel for the soul. A majority of us experience a deep sense of spirituality outdoors, and that is no different whether we identify ourselves as religious or not. And yet few of us make to time to get there.

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As a parent of a seven year old, I cannot tell you how often I have to check my impatience as my son meanders over the ice, tippy toes through a puddle, lingers over an interesting leaf, stone or stick. We were almost late to school twice last week because he stopped to greet the return of robin redbreasts. I make it a policy to offer a prayer, albeit reluctantly, to thank God for these moments. Checking my impatience and accepting the challenge to our schedule (and the school’s tardy policy) is good for my soul.

When Moses first ascended Mt. Sinai to talk with the living God, he was drawn by the fire of a bush that burned but was not consumed. Perhaps influenced by the portrayal of the scene in movies like The Ten Commandments or Prince of Egypt, we imagine this was the miracle. But it seems to me that the real miracle was not the burning bush, but that a tired shepherd with a good life and family and many sheep to care for, would turn aside and pay attention.

I want to suggest on transfiguration Sunday that this miracle of turning aside and paying attention is what this story is about as well. In this case, the disciples and Jesus had kept a harrowing schedule, moving town to town, healing and teaching.  It is at Jesus’ invitation that three of the disciples join him, in ascending the mountain.  Would they have made time on their own to do this?  Unlikely, I think.  After all they had just fed over 5,000 people and had been confronted by the Pharisees and Sadducees. Then they had crossed the sea of Galilee to Caesarea Philippi.  They were in the thick of it and there were plenty of important things to attend to.  But here, it is Jesus who models the importance of turning aside even from what is important, to allow God to distract us, if you will.

It is God who impedes Jesus and the disciples’ ever productive and necessary work, in order to re-situate us. After all, there were still people to be healed, debates to be held, miles to be travelled.  But Jesus turns to Peter, James and John and says, “Come with me; up the mountain.”

We often think of the mountain as a place apart – but the mountain wasn’t something they travelled to, it was something right there, right where they were.  And the mountain didn’t change the reality of the ground.  When Jesus and the three descend, there’s a man with an epileptic son waiting for them. The work continues. But the four who descended are not the same as the four who ascended. While to the crowds awaiting healing they might have looked the same, they and their story have been re-situated in the larger narrative God is telling. By willingly turning aside, they are given the gift of seeing the demanding, exhilarating, non-stop world, anew.

This Lent, may we turn aside, to that way without a path, to the wilds beyond certain practice, to see and be seen by the living God.

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