Sermon Archives

A Bright Gold Thread

Rev. Kate Layzer
Sun, Feb 26

Texts: 2 Peter 1:16–19, Matthew 17:1–9

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ… but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”

And the passage concludes, “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

The season of Epiphany—for Christians, the season of God’s unveiling—opened with Jesus waist-deep in the Jordan, water streaming from his hair, the heavens opened like a secret scroll to make manifest God’s inmost heart. “This is my Son,” we heard God say. “The Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The unveiling season comes to a close upon a mountain, with the same words ringing in our ears. Once again, as with Moses at Sinai, the cloud of the holy Presence descends. But this time there are no tablets for God to write on, no commandments to post in courthouses for the ACLU to file suit over… for Christ himself is the Tablet now, and what is being written on him is the Presence itself: God’s own glory in Jesus the Son. Now, instead of ten commandments, there is but one: “Listen to him.” Listen to him.

You almost wonder why God had to take the trouble to say it. These are Jesus’ closest disciples, after all—isn’t God kind of preaching to the choir, here?

To get what’s going on, we need to look back half a chapter, to the passage that comes immediately before this one: a famous passage, in which Jesus asks his disciples, “But who do YOU say that I am?” Before anyone else can speak, the fisherman, Peter, the most famous eyewitness of them all, blurts out: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Something in him is moved to glorify Jesus with words that move the conversation between rabbi and followers to a whole different plane.

“Who am I to you?” “Teacher, with you we feel that God has come near.”

Jesus blesses Peter for speaking with the tongue of divine revelation. But in the very next verse, the exchange is abruptly reversed. Jesus begins talking about his impending suffering, death, and resurrection. Peter jumps in again, but this time to rebuke Jesus: God forbid! he says. At which Jesus turns on Peter, the star pupil, and torches him: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

Heaven and earth; revelation and incomprehension; praise and rebuke; glory and suffering: the text flies back and forth like a weaver’s shuttle.

Something indeed is being woven together here, but the pattern is one we can’t yet see. Only, as we watch, flashes of gold wink at us from the loom, bright gold threads woven into the whole, disappearing and reappearing.

Six days after this up-and-down conversation, Matthew takes Peter and James and John UP a high mountain, leaving the others below, like Moses ascending Mt. Sinai alone. There, like Moses, they come face to face with the glory of God, in a cloud of unbearable brightness. Again Jesus is named, claimed by the unseen God. Peter was right about Jesus. But he is also completely in the dark. He sees the light, but he has not yet seen the glory.

“Come on,” Jesus says, and touches them. They pick themselves up and start back down the mountain. Down to where their life in community is waiting for them, and their journey into deepening night; for Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem, and he will not be turned aside.

“Listen to him.” Even if you don’t want him to suffer and die, listen to him. Even if you don’t like the way this road is going.

Now, before we go any further, let’s acknowledge something. For many of us, the very idea of Jesus being glorified is uncomfortable, wary as we rightly are of human rulers and arbitrary laws. Perhaps we associate the glorification of Jesus with the imperial co-opting of the faith in the year 313, that moment when Constantine decided to promote this formerly illegal religion, and lend it some power and wealth, instead of persecuting it. Maybe it reminds us of the unholy alliance of White Evangelical Christianity with the new administration in Washington, and statehouses across the nation.

Or maybe the whole idea of glory just feels alienating. One moment we’re sitting at table with Jesus, the next, he’s so exalted that all we can do is fall to our knees—and kneeling was never the strong suit of a New England Congregationalist. Glory evokes the powerful and the powerless. If Jesus is “Lord,” then we must be servants. We don’t care for autocratic rule in our politics. Why would we look for it in our spiritual lives?

Or maybe this glorified Jesus just doesn’t jibe with the Jesus we’ve come to know, the Jesus who eats with us, comforts us, tells us not to be afraid; the Jesus who weeps for the dead and has compassion on sinners, who welcomes children and has his eye always on the poor and outcast.

But isn’t that the whole point.

That Jesus doesn’t change, up on the mountain, above the press of the crowd. What changes is the disciples’ vision of him.

THIS is my Son, God says. This Jesus, whom you know. The authorities, if they were listening, would be surprised. They are already waiting for their moment to neutralize Jesus, or get rid of him. “Glory” is the very thing they are trying to prevent Jesus from getting hold of, since for them, glory can only mean power, and wealth, and armies.

They don’t get it. Authorities rarely do. What they mean by glory and what God means by glory are two different things. Isn’t that what the gospels have been trying to tell us all along?

What God means by glory is Jesus touching his disciples and saying, “Don’t be afraid.” Then turning and heading back down the mountain on his own sandaled feet, to resume his journey to Jerusalem, to suffering and death—touching, blessing, healing, teaching, forgiving, and breaking bread as he goes.

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths,” declares the passage from the Second Letter of Peter, “when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ… but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” Whose majesty? Jesus' majesty. Which most days consists of things like spitting on the ground, making a paste out of dust and saliva, and rubbing it on the eyelids of a blind man to heal them.

Or telling a story about a sheep that wanders off and gets lost, or a pair of brothers, or a woman mixing yeast into bread.

Jesus shines up there on the mountain because of who he already is: a human being whose heart and life are radiant with the goodness of God. That shining has been with him all along as he journeys from village to village, town to town, spreading the good news that God is love, that mercy abounds, that the door of heaven is open. His coming illuminates a bright gold thread that runs through all of history, even in the darkest times—God’s steadfast presence in the midst of our real human lives.

Glory, for God, means love that is willing to go into places of ill repute, of suffering, of injustice; to associate with the morally compromised, the brutal and the brutalized, the cowardly and the disgraced. Glory is love that gives itself freely, that is willing to endure hardship and shame so that the rest of us don’t have to bear them alone. It’s a bright gold thread drawn through even the darkest times of history: the power of love and friendship, courage and generosity.

“Jesus did not come to explain suffering, or to take it away,” writes Paul Claudel, “but to fill it with his presence.”

Glory is love that does not run away or avert its gaze, but seeks us out, even when we feel utterly unloveable. “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Psalm 139)

When we call Jesus the Light of the World, this is what we mean: love bearing the unbearable. The meeting place of divine and human, glory and struggle. On earth as it is in heaven.

It’s God made known in the community we welcome in on Fridays. Like the woman with learning disabilities and a long history of trauma and bullying, who has been homeless and is now housed, and who’s constantly on the lookout for someone who might be in need, to share whatever she might have been able to collect that day—a sandwich or a blanket or a coat—and the light of joy in her face when she’s able to connect and help someone.

It’s the woman who holds out a cup in Harvard Square, whose previous degree was in literature, but whose real love turns out to be astrophysics, who is working on her doctorate through the Harvard Extension School, only she doesn’t have money for classes right now. She’s a musician too, when she can get work, and will give to anyone who asks her, help anyone out if she can. She is beautiful and smart, heartbroken and hopeful. She is… glorious.

And what of our own lives? Haven’t we too known our share of everyday anonymous glory? Only we would never have called it that. We’ve just quietly done what was needed, risen to occasions we didn’t think we could face, because that’s what love called for. We too have stayed present when we wanted to run.

And no doubt, just as often, we’ve failed or fallen short. Peter’s struggle is ours too.

There’s a verse in our epistle reading that kind of nagged at me all week. It’s that part where Peter reminds us, emphatically, that, quote, “we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” We were there! Peter says. “We heard the voice!”

Except that—awkward!—2 Peter wasn’t written by Peter. It was composed—well, scholars don’t know exactly when, but probably decades after Peter’s death. Uh-oh. Fake news?

But as I thought about it, I found my thinking shifting. I started to think, “But nevertheless, the author WAS an eyewitness.”

Maybe they didn’t literally stand on the mountain with Jesus. Yet they were a living witness nonetheless, by prayer and participation. Their anonymous letter to the church, written under the name of Peter to obscure their own glory and put our attention on the message, gives us a valuable glimpse of those formative years, the bridge between the life of Jesus and the movement that survived banning and persecution so that the good news of Jesus might reach all the way to us.

From generation to generation, new eyewitnesses arise, their eyes on that bright gold thread running through history, through communities like ours, through each and every human life. Together we bear witness to the courage of the past and draw courage for today, trusting that Jesus has already gone before us, and is calling us even now:

“Come on. Get up. Don’t be afraid.”

“You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Look for the thread. When the news seems overwhelming, search for it and find it, woven into the cloth of history, the bright, indestructible strands gleaming for those with eyes to see. Find those strands. Share them. Pass them on. Weave them in.

And to God be the glory forever and ever. Amen.