Making meaning: a sermon on Matthew 17:1-9

by the Rev. Anna Doherty

Never underestimate the human capacity to make-meaning.

Actually, the ability to find meaning in our lives and situations is wired into the human brain.

We are, in our very synapses, meaning makers.

We take our world and our circumstances and our lives, and we try to make sense out of it.

Actually, this is a good thing in many ways.

Without being able to make meaning of the world we live in, the universe would seem chaotic, uncaring, and maybe even hostile.

The ability to make meaning brings a sense of order, purpose, yes even a forward-looking future to the world we live in.

And, at certain times of our lives, the ability to find meaning in our situation helps us to deal with difficult circumstances in helpful ways.

Like for example, to think of the loss of a job as a path towards new opportunities.

In difficult transitions, being able to make positive meaning out of our circumstances, can move us forward with renewed energy and purpose through life’s journey.

The problem comes when we try to impose our own meaning on other people’s struggles and difficult circumstances.

As a hospital chaplain, I will never forget the moment when a well-meaning family friend…

Said to a mother whose infant son and suddenly and unexpectedly died, “God needed another angel in the heavenly choir.”

What brought order and meaning to a difficult situation for that family friend, actually destroyed—or at least seriously harmed–a grieving mother’s faith in God.

Imposing our own desire for meaning onto other people’s circumstances is what gets us into trouble.

Which brings us to today’s gospel reading.

When we think about difficult or frightening circumstances in the Bible,

short of the crucifixion, the transfiguration of Jesus has got to be one of the most scary, and unfathomable moments.

Jesus is literally transformed before Peter, James, and John’s very eyes.

The man they thought they knew, suddenly becomes another being entirely.

Matthew, as the gospel narrator, actually loses his ability to adequately describe that the transfiguration is like.

As Matthew says, “And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”

And as if this isn’t enough, Jesus is joined by two revered figures, Elijah and Moses, representing essentially, the prophets and the law of the ancient Jewish tradition.

Confronted with all this frightening and unfathomable change, Peter, like many of us, tries to make meaning out of it.

Actually, Peter’s desire to build three dwellings isn’t as bizarre or off-base as it might at first seem.

Peter, in fact Jesus and all of the disciples, comes from the Jewish tradition.

And elements in the ancient Jewish tradition associated the “Day of the Lord”—

That time when God would draw history toward its climax and defeat Israel’s enemies—with the Jewish festival of the booths.

The Festival of the Booths is a religious festival when people build temporary huts for themselves,

as a reminder of the Israelites sojourn in the wilderness, and God’s promise to bring them to the Promised Land.

So in offering to build three booths, Peter simply assumes that what he is seeing is the cue for the coming of the Day of the Lord.

Jesus, meeting up with Elijah and Moses, must mean that Jesus has come to defeat Israel’s enemies and reign as king, in the Promised Land.

Peter essentially makes-meaning, he tries to fit this momentous encounter into a pre-existing narrative and religious framework.

It helps Peter to make sense of what would otherwise be an inexplicable and terrifying moment.

The problem is, that in trying to make his own meaning, Peter almost misses an encounter with God.

In fact, while Peter is still speaking, a voice comes from a cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased, listen to him!”

Peter tries to fit what is happening into a divine plan.

Instead, God simply invites him to dwell in the wonder and mystery of Jesus.

Rather than making meaning, God invites Peter simply to be still, to listen, and to be in the presence of God.

I wonder how often it is that we do the same.

We long for some sign, some proof, that we are in the presence of God, that God is with us, and yet as soon as we come close to God…

…we actually try to draw away from the encounter or to make it fit what we want, rather than what God wants for us.

We may not encounter God on a mountaintop in a moment of terrifying transfiguration, but we do encounter God in moments, in people, among the struggles of our daily life.

These moments with God may be less dramatic than the transfiguration, but they can be no less terrifying.

After all, our lives may be broken, but at least we know the territory.

But when we encounter moments of the divine, or when we try to become the people God calls us to be, we will be transformed.

Who we thought we were, what we thought our future would be, what we thought we were meant to do…

All of it changes in an encounter with God.

So instead of being present to the mystery and wonder of God, we try to domesticate God,

to try to make what is divine and holy and transformative fit into our plan, what makes sense or is more comfortable for us.

And yet, is not what God wants.

And here’s the uncomfortable truth.

What if there is no divine plan?

Not in the sense that God has all of our lives already laid out for us and all we need to do is follow the cues God sets for us…

No, what if instead, we are meant simply to dwell in the wonder and mystery of God and let God change us

Rather than simply adding God to our own plans.

In a way, I think that is what Christian community, what the church is for.

It’s not a place for us to build booths, for us to be comfortable and orderly, and expect God to adhere to our preexisting ideas of what God should do…

Nor is it a place where we are left alone, abandoned and unmoored with no sense of direction or purpose.

What if, as people of faith, we are called to come together, to dwell together in the mystery God and God’s love?

What if the only “plan” there is, if we can even call it that, is that as God’s people we dwell together in, and respond with gratitude to, God’s love?

The number one complaint I hear about church, is that it is boring.

And sometimes I wonder if it feels that way because we’ve domesticated God by substituting religious tradition for spiritual encounter.

It’s easier to fit God into our plan, into our own sense of meaning, than it is for us to be transformed by being in the presence of God.

The truth is, that is what we are called to do, as Christians: to seek out and to dwell in the presence of God, the God of Moses and Elijah…

And let our God, and the mystery of God’s love, unsettle us and make us new.

That’s what we do, as a community of faith, as disciples of Jesus Christ:

We stand together in the presence of God, and we let ourselves be transformed.