Welcoming Metaphorphasis

Exodus 24:12–18; Matthew 17:1–9, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on February 19, 2023

I was astonished to learn recently that there are butterflies here with us through the winter. While many butterflies do migrate to warmer places, some instead enter a season of dormancy. Here in Minnesota, that’s 9 species, to be exact. Given that there are 172 different kinds of butterflies that inhabit our state at some point during the year, these 9 are really special. They are true Minnesotans! They burrow into curled up leaves, hide in tree bark or hollow logs, shelter in the dead stalks of flowers or the eaves of buildings. Some endure the cold months as eggs, others as caterpillars or chrysalises, and a few as adult butterflies. (Protecting these butterflies is one reason to do less mowing, raking, and removal of dead plants in the fall.) Among the butterflies that winter in Minnesota is the Mourning Cloak, featured on the bulletin cover today.[1]

We know that butterflies undergo metamorphosis multiple times in their lives, growing and changing until they become something entirely new. Their journey culminates as they emerge in the astonishing and unique beauty of their adult selves. Jesus, too, experiences a metamorphosis on the mountaintop. Though our translation says “he was transfigured,” the Greek phrase is more literally something like “he underwent a metamorphosis.” Jesus’ shining face and dazzling clothing, the presence of the great prophets from the past, the overshadowing cloud, the divine voice; these are the Gospel writer’s cues to the reader that, through Jesus’ ministry of teaching, healing, feeding and casting out the forces of evil and oppression, he had grown into his most beautiful, colorful and powerful self. Jesus was emerging fully as the long-awaited Messiah who would embody a new way of being for all of creation.

“This is my beloved son.” God spoke these words previously, at Jesus’ baptism. Within Jesus’ time and culture, bearing the identity of God’s son meant that Jesus was God’s trusted representative. “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” When the glorious vision faded and Jesus and his disciples descended the mountain, they would turn toward Jerusalem and the cross. And then, immersed in the pain of a wounded, troubled world, it would be hard to listen to Jesus, to trust him, to follow him. 

Just six days earlier, in fact, Peter and the rest of the disciples had refused to listen to Jesus, as Jesus predicted his own death. Peter had taken him aside and rebuked him, saying, “This will never happen to you.”And Jesus rebuked right back, responding: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” “This is my beloved child. Listen to him!” Listen to Jesus, who, in his dying and rising, will show the world that the power of solidarity and self-giving love outshines the powers of violence, hate and greed. Listen to Jesus as he teaches us to die to false and fearful selves, and rise into a liberated way of being; to die to our addiction to power-over, and rise in power with; to die to the ways of scarcity and separateness and rise in abundance and connection.

Friends, I’ve been sensing lately that the Spirit is drawing our community toward metamorphosis, toward change and growth, toward the unfurling and emergence of something new. In the early years of the pandemic, we hunkered down, cocoon-like. We turned inward, strengthening and deepening our connections with each other, finding new ways to care for this community. Together, we weathered a time of tremendous stress and trauma. When we began to emerge from isolation, we were impatient to get back to normal and yet were also aware that everything had changed. We were exhausted and grieving. We had a need to rethink our identities and roles in all parts of our lives, including at church. Our congregation is smaller and less energetic now than we were before the pandemic. From now on, our attention will always be a little bit divided between our two ways of being present— in person and online. We celebrate that we can make worship accessible to more people. And, yet, it’s a big change. The sanctuary often feels a little too empty. We have lost many of beloved elders over this last year, people who have been the soul of our community for decades. 

One of our goals for this year is “be more visible.” What this means to me is that this is a season for us to turn outward, and to emerge as our most beautiful, colorful and powerful self. Being more visible means making new friends and connections, letting more people know who we are, what we care about, and how we live out our values. When we are more visible, new people will attend worship and get involved in our ministries. New groups will use this building and join our wonderful friends from the Community Kitchen in being our partners. However, none of this will just happen. There are people who need us. We have to invite them into our community. It’s probably fair to admit that we’ve never been great at this, starting with me, your introverted and sort of shy pastor. 

In a recent piece in the Christian Century, pastor Debie Thomas wrote about the importance of overcoming our reluctance to evangelism. She says: 

Progressive churches tout beautiful, attractive values:  inclusiveness, hospitality, diversity, openness. And yet we rarely invite. We cringe from invitation like cats from bathtubs. I know that we have good reasons for doing so. We don’t want to repeat the horrific sins of colonialist Christianity. We don’t want to come across as judgmental or obtrusive. We don’t want to be associated with fundamentalist Bible-thumpers. . . . We don’t believe that we hold a monopoly on spiritual meaning, wisdom, and truth. . . . I’m fully on board with these objections. But our earliest Christian ancestors lived and died in the hope of offering the whole world an invitation to radical, transformative, healing, empowering love.

The Good News Jesus embodied was news. Something to share, to proclaim. So at what point does our silence become offensive in its own right? Offensive as in withholding, ungenerous, inhospitable? Perhaps we need to reexamine and rearticulate what exactly our Good News is. If our motivation to evangelize isn’t hellfire, what is it? What have we come to cherish about Jesus? About the life of faith? About God’s love fleshed out in community? 

Along with the “what” of the gospel, we might rethink the “how” of [invitation]. I’m always fascinated by the fact that Jesus’ way with people was to listen, to ask questions, to tell stories, and to let folks walk away with what they’d seen and heard. The invitation to “come and see” was always open. But so was the freedom to doubt, question, and disagree. What would it be like to reclaim evangelism as an invitation to embody the questions that matter? To get curious? To tell stories? To believe that we have as much to learn from the sharing of the Good News as those we share it with? What if evangelism becomes a communal and reciprocal seeking after truth? A commitment to lifelong learning? A practice of deep calling to deep?[2]

Friends, I feel a great sense of urgency. I love this church and I know we have something the world needs. Now is the time to make our invitations. Now is the moment to share our good news. I’ve begun to work on this and I ask you to join me. I am making it a point to spend time each week cultivating new relationships and connections (for instance sitting with, and getting to know, playgroup families). I have asked the choir to reach out within their networks to invite new folks to sing with them. The board is forming a task force to work on imagining new ways to use the building and to begin looking for new partners; the board is also considering a partnership with The Vinery, an organization that seeks to foster relationships between congregations and campus communities. The personnel committee is looking at how our staffing structure might evolve over the next several years with increased building use and community engagement in mind.

In nature the process of metamorphosis is a transformation so radical that it resembles death and rebirth. The eggs look nothing like the caterpillar, nor does the magnificent adult butterfly resemble the dull chrysalis.Butterflies who winter with us, like the Mourning Cloak, remind us that metamorphosis is not a sudden event. It is a process that takes time. For many months each year, these butterflies are simply resting, surviving, conserving their energy. And then, when the time is right, the moment of emergence and unfurling arrives. The bright wings shine and the graceful flight delights. As people of the Jesus path, we, too are called to welcome metamorphosis to grow and change, to die and rise, to unfurl, like our butterfly siblings, into our most shining, dazzling selves. Amen.

[1] https://www.startribune.com/nature-notes-minnesota-has-butterflies-that-hibernate/372412791/?refresh=true

[2] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/voices/reclaiming-e-word