Transfiguration Sunday, February 7, 2015
Let us pray: May we see. Amen.
Sometimes, truth lurks in the footnotes.
There, beneath the Gospel text, in The Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, Third Edition 2001, there, where the font gets small and squished, some unnamed, unknown editor wrote this:
“This account recalls an intense religious experience, the exact nature of which is uncertain.”
Strictly speaking, this statement is not Scripture. It is not part of the text handed down again and again in a Gospel we call Luke. But this footnote voices something that maybe the befuddled could have said, “This is an intense religious experience, the exact nature of which is uncertain.”
“Intense” is the modifier for all teen-age emotions. I was 14 when I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord & Savior. I remember what I was wearing: A homemade Bible costume made of bedsheets & Birkenstocks. I kneeled at the foot for a gigantic wooden cross that my youth groups had just paraded 3 miles through Suburbia. I think someone was playing Amy Grant & Michael W. Smith on a boom box. There, in the garden of the Community church of Mountain Lakes, I confessed my 14 year old sins and took Jesus into my heart. I’m less surprised that this all happened, at a United Church of Christ congregation no less, and more surprised that it stuck. It’s taken me years to be able to see and make sense of a God who shows up to tormented teenagers dressed in bible costumes. “This is an intense religious experience, the nature of which is uncertain.”
The disciples are utterly confused. Jesus brings Peter, James and John up the mountain to pray, but something far more cosmic occurs.
We don’t know how long has passed, then all of a sudden, Jesus’s appearance changes and then his clothes change too.
For many parts of the Western Church, it wasn’t just Jesus’s clothes that became white, but Jesus himself became white. For centuries, the Church has confused radiance with whiteness.
The appearance of Jesus’s face changed, as it did when Moses encountered the Lord. Jesus’s clothes became dazzling bright, radiant, reflective of the Glory of God: transfigured, or as the Greek reads, “metaphorphoses.”
We are in the midst of this profound moment where people with bodies previously considered ugly, unworthy, and expendable, are claiming their beauty, worth, and dignity. I think of a mantra that Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson has tweeted again and again: “I love my blackness. And yours.” The thing that the world despises? Dazzling. Transfigured.
Before this Transfiguration, Jesus told the disciples that his body will be taken by state-sponsored violence, rejected by the religious authorities, beaten, tortured, publicly humiliated, and killed. That which is despised? Dazzling. Transfiguration.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, an entire denomination that would not exist were it not for the racism of white Christians who would not see the equal dignity of Black Christians.
The founding cleric of the African Methodist Episcopal church changed his name from “Negro Richard” to “Richard Allen,” when he bought his own freedom. Transfiguration.
A companion and colleague of Bishop Richard Allen’s, Rev. Absalom Jones, the first African-America ordained as an Episcopal priest, cast aside the name of his former Master and changed his name from Absalom Wynkoop to Absalom Jones, a name intentionally chosen for the sound of its American-ness. Transfiguration.
And even in Absalom Jones’s intention to found St. Thomas’s African Episcopal Church of Philadelphia in 1794 you can here the aim of transfiguration: “to arise out of the dust and shake ourselves, and throw off that servile fear, that the habit of oppression and bondage trained us up in.” Transfiguration.
This week we woke up to the city transformed, blanketed in snow. Barren trees dazzled, trash on the sidewalk disappeared, every garbage pile became pure, and for a few hours, the whole world was glowed.
Transfiguration is more than just blanketing over. Transfiguration is an internal radiance that chances how we see Jesus Christ, the One who transfigures the suffering of the cross into glory, and the emptiness of the tomb into the fullness of life.
But true transfigurations are confusing. The mystics said that the Transfiguration both reveals and blinds. In a Transfiguration, we see the world as God sees, but that vision is utterly confusing. That Transfigured vision is so far from the world as it is, full of barren trees, trash piles, human division and brokenness all around.
In to that “an intense religious experience, the exact nature of which is uncertain,” Peter blurts out. Peter wouldn’t make a very good Quaker or contemplative. You get the sense that Peter is the guy who vestry meetings who couldn’t live with the tension or the silence, and just spoke to break the awkwardness. The radiant light is receding, Moses and Elijah are beginning to leave, and Peter interjects
“Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us build three dwellings…” (Luke 9:33).
Let us build 3 tabernacles here! If we just… If we just build three tabernacles!
If we just finish the building. If we just put in a new Sunday school classroom. … If we just had more contemporary music, if we just had more incense, If we just had more people, if we just could stay here. If we could just constrain where God decides to show up in ways that are more dependable and less uncertain. Peter turns to what is familiar, the Jewish festival of the Tabernacles, a harvest festival to commemorate God’s provision of the people while they were in exile. Let’s build something solid to escape our wandering.
The Church struggles mightily with this, to live with uncertainty. We are loath to acknowledge that for a pilgrim people, we’ve gotten mighty comfortable in our established buildings. Our churches become shelters from the storm rather than basecamps for the journey. When I am anxious, I share Peter’s impulse to sequester ourselves in our mystical experiences or our nice church buildings. Peter is our institutional id here, voicing our anxious impulse to fix solid what we cannot control, to settle in, and build a structure with clear boundaries that says here but not there.
But God won’t let Peter. The same Savior who cautions to take no extra pair of shoes, won’t let them stay put either. Jesus brought them up the mountain, and will lead them back down. Up and down, back and forth, toggling between worship of God and work in the World. Not just duty but delight, that they might be transfigured too.
The Massachusetts Council of Churches, on our best days, aims for this Transfiguration too, this back and forth of common worship and common work. To move our churches from our denominational silos, our safe tabernacles, to ministry in the world together. We are convinced that what binds us together in Christ is stronger that anything that divides us, and there’s plenty that still divides us. And we are convinced that when Jesus prayed in John 17 that the Church might be one, so that the world might believe in the One who sent Christ- this was not a polite recommendation from Jesus, but a mandate. Our unity is essential to our ministry. How can we show the world a loving God who reconciles all things to God’s self when we cannot be reconciled to one another? This is our work at the Massachusetts Council of Churches, to see with transfigured eyes, to see the Church not in all its divisions but in glorious union of what could be. Maybe you’ve seen the Church on those good, transfigured days, when the dividing walls fall down, when you’re serving together, when you can receive at the same table. Those days when you stand on the side of the mountain with the radiant Christ above, and the broken world below.
We stand here, awkwardly perched in the in-between, in front of a religious experience we may not understand, our feet sliding on the gravel that rolls down the mountain. It good for us to be here. Not necessarily easy, but good. Like the disciples, It is hard to stay woke to the uncertainty. It is Good for us to be here in the uncertain. Christ is here.
Many other Christians today are reading this Transfiguration text on the last Sunday before Lent. In Lent, we wander between these two peaks- The Mount of the Transfiguration and Golgotha. The days in-between these two mountain top experiences are set aside to examine that which is within us and around us that keeps us from being transfigured.
I’m honored that you award me today with All Saints 2016 Spirituality & Justice Award. You know this in your bones, spirituality and justice go together, indivisible. You practice this in your parish, the deep commitment to see every child of God as fully human, as deserving of equal dignity, maybe even as radiant.
I believe this is our work for the Church in this era, when we are no longer propped up by cultural norms, when the protest songs chanted in the streets are not necessarily the hymns of our churches. I believe that our common Christian witness is not just for our own good, but for the sake of the world.
- The more I pray, the more I long for our earth as it is in heaven.
- The more I read Scripture, the more I want to shout against false prophets and anemic Christianity.
- The more I come to the table, the more I notice the people who are missing.
- The more I come to the table, the louder the rumble in my belly for all to be fed.
- And the more I do this work for justice, the more I turn to God in awe and uncertainty.
350 years ago in France, an eighteen-year-old man sat in a drafty farmhouse, gazing out onto the desolation of the world in winter. Only barren trees were before him. But slowly, he began to see things on the naked branches. First leaves would appear, followed by flowers and fruit. In the depth of winter, God showed Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection all the abundance, all the power, all the radiance of God’s provision. Brother Lawrence spent the rest of his life in this practice of the presence of God, looking upon the barren branches and seeing God’s provision, looking upon the cross and seeing God’s glory.
“An intense religious experience, the nature of which is uncertain. “
May we see with eyes of the Transfiguration.
May we be transfigured, too.