A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Transfiguration Sunday/C • February 7, 2016
“You are my beloved”. Twice, the gospels tell us, heaven opened and Jesus heard in his deepest soul God speaking these words. Once at his baptism; again, late in his ministry, when he took his closest friends up a mountain and they saw how like the great prophets Moses and Elijah he was. Because we aren’t reading these stories in order, we miss some of the context. Before this, he has healed and offered hope; before this he has taught his friends his path will lead to a cross. They have argued with him, feared for him, followed him. Now he shines with the vision of this mission, now he is transfigured, altered, like the wick of a candle, as the love of God burns and sheds light in the world. What happens on the mountain? How many have asked this? Yet if we truly look, we will know what happen because we see it ourselves at times. We have been thinking about how to live together in the covenant community of Christ and last week we heard the most important principle of all: to live from the permanent love of God. What happens on the mountain? What happens when we live in the love of God?
Let me tell you a story. There was once an old stone monastery tucked away in the middle of a picturesque forest. For many years people would make the significant detour required to seek out this monastery. The peaceful spirit of the place was healing for the soul.
In recent years, however, fewer and fewer people were making their way to the monastery. The monks had grown jealous and petty in their relationships with one another, and the animosity was felt by those who visited. The Abbot of the monastery was distressed by what was happening, and poured out his heart to his good friend Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a wise old Jewish rabbi. Having heard the Abbot’s tale of woe he asked if he could offer a suggestion. “Please do” responded the Abbot. “Anything you can offer.”
Jeremiah said that he had received a vision, and the vision was this: the messiah was among the ranks of the monks. The Abbot was flabbergasted. One among his own was the Messiah! Who could it be? He knew it wasn’t himself, but who? He raced back to the monastery and shared his exciting news with his fellow monks. The monks grew silent as they looked into each other’s faces. Was this one the Messiah?
From that day on the mood in the monastery changed. Joseph and Ivan started talking again, neither wanting to be guilty of slighting the Messiah. Pierre and Naibu left behind their frosty anger and sought out each other’s forgiveness. The monks began serving each other, looking out for opportunities to assist, seeking healing and forgiveness where offense had been given.
As one traveler, then another, found their way to the monastery word soon spread about the remarkable spirit of the place. People once again took the journey to the monastery and found themselves renewed and transformed. All because those monks knew the Messiah was among them.
Let me tell you another story. Almost 16 years ago, I stood in the chancel of another church, a church where I had been the pastor for five years, a place I knew well. But on that day, another minister was at the center, directing our worship, a man who is like a father to me. And as I stood there and looked out at the congregation, Jacquelyn appeared in a white dress at the back and there was a light around her. In moments she was next to me, a few moments later we were married. We were changed, changed by love, and that has made all the difference.
One more story. Two years ago, I was still healing from a wound from which I thought I’d never recover. I was only just beginning to believe the astonishing sense I’d received from God that I wasn’t finished, that God had more for me to do. I read the information about this church and set it aside; Jacquelyn insisted I read it again, contact the committee and I did. A few months later I came here for the first time, stood in this pulpit and addressed you and, just like the day with Jacquelyn, we made a new covenant. We were changed, changed by love, and that has made all the difference.
What happened on the mountain?. In those moments, those disciples saw Jesus in a new way and a new covenant began. We often live in the past. We use it to draw lessons, we use it to guide us, to help us avoid hurts. But the gospel wants us to see ahead, not just behind. Transfiguration is a glimpse of the future, of where we are going, of a moment when we can see that God has been doing the same thing all along, in Moses, in Elijah, now in Jesus: reaching out to embrace us, inviting us to embrace each other.
I tell these stories this morning because transfiguration doesn’t just happen on a mountain far away, it happens in our lives, it happens when we open ourselves to God’s love, when we take a moment to look up from our wounds and let God’s love embrace us. John Sumwalt tells of a friend who had a powerful experience of the holy. She wasn’t sure who she could tell. She couldn’t think of anyone in the church and ended up sharing it with a Buddhist priest. He told her “not to try to dissect it for meaning, pick away at it or anything else – but just to let it sit. His words were “Hold it in your heart. It may be years before you even catch a glimmer of understanding.” Whenever heaven opens and God’s love is so evidently, clearly, showered down, a difference is made; all the difference is made.
What happens on the mountain is that the disciples see Jesus in a new way. They see him as the child of God, embraced, loved. What happens when we see each other that way? We gather in the name of Jesus who was transfigured on the mountain and as the continuing expression of that covenant community of disciples. Like them, I think we often misunderstand him; like them, we aren’t always ready to follow immediately where he’s going. But when we do, when we ourselves hope in that love, have faith in that love, practice that love, what happens? Christ comes; God blesses. And the kingdom is here, right here, among us. Today I want to close with a poem from Malcom Guide.
For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.
What happens on the mountain can happen, does happen.
May it happen in your life this week.