A Sermon by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2021
Transfiguration Sunday • February 14, 2021
After two months in the season of Epiphany, we come back here, where we remembered the stable, to the mystery of God in the world. All these Sundays, we have been populating the crèche, adding to it, the bandaids that symbolize the people Jesus healed, the figures that represent ourselves, the Wise Ones who came from far away, Gentiles whom no one had thought were part of the story, the shepherds, the angel, the animals, each a part of our world, each a part of us. But today we come back, back to this single experience, this single moment: God born into the world, vulnerable, watching, hoping.
Think of yourself in this scene. You walk in, seeing the young mother with that special look of both exhaustion and fierce pride new mothers have. You greet the father and give your flowers, admire the baby in her arms and then as she turns to you, looks into your eyes, smiles and asks, “Do you want to hold him?” and not knowing what else to say, you say sure, and the child is handed to you. There: in your arms, you hold the mystery of God in the world.
We’ve been reading the stories of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The assigned readings have jumped ahead. Jesus has stood up in the synagogue and read, he’s preached, his neighbors have seen him heal and they have been amazed. He’s called out to the souls of some so that they followed him and they, too, are amazed. Perhaps what amazes them most is that they are here, that their one out of the blue “Yes” to his call has turned into a commitment that grows every day. But they have seen more than the ecstasy of healing; they have seen the growing anger of the officials and the clergy. Just before this trip up the mountain, he told them something they admit only to themselves, only at night, only alone: at the end of this road, there is a cross instead of a throne. They have come to the mountain, where he goes alone to pray. They have come to the mountain as we go to the stable, hoping for something new, expecting something familiar.
Now they stand there and the text tells us that on that mountain, in that place which can’t help reminding everyone of all the other mountain tops. It reminds us of Sinai, where the little tribe of refugees from Egypt God had amazingly defended and called out of slavery to service gathered, and just in case we miss the point Moses is there.
It reminds us of Horeb, where Elijah fled after God reclaimed that people through his Word and action, brining down the full fury of Queen Jezebel, that representative of pagan, consumer culture, so that in the very moment of victory, Elijah haas to flee and ends up in a cave. There, on that mountain, he heard God’s call, God’s blessing and confirmation, in a still small voice. And just in case we miss the point, there’s Elijah.
Now these followers of Jesus come to their own mountain top They see Jesus shine. There he is: do you see him? “Jesus was transfigured,” the text says. I’ve been studying this text and preaching it for more than 40 years and I still don’t know what that really means. The disciples see Jesus shining in a new and amazing way. ‘Transfiguration’ means transformed, so we have to ask: what is being transformed? Not Jesus: he is the same as he always has been. What is being changed here is the disciple’s understanding. They are getting a glimpse of who Jesus really is and it amazes them and burns in their memory for years afterward.
It’s so rare for us to really see someone for who they really are. My mother was 30 when I was born, an older mother for 1951. Of course, I never thought of that fact and what it might have meant to her. Over the years we had our ups and downs but one thing was constant: she was always and in some sense just my mom. I was in my 40’s one day when I met up with her at the airport in Tampa after we hadn’t seen each other in almost a year. She took one look and said, “Oh, Jim, you need a haircut.” Only your mom says this. I just saw this one dimension, saw her in reference to myself. In 1995, when she was in her 70’s, my father died and in the process of cleaning things out somehow I ended up with her college scrapbook. It was stunning to page through it and see my mother as a young woman, dating, getting called to the dean’s office for violating her curfew. Who was this woman?
A few years later, a friend of mine who was into genealogy encouraged me to dig into my own family history. When I asked my mother for information, she offered a glimpse of life growing up during the depression in the 1930s. She told me about being angry when her family took in other family members and she lost her room to them; about her grandmother knitting her wool caps that made her feel ashamed because they are home made. Somewhere in those talks, she also told me about fighting with my father when I was a kid and she wanted to work; he wanted a wife who stayed home. She told me about how hard it was to go back to college in her 40s and get her Master of Library Science degree. Bit by bit, my mother began to emerge as a person, not just my mother. When she was in her last days, I sat with her and heard more stories and when she died, she left a letter and talked about the conflicted time of my adolescence. I don’t believe I nearly know the whole woman she was but I am so thankful that I got to know her not just as mom but as a real person, a whole person.
I think something like that happened to the disciples. Just before that, Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” and Peter responds famously, “The Christ.” We like that; we want to think of ourselves as Peter. We often skip the next part where Jesus explains this means a cross, Peter argues with him and Jesus rebukes him, the same word used to cast out demons. Peter, the emblem of the faithful disciple, the founder of the church begins as someone Jesus sees holding him back when Jesus has a mission, Jesus has a call, Jesus has a way.
Thom Shuman, says about this,
…most of us have had some sort of mountaintop experience, even if it is in the back of a taxi, or walking down a hospital hallway, or reading to a bunch of kids. Most of us know what it is like to want to build great reminders of who we are or where we have been, only to be pointed to those down in the valleys we are called to serve. Most folks have experienced that desire to stay where they are, rather than venture into the unknown, whatever and wherever that is. Most of us are reluctant to take off the comfortable and scuffed loafers of the past and leave it behind while putting on the new, stiff, blister-causing shoes of the future.
We’re like Peter, standing there without a clue, hoping we do the right thing or say the right thing in Jesus’ eyes, while Jesus is looking past us at the next step to take, the next person to serve, the next neighborhood to clean up, the next task to undertake, the next mountaintop that is waiting for us down in the valley.
What does transfiguration mean? Perhaps just this: that it’s time for us to stop putting our own pictures of the past up and labeling them with his name and see him for who he really is. It’s time for us to stop thinking of him as just another man, a good one, an important one, who does good things: exorcises, heals, preaches love. It’s time for us to see him for who he really is: the shining, embodied, light of the love of God.
Of course, we are here too; we are in the picture and honestly? God is gently making fun of us, like a parent laughing about a child’s fumbling efforts. Look closely: see us? We’re the ones with Peter. The whole glory of God is on display and all Peter can say is, “It’s a good thing we’re here!—let’s put up some huts, get some shelter from all this, make a place to hide.” The text says he was terrified. Isn’t this us? Isn’t this what we do: we see everything in reference to ourselves and our first thought when the world scars us is to put up some sheds, find some shelter. But God won’t have it; God ignores Peter and shifts the whole point back to Jesus. This is what God says on the mountain, this is the whole point of the mountain top moment: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” There it is, there’s all of it. At the baptism, where we began two months ago, when heaven opened, we got the first part—“This is my Son, the Beloved”—now we get the consequence, the invitation he represents: “Listen to him.”
This is the choice we make as Christians every day. We can build sheds and celebrate the fact that we’re here or we can listen to the beloved son of God. When we listen, we can’t help but hear his call. When we listen, we can’t help but see him shine, as he shone in their hearts. Shine Jesus: shine.