Encounters with the real Jesus always transform us. Things can change, the world can change, we can change and in fact, that is the very purpose of the life of faith. How are you being transfigured?
The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and commandments I have written for their instruction.” 13 Then Moses set out with Joshua his aide, and Moses went up on the mountain of God. 14 He said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we come back to you. Aaron and Hur are with you, and anyone involved in a dispute can go to them.” 15 When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, 16 and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud. 17 To the Israelites the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. 18 Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
When my father was 12, his family moved from Columbia, California, in the Sierra foothills, to Stockton. His family was poor; his home life was bad; he hadn’t had much moral guidance. His future looked pretty grim when he stumbled into the Stockton YMCA. There, a Christian youth leader called Woody saw that my dad had intelligence and gifts for leadership. Woody got to know my dad, and let him know he was valued in a way no one at home had done. Woody arranged for scholarships so my dad could go to Y camp up at Lake Alpine in the High Sierras. After a couple of years, he invited my dad to be part of an elite group of campers. In an initiation ritual on a High Sierra mountaintop, each boy chose a tree that represented his life. My dad found a tree that was gnarled and twisted close to the ground. It was probably stunted by heavy snow in its early years. But then about four feet above the forest floor, the tree shot straight and tall into the sky. My dad was 14 years old, and in choosing that tree, he was making a decision about his life, a decision that was made possible by Woody’s love. It was a decision to love others in that same way. It was a mountaintop experience for my dad. And it was transforming. It changed my dad’s life, and, I daresay, the lives of the family he’d have one day, including my life.
The possibility of transformation is the essence of hope. We aren’t stuck with the way things are. You aren’t stuck with the way things are. Things can change, the world can change, we can change, and this is the very purpose of the life of faith. Transfiguration – change, transformation – is both an event in the life of Christ and a process in the life of the world.
The event in the life of Christ that we call the Transfiguration is the story we hear today, a story we find in Mark and Luke as well as in Matthew. It describes a change, and a mountaintop experience, and we hear it every year on Transfiguration Sunday, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. It’s one of those stories drenched with meaning and truth, and we aren’t supposed to get distracted by whether it’s a factual account of an historical event. If you get stuck on that question, you’ll miss the good stuff.
Matthew tells us that Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain. This is a biblical signal that something important is about to happen. In the Exodus passage, Moses encountered the glory of God in fire and clouds on Mount Sinai. Think of other biblical mountains: The Sermon on the Mount, the Mount of Olives. In the Bible, mountains tell us God is near.
The disciples see their teacher and friend transformed before their eyes. Moses and Elijah appear, connecting Jesus with the long history of God’s deliverance and with God’s prophetic word to a sometimes unfaithful, but always beloved, people. Peter gets busy and suggests they build tents and stay here a while. Maybe it’s a way to capture the moment; maybe it’s a way to control it, as people often do when they’re confronted with the unexplainable. But he’s interrupted by God’s voice. The words aren’t new – we heard these same words at Jesus’ baptism – but the disciples hadn’t heard them that other time, and the timing here is important. This story is sandwiched in between two times when Jesus explains what lies ahead in Jerusalem. The point is that the one who will suffer and die in Jerusalem is no less than the glorious, beloved Son of God. Then God adds a further instruction. “Listen to him.”
This story is called the Transfiguration because Jesus’ appearance is transfigured, but it isn’t just Jesus who is changed. The disciples are given an utterly transforming glimpse. They understand who Jesus is in a whole new way, and it changes everything. It is, indeed, a mountaintop experience. Encounters with the real Jesus are always transforming – and in fact that is our job, as Christians – to be transformed by our encounter with Christ. A pastor writes, “The person who knows Jesus becomes a different person. A person who has not changed has not met Jesus. It is that simple. Christianity is not an intellectual belief, an acceptance of a creed or a doctrine or the particular beliefs of some particular denomination. Christianity is a personal encounter with God, a personal contact with Jesus that makes life different. It is a life that is transformed in the home, at the office, at school, and in … personal conduct.”
“The person who knows Jesus becomes a different person.” But how does this work? How do we have an encounter with the real Jesus? The story gives us a clue: “Listen to him,” says God. But listen to what? Jesus doesn’t say anything at this point. Which makes me think God means that Jesus’ disciples are to listen to all that Jesus says.
How do we listen to Jesus? Scripture is an obvious place to start. That’s why we do what we do here every Sunday. We listen together. We figure out, together, how Jesus’ words impact our lives. When we listen to Jesus in Scripture, we’ll hear, “Be the light of the world. Where there are dark places, be the light especially there. Be the salt of the earth. Bring out the true flavor of what it is to be truly alive. Be life-givers to others. Love each other. Heal the sick. Raise the dead, cleanse the lepers.” We’ll hear, “Peace be with you.” “I will give you rest.” “Take heart … do not be afraid.” We’ll hear that we will keep our heart only by giving our heart away, that we will find ourselves only by losing ourselves in love, that we will gain salvation only by spreading our arms wide for one another, and that we will be saved together, not in separation. We’ll hear that loving our neighbors as ourselves is the most important, the most earth-shattering, and the most world-saving way we can love God.
But … Scripture isn’t the only way to listen to Jesus. The 14th century Persian poet Hafiz wrote:
Is God speaking
Why not be polite and
Everyone is God speaking. Everyone is Christ speaking. Christ speaks to us again and again through other people, through their stories and lives: through our loved ones, through the person sitting next to you in the pew, through the person whose life is utterly different from yours or mine, and through people whose stories we might prefer not to hear. Listening to others, expecting to hear Christ speaking through them, just might be one of the best ways to love our neighbors.
Now, listening doesn’t mean agreeing. We’ve all heard someone say, “You’re not listening to me!” when what he or she really means is, “You don’t agree with me!” Listening to someone doesn’t mean we abandon our integrity. It does mean listening with generosity; with what St. Benedict called “the ear of your heart.” Listening with the ear of your heart means listening with empathy, with an open heart. It means listening in a way that might actually open us to change.
Which isn’t necessarily easy or comfortable. There’s an old saying that the job of the church is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. This saying originally referred to newspapers, not churches, but in any event I’ve always taken issue with this saying because I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t in some real way afflicted. I don’t know a single soul who isn’t in need of significant comfort, and grace, and I don’t think you do, either. But here’s the way the old saying makes sense: Apparently, in order for people to be transformed, they need two things. Always two things: They need the push of discomfort, and they need the pull of hope. The push of discomfort, and the pull of hope. Discomfort without hope won’t change us. If you’re uncomfortable but have no hope, you become apathetic, despairing, resigned. On the other hand, hope without discomfort doesn’t do it either. That’s just wishful thinking, and it often means we’re ignoring someone’s pain – either our own pain or someone else’s. It’s only the presence of both – discomfort and hope – that gets us to move, to alter course, to do a 180, to change.
The professor of a graduate class for social workers asked her students to write down their first short response to the idea of privilege. One white woman wrote, “You don’t know me. I came from nothing. I worked for everything I have. I didn’t come from privilege – I’m just like you. So stop feeling sorry for yourself.” This led to a very uncomfortable discussion about unearned privilege. The class read Peggy McIntosh’s powerful article on the invisibility of privilege, and then began to bring to the surface what privilege meant for them. A Latino student talked about the pain of having his daughter come home from kindergarten, telling him that they only had crayons with skin colors for white kids, so her self-portrait didn’t look like her. A white student responded with her summary of white privilege: “I’m white, and everything is made for me.” A black female student said, “I’m straight. I can hold hands with my boyfriend without fearing violence.” Another student said, “I’m a Christian. I can wear my cross necklace to school and no one calls me a terrorist.” A white man said, “Unlike my wife, I’m not afraid to run before it gets hot in the early morning, when it’s still dark out.”
After listening to everyone explore both their pain and their privilege, the white woman who had written the “you don’t know me” note said, “I get it, but I can’t spend my life focusing on negative things – especially what the black and Latino students are talking about. It’s just too hard. It’s too painful.” As soon as she said that, it hit her. That’s privilege. Privilege is when you get to decide whether or not to think about something. Before anyone could say another word, the woman covered her face with her hands and started to cry. The whole class came together in that messy, complicated pain. She wiped her face and said, “Oh my God. I get it: I can choose to be bothered when it suits me. I don’t have to live this every day.”
And suddenly, there was hope. This kind of revelation, that kind of change, that kind of transfiguration happens only when people listen – with openness, with generosity, with the ears of their hearts, willing to experience that push of discomfort, and willing to move forward with the pull of hope.
Transfiguration Sunday is always the Sunday before Lent. For centuries, Lent has been the season when we focus with new energy on the process of transfiguration that happens over the lifetime of a person of faith. Our theme this Lent, which begins this Wednesday, is “From Mourning to Dancing,” a line from Psalm 30. It points to the transformation promised not only at Easter, but over the course of the life of faith. We’ll have extra opportunities to listen to Jesus in our Lenten Bible studies. Perhaps we might also practice listening for his message in the words and stories of others – in our personal relationships, in the public sector, even in the annual congregational meeting. Listening just might be our most important, transfiguring encounter with the real Jesus, and the most fundamental hope for our broken, divided world.
The possibility of transformation is the essence of hope. We aren’t stuck with the way things are. You aren’t stuck with the way things are. Your family, our church, our nation – none of them is stuck with the way things are. One of my favorite pieces of wisdom from Anne Lamott, one I return to again and again, is that God loves you just the way you are. God loves all of us more than we can possibly imagine, exactly the way we are. And God loves us too much to let us stay like this.
May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2020 all rights reserved.