August 4, 2019
Transfiguration Happens – August 4, 2019
Sermon for Aug. 4, 2019
Feast of the Transfiguration, transferred
This morning, we’re marking the feast of the Transfiguration, which is Tuesday; and we’re taking the opportunity to celebrate the sacrament of baptism. At first glance, these two aspects of our celebration may not seem to have much to do with each other. But, as is so often true about our sacred stories and our sacred rites, there’s more going on here than meets the eye.
So, about our Gospel reading this morning – what’s going on there? Honestly, the story of the Transfiguration has always been a little bewildering to me, as I think it must have been for the disciples. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a mountain to pray. That should get us ready for something significant to happen because, in our tradition, both prayer and mountains are settings where God shows up. It was as Jesus prayed, following his baptism, that the Holy Spirit descended on him and God’s voice boomed from the clouds, affirming Jesus as God’s own Son (Luke 3:21-22). It was as Jesus prayed, in the Garden of Gethsemane, that he gave himself fully to the journey to the cross to save us (Luke 22:39-46). And mountains are important, too. It was on Mt. Sinai that God called to Moses from the burning bush, sending him to free the people from Pharaoh (Exodus 3:1-12). It was on Mt. Sinai that God empowered Elijah to defeat an unfaithful Israelite king and raise up faithful kings and prophets instead (1 Kings 19:1-18). So, combine prayer and a mountain, and you’ve got a recipe for powerful experience.
Well, as Jesus, Peter, James, and John pray, something powerful does happen. The appearance of Jesus’ face changes, as had the face of Moses when he went to meet God on the mountain; and Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white. Then, as their plane of reality intersects with God’s own space and time, Moses and Elijah show up, though they’ve both been dead for centuries. They talk with Jesus about something they all understand: sacrifice, putting yourself at risk for others. For Jesus, it’s his departure – in Greek, his exodus – that he’ll accomplish on that cross outside Jerusalem. But the storyline is familiar to his historic companions. Moses had put his life on the line to save God’s people by the Exodus through the Red Sea. Elijah had put his life on the line to show Yahweh’s kingship and bring the people back into relationship with the one true God. So often, God gives us an experience of divine glory to prepare us to give ourselves away.
Now, Peter, James, and John had been in a prayerful trance, but they rouse and find themselves in this intersection of their reality and God’s reality. They see Jesus’ face glowing and his clothes shining like sunlight. Even they get it that Jesus is not just their teacher and friend; he’s on a par with the two superstars of Jewish tradition, Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets in the flesh. So, Peter says they should honor all three by setting up booths or tents or dwellings, as Jewish people did when they celebrated the Exodus each year. Peter wants to make this incredible moment concrete – to help the disciples remember and hold onto their intersection with heaven itself.
But God gives them even more, something to guarantee this will be a moment they’ll never forget. The cloud of God’s presence overshadows them, as it had come down on Mt. Sinai when God gave Moses the Law. And these three regular guys, along with the three divine spokesmen, get to hear the voice of God itself. If you think that sounds terrifying, you’re right. What’s about to come? Proclamation? Judgment? Destruction? No. Instead, what comes is clarity. “This is my Son, my Chosen,” God exclaims. “Listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)
I’ve always loved the fact that, in this story that climaxes with God ordering people to listen to Jesus, Jesus has precisely nothing to say. As Elijah discovered in his mountaintop experience, and as Rita Kendagor reminded us last Sunday, we often don’t find God in the drama or in the yelling. We often find God in the “sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12), in those moments when there are no words. Lives change more by experience than by command.
We’ll have one of those experiences this morning, as we celebrate the sacrament of baptism. There will certainly be words involved, and those words matter: promises to support tiny people as they grow into the full stature of Christ; promises to follow Jesus as Savior and Lord; a covenant to trust in God and follow God’s ways through prayer, repentance, proclaiming Good News, loving our neighbors, and respecting the dignity of everyone, no matter how different they might seem. There will be many words in that baptismal rite. But what completes the encounter with the living God, what makes our plane of reality intersect with God’s own space and time, is the power of divine presence, this time come to us in sanctified water. There will be words for me to say; but even if I couldn’t speak, God would still wash away sin, raise the candidates into new life, and welcome them into the family. That’s the action of God, not the one who pours the water. And in that moment of divine encounter, lives will change.
I want to share with you another experience of encounter and transfiguration I was blessed to witness last week. Now, this has been a week of deeply sacramental moments, significant stops along our journey of a lifelong relationship with God. Today, we’re baptizing babies. Yesterday, two young adults committed themselves, to God and to each other, in the covenant of holy matrimony. And Thursday, we commended a faithful disciple to God’s eternal care. All these are moments of deep encounter – but so was a moment I wasn’t supposed to see.
I came into the nave one afternoon this week, and I noticed a figure over in the columbarium, a staff member, actually. She was alone, kneeling at the votive candles, praying. I have no idea what she was saying to God, or whether she was saying anything at all. She may have been listening. She may have been remembering. She may have been experiencing the beauty of holiness in this stunning space. Or she may have been experiencing the presence of Jesus Christ in the sound of sheer silence, assuring her that she is beloved; that she is empowered; and that she is called, by virtue of her baptism, to be part of God’s project of loving the world into submission. I don’t know exactly what was happening as she knelt there, but I do know this: She was journeying up the mountain, making herself available, seeking an intersection with God’s own space and time.
Transfiguration happens – in baptismal water, in marriage vows, in incense rising beside a casket, in Bread and Wine bringing Jesus’ real presence into our real lives. And, transfiguration happens in the simple act of simple prayer. Open yourself to that possibility. Look for it. Listen for it. Ask for it. Then, be still; and let God work.