February 22, 2009
SERMON OF FEBRUARY 22, 2009
M. Bruce McKay
"Seeing the Light"
The 4th and final verse of Julia Ward Howe’s familiar hymn begins with these words. They often come to mind on Transfiguration Sunday because they are virtually the only other place where I’ve come across the word transfigure – other than today’s text and its parallel versions in Matthew and Luke.
The word in Mark translated transfigured is metamorphoo in Greek - the origin of our metamorphosis - meaning to change form or appearance. Webster’s Dictionary says that “to transfigure” means “to transform so as to glorify.”
When Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John he was transformed before their eyes. They “saw the light”, you might say, about who Jesus was in an entirely new way. And they “saw the light” about who they were in an entirely new way.
They saw the light of God’s glory on the mountain and it was this same light that they would see back down in the valley of their daily lives.
Transfiguration Sunday invites us to see the transforming light of God’s glory shining that day on the mountain through Jesus and it invites us to see this same transforming light shining in our lives and in our world.
There was a glory in his bosom that transfigures – transforms - you and me!
The story starts with the words - "After six days...” It was six days after Jesus had stopped along the way to Caesaria Phillipi and asked his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?"
Jesus then told his disciples and everyone else who'd gathered around, "If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."
Then, after six days, our story begins.
Peter, James and John are apart with Jesus, on a high mountain - the symbolic place of revelation. Jesus' garments begin to shine with a brilliance that was a sign of God's presence. Jesus converses with Moses - the giver of the Law - and with Elijah - the Prophet - and then suddenly there's only Jesus, and the voice of God, which last spoke at Jesus' baptism, again declaring him to be “the beloved Son of God.”
But this time there's no secret involved - as there was in the Jordan. For now God says to all those present - "This is my beloved Son," and not, as before, "You are my beloved Son." The assurance of Jesus' identity as the Christ, the fulfiller of both the Law and the Prophets, is meant for his disciples..."This is my beloved Son, listen to him."
What he's been talking about before this event and what he will say after it relates to his own suffering and death - a subject that Peter didn't want to discuss in Caesaria Phillipi - and one which is far from his mind on the mountain of transfiguration.
Mark tells us that Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let's make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."
Sometimes we say that what Peter wanted was to preserve the moment - to freeze time at the peak of this mountaintop experience, by creating a holy hall of fame.
Perhaps so, but there is more to it than that. Moses and Elijah, while both people of the past, were also associated with the future. For God had said that at the end of time there would arise a leader like Moses, and that Elijah would come again at the close of the age.
Peter looked at the brilliant appearance of the glorified Jesus in the company of Moses and Elijah and he assumed that the long-expected day had finally come. The future had arrived. "Let's make the dwellings," he said.
But Peter was mistaken. He'd seen the light of God’s future - but it hadn't yet fully come. He'd caught a glimpse of God's glory - but couldn't possess it in the present. It was still just beyond his grasp.
The future he'd seen would only be revealed – it would only come within reach - to the extent that he allowed it to shape his own life – back down in the valley.
Seeing the transforming light of God’s glory in Jesus would only happen to others if Peter, James and John allowed it to transform their lives as well.
This would be no small task for those on the mountain with Jesus – just as it’s no small task for those who would follow him today.
Having seen the transforming light of God’s glory shining in Jesus Peter, James and John were confused and afraid – “they didn’t know what to say, for they were terrified,” Mark tells us.
Instead of creating confidence and clarity this encounter with the holy left then confused.
Their world had just been turned up side down. There was no way they could go back to business as usual in their lives, without somehow being changed themselves.
In Bible Study a while ago, a person said, "What makes it difficult for me to describe my encounters with God’s glory is knowing that if I tell someone about it, I'll feel responsible for living my life differently - for living in a way that somehow reveals what I’ve experienced. And it makes me afraid to even imagine how different my life might be.”
He also saw that in the light of God’s glory we are all one – one people created by one God for one purpose – to reveal the light of God’s glory in our own lives.
One of the early theologians of the church said that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive” - fully alive to God’s presence and purpose in their life. (Irenaeus)
Walter Brueggemann is the most well known UCC theologian alive today. He notes how many of our methods of interpreting the Bible are means of protecting us from the demands of Scripture. He argues that we try to tame Scripture by making it historical (did it happen?), asking if it’s rational (is it logical?), or traditional (does it fit the teachings of the church?).
Brueggemann argues that one of our problems is that we lack the fertile imagination that’s required to let Scripture speak to us in all of its sovereign freedom.
He says that stories like the story of Jesus’ transfiguration are “utterances that assault our closely held worlds. They are surprise raids, surprise assaults on (our) imagination…” (Quoted in W. Willimon’s Pulpit Resource, January – March 2006, p. 39-40)
Ruby Bridges, whose example I’ve used before, is someone who comes to mind in the light of today’s text as someone who became fully alive as a young child, allowing us to see the light of God’s glory shining through her.
Ruby also comes to mind today – 2 days before Mardi Gras – as the City of New Orleans continues its 3 year rise from the muck and mire of Hurricane Katrina and from the muck and mire of racism’s lingering legacy.
Ruby Bridges was 1 of the 4 six year old Black girls to first integrate the public schools in New Orleans in the early sixties. She was from a family of faith and in her short life she’d heard many stories from the Bible.
In the fall of 1960, to get to school each day, she walked through crowds of heckling white parents who’d removed their children from the school because of Ruby and her 3 Black classmates.
“I don’t know where that little girl gets the courage,” her first grade teacher said to Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist working in New Orleans. Then she continued –
There must be 40 or 50 grown men and women out on those streets every morning and every afternoon, sometimes more. One of the marshals said to me the other day: `That girl. She’s got guts; she’s got more courage than I’ve ever seen anyone have…’ He said Ruby didn’t even seem afraid… I agree with him; she doesn’t seem afraid.
There was a time at the beginning, when I thought she wasn’t too bright…and so that was why she could be so brave…But she’s a bright child, and she learns well. She knows what’s happening, and she knows they could kill her...But she keeps coming here, and she told me the other day she feels sorry for all of them, and she’s praying for them. Can you imagine that?” (Robert Coles)
Yes we can!
Yes we can imagine that if we can imagine being on that mountain with Peter, James and John and seeing Jesus shine with the light of God’s glory – the light in which we are all one in our very holy, very human lives.
When I got a call last Wednesday afternoon here at the church from Phoebe’s sister Barbara, I knew the news would not be good. Barbara was at the Hospice Facility in Scarborough, Maine where her 91 father was being taken at her request. When they took him out of the ambulance he was gone.
Barbara is a social worker who’s spent her life working with troubled young people and their families. For the last 10 years she’s helped care for her husband who was left a paraplegic after back surgery that went wrong. She’d also been the primary family caregiver for her father for the 2 years he’d been in assisted living.
And now, at this moment, all she could see was his death and what she had done wrong or might have done differently.
As I spoke with her on the phone I imagined her there at the Hospice Facility with the body of Charlie Adams nearby. Through Barbara’s tears and anguish I saw the beauty of her life and her father’s life. I saw this beauty even in the face of death. You might say I saw a glory in her bosom that transfigured me.
In the light of God’s glory I saw a human being fully alive.
In the light of God’s glory we see that are all one. We see that we are all terminal. And we see that somehow, someway that only God fully understands, that death is not the end.
Knowing this we can imagine what it means to live our own God-given life with passion and purpose, and we can live that life each day.
Knowing this we can imagine not only a future, but a present as well, when “justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream!” (Amos 5:24)
Knowing this our eyes can see the glory of the coming of the Lord!
Knowing this our eyes can see that death doesn’t have the last word.
Knowing this we can see that love is the victor and the end is life!
To God be the glory – this day and forever more!