8th Sunday after the Epiphany
Transfiguration of the Lord
Matthew 17: 1-9
February 23, 2020
Your Attention, Please
At last, we have come to the place in the service where I explain “the theology of Transfiguration, the parallelism with Moses on Mt. Sinai, and how the Transfiguration is a foretaste of the Parousia and a witness to the prophetic tradition of Elijah . . .” Perhaps not . . .
Historically, the Christian Church reserves the last Sunday of the Epiphany season – the Sunday before Lent begins, to tell the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Transfiguration Sunday is the culmination of all the light we have been celebrating since Advent began. In Advent, the darkness is slowly overcome by the increase in candles each week. At Christmas, the light of the world is born. The Epiphany star‘s light reveals a Savior for the whole world and all people. Transfiguration illumines the past of God’s people in the stories of Moses and Elijah and confirms that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah by placing him in their company. The light of God’s love blazes on top of the mountain.
Yet, there is something terrifying and unexplainable about this story. It doesn’t make sense. Not only is it odd, but this is the only Sunday of the Church year that has only ONE craft to accompany it. This is it. Responsible for 30 years of Sunday school, I can tell you this is problematic. That there is only ONE craft for Transfiguration tells me that adult curriculum developers are as puzzled by this story of Jesus on the mountain top as the rest of us are. Why is it so difficult to make sense of?
A thread of mystery weaves through the nine verses that begin chapter 17 in Matthew’s Gospel. But there is nothing subtle in this account. Rather, Matthew placed flashing lights all around these verses so that we pay particular attention to the Transfiguration. As we just heard, the story begins “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain . . .” The biblical number “six” and the mountain are the first markers Matthew places for us to notice. His largely Jewish audience would immediately have heard the echo of the story of Moses on Mount Sinai in Exodus and we are told that the cloud covered Moses for six days. Likewise, they would also remember that Elijah, too, climbed the mountain and heard God’s small voice in the silence. In case we missed the Old Testament references in this story, Moses and Elijah actually appear and converse with Jesus. Furthermore, Moses, Elijah and Jesus literally shine with the glory of the Holy. The Holy Voice Moses heard speak from the covering cloud, told him to give the law to God’s people. Elijah heard God in the still small voice that followed a tornado, an earthquake and an inferno. That same Holy Voice on the mountain names Jesus “the Beloved” and commands the followers of Jesus to “listen to him.” These words are familiar too – we heard that same Holy Voice at Jesus’ baptism.
The placement of the Transfiguration story in Matthew’s Gospel is also an important key to unlock the mystery of the Transfiguration. The events Matthew captures in the chapters prior to today’s reading highlight Jesus’ reframing and deepening the understanding of God’s law of love; love your enemies, resolve your conflicts with one another before you bring your gifts to the altar, and the Beatitudes that turn society’s values upside down and inside out. When we live God’s love, justice and mercy prevail. To “love God and neighbor,” is to stand with the poor, the stranger, the forgotten, the lost, the lonely and the powerless.
Having understood Matthew’s markers, we are ready to wrestle with the Transfiguration itself. What does it mean for Jesus, for the few disciples with him – and most importantly, what does it mean for us right now? Jesus knows what is coming. In the previous chapter of Matthew, Jesus begins “to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering . . . and be killed and on the third day be raised.” As with Moses and Elijah, Jesus and his message of God’s love, justice and mercy will be rejected. The same law of love that calls Jesus up the mountain will send him down from the mountain through the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus’ face that shines so brightly on the mountain top will be the same face that he will “turn toward Jerusalem” and the death and resurrection that wait for him there.
This mountain top moment is a springboard to the crucifixion. Matthew uses every rhetorical art available to him to compel the disciples – and us – to pay attention. As usual, the disciples aren’t. In the midst of what is certainly an amazing spiritual experience, Peter wants to make it a permanent reality and keep it close, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” How very human Peter is – he wants to hold on to the moment. He is awed by the loving light but frightened of it too. His response is to keep the Holy close, but his fear needs to contain it in dwellings where the Holy can be managed. Neatly confined to their “dwellings,” Peter would know where to find the Holy One whenever he needed to re-charge his faith batteries – without requiring that he be brave enough to let the light transfigure him too. But the Holy One is having none of it – the Voice speaks, Moses and Elijah disappear, and Peter and his companions are “overcome by fear.”
When God calls us to live more deeply into loving “God and our neighbors”– as individuals or a community of faith – it can, indeed, be very frightening. We might be asked to change our way of life, to do something we never wanted to do, to go more deeply into the wounded places in our lives, to step into the unknown. When God’s loving light penetrates the darkness, we risk being transfigured into a life and a community outside of our control. It is much easier to tuck our faith inside “dwellings” as Matthew describes them – and visit from time to time. But that is not what Jesus is asking his disciples to do – “Get up and do not be afraid.” Peter, James, and John get up as the light fades and follow Jesus down the mountain toward death and resurrection. The love that Jesus embodies cannot be lived within neat boundaries; secure dwelling places are not home for those who follow Jesus. The darkness of the cross shatters every boundary – the shinning resurrection truth tells us even death cannot contain such a love. Rather than take a risk, we like the disciples, sometimes prefer to ignore this truth. Human beings like boundaries. Boundaries tell us who we are and who we are not – who is in and who is out – who is worthy and who is not – who is loved and who is not. We hope our boundaries keep us safe – and we often prefer they protect us from crossing thresholds that lead to the pain, loss, suffering, and injustice of those who do not share our “dwellings.” Transfiguration summons us to take the light of the mountain top down into the gathering darkness. “Get up and do not be afraid” is a command to live more deeply into a love that refuses to stay in the dwellings of our choosing. Love calls us outside our comfortable dwellings – into the lives that are less privileged than ours. There is nothing sentimental or touchy-feely about this kind of love, although a lot of times we wish it were. Public theologian and civil rights advocate Cornel West reminds us that “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Doing the work of justice is how we are transfigured by the blaze of God’s love. It is how we leave our dwelling places behind to join those who have none. It will bring us mountain top moments where love is so bright, we will yearn to rest in it. But this is not the lesson of the Transfiguration. It is all the work following the mountain top moments that are the public face of the love that shatters boundaries. And as Jesus shows us this love always comes at a cost. It involves our making a decision to “get up and not be afraid.” It calls us to turn our faces to Jerusalem – and into the darkness of the hurting world around us.
An Op-Ed in the New York Times this past week tells of a Mormon woman’s experience of living beyond fear. In a piece entitled”Why I Have Become an Activist against Fear,” Sharlene Mullins Glenn recalls her mother’s way of making decisions based on a verse from 2 Timothy, “God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” Ms. Glenn remembers that her mother’s choices were always filtered through the lens of Christian compassion: “If you can’t find the love, it’s not of God,” she would say. “Love saves; fear destroys.” My mother applied this Scripture verse to whatever confronted her."
Ms. Glenn applies her mother’s scriptural test to the fear of our present time: “Fear insists that life is a zero-sum game. Love knows that there is enough, and to spare. Fear both proclaims and begets scarcity. Love invites and welcomes abundance. So I became increasingly concerned during the 2016 election cycle when a man who built his candidacy on a platform of fear — of immigrants, Muslims, refugees and others — inexplicably became not only the nominee of the party I had belonged to my entire life, but also president. This was a man who proclaimed, “Real power is, I don’t even want to use the word, fear.” She then founded a Facebook group called “Mormon Women for Ethical Government” which quickly grew from 2,000 Mormon women to over 4,000 women of all faith traditions who”felt compelled to act — to push back against fear and hate and take a stand for love.” Now incorporated as a 501(C) 4 non-profit with chapters in almost every state, “Women for Ethical Government” has registered over 20,000 new voters, organized protests at our southern border, lobbied for the marginalized in Washington, D.C. and in state capitals. These faithful women seek to live the truth Ms. Glenn names as their purpose: “We will not be complicit by being complacent. We believe that Jesus really meant it when he said that we should love our neighbors — meaning everyone, as the parable of the good Samaritan makes clear — and care for the poor, the sick, the homeless, the vulnerable. This is the calling of all Christians. We have been called to love.” Through the transfiguration of her mother, to her own transfiguration, the light of love Ms. Glenn shines in the darkness has transfigured a whole group of women who, in turn, have transfigured the lives of refuges, the poor, and the marginalized.
Being transfigured by love does not permit us to remain fearfully confined in our safe dwellings. Perhaps it isn’t that the Transfiguration is hard to understand; rather it is the demand love makes for us to leave our fear behind and live for others that we find so difficult. The Transfiguration is our invitation from Jesus to let God’s love and mercy transfigure us, individually and as a community of faith. Jesus asks us to leave the mountain behind and get into the frightening, painful and hard work of doing justice.
As the darkness of Lent approaches, Ms. Glenn reminds us, “We have our work cut out for us. In fact, the ante has just been raised in this conflict between fear and love.” May we choose to be transfigured by love. Amen.