Transfiguration Means Change – a sermon

The audio for today’s sermon for Last Epiphany is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

In the fall of 2013, we held a series of community conversations here at Saint Paul’s.  In groups of ten to twenty, we gathered around a meal and discussed our life together.  We talked about what brought us to Saint Paul’s and what kept us here.  We imagined what the ideal church might look like, and we peered into our crystal ball to dream about how we could improve our parish to better accomplish our mission of reaching up in worship, reaching in to serve, and reaching out in love to the glory of Jesus Christ.  Inevitably, at each of those gatherings, we ended up talking about change.  At one of the dinners, I heard the old adage that the only person that likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.  At the time, Lainey was about six months old and going through a phase where every time we tried to change her diaper, she would engage the alligator death roll technique, flipping again and again in an effort to avoid being changed.  It seems nobody, not even a baby with a wet diaper likes change. That’s a real bummer for me as a preacher because God’s call to change our lives is what the Transfiguration is all about.

Our story begins with a plot note that we are six days later.  This begs the question, six days after what?  Six days after two monumental events.  Jesus and his disciples had made their way to Caesarea Philippi, a town built by Phillip the Second, one of the three sons of Herod the Great, and named after the Emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus.  It was a distinctly Roman city with a distinctly pagan past, built atop the ruins of the Temple of Pan, the Greek god of desolate places.  As they made their way to this town that served as a gateway to Gentile territory, Jesus began to ask his disciples some questions.  “Who do people say that I am?” he asked.  “John the Baptist,” said some.  Some thought maybe he was Elijah.  Others wondered if he was one of the prophets promised in the lineage of Moses.  “That’s well and good,” Jesus replied, “but who do you say that I am?”  Peter stepped forward and with conviction declared, “You are the Messiah, the anointed one of God.”  Right there, on the edge of a town built to proclaim Roman authority, Jesus was declared the Messiah, the Savior of Israel.

The disciples had figured out who he was, but Jesus wanted to be sure they knew what it meant to be the Messiah.  He began to teach them that the Son of Man would undergo great suffering, that he’d be rejected by the leadership of Israel, the Chief Priests, and the scribes, and be killed, but that the story would not end there.  Three days later, he would be raised from the dead!  Peter was not in the mood for change.  He had his idea of what it meant that Jesus was the Messiah, and it meant that they would enter Jerusalem with power and might and overthrow the Romans and the Chief Priests, and the Scribes.  Death, even with the promise of resurrection was not on his agenda, and so he stood up and again with conviction spoke to Jesus. “That’s not going to happen, Jesus, we won’t let it.”  Jesus rebuked Peter quickly and strongly, saying, “Get behind me Satan!”

Six days go by.  Six long and awkward days until Jesus comes to Peter and invites him to join James and John for a private talk, up the mountain, by themselves.  While they were up there, something amazing happened.  The event was so spectacular that Mark knew he needed to tell us about it, but seems to have difficulty putting it into words.  Jesus was transfigured: metamorphosized, transformed, changed entirely.  Even his clothes were different; they became a dazzling white, so bright that no human being could have bleached them so.  Mark tries to describe the amazing event by telling us that Jesus’ tunic was “whiter than white, more dazzling than dazzling, like nothing you’ve ever seen.”[1]  In an instant, everything about Jesus changed right before their very eyes.

As if that wasn’t enough, two of the three characters mentioned in the conversation six days ago appeared alongside Jesus.  Elijah, the one whose coming would bring about the end of the world, is standing next to the shining Jesus.  Moses, the Prophet, the first savior of Israel, is standing next to the shining Jesus.  Peter realized that things were changing, that his expectations weren’t going to be met, and so, for a third time he speaks, this time with less conviction and more terror in his voice, “Master it’s good that we’re here.  Let’s build three booths, one for each of you.”  Booths, the ancient symbol of God’s salvation, built once a year as a reminder that God sustained his people in the wilderness and one day will come to restore all things.  Peter thinks the change that is coming is the end of the world and he wants to build booths to be ready for it.

Poor Peter still doesn’t quite have it right.  A voice from heaven cuts him off and says, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”  Listen to his words.  All of them.  Don’t stop listening when he says “I’m going to be killed,” but hear the good news when he says, “and on the third day rise again.”  Be ready to be changed.  Jesus is going to defy your expectations.  He’s going to challenge your assumptions.  He’s going to ask you to give up your life so that he can save it.  Just as Jesus was changed before Peter’s eyes, the whole world is going to be changed through Jesus.

It is true that nobody, not even a baby with a wet diaper, likes change.  Sir Isaac Newton knew that nothing in the universe was capable of changing by itself.  His First Law of Motion states that an object at rest will remain at rest until acted on by an outside force.  Likewise, an object in motion will stay in motion at a constant speed and direction until acted on by an outside force.  We are hard wired to not just change for the sake of change.  An outside force, for example, God, has to be at work.  Unfortunately, most of us are a lot like Peter.  We are so averse to change that even when acted upon by God himself, we’ll resist it.  Refusing to follow the will of God in order to do your own thing has a name my friends, it is called sin.

The story of the Transfiguration offers us a perfect transition from the Season of Epiphany to the Season of Lent.  We’ve spent the last six weeks getting to know Jesus and what he was about.  We listened in as he was being baptized and heard the voice of his Father say, “You are my Son whom I love.”  We’ve heard Jesus preach about repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of God.  We’ve seen him invite fishermen to become fishers of men.  We’ve been told of crowds who were amazed at his authority, and witnessed him heal the sick, the blind, the lame, and cast out demons with power and might.  Like Peter, we think we know Jesus, but God is about to invite us into a deeper relationship.  Beginning on Ash Wednesday, we’ll be invited to change our lives through the repentance of sins, by turning toward the will of God.  We’ll be given the opportunity to take some extra time, either by adding a spiritual discipline or by shedding a distraction, to listen to God’s call in our lives.  We’ll have the chance to recognize God’s action, pushing us out of our comfortable, sinful patterns and into his kingdom.  No one likes change, but God is all about it.  God is calling each us to be transformed and transfigured through repentance and renewal.  Will you be like Peter and balk at God’s call?  Or will you open your ears and your heart to listen for God and be changed? Which will it be? Amen.



Metamorphosis we like… Change we don’t

My daughters love the Eric Carle classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  For more than two generations, children have read the story of a tiny and very hungry caterpillar who, despite some unhealthy eating habits, eventually turns into a beautiful butterfly.  We have grown to love the idea of metamorphosis, but I’m afraid most of us are still not big on change: probably because we like the sound of Greek and Latin words more than the idea of real life changes, especially when the life being changed is ours.

Unfortunately for all of us, I think the Transfiguration, which in Greek is… you guess it, metamorphosis, is all about real life change.  I think that’s why it is the lesson, every year, for the last Sunday of Epiphany.  It serves as the transition point in the Gospel, in the Church, and in our own lives, from the revelation of Jesus to the realization that the cross of Christ compels us to change.  Real. Life. Change.

So what keeps from changing?  The more I think about it, the more I’m beginning to think that though we are wired to avoid change for change’s sake, we tend to do more than our fair share of work to avoid it.  Newton’s First Law of Motion, as we all learned in High School Physics, states that an object at rest tends to stay at rest until acted on by an outside force and an object in motion tends to stay in motion in a constant direction and velocity, until acted on by an outside force.  It is only natural, then, that we would tend to not want to change.  The problem comes when an outside force, i.e. God, acts on us and we resist.

Jesus, after telling his disciples about his impending arrest, torture, death, AND resurrection, realizes that they can’t or won’t hear his change in their plans.  They want Jesus to march into Jerusalem and restore the throne of David by power and might.  After six days of wrangling over it, he decides to show them, so he takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain were he is changed, transfigured, before their very eyes.  Things aren’t the way they seem and aren’t going to end up the way you think they should, this even says, but if you listen to the Beloved Son, you’ll see that it’ll all work out.  The Transfiguration tells us that change is coming whether we like it or not.  God is at work, acting upon us for the Kingdom of God.  The question is, will we listen and be transfigured or not?

Why the Transfiguration?

Raphael’s Transfiguration

If you heard it once, you heard it a thousand times in seminary, Mark is all about the Messianic Secret.  Despite beginning his Gospel “Here begins the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God,” (NLT) the Jesus that Mark portrays is very much worried with keeping his identity a secret until, as he hangs on the cross, a sign above his head reads “The King of the Jews.”

This is what makes the story of the Transfiguration such an oddity in Mark.  Jesus takes his three most trusted disciples up a mountain for what the Bachelor’s producers would call a “three-on-one date.”  Mark makes extra effort to let us know that they are alone, by themselves, when Jesus is transfigured before them.  They see this dazzling image of Jesus so beautifully expressed by Raphael in the painting above, they hear Moses and Elijah and God the Father Almighty speaking with Jesus, and when it is over, as they head back down the mountain, Jesus says, “Don’t tell anyone what you’ve seen until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.”

Why?  Why go through this who Transfiguration thing if you can’t tell anyone about it?  Proving that I’m not crazy for keeping all of my notes from undergrad, seminary, my DMin, and everything I’ve taught in almost 8 years of ministry, I pulled out my old New Testament notes to figure out what John Yieh had to say on the topic.  He suggests, and I have no reason to disagree with him, that Jesus is intent on keeping his Messiahship a secret for three main reasons.

  1. Literary Suspense – Mark wants his readers to think hard about what it means that Jesus is the Messiah.  He wants us to have an answer for Jesus’ question in 8:29, “but who do you say that I am?”
  2. Theological Purpose – Jesus needs to deconstruct the traditional expectation for a glorious Messiah.  The splendor and power displayed in the Transfiguration is exactly what the people of Israel were expecting, but that isn’t what Jesus will offer.
  3. Taking the Long View.  Jesus doesn’t say that they can never tell what they say, but rather that they should wait until the Son of man is risen from the dead.  No one could understand the true nature of Christ’s messiah-ship until his passion.  Once the story is complete, then the people will understand fully who and what Jesus is.

Eventually word will get out.  We have account of it in all three Synoptic Gospels.  It helps us understand the fullness of Christ’s divinity, but the world needed first to realize the depth of his humanity in his suffering and death on the cross before the rest of it could make any sense.  Now that we know the whole story, we have no reason, no excuse to keep the secret, but rather to go and tell the world “Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.”

How do you see Jesus?

Way back in the late aughts, I did a summer session of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Goodwin House, a tiered care retirement facility in Alexandria, VA.  Our supervisor was a wonderful woman named Ruth Walsh.  She was retired military, if my memory serves correctly, turned Episcopal priest.  To say she had stories to tell would be an understatement.  One of the gifts that Ruth gave me was the ability to meditate.  Prior to CPE, and even much of my life since, my mind was so full of monkey chatter that I found it impossible to slow down and focus on any one thing.  Given Ruth’s two careers, she knew something about monkey chatter, and through guided meditations, she helped me learn to slow the whirling dervishes in my mind down enough to see and hear and imagine things beyond myself.

The inside of my skull.

I vividly remember one of our meditations, on the roof of Goodwin House East where Ruth invited us to sit down with Jesus and talk to him face-to-face.  I had pictured Jesus before, one can’t help but do that along the way, but I’d never really thought about what it might look like to see him face-to-face.  Much to my surprise, the Jesus I met that summer afternoon didn’t look like the smiling Jesus of a 1970s Playboy magazine or the blond haired, blue eyed Jesus of every western European artist ever.  The Jesus I saw was straight out of a history channel documentary on the Shroud of Turin.

As I read through the well-worn story of the Transfiguration, I can’t help but be reminded of that odd image of Jesus and think about the many different ways in which Jesus is imagined in our mind’s eye.  Some see him smiling, some see him as a Native American, and if you went to Virginia Seminary, you might even see him with six-toes.

jesus images

It is a bad picture, but there are six toes on the bottom, right Jesus.

Peter, James, and John saw Jesus transfigured.  He shone so dazzling white that Mark was forced to make a laundry reference, “such as no one on earth could bleach them.”  They saw Jesus in his full divinity, standing atop a mountain with Moses and Elijah, conversing with God the Father.  It was an awe-inspiring and terrifying moment, all wrapped up in one.  It was their Epiphany, their moment of revelation.  A top GHE, my revelation of Jesus was much less dramatic, but no less powerful.  I had, for the first time ever, had the chance to talk to Jesus face-to-face.  His image might have been shrouded in bad history, but his presence was no less real than on that mountain top two thousand years ago.  And so, I wonder, how do you see Jesus?

The Beauty of Transfiguration – a homily

Today’s sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read on.

            I had the privilege of seeing two people transfigured on Saturday.  Like the disciples who were weighed down with sleep, however, I almost missed it.  Saturday was the Service of Ordination for Mary Alice Mathison to the priesthood.  There were no children in our house on Friday evening, but for some unknown reason, my brain went into hyperdrive at 5:45am.  What should have been a nice leisurely morning turned into a rush when I realized that despite waking up way too early, I had wasted two and a half hours watching Sportscenter and drinking coffee.  I took everything I had to get into the shower at 8:30, when I all wanted to do was continue being a waste of space on the couch, but I did it, and I arrived in Daphne in plenty of time for the service.

            As ordinations go, it was a good one: filled with beautiful music and a quality sermon.  This particular service was made special at two particular moments.  The first was during the holy huddle.  You may or may not know this, but at the ordination of a priest, as a symbol of the collegiality of the priesthood, all the presbyters in attendance are invited to join with the bishop in the laying on of hands at the consecration of the new priest.  All of us who were vested made our way forward at the appointed time, and we were joined by one of our brothers who was not wearing the funny dress.  Sitting in the back row at Saint Paul’s in Daphne was the Rev. Canon Maurice Branscomb.  Thack Dyson had sought him out and made sure he had a spot right next to Mary Alice during the prayer of consecration.  I had the joy of standing next to Father B., and got to see his face as he thanked Thack for bringing him forward.  He was transfigured: radiating joy like beams of sunlight.

            The second moment came during the distribution of communion.  Saint Paul’s Daphne is set up sort of in the round, with pews on three sides of the sanctuary.  The clergy were seated on the south side of the altar and I had managed a front row seat.  After some confusion, we were finally communed and I made my way back to my seat to watch the ballet that is communing a church full of people that don’t necessarily know the customs of the parish.  While distracted by watching people dance around each other while trying to find a place at the altar, I felt a nudge from the elbow of Thomas Heard who was sitting beside me.  “Look at that face,” he said.  I looked up and saw Mary Alice, dressed in the red festal robes of ordination and she was transfigured: radiating joy like beams of sunlight as she shared the body of Christ with friends, family, and the occasional stranger.

            Transfiguration is a beautiful sight.  It is so beautiful that you really never want to see it end.  Peter didn’t, he wanted to build tabernacles and just stay there on that mountain top forever.  I would have been content to spend all day watching Father B and Mary Alice beam with the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Of course, we don’t get to just sit and bask in the glory of God all the time.  Life goes on.  Jesus had a job to do, he had been told so by Elijah and Moses.  It was time to begin a new exodus, this time to rescue the whole world from enslavement to sin and death. Just as quickly as the moment came, it was over.  From the dazzling white of Jesus’ clothing to the terrifying darkness of the cloud that overshadowed them, Peter, James and John had seen the face of God, heard the voice of God, and now went down the mountain to join with the Messiah in doing the work of God.

            In those moments when life got tough: when they couldn’t find a place to sleep; when there wasn’t enough food to eat; when the Pharisees were breathing down their necks; when it seemed like all hope was lost – the three chosen disciples could recall the beauty of the Transfiguration, and remember the words of God, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  Amen.