We celebrated the Transfiguration of Jesus this morning, with celebratory and thoughtful music by instrumentalists Tina Bergman and Bryan Thomas and soloist Lily B. The sermon by Rev. Annich begins just before the 35 minute mark.
Is anybody here up for a good theophany? Although some of my fellow theology nerds will know what I’m talking about, “theophany” is not a word we throw around in everyday conversations. It almost sounds like an exotic dish–“I had the theophany last night at that new restaurant and it was really delicious!” Or perhaps a musical instrument–“the orchestra played the piece well although the theophany section was a bit off.” I also think it makes a great Jeopardy question, “I’ll take theophany for $200, Alex!”
So what is theophany after all? The dictionary defines it as “a manifestation of God to a human” –exactly what we heard about in the Gospel Lesson Sheryl just read! Peter, James, and John had a pretty serious experience of theophany as they saw a divine light show that beats any light show we’ve ever seen, witnessed Jesus talking to two of the great spiritual giants of Hebrew scripture, and heard God’s booming voice. It was a big day for those three disciples!
Today is our big day as we celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord–that day on the mountaintop when Jesus was changed from human form into dazzling, heavenly light. It comes weeks after the Wise Men have acknowledged Jesus as King on the Feast of the Epiphany and after God’s recognition of Jesus at his baptism, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Maybe we’ve had our own little epiphanies, our own a-ha moments, about who Jesus is over these last weeks, but if not, today should really get our attention as we see Jesus blazing in glory on the mountain top.
This story clearly made an impression upon the very early church because Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record it and their accounts are very similar. I’m really curious about how the story made its way from oral tradition to being written down, and what it must have meant to its hearers and readers.
I’m also curious about what it means to you. How does it strike you? Does it seem like a fanciful tale? A word of encouragement? Proof of Jesus’ divine identity? Like something out of Star Wars? I personally love this story because, for better or worse, I’ve always been sensitive to what we call the “thin places” around the earth, those places where heaven and earth seem to touch each other in a really palpable way. I experienced it when my husband and I made a pilgrimage to Ireland last June–a sense of peace and joy that surpassed all human understanding.
Perhaps you’ve experienced what I’m talking about in your travels or pilgrimages in this country or other parts of the world, or perhaps as close by as the shores of Lake Erie. Perhaps you’ve experienced it when a loved one passed over or a baby was born, or in any experience that made you feel more whole and more connected to what French priest and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin meant when he said that we are all spiritual beings having a human experience. These are glimpses of glory that remind us of who we truly are, people carrying dual passports, citizens of God’s realm who also live on planet earth.
The Gospel of Mark places this story days after Jesus has tried to prepare his disciples for his suffering and death and resurrection. The conversation doesn’t sit well with hot-headed Peter, who passionately rejects the whole idea of suffering and death. Jesus then pronounces those famous words, “Get behind me, Satan, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Clearly, the human part of Peter is not liking the divine game plan he’s hearing from Jesus. Rejection? Suffering? Death? That’s not the program Peter thought he was signing up for. So Jesus has to call the disciples and the larger crowd together and teach them that those who want to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives for Jesus’ sake, and the sake of the gospel, will find them. And then six days later, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to the mountaintop where they are witnesses to God’s glory shining brightly in the face of Jesus as he speaks with Moses and Elijah. It’s a spectacular show of divine majesty.
Peter, in his trademark exuberance, says, “it’s good to be here, let’s nail this thing down, let’s build dwellings for all three of you guys.” The story goes on to say that Peter really doesn’t know what he’s talking about because he’s scared. Isn’t that so like Peter, and really, so like many of us, babbling when we’re nervous instead of just taking in what’s going on before we run off at the mouth? God puts an abrupt halt to the babbling with an overshadowing cloud from which he pronounces, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”
“Listen to him” is an interesting commandment seeing as how the Transfiguration is a visual experience. Can it be that the Transfiguration is meant to graphically confirm Jesus’ identity as the Holy One of God whose words need to be taken seriously? Can it be that this is God’s way of providing a picture of divine power as the disciples try to digest what they’ve heard from Jesus about his death and resurrection?
Listen to him. We also need to listen to him. Listen to him that losing our lives for the sake of the Gospel will put us in direct confrontation with the powers of this world that want to deny the image of God in all people, and want to separate us from God and our own truest selves. Listen to him that we will suffer as we stand in opposition to the way this world operates. But also listen to him that resurrection surely follows crucifixion as night follows day, that laying down a small life is the only way to make room for the abundant life Christ came in love to offer us.
After last week’s inaugural weekend of our Prism anti-racism training I was ready for a theophany. I can’t speak highly enough about this training and if we are able to sponsor more cohorts here at Forest Hill I sincerely encourage as many of you as possible to apply for admission. Our current cohort is made up of loving, supportive people, and believe me that love and support is crucially important as we take a deep dive into facing the evil of our country’s racist history. As I came up for air on Monday I thought, “I wouldn’t mind being up on the mountain with Jesus and other spiritual beings of light right about now. I wouldn’t mind hearing God’s voice thunder from behind a cloud because I really could use a powerful confirmation of God’s presence.”
But you know, as the week went on and I sat with this Gospel story I realized that those signs are all around me. I thought back to the classmate who came over to me after a particularly hard part of the Prism training and gently stroked my arm and back. It was an act of tenderness and compassion that conveyed God’s presence in a way that transcended words. Then there was the classmate who several days later sent me a tiny silver heart and angel, and a rendition of the Serenity prayer that witnessed to her experience, strength, and hope. God was surely present in those symbols of love and encouragement. I saw a sign of God’s presence in the way countless volunteers scrambled to rearrange their schedules this week when Leonor was very ill with the flu and needed nursing and child care, and in the doctor who made a pro bono visit to care for her. I see signs of God’s presence in Twelve Step programs that are lifting people out of the hell of addiction. I see signs of God’s presence in the many ways you all continue to open your hearts to others both inside and outside these walls. I see it whenever someone really starts to believe that they are God’s beloved child. I see signs of God’s presence in the beauty of nature. I see it in the music we’ve been privileged to enjoy today that has certainly lifted our spirits. I see it every time we open ourselves to the steep learning curve that will enable us to truly become the Beloved Community. I could go on and on, but I know you have your own experiences to ponder so I’d like to invite us to take a moment to reflect silently on the places and ways each one of us sees God’s glorious presence, not on the mountaintop, but right here in the valley of our very human lives.
[Time for silent reflection]
The Transfiguration is a beautiful story, one we need to celebrate for sure, but my fear is that it may leave us feeling like God’s presence is only seen in spectacular light shows. The truth of the matter is that God’s glory fills our world to overflowing, all human suffering and sinfulness notwithstanding. The mind-blowing promise of new life coming out of death is about as glorious as it gets and that is a promise on which we can, and must, stake our lives. Indeed, new life follows all sorts of deaths– the death of limiting beliefs about ourselves, the death of old patterns of behavior, the death of our egocentric grasp on life, the death of unhealthy relationships.
Transfiguration Sunday is one of our last great hurrahs before we embark on a somewhat quieter Lenten journey so let’s joyfully welcome God’s Spirit who longs to transform us and bring us new life.
May our eyes be opened and our spirits strengthened by the glimpses of glory that surround us on all sides as we surrender ourselves in faith that God can be trusted to lead us through death to life in abundance.