There are countless stories in the Bible to which we can relate. Despite the fact that they were written in ancient times, they still make sense to us in postmodern times. However, today's passage may be an exception. The episode described in Matthew, Mark and Luke sounds a bit bizarre. Jesus leads three of his disciples up a mountain and he is transfigured before them and glows with bright whiteness. Moses, who has been dead for more than a millennium, and Elijah, gone for eight centuries, suddenly appear and strike up a conversation with Jesus.
Peter does not know what to say about this surreal experience, so he does what many alpha males would do. He suggests they do something manly. "Let's build something!" he says, "How about a dwelling for each of you?"
Some commentators interpret Peter's action to mean that he was attempting to hang on to this mountaintop spiritual experience so that it did not pass too quickly. That may be the case, yet I wonder if Peter was trying to nail down this mysterious, metaphysical moment, nail it down to the hard rock of the mountain with the hopes of making it more concrete.
Jesus does not respond to his suggestion, and about that time, a cloud envelops them. The disciples hear a voice that seems to emanate from the cloud. The voice says, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Then, poof! The cloud, Moses and Elijah all vanish. The three disciples look around and there is no one there but Jesus. The four of them start down the mountain, and as they trek down the rocky slope, Jesus commands them not to tell anyone what they have seen until after the resurrection.
It should come as no surprise to you that many pastors go to great lengths to avoid preaching on this passage. And many of us harbor unkind thoughts toward those who created the lectionary, because they inserted the story of the Transfiguration into the lectionary every single year. This is my fifth Transfiguration Sunday at Westminster, and in the previous four years, I have very humbly and graciously stepped aside and invited one of my colleagues to preach on this particular Sunday!
Ten or twelve years ago, I made the mistake of preaching on this passage four years in a row. After the sermon the first year, Camilla said, "That's really a weird story. I know you tried to make sense of it in your sermon, but what you said did not make it any clearer." It was one of those moments when I remembered the paraphrase of the verse from the Gospel of John that says, "The truth will set you free...but first, it will really upset you!"
So, the second year I tried a different tact and preached it from another perspective. I was a bit more ingenious this time. Camilla's response? "Nope, I don't think so." The third year, I tried it from yet another angle. Camilla? "Uh uh." The fourth year I was sure I had it down. This would finally be the breakthrough! After the sermon, we went home for lunch and Camilla said, "Why do you keep preaching on that passage?" Priding myself on not giving into defeat easily - that is my positive spin on what others would call stubborn as a mule - I have decided to take one last run at it. Pray for me. And if this one doesn't work, I really don't want to hear about it!
The problem with the passage is that it seems to stretch the limits of credulity. Some people establish their faith on supernatural events, but many of us prefer hard facts and experiences to which we can relate. Perhaps we should simply place this passage in the category of metaphor rather than historical occurrence and, if we take that path, I believe we can glean some valuable insights. But while I think of such stories as Jesus walking on water or feeding five thousand as metaphorical, I believe the Transfiguration may be based on some actual event. Here's why.
Some of you have heard the story about the strange and wonderful event that occurred in the final days for Camilla's mother. A frantic nurse phoned us at 2:00 a.m. to tell us to come quickly because Camilla's mom was about to die. We arrived in a matter of minutes to discover her mother lying in bed, surrounded by a nurse and two aides frantically monitoring her vital signs. We're not certain what happened in the next twenty minutes or so, but we believe her mother went to the brink of death, peered through to the other side of existence, and then returned. Her face was unlike anything we have ever seen. Camilla and I have fumbled for words to describe it, although nothing adequately portrays what we witnessed. The words "glowing" and "radiant" come close, but still seem lacking. Her mother's face had taken on a different color. It was not ghostly or pale, but rather bright and beaming. It was not yellow or jaundiced, but more of a white gold, and her eyes sparkled with intensity.
She was looking up and away from us and appeared to be focused not on the ceiling, but beyond it. She began calling out names of numerous family members and friends, all of whom were deceased.
Initially, we thought she was telling us who she was looking forward to seeing once she died, which appeared to be any moment. But soon, both of us had the distinct feeling she was not naming the people she hoped to see, but actually seeing the people at that moment. As she called out each name her smile spread and she became increasingly excited; at times almost laughing. We lost all sense of time, but throughout this intense experience, our hearts were pounding as we anticipated that any moment she would breathe her last. However, it did not come, and after several minutes her appearance gradually returned to normal.
I cannot say with certainty what occurred that night. The nurse and the two aids were dumbfounded and visually shaken. Yet, each of us who were present knows that something exceptional took place. Was my mother in-law having a hallucination or did she really see her loved ones?
She lived only three days after the extraordinary event, but in her final days there was a noticeable change in her. She maintained a smile and was very much at peace. She showed no signs of fear or apprehension about death. Not only had it been a powerful moment for us, but it had a tremendous impact on her.
Those who know me well, know that I prefer hard facts and experiences that fit into a rational, scientific worldview. I rarely make enough room for mystery. However, since that extraordinary event, I have tried to be more open to events that defy tidy, analytical explanations. The world is a more enchanting place than I sometimes think.
Perhaps the experience that Camilla and I had with her mother is in no way similar to the story of the Transfiguration. Maybe I'm stretching things too far to make a connection. But, I also know that living in a therapeutic culture, we are usually too quick to describe everything in psychological categories and we are too dismissive of theological categories. We are impoverished if we discount every extraordinary experience that cannot be analyzed and verified. Many of us are quick to interpret every experience in terms of a modern, rational scientific mindset, but when we do, we ignore the mystery and wonder that comprise this amazing world.
In modern times, most of us have been taught to equate truth with historical facts. However, religious truth - similar to poetry and music - adds another dimension. Looking at an experience rationally and analytically, gives us the height and width of reality, but spiritual insight adds depth. It can move us beyond the "what" of life to the "why" of life.
Some of our most powerful moments in life may be the most difficult to explain. Maybe you have stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon and been overwhelmed with a feeling of awe at the grandeur of God's creation. Perhaps a piece of music struck chords deep within you affecting you in ways that words simply cannot express. You might have served soup to people who were hungry and then sat down and chatted with someone who was homeless and your heart ached when you heard his story and your vision cleared long enough to glimpse that he was not really some stranger, but rather your brother. Maybe you have looked at a loved one and you have been so filled with love and connected in soul that you could not hold back tears of joy.
What does this story of the Transfiguration says to us? Perhaps it says that we need to relish the extraordinary moments of life and not be too quick to dismiss what we cannot fully explain. Perhaps this story encourages us to hone our vision so that we can see, once again, what we saw as children: the wonder, the beauty and the glory of life. Perhaps this story says to us that when we are aware of being in the presence of God, life glows with an extraordinary radiance.
George Buttrick, an influential preacher of the twentieth century, told a story about a congregation in New York City. This church had a large stained glass window on the wall behind the chancel, much like our window depicting the resurrection. Only their window depicted a scene from the Book of Revelation: the heavenly city coming down from above. This New York window contained a lot of gaudy colors. There were streets of gold, an aquamarine river of life, amethysts and a pearl palace descending from heaven; and the congregation hated it because it was too pious and too other worldly. That wasn't their city. Their city did not have streets of gold; this was New York! But as the years went by something interesting happened. The colors in the window began to fade, until ever so slightly you could see through the window to the city beyond; to the tenements and the sky scrapers. It was then, that the window began to take on power as the heavenly city and their city began to merge.1
The vision of God's kingdom began to merge with ordinary life. And when that happens, life takes on a new aura. When we begin to see the ordinary infused with God's radiance, we see the world and we see people in a different light.
We live in times when hard economic realities are wreaking havoc with people's lives. And it is easy to peruse the landscape and see only anxiety and anger. But if we look with a different set of eyes, there are moments when it is possible to see exceptional people who are aglow because Christ-like compassion and determination radiate in them. They perceive that we are all God's children whose fate is linked together by common bonds. And God's love pulsates through their lives as they reach out to others with love and hope.
The monk, Thomas Merton, could not forget a day when he was walking down the street in Louisville, Kentucky. He says that at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, as he was watching people walking along the sidewalk, he was suddenly struck by the realization that he loved all of these people. He was overwhelmed by the feeling that he belonged to them and they belonged to him. It was like waking from a dream in which everyone had been separate individuals, but now he could clearly see that they were all connected. If only everyone would realize this. "Yet," Merton said, "It cannot be explained. There is no way to tell people that they are walking around shining like the sun."2
Life is infused with the light and life of God and sometimes we are privileged to have the curtain drawn back for a moment so that we glimpse reality in all of its mystery, in all of its holiness and in all of its splendor. Embrace those moments and experience their power because they are rare; they feed your soul and fill you with joy.
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