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My favorite benediction comes from one of the oldest passages in Scripture. (Normally you all only get one benediction towards the end of the service, but I figure a second one couldn’t hurt.) It goes: “May God bless you and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May God look upon you with kindness and give you peace.” Notice that second line, “May God’s face shine upon you…” Biblically speaking, God has a shiny face. And in some cases that holy sheen is contagious. We just heard Burt read from the Exodus account. The story goes that Moses climbs up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. He doesn’t realize it, but his face caught some of the sheen. It’s so radiant that he has to cover his face w/ a veil when he’s around the rest of the Israelites.
Jesus catches some of the sheen too, at least according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And at this point I should probably point out that no one is going to blame you if you’re skeptical. Sometimes this Bible-stuff seems like a bit much. Last time I heard the transfiguration preached it was pointed out that the scholars at The Jesus Seminar came to the conclusion that this particular scene probably didn’t happen. Which maybe begs the question of why we even bother with Transfiguration Sunday.
Here’s how I tend to think about some of these passages that are a little bit hard to believe. I sometimes imagine that Scripture is like sheet music—both aren’t much good if they’re reduced to the literal, concrete reality of the markings that someone jotted down on a sheet of paper. Faith is more exciting. A faith that lives with the world of the gospel accounts is more like the experience of music. Doctrines and scripture are sheet music; faith is the music that happens when the story is performed. So I believe our task is to move from the world of dry, dusty documents into the realm of expression and experience. Uncracked Bibles and unrehearsed sheet music aren’t much good. We do better when our faith carries the inexplicable force and mystery of a symphony. But here’s where the analogy breaks down: no one else can perform faith for us. We are all at once the composer, audience, and performers. So forget for a moment if the Transfiguration is real or if you ought to believe it. Put yourself in the story. Try to apprehend the meaning by imagining what it would be like.
Imagine that you’re Peter, and you’ve finally gotten your confirmation that Jesus is the real deal. He’s been preaching and teaching for a while, but it’s just starting to take hold that Jesus’ ministry and Messiahship are truly in tune with the heart and will of God. Remember all of those proclamations we heard from Jesus last week—““The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”—All of that stuff? It’s true. You’re starting to think it’s actually happening right in front of you. And then you get the most vivid proof you could possibly want. You’re up on a mountaintop, and while Jesus is praying and you and the rest of the disciples are struggling to stay awake, Jesus’ face starts shining with the light of God. He’s transfigured just like in the scriptures. And he’s talking with Moses and Elijah, the heroes of the faith, about what he’s about to accomplish in Jerusalem. This is a glorious moment, filled with splendor and anticipation.
We can’t blame Peter for wanting to preserve the moment. Peter says “it’s good for us to be here. Let’s make some dwellings and stay a while.” We can’t blame him. Because this mountaintop, Messianic glory is what it’s all about. The presence of God is here in it’s full vividness and reality. Why would we go anywhere else. What else is there?
Well, there’s a cloud. God overshadows everything in the form of a cloud. In this case, Luke says, the presence of God is terrifying. God says, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him!” And this mountaintop experience of God’s glory and radiance quickly turns into Fear and Trembling. Peter’s experience of God doesn’t end with the Transfigured Christ. There’s a cloud. An ominous, foreboding cloud insisting to Peter, “you don’t know what it means to really listen to Jesus.”
Peter says where’d my shiny Christ go? Where are Moses and Elijah? I liked the three of them. Bring them back. The Cloud is scaring me.
Peter doesn’t get it yet. Not quite. He can’t see that the splendor of God is always attached to a mission. And he doesn’t know where Jesus’ mission is leading him. Jesus is up on the mountaintop, talking with Moses and Elijah about what he’s going to accomplish in Jerusalem. Well, much of what he’s going to accomplish isn’t so glorious. He’s headed for unjust courts and fickle crowds and a cross. That’s what Luke calls an accomplishment. That’s what happens when Jesus in all of his mountaintop splendor descends and sets out for Jerusalem.
Try to imagine it. Jesus and Moses and Elijah, shining like the face of God. And Peter, caught up in the moment, wanting to stay and take it all in; not realizing that the work of his marvelous, mountaintop Messiah is about to lead him to some damned and dingy places.
And if you can’t imagine yourself in Peter’s shoes, just remember that we like a lot of shiny things, too. Shoes, jewelry, skyscrapers, cars. Shiny stuff. But pay attention to how we talk about people or ideas or pieces of music. Dazzling, brilliant, radiant. Juliet is the sun, remember? Or, “your smile really lights up the room.” Not literally, of course. But the point is that we’re hardwired to be captivated by shininess and radiance. People are built for a sense of splendor and awe. So we tend to like stained-glass windows and bright, intricate tapestries and big, shiny crosses. We’re trying to join Peter for the mountaintop moment.
I think what the Gospel accounts are really trying to communicate is experiential. Peter had the feeling that the purposes and heart of God were right in front of him, revealed in their fullness. And it was so beautifully compelling that he wanted to stay a while. I believe that part of the work of the church is to seek out something similar. We’re trying to see what God is like. It would be pretty easy if we could count on visitations from Moses and Elijah, but we can’t, so it isn’t. We have to do it the hard way. We have to be the church.
Next week we’re going to welcome our new settled minister. A lot of us are excited and I’m willing to bet that a decent number of us are anxious. There’s a very strong chance that at least a few of us are experiencing a cluster of feelings and expectations that we couldn’t name even if we tried. But, ready or not, next week we’ll have a new settled minister. One of the advantages of pastoral stability is that it allows a church to develop a stronger, more unified sense of what they’re about. I think if we do that right, if we’re earnest and faithful in trying to understand what God is all about, then this is going to a place not just of personal and social transformation, but a place where we experience moments of Transfiguration.
But then there’s a cloud. Something or someone pointing us towards the difficult, gritty work that goes right along with our sense of glory. As I was studying this week I couldn’t help but identify the Cloud that speaks to Peter with the voices of our modern prophets. They called the more outspoken religious voices during the Civil Rights movement a “Cloud of Witnesses.” They were the ones insisting that people take Jesus seriously. They echoed the words of God about Jesus: “Listen to him!” One of my personal favorite voices from the Cloud of Witnesses was an Episcopalian by the name of William Stringfellow. He was a lawyer by training, and he spent part of his career living and working in some of the poorest parts of New York City. One day a local priest calls him up and says, “William, I need your help. A woman stopped by my office the other day telling me she’s about to be evicted. Is there anything you can do?” Stringfellow says, “Well, there probably isn’t much to be done legally. Why don’t you sell one of your tapestries and pay her rent?” And I bet you can guess what happened next. The tapestry stayed and the woman was evicted.
I ran across another priest this week, in the pages of E.L. Doctorow’s novel City of God. The priest finds that his Parish has been robbed. Some people broke in and made off with an 8 foot tall, shiny brass cross. The investigating Detective tells the priest that whoever stole his parish’s cross was probably going to sell it for scrap metal. Probably going to spend it on God knows what. The priest writes in his journal, “It bothered me at first. But now I’m starting to see it differently. That whoever stole the cross had to do it. And wouldn’t that be blessed? Christ going where He is needed.”
May we all know the Glory of Christ well enough to go where Christ is needed. Amen.