Preached @ St. Anne’s, Damascus, MD 8/7/11: Exodus 34:29-35, 2 Peter 1:13-21, Luke 9:28-36
hat is Transfiguration? All three of our readings today highlight a transfiguration event. There is no end of discussion about these passages – like most passages in the Bible. There are those that take the literal route and there are those that take the more metaphorical route. The Episcopal Church, and the tradition residing therein, is one which seeks to encompass both approaches: a place where differences of interpretation can be taken, looked at, studied, argued over and then an agreement can be reached to agree to disagree. So….What is transfiguration?
We have Moses in our Exodus reading coming down from the mountain with the skin of his face shining. In the Second letter from Peter, we have that author giving us a first hand account of what he saw and heard on the mountain with Jesus. (Notice this letter was written long after the event it describes.) And we have Luke’s version of the Transfiguration, where while Jesus was praying, “the appearance of his face changed” and his clothes became “dazzling white.” There is no description of how the appearance of Jesus’ face changed. The NRSV didn’t do us any favors in the translation of what happened to Jesus’ clothes. The Greek word is “egastrapton,” which is an unusual word in the Bible. This word only appears three times: here in Luke, once in Ezekiel and once in Daniel. This word literally means “to flash like lightning”. If we think about lightning: it is quick, blindingly bright. Think about lightning, how images are seared on the retina. How images of seemingly ordinary things are made to appear extraordinary, memorable, different. And those images stay with us. They can be seared to us somehow.
So we know Jesus was praying and then something happened that was witnessed by Peter, John and James. And after it was over, “they kept silent in those days”. What is Transfiguration? We know that for Jesus it was both a spiritual and a supernatural event: God pointing at Jesus, highlighting Jesus’ divinity. But how do we make this event relevant to us? What is Transfiguration?
A friend of mine, I’ll call him Alex (not his real name) has given me permission to tell this story. Alex was walking his dogs one early Saturday morning. He lives in New York City. Alex is one of those perfectly fit, trendily attired individuals that populate so much of NYC. Alex was taking his dogs on their initial morning romp, and Alex was limping. He had a pain in his leg, running down the calf and into the foot for a few months. Alex had gone to various doctors seeking treatment, but the various anti-inflammatory medications did not help and no concrete diagnosis had been given.
Saturday morning in NYC is usually a pretty quiet time: the tourists haven’t arrived yet, or gotten up; the shops are just opening; the majority of people are sleeping off the prior evening’s shenanigans. Alex told me that this is one of his favorite times to be out and around: it is quiet, not crowded and the dogs have a bit more freedom to roam. So, Alex was limping along to the end of the block and then turned right, hugging the curb, in case the dogs decided they had found that perfect spot. Alex told me that this particular block has a few small restaurants, a deli, a hardware store and an Irish pub. As he was walking along the curb, and as he reached midway along the block, he saw in front of him, at the curb, a bedraggled-looking, obviously homeless, seemingly quite old, woman, standing right in the trajectory of where his dogs were semi-dragging him. And he inwardly groaned, saying to himself, “She’s going to ask me for money. Not this morning.”
Unlike many of the homeless people in the area, Alex didn’t recognize her and did his best not to look at her as he and the dogs were approaching. As he came parallel to her, and was ready to pass her by, she looked directly at him, and something made him look at her. Alex said she had the most piercingly dark, moist and intelligent brown eyes he had ever seen. And she asked him, standing there on the curb, in a very soft voice, “Can you help me to that doorway please,” pointing to the deli adjacent to where she was standing. Surprising himself, Alex said yes, put the dogs’ leashes in one hand and offered this homeless woman his elbow. She placed her dry, calloused hand on his arm and they made their way across the sidewalk, slowly, her leaning heavily on his arm, him walking and limping slowly alongside her. They reached the doorway, she let go, looked him in the eye and said “thank you.” Alex nodded and turned away, the dogs leading him to the next corner, where he turned right to walk back home.
Shaking his head as he walked, Alex was thinking to himself, “that was very strange. Why did I help her? Why did she need help? How’d she get there? Why didn’t I talk with her?” He told me his mind was simply a jumble of questions…. About half way down the block he realized something. His leg was no longer hurting…. He was not limping. And he stopped dead in his tracks. He said he felt blinded, frozen too, as if lightning had struck nearby: an image was seared on his retinas….all he could see were her moist dark eyes staring at him. Without dwelling on why, he tugged on the dogs, turned around and hustled back around the corner, retracing his footsteps to that deli’s doorway. Peering in the window he couldn’t see the homeless lady. Opening the door and going in the shop (and getting yelled at by the proprietor to get out because of the dogs), he didn’t see her. She was not there. Alex looked up and down the block, in the different stores and could not find the woman. He was uncertain, but also certain, that something had just happened to him….. What is transfiguration?
Alex is not a religious man, only occasionally attending church and infrequently having discussions about spiritual matters. But he knew something had happened to him: months of pain and discomfort had ended. What is transfiguration?
Did Alex’s good deed in helping that homeless woman loosen some knot of anxiety and stress that relaxed some muscles that sent the pain away? Had the medication he had been taking suddenly kick in at that exact moment? Or was there something more mystical or spiritual at work. Is there a concrete, one-size fits all explanation of what happened to Alex?
In a similar way, is there only one way to read and understand the Gospel we heard today? What is transfiguration?
In the Gospel today, after the lightning flashes and the changes are over with, Peter wants to do something, feels the need to do something, to mark the occasion. He suggests building booths for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, even though Moses and Elijah are already leaving….. Peter wants to dwell there, extend the experience. But then a further experience happens, the cloud descends, “a voice” speaks, “This is my Son, the Chosen, listen to him!” and the cloud lifts and Jesus is there alone with Peter, John and James. And they leave, in silence, not talking about it. What is transfiguration?
We are being asked to look at this event that happened in Jesus’ life, and wasn’t reported or discussed at the time, and reflect on events in our lives that have changed us, although we didn’t understand them or really know that we have been changed until much later. We are also called to ask ourselves if we are stuck in the moment? Are we simply stuck in that blindingly bright lightning flash and unable to move forward?
My friend Alex took a long time to share this incident with the homeless woman with me. He is different now. He is no Bible-thumper, but in true Episcopal fashion, he is trying to live into the tension of the idea that something radical happened to him that day, or perhaps something radical didn’t happen and his body simply “relaxed” after his good deed, to the point where whatever was wrong with him simply was expelled. (Depends on the day, he tells me.) Interestingly, he has found a small Episcopal Church that he attends fairly frequently and volunteers in the soup kitchen a couple times a month….. I believe Alex is always on the lookout for that woman…... And, I also believe he has been transfigured.
Transfigurations happen to everyone. Not every transfiguration event happens like Alex’s or the one witnessed by Peter, John and James. The small, every day experiences and encounters with each other, seeing Christ in our neighbor, can be transformative and lead to our transfiguration.
And I think all of us here at St. Anne’s are being transfigured all the time. In small ways and large ways, in ways we cannot really see or appreciate while they are happening. Those transfigurations can also occur in ways that are just so big as to make it almost impossible for us to understand at the moment. We need time to reflect, pray and try and understand for both types of experiences. Peter, John and James needed the Cross on Calvary, the Resurrection three days later, and a good deal of time to pray and reflect after that, to really begin to understand how they were transfigured on that day on the mountain with Jesus. Remember that although Peter wanted to build something, to stay there, to get stuck there, he didn’t….he kept on the journey. Not being forgetful of the formative experiences, but rather being reflective, prayerful and giving time for understanding to set in. An understanding to help explain the images seared on his retina from the lightning emanating from Jesus’ clothing.
Jesus modeled this behavior for us. Remember, Jesus was praying on that mountain when his countenance changed and his clothes began to shoot off lightning. Before and after almost every major event in Jesus’ life, he could be found praying and reflecting. This is a good model for us to remember….. Pray, reflect and keep ourselves always on the journey, wherever the road is leading us, however we are being transfigured. Not stuck in the “we don’t do things that way” mentality. Rather today’s Gospel is pointing us down the road, instructing us to stay on the journey, stay nimble, flexible and ready and willing to change….. The Gospel is asking us to trust in the grace that is God’s love for us…. That love will help us along on the journey toward our ultimate transfiguration. Amen.
Copyright 2011, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved
Art: Blessing, 2011, jfd+