Last Epiphany Year B
Transfiguration Sunday, 11 Feb 2018
One of the great novels of the 20th century was Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. In 1962 it was immortalized in film with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the seemingly mild-mannered attorney. Finch is a widower with two fairly young children who view their father as rather ordinary but loving. Early in the novel the sheriff asks Finch to shoot a rabid dog that is approaching, which he does easily with one shot. The sheriff tells the children Finch is the best shot in the county and suddenly he is no longer ordinary in their eyes. They had no idea. The story goes on, of course, to portray Finch's defense of an African American unjustly accused of assaulting a white woman. Atticus Finch was never ordinary and he was transformed many times over in the eyes of his children and the black community.
We tend to concentrate this Sunday on the transfiguration of Jesus as he stood on the mountain. It is, after all, one of those Kodak moments in the Gospels. Jesus has already shown the transforming power of God as he went about the Galilean countryside teaching and healing. He has told his disciples he must die and that those who chose to follow him must sacrifice and may lose their lives to save them. He has rebuked Peter for trying to scold and correct him when he talked of his death. Then, six days later, he goes up the mountain. It is there he is with the one who led the Israelites from bondage and gave them the Torah, Moses, and the greatest of the prophets, Elijah, who led the people from the worship of Baal. He was the last prophet to lead all of the Israelites. Elijah is believed in Judaism to be one who will come again, and a place is always set at the Seder for him.
So you can see this is a moment Cecil B. DeMille would love to have staged for the silver screen. We like big dramatic moments. The reality, though, is that the transformation is not in the voice from above or the dazzling white garments, it is in how the disciples understand and act on what they have witnessed.
When I was somewhat younger I signed up for Outward Bound. The program was developed after WWII as a way to teach people to work together while at the same time finding their own strengths as they learned to live in wilderness settings. I chose to go to the Boundary Waters of Minnesota in the winter. I was not the "best" and any of the skills, but learned them all, and found that I had the ability to support every member of that group when they were flagging. What I now know is that I was the group's pastor. How was that transforming? I learned the power of empowering others and working together as community. I think maybe that is why I have come to love and appreciate RAGBRAI; the safe journey of the entire group is the goal. I despise shows where someone is booted off each week. I can not think of a show much worse than Survivor.
We need to be thoughtful anytime we interpret what scripture says to us. But I think we are safe if we decide we want to climb the mountain with Jesus and the other disciples. I hope you can take yourselves on that walk up the mountain because if you do you will start to see that you are the ones who have been and who will be transformed.
Gregory Peck became synonymous with his role as Atticus Finch; he stated it was the most important role he ever played. I don't know if he was transformed by the role but I suspect he was; it certainly did impact his legacy as an actor.
The actual Greek word used is “metamorphosis.” It means a change in the actual shape of something. Think caterpillar to butterfly. Metamorphosis is all around you. Sometimes we are transformed or morphed in a sudden dramatic way. For Elisha it was in the departure of Elijah in the chariots of fire, the Merkabah of God. The Hebrew scripture reading for today really isn't about Elijah so much as it is about how Elisha was changed and took on the mantle of the chief prophet of Israel. Likewise, I believe the Transfiguration of Jesus has more to do with the disciples, and in turn ourselves, than with Jesus. No one saw the actual resurrection of Jesus; this moment on the mountain is as close as it gets for us. Jesus is altered, but so are the disciples. The entire history of humanity is before them, from creation to its final consummation. God discloses God’s own self in a way that humans can see and understand. For us a piece of that is present in the Eucharist, the uniting of the divine with the human.
I hope that we see ourselves transformed when we come to worship and when we pray. It is often when we have decided we don't understand at all, we don't know at all, that we hear the voice of God. The sound of silence. It is often after the event that the meaning sinks in. I imagine the disciples heading down the mountain and thinking, "what just happened?" They did not realize that their lives were transformed.
Why else should we remember and celebrate the Transfiguration? Jesus was committed to nonviolence and peacemaking. Could it be the ascension up the mountain and the changes experienced by Jesus and his disciples are also calls to us? Are we not called to be peacemakers? The transfiguration is light AND peace. I do not believe the Transfiguration was just to show Jesus as the beloved son of God. It was a meeting place for God and humanity, for God and you and me. It was to show us what heaven is like but also what we must do on earth to be part of the reign of the divine. Peter and James and John were witnesses to the divine and were drawn into it. We are invited to be drawn in as well, remembering heaven and earth are not two separate places but rather the earth is full of thin places where we meet heaven and see what it is like.
It is no accident that these readings come right before Lent. We will be asked for the next six weeks to look deeply into our spiritual selves. Go then, likewise, and be transformed. We are all Elishas or Atticus Finches who will find our voice and our power when we receive the mantle of Elijah. Pray then for your own portion of that spirit. That is my charge to you: glimpse heaven, reach for the divine, but know you are earthlings, holy and sacred earthlings, charged with living a holy life and a life that works for justice and peace and the coming of heaven. Amen