Sunday, February 7, 2016
Turn and Face the Strange: A Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday
[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church on February 7, 2016]
[This sermon is one where I went "off book" for a little bit, and so my notes don't perfectly reflect the text as delivered. I've amended it to reflect what I said, to the best of my recollection, while I'm pretty sure all the concepts are there, it's not verbatim.]
So, you heard it right. Jesus goes up the mountain to pray, and then—something happens.
Something that is hard even for Luke to describe—the best he can come up with is to say that “while [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Matthew is a little more explicit—Jesus’s face “shone like the sun.”  Mark adds that Jesus’s clothes became “dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” 
In reading these three tellings of the Transfiguration, it’s pretty clear that the Gospel writers are reaching for a way to capture the experience, and not quite succeeding. They don’t know how to put into words the sheer unearthliness of what happens to Peter, John, and James on the mountaintop with Jesus. It’s like trying to catch lightning in a bottle.
But they try to convey this experience for which there are no words—so Jesus’s face just alters, or it shines like the sun, his clothes are whiter than possible on earth. They’re grasping for metaphors to tell us that Jesus the teacher, the rabbi, the wise man, became suddenly very, very Other.
And if that’s not enough, Moses and Elijah appear, talking with Jesus. Not only are these two of the greatest figures in the Hebrew Bible—the lawgiver and the archetype of the prophet—but they’re both figures who were more than a little uncanny, a little unearthly themselves.
Moses, who after he received the tablets of the Law directly from God, came down from the Mountain unaware that his face was shining with an unearthly radiance , and that people could only speak to him if he wore a veil; Elijah, who was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire.
Peter, John, and James are exhilarated and terrified, and frankly who can blame them? Only Peter tries to do anything, and I have to admit, his effort to be helpful—“Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"—sound like it’s right out of as Woody Allen movie. But at least he tries to be a part of what’s happening.
A mysterious cloud covers the mountain, and a voice is heard, saying “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
And then it’s all over.
No Moses, no Elijah, Jesus back to normal, no booths for Peter to build.
So they go down the mountain, and rejoin the others.
I could take the easy way out of this story. “Oh, it’s a glimpse of heaven,” I could say, or “what a vivid metaphor. Let’s unpack it.”
But I can’t really do that here, not and be honest with you.
Because this story is so strange, that I think it has a kind of truth that the Gospel writers are struggling to articulate, and only imperfectly succeeding at, and if I use their struggle to domesticate the story, I’m smothering that truth.
So I’m going to do something different. I’m going to invite you to, in the words of the late David Bowie, “turn and face the strange.”
Something happened. What was it?
We’re handicapped by the fact that we live in a scientific, empirical age. We live by science and technology and it’s enriched our lives in many ways. But, it’s like Lawrence and Lee wrote in Inherit the Wind: progress has never been a bargain; you’ve got to pay for it. They say that it’s as if there’s a man behind a counter who says “all right, you can have a telephone, but you’ll have to give up privacy, the charm of distance. Mister, you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder, and the air will smell of gasoline!”
And Lawrence and Lee are right.
As a culture, we have lost the sense that the ordinary can transcend itself, that in day-to-day life, there can be moments when the light gets brighter, the air is alive with currents and motes tumbling through sunbeams, and our hearts beat just a bit faster. They come out of nowhere, little moments that we can treasure, or dismiss as a fleeting feeling.
Back in 2011, I had one of those moments in this very church—next door, actually in the main sanctuary. I was sitting in the congregation as the choir sang a new piece of music, Evan Solot’s The Hawk, and suddenly—well, I was a little bit more alive. The music had set something free in me. I felt, in that moment, serene, centered, and at one with my Creator.
That’s not normal for me.
It’s not normal for most of us, I suspect, but many people have moments when they are pulled into alignment with the universe; some have experiences that are even more striking, harder to ignore.
These experiences are common enough to have been studied by the psychologist Abraham Maslow, who called them “peak experiences.” He believed that all people were capable of having them.
In the Church, we would call these mystical experiences, and the 19th Century scholar William Inge wrote that the mystical facility is one which everybody has but which few develop. But the lives of the mystics, from Julian of Norwich to Thomas Merton, have shown us that these experiences aren’t to be written off lightly. They’re not nothing.
In the ancient world people were far more open to these experiences than we moderns are. They write of them without embarrassment, without doubt. They have not called into question their own experiences.
But the Transfiguration isn’t a subtle little intimation of immortality, or an ordinary peak experience. It’s much more dramatic, much bigger, and shared—it’s not just Peter, or John, or James alone who experiences it, or even Jesus—it’s all of them. It has a reality to it that transcends any physical or psychological explanation for its cause.
And it’s not just a feel good moment. It’s terrifying as well as exhilarating, until the voice speaks and it all just ends. But the disciples remember. They remember well enough that slightly different accounts of the experience appear in 3 out of the 4 Gospels.
But the really important part is what happens next.
They come down from the mountain, and rejoin the day-to-day world.
In today’s reading from Second Corinthians, Paul references Moses’s transfiguration, and that veil he wore. Paul tells us that “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed,” and that “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Paul tells us that “since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”
Well, that’s self-explanatory, right?
But wait—Paul is comparing us to Moses, as well as to his followers wandering in the desert.
Catch that thought for a second: we are both the viewer and the viewed, only without the need for any veil. By walking the Way—which is what the early Christians called their faith, because it is a way of life and not a set of doctrinal principles—we are like Moses, being with God on the mountaintop.
Like Moses, we are changed by our engagement with God, and not just once, but daily, even if we don’t realize it ourselves, just as Moses didn’t until the people hid from his altered face. It’s like C.S. Lewis wrote, that if we are really walking the Way, then, taking our lives as a whole, with all our innumerable choices, all our lives long we are slowly turning the central part of us, the part that chooses, into a creature in harmony with God, with others, and with ourselves. Or, like Dorian Gray, we can choose another path—but those choices will, one at a time, change us, too, even though we might not notice the changes until they accumulate.
Turn and face the strange. Because those choices? They do accumulate. We change, even though we don’t see it daily. So do others around us. We can see Transfiguration in those moments when we see the reality that underlies the workaday appearances of those we love, those who have blessed our lives. Maybe that’s when the beauty that isn’t evident is perceived, and we’re shocked by the glimpse of a level of reality we don’t often grasp. And that if we respond to that insight, we can respond to that beauty, respond to those changes.
Lent is coming in just a few days, and often we dread it. The solemnity, the penitential rites. We miss our alleluias. But Lent can be a mountaintop experience, too. You don’t have to put away something you love for Lent. You can pick something up instead. Try something new to change your perspective. Add a short daily prayer from the Book of Common Prayer’s Daily Office. If you do that already, try a different from of daily prayer. Me? This year I’m changing my usual Rite II daily prayer for an older from. Why? The unfamiliar language makes me think more about what I’m praying, and what it means. But that’s me. There are as many different ways of shaking up spiritual practices as there are people. The whole point is to give the kaleidoscope a twist, in the hope that all the shapes will reform, and give you a glimpse of a new perspective.
And heartened by the glimpse we come down from the mountain, like the disciples. We rejoin the swim of life, but participate in a new way. Restored, refreshed, encouraged.
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
1. Matt 17: 2.
2. Mark 9: 2-3
3. Exodus 34: 29-30.
4. 2 Kings 2: 11.
5. Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee, Inherit the Wind (1955), at 93.