SERMON February 7 2016 Transfiguration
My maternal grandmother was born in Glasgow in 1881. She was a Victorian in many senses of that word, except, of course, in relation to Australia. That was an age when sometimes even the piano legs were covered in order to be polite. She and her family went, as was the custom for nearly everyone, to their local Church of Scotland. She knew what was right and proper. Overtly enjoying yourself did not fit into that category. I often wonder how she coped with my grandfather who was an incorrigible tease, in spite of growing up in the same era . There is a well-known family story of her sitting, very properly, in a hall at a wedding reception, cup of tea in one hand, plate in the other. My grandfather came along and tipped her large hat over her eyes so she couldn’t see. She was stuck. I think she had a hard time as a colonial wife as they spent much of their married life in Java. Most of the social gatherings were at the club where, of course, alcohol was served, though it never passed my grandmother’s lips. My grandfather loved the life out there. It cannot have been easy for either of them. But I don’t want to paint a harsh picture of my grandmother. I loved her dearly. My grandfather died not so long after he retired and my grandmother lived with us. She mellowed in her old age, and she lived to be 100. I can still see her sitting bouncing up and down and going red in the face with laughter. She was very kind and was much loved. But it is hard to imagine her ever doing anything remotely improper or not respectable.
In Exodus, we read about how Moses covered his face when he came down from the mountain after talking with God. He glowed so much! Going back to talk with God, he was able to uncover his face. This seems almost the reverse of what we might have thought – that he would cover his head when in the presence of God. How many of us always wore hats going to church? It was respectable and proper. But that is different from glowing so much that our faces are too bright. Earlier in in Moses’ story he had been told to take off his shoes because he was on holy ground as he came before God in the burning bush. We are reminded then about honouring God and responding with humility in the presence of holiness. Sometimes it seems as though not much is regarded as holy nowadays and this can cause concern, discomfort and even anger nowadays when it seems as though the church, God’s house as it is still called, is treated thoughtlessly and with disrespect. I wonder where the boundary lines fall between what is holy and what is proper. Is holiness always “proper”? I don’t know that Jesus was always proper in his behaviour. He was criticized because of it.
But what about the glowing face of Moses? Can you understand this? Do you know what it feels like to glow in the presence of God? I hope you do. But I wonder if a passer-by, observing people coming out of any church, would think “Wow. They look glowing!” It does happen. There are two men who come to a church not so very far away from here who often become quite radiant about it all. They live in a group home and are not so encumbered by what might be regarded as proper behaviour. They show their response in their broad smiles, which themselves are quite infectious. I have been in some memorable services where people have ended up almost, or actually, dancing out of the church. Here we are lucky enough to have the organ postlude so that we can sit, hopefully, in some light of God’s goodness before we move outside again and back into conversation and connection with each other.
There is something glowing when things connect up within us, when there is a harmony of being within ourselves and in connection with God. It’s akin to the words of a song by John Bell we sung recently where it says “Life found in him its source; death found its end; light found in him its course, darkness its friend, for neither death nor doubt nor darkness can put out the glow of God, the shout: ‘I am for you’”. What connects up within us and creates the glow is when our hearts absorb God saying to us “I am for you”. We are brought into the light of holiness that casts out darkness and is transforming.
But I wonder if we have made holiness too respectable a thing, if our reverence has an accompanying danger of wanting to protect it. Maybe we too would have wanted to build booths, tents or whatever, as Peter suggested on that mountain top where he and James and John had had the extraordinary experience of witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus alongside Moses and Elijah. What does an encounter with the holy do to us? Certainly such an epiphany kind of moment is often called a mountain top experience.
What do we make of the Transfiguration today, in 21st century suburban Sydney? It is unfortunate that the story is lifted out of its context in Luke’s gospel and just appears for us as a separate incident unrelated to anything else. In fact it is another moment of change, a pivotal moment. It follows on from some significant things. Earlier in the same chapter, Herod has asked the question “Who is this?” as he heard what Jesus was doing. In this chapter also, Jesus has fed the multitude and soon after asked his disciples who people thought he was. Peter then acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, whereupon Jesus speaks about suffering, death and resurrection. He warns that anyone who wants to follow him must take up their cross; he says that anyone who wants to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their lives will gain the whole world. A lot has been going on that has challenged the disciples in many ways.
8 days later, we are told, Jesus takes these close friends with him and goes up the mountain to pray. They are sleepy, as they will be later on at Gethsemane as Jesus prayed there. But here they stayed awake and saw his glory and Moses and Elijah. Luke tells us that they were speaking about Jesus’ departure and what he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. The word that Luke uses for departure is the same as the word for exodus. Clearly this is a pivotal moment. A voice speaks from a cloud, addressing the disciples. Jesus is affirmed for them as God’s son. All this has resonances with Jesus’ baptism when similar words were addressed but that time, to Jesus himself. Now these three men, Jesus friends and disciples, experience a moment they will surely recall in the terrible and challenging times ahead. The Transfiguration was a great gift of hope for them. Hope and an affirmation of God’s holy otherness, beyond the limitations of ordinary life.
Holy moments, epiphany moments, are indeed God-given times. Yet we can easily forget such God-relationship. It is also easy for us in this day and age to dismiss a story like the Transfiguration as just another of those things about Jesus that don’t relate to us nowadays but are unique to him as the Christ then. Indeed Luke is describing something that he wants his readers to see as a fundamental moment of affirmation of Jesus’ connection to the divine before he walks towards Jerusalem. But he also importantly grounds the story in the verses that follow it, and in so doing very much connects his readers to the reality of life. When Jesus, Peter, James and John came down from the mountain they are confronted by the father whose son is wracked by seizures. The disciples have been unable to help. Here the words we heard a few lines before are echoed as the man acknowledges his only son. “Look at my son, for he is my only child”. The contrast to the words from the cloud could hardly be greater.
For Jesus, the moment of glory, of the glow of God, has disappeared. So too for Peter, James and John who, we are told, kept that moment to themselves. Jesus knew who he was and what he was called to do. There was a huge gap between that and what his disciples were able to understand and to be as yet. Their helplessness is rather poignant. It is our helplessness too. What must it have felt like for Peter, James and John to have seen the glow of glory and holiness and then be confronted with their helplessness! I think we can well imagine, even if our experience of the holy has not been so startling.
The experience of the Transfiguration was an extraordinary one. It is the moment when Jesus is seen both in his humanity and his divinity. But that does not separate the experience from us.
One of the things about the moments of “glow” for us, is that they are, and they remind us of our connection with God’s goodness. Richard Rohr speaks of there being something of God within each one of us. Those times of glow are when that connection is embraced without a need to rationalize or analyse. Sometimes they are little moments. Sometimes they enlarge to fill a greater space within us. They are God-given moments of grace. Indeed Rohr describes grace as love initiated from Yahweh’s side that we very gradually learn to trust. He writes that the Bible shows a relentless movement towards the actual possibility of intimacy and divine union between Creator and creatures. Jesus is able to fully recognize that he is one with God and that it is the God part of him who does the deep knowing, loving and serving. And for us? I think this story today is something that says to us, “Look around. Look back. All the ordinariness of your lives is held within a deeper mystery of God’s presence and grace. Remember those moments of peace beyond yourself. Remember those moments when your heart was lifted up. Remember the glow you felt.” The struggles of the ordinary sometimes block our remembering and we can feel trapped in the mire at the foot of the mountain. But, as the psalmist wrote “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
The Transfiguration is a reminder to us of the grace of God, the glow of God, the shout that says to us “I am for you”. And we do not have to behave properly to experience it. Indeed, in a moment we will symbolically gather around a table, a remembrance of how Jesus shared meals with many rather dubious characters. But we remember especially how he took the ordinary things of life, the bread and the wine and transfused them with holiness as he offered them and himself to the divine. He told his friends to take them, to eat and drink, to share, and in that sharing to know their relationship with God, body, mind and spirit.
I would like to finish (and you probably thought I was going to finish before this) with a story. Fran Wotton was for many years the community minister at the Chapel by the Sea at Bondi. She worked with homeless people. She shared with some of us the story about one man who had been estranged from his family for years. His history was one of trauma and he had become a drug and alcohol addict. However after decades he had been able to contact with his sister and they arranged to meet. She died suddenly before that happened. The man was devastated. He could not go to the funeral. So Fran arranged to have a special service. Late in the afternoon they gathered there in the chapel garden with a number of the man’s friends, fellow sufferers there too. They planted a rosebush for his sister. Then, as the group was reluctant to separate, she suggested that they go and get some burgers. They sat on the rocks by the sea eating their burgers and passing around a bottle of wine. The light from the moon made a pathway across the water towards them. Fran said a prayer of blessing and they sat in the glow, understanding much about the holiness of communion and God’s grace. Amen.