“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” Luke 9:35
One of my “Pastor friends” was teaching the story of the transfiguration to a confirmation class. She worked hard to make it interesting – describing the long trek up the mountain, the vision, the cloud, the voice and when she finished, she asked, “So, what do you think?” Silence. Then one of the students shrugged and said, “Guess you had to be there.”
“Guess you had to be there” isn’t an unreasonable response to today’s Gospel. It’s mystical, almost magical. And even though we hear it every year the Sunday before Lent begins, it’s hard to relate to. This week at both Wednesday Bible studies, folks didn’t know what to do with it. I understand why – they’d never seen Jesus in person, let alone transfigured in all his glory. The part they got was Peter’s desire to hang on to the moment by calling a meeting of the Property Committee to build dwellings for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. You have to love Peter. It’s an amazing moment of glory, clarity and truth and he wants to hang on to it. Only you can’t put God in a box. So out of a cloud comes the voice of God saying: “This is my Son the Chosen, listen to him!” Ad then suddenly, the transfiguration is over, they’re alone and Jesus is back to looking like his same old Jesus self. It was a momentary glimpse of the glory of God. The disciples don’t tell anyone, perhaps figuring no matter what they say others will simply shake their heads in disbelief and respond, “Guess you had to be there.”
Although the disciples kept quiet, at least for a while, this glimpse of glory changed everything. They went up the mountain in the first place because Jesus was coming face to face with his own death. He knew that his actions would put him in grave danger and so he told his disciples he was going to suffer and died. And that any who wanted to continue to be his disciples would have to pick up their own cross and follow him; to lose their own life to save it. They failed to understand this, but on the mountain top retreat they got a glimpse of glory greater than anything they could’ve imagined. Only in hindsight will they realize this was a foreshadowing of the resurrection and Jesus’ future glory. Even so, this glimpse of glory changes everything, changes them. Jesus was transfigured and so were the disciples.
Now they would never look at Jesus, or one another, without seeing that glimpse of glory, a promise that not only Jesus but, they, themselves, are more than they seem. God is involved in them. God is with them and with us. We are never far from the dazzling and miraculous glory of God for it didn’t end at the transfiguration, or even at the resurrection. The glory of God is ongoing! We glimpse the glory in the survival and growth of the early Christian church and the lives of the saints and martyrs – five of whom we will meet through our Wednesday Community Lent Worship– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Bishop Oscar Romano, Reformer John Knox and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There’s glory in the amazing way the good news still spreads around the globe. We encounter God’s glory in nature – waking up to fresh snow dressing the trees or spying a shoot of a determined daffodil – or as we soak in a breath-taking work of art or architecture, or are transported by a piece of music or literature. We see glimpses of God’s glory on the faces of people we love, as we watch them grow, love, learn, share and forgive. It brings a lump to our throat and takes our breath away. God’s glory is all over the place and it inspires us and fills us with awe. Our ninth graders know this. Each week as we begin Confirmation, they’re asked, “Where did you see God this week?” Sometimes they saw God in an unexpected good grade or a fun time with friends. Over the months they’ve learn to experience God everywhere –teaching a friend to ride a bike, eating supper together with their family, standing around a campfire on retreat.
Brazilian theologian Cláudio Carvalhaes talks about this in terms of a process, saying: “When we meet the transfigured Jesus we are disfigured, transfigured and refigured.”[i] Disfigured – in the glorious light of Christ all that disfigures us – our sin and self-centeredness, our fear and failures, our greed and selfishness become very obvious. There’s no more hiding or pretending. The only appropriate introduction is a 12 step one: “Hi, I’m Cindy and I’m a sinner.” My husband John and I had only been dating a month, when he attended Worship at St. Bartholomew’s in Trenton for the first time. Afterwards I asked him what he if he liked it. “When you declared the entire forgiveness of everyone’s sins, I was blown away. You can do that?” I replied, “Christ does that. I’m the messenger.” The absolute grace of forgiveness transfigures us. In forgiveness, everything becomes lighter. So that we begin to reflect God’s glory. Yes, even you – and not because your perfect, but simply because you’re forgiven. There are people who have seen God’s glory, because they have seen you…because you said, “I forgive you” or asked “Will you forgive me? or “Let me help” or asked “Can you help me?” Or maybe because you didn’t cave to pressure and do something unethical at work or you stood up to a bully at school or called out inappropriate and hurtful texts on social media. People have seen God’s glory because your face lit up when you talked about the good God is doing in your life, or because they caught you doing something selfless and generous or unexpectedly tender. They see God refiguring you. You know our five Lent saints – Dietrich, Dorothy, Oscar, John and Martin – that how God’s glory worked in them – each one was disfigured, transfigured and refigured.
Of course, we’re not shining like the sun all the time. After the transfiguration, Peter still denied Jesus three times. I don’t think he forgot the glimpse of glory, he just stopped trusting it. He couldn’t believe in the possibility of glory when his own world grew dark with violence, grief and fear. It happens to us, too. Those glimpses of glory don’t seem like enough, so we look for something or someone to make us feel safe and whole, only to wander away from the very light and love we are seeking. Still the glory of God is everywhere and God gives us glimpses again and again, dazzling us with hope, beauty and grace.
Today we don’t have to go any farther than the communion rail to get a glimpse of God’s glory in bread and wine, in the outstretched hands of our fellow worshippers, on the faces of children as they receive blessings. After worship, if you stick around for St. John’s Crafters or talk with our youth as they sell WAWA Hoagie certificates in the Narthex or attend the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Dinner or worship on Ash Wednesday or help with Phantom Food Packs on Thursday – there will be still more glimpses of glory.
Maybe later this week you’ll find yourself trying to explain to someone why you go to church. “It’s not just one thing,” you might say. “It’s everything – the people and prayer, the music, the kids singing. It’s taking communion and thinking being connect to those who have died and everyone communing around the world. I just feel better when I go,” you say. “More hopeful.” “Huh” your friend might say, “I guess you just had to be there.” That’s when you reply “Yes, yes you did have to be there. So why don’t you come with me next week? I’m not sure what will be going on exactly, but if you keep your eyes open, you just might get a glimpse of the glory of God.” May it be so. Amen.
[i] Cludio Carvalhaes, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2756