Transfiguration Sermon

Delivered at Beacon Heights Church of the Brethren, Fort Wayne, Indiana. February 15, 2015

Text: Mark 9:2-10 (Philippians 2:6-11 undercurrent in places)

Today’s episode of the Gospel according to Mark follows Peter, James, and John up a high mountain with Jesus.

This triad of named disciples, by tradition three pillars of leadership in the early church, encounter another triad: Jesus, their rabbi, along with Moses and Elijah, pillars of ancient leadership in the Hebrew faith, who also spent time on high mountains
in solitude with the Holy One.

We might even say that a third triad is evident: the voice of the parental God, Jesus revealed as God the glorious and beloved Son, and God the Holy Spirit appearing as a cloud.

This event in the life of Jesus and his closest followers is cloaked in mystery and shrouded in symbolism. But at its heart is change from one form into another, transfiguration, metamorpho’o in the original Greek.

We learn about metamorphosis in science class as the process by which a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. The transfiguration of Jesus is a little different, it is instantaneous and fleeting, a sign of his identity as the glorious and beloved
Son of God.

At least, this is the explicit purpose of Mark the evangelist, to reveal the identity of Jesus as the Son of God.

Even the best of the disciples are thick headed in this moment and want to set up tents, dwellings for their leader, along with Moses the great law-giver, and Elijah, chief among the prophets.

Their intentions in this are anyone’s guess. Perhaps they want to preserve this mountaintop experience, or simply erect a memorial, as was common in the days of the great ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel.

But God speaks and the apparitions disappear, the transfiguration is over and they must go back down the mountain. The disciples are ordered not to tell anyone “until the Son of Man has risen…” This transfiguration is left as a puzzle in the minds of the disciples and in our minds as we engage with this ancient and mysterious text.

Transfiguration is a common literary theme, even in today’s media. It is a class taught by Professor McGonagall at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where students learn the magical art of changing things into other things.

Gandalf, one of several more than subtle Christ figures in Tolkien’s mythology, is given dazzling white robes and a loftier persona.

Obi-wan Kenobi mysteriously vanishes as he is struck down by Darth Vader, becoming more powerful then can possibly be imagined.

Mild mannered reporter Clark Kent becomes Superman. The Doctor regenerates. And a favorite from my childhood, The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.

Out of this handful of examples Superman easily compares to the transfiguration event of Jesus on the mountain.

In order to relate with humanity, Superman must hide his true identity as Kal-el from the planet Krypton. Only as Clark Kent can he connect on the most basic human level. The telephone booth transfiguration into the heroic persona partially reveals
who Superman really is as an extra-terrestrial being with fantastic abilities and powers. This god-like hero with a triune identity is a lot like Jesus.

In a way Jesus of Nazareth is equivalent to Clark Kent; A human identity formed in a typical Galilean household, fully involved in cultural life, helping with the family business, well thought of and well respected, deeply formed in the best
of human values.

You could tell the same story about Clark Kent, replacing Nazareth with Smallville, a typical rural Midwest town, where he learned a particular version of Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

I can imagine that Superman, could discard his alter-ego, if he so chose, and be a hero 24/7. Yet, identity is not so simple.
To do so would deny a part of himself. The essence of who he is would be compromised. He might lose sight of the values
which formed him as a person and inspired the heroic vision of Superman; namely Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

The persona of Clark Kent keeps Superman grounded in his mission, and also serves as a reminder that the world
does not need Superman in every moment of every day.

Without Clark Kent, Superman can only impose Truth, Justice, and the American Way, from high in the clouds. As Clark Kent, Superman can step back, and allow these values to work for themselves.

And if he needs to step further away the Fortress of Solitude allows Superman the chance to reflect on his true identity as Kal-el of the planet Krypton.

I think there are similar reasons for Jesus wanting his true identity as the Son of God to remain hidden. He could discard his human identity (he is God incarnate, after all), but he chooses not to. He would rather meet people where they are and relate with them. This is something that he cannot do in the same way in his pure essence as the Son of God.

In the same way, Jesus the Messiah, as conquering King, in the minds of Jewish people in first Century Palestine does not relate with people on the most basic human level.

A high flying superhero fighting for Truth, Justice, and the Hebrew way, can only relate with God’s chosen people from the top down. Jesus of Nazareth relates with all people at the bottom and from the bottom.

We as people may need a conquering Messiah sometimes, a Savior to lift us up out of the pit of oppressive and evil forces, but we also need to be built up, we need to be empowered. This can best be accomplished through solidarity. This is why Jesus never gives up his fully human identity, so he can truly be with us in the pit, even as far as death on the cross, to bring us toward redemption and toward new life as children of God.
As we reflect on the identity of Jesus in the context of the Transfiguration it only seems natural to reflect on our own identity and change in our own lives.

I encounter this theme quite often as a hospital chaplain. Sometimes it is just a minor or otherwise routine surgery and the patient goes on his or her way later in the day. But more often than not, illness requiring an extended hospital stay means some major changes, for the patient as well as for their families.

I never quite know what to expect as I walk into a room where a complete stranger is receiving medical care. I know very little besides their name and how long they have been at the hospital. For a shy introvert like myself who is also prone to  anxiety, visiting patients at random is the most difficult aspect of chaplaincy in the hospital. Navigating this has truly been
a transfiguring experience in itself.

I probably will not become a bubbly and outgoing person, but I have found that getting past the thresholds and having holy encounters in hospital rooms is a deeply rewarding experience.

I meet people and in a way they become part of me. I carry their stories with me and they become part of my story. For me, this is practicing my faith. In this fully human and fully divine process I meet Jesus, the one who carries all of our stories, all of our joy, and all of our pain.

I had one such encounter about a week ago that I am still digesting, still assimilating into my being.

It was my first visit for the day in the Oncology unit. All I knew going in was his name and that he had been admitted the day before. We can call him Bill.

It started out fairly routine. I knocked on the door and introduced myself as the chaplain and asked if I could come in. As Bill invited me in I noticed a chair next to his bed and asked if I could sit.

He was pretty quick to share that he did not have the best news. He had cancer for some time and the chemo was not working. This fact was not very distressing to Bill. At 81 years of age, he figured that the end of his life was quite a natural thing. He felt that if there was something after that he would qualify for it.

Through the course of our conversation he shared that he had grown up and was baptized in the Church of the Brethren; as he put it: “in the days of Dan West.” He was involved for many years with a congregation in Northern Indiana, but had  become disillusioned with the church, and left some time ago.

Bill shared of his involvement in overseas agricultural work, specifically in Sumatra where he worked closely with the villagers and how they shared the land. He saw the benefits of the people’s religion, but also saw how it held them back. This caused Bill to seriously reflect on his own religious background and how to make sense of how God works through other religions and very different cultures.

He did not say so exactly, but I got the sense that he also became aware of limitations within the church when he returned home. He shared his frustration with ministers that were in his words, “just plain lazy.”

In leaving the church Bill said that he had to come up with a definition of God that he could be OK with.

He shared what he believed, that there is a kind of energy that flows between people and he calls that energy God. He expressed great faith in people and great hope that they would learn how to work together.

Bill shared that he has a disagreement with his daughter who he described as “a good Christian woman,” though he did not
want to put a label on her. He says that the energy is generated by people, but she says that it comes from an outside source.

Fully enjoying this time of theological reflection, I could not resist asking him, “If it is generated by people, then who generates people?”

He chuckled and commented that it was a good question. I commented that things seem to get more complicated the closer we look at them. He agreed and said that is something that he does a lot.

I affirmed Bill’s compassion for people and shared my hope that he would get to see the new creation.

In turn he affirmed me and my ministry and said that the world needs more people like me.

I experienced the presence of Jesus in this mutual affirmation. Jesus, who sees the good in all people.

Jesus, who works through the most basic human interactions to bring out the potential for good in all people, even amid suffering and death.

Part of the lesson of the Transfiguration is that even as we face major changes in our lives, who we are as people is  important. Every part of ourselves Has value in the eyes of Jesus, who emptied himself and lived a fully human life.

Like Peter, James, and John we can get caught up in the spirituality and theology of change. Church people of all varieties
can get distracted by their own versions of  the change they expect of themselves and of others.

Theologians have spent centuries grappling with concepts like conversion, sanctification, regeneration, deification, and many others that relate to change.

It may be tempting to want to set aside who we are and our current formation as we take hold of the new. I’ve been there. I’ve wanted to forget who I was and reach for the new person arising through Christ. But the old person has a way of  reasserting himself from time to time.

I recently had an encounter with my self from 10 years ago, while going through a box of college materials. It was a reminder that who I was back then is still a part of who I am, though I am in a very different place. God reminded me in that moment that even that person, with all of his virtues and all of his flaws; all of his hopes, all of his pains, and all of his  unrealized dreams; even that person is important and worthy of redemption.

Jesus came, not so we could escape the wretchedness of existence, but so that we might find the beauty in it and know that even the last and the least Are worthy of God’s love and God’s redemption.

God’s message to Peter, James, and John long ago on the mountain still speaks to us today: “This is my Son, the Beloved;
listen to him!”

Truly listening to Jesus can take on many forms, but I like to think that it is in ordinary everyday interactions, on the most  basic human level, that Jesus speaks to us most clearly.

We may catch glimpses of glory, moments where the new creation peaks through. We might have visions of heaven on  earth, signs of the promise of new and eternal life. But these are not meant to be the object of our worship.

“This is my Son, the Beloved; Listen to him.” It is Jesus that is to capture our attention, the one who reveals both God’s faith in and involvement with every aspect of humanity.

God is deeply involved with us, but also gives us space to form our own identity and our own destiny. This thought is both comforting and discomforting.

As we listen for Jesus in our everyday lives there will be times when we hear words of affirmation and words of  encouragement, but there will also be times when the still small voice will be barely audible and we may even experience absence.

But I like to think that even absence is an expression of God’s love, a sign that we are entrusted with whatever the future
may have in store for us. We all have a part to play in the new creation.

Our part starts with listening, listening to God’s story revealed in Jesus, listening to our own story as it unfold in relation to others, listening to the stories of others as they become part of our own.

Jesus is in all of these things, there for affirmation and support, there to shape and form us, there to pick us up when we fall
and give us everything we need. May this awareness grow in our hearts and inform our actions as we seek participate
in the unfolding of God’s will in this good creation.