The Transfiguration of You

sermon for Transfiguration of Our Lord
(Luke9:28-36; Exodus34:29-35; 2Corinthians3:12-4:2)

Sometimes these pieces of lectionary and liturgical seasons come together so well to enrich our experience of faith.

With that, it was cautioned in worship and preaching classes against inventing too much on one’s own; that if I were choosing Bible readings, I might get into a rut of focusing on gratitude or hitting you over the heads about not gossiping or with pet projects and favorite verses overemphasizing Romans 8 or Genesis 1. So using lectionary Bible readings gives variety and a chance to notice peculiar ways the readings relate to each other (as we see today). It can also make us have to wrestle to find good news.

To highlight benefits of the shape of liturgical seasons, we celebrate this festival of Transfiguration as the last Sunday after Epiphany. This season began several weeks ago with the Baptism of Jesus. In both of these Gospel readings, a heavenly voice speaks over Jesus: “This is my Son, the beloved.” “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” For a season that is pointing our attention to Jesus and revealing who he is in our midst, these bookends help clarify and reinforce it.

Similarly, Transfiguration is the Sunday before we begin the season of Lent. Lately we’ve returned to an ancient pattern of the Lenten season being a time of spring cleaning, of preparations, of rejuvenating our faith and getting ready for baptismal celebrations and new life of Easter. But for a while the Church had observed Lent as a time of sorrow and lament and focusing on the crucifixion. In those former dismal times, Transfiguration could have been a final burst of brightness before dim difficult weeks of drudgery. Now it isn’t so much a sustenance to get us through but is another sort of bookend, a glimpse of resurrection that we are living toward and anticipating.

These experiences of faith in the carefully planned shape of the seasons are potential and a possibility but not, however, a given amid the shape of our lives and other rhythms. For example, this year it’s been tough to hold this whole season of Epiphany together as a unified whole when we have been in transition and going through so much change, with goodbyes and hellos, together as this MCC community and as individuals.

Another example of how these seasons do or don’t function is that next week is the 1st Sunday in Lent, not of Lent. Sundays are always mini-Easters, a weekly chance for resurrected good news. So Sundays should always be filled with Hallelujahs, even as the rest of Lenten days could be more quietly reflective. But if we don’t have opportunity to live into the season other than on Sundays—if that’s our main time for church and for faith and for God—then to feel the contrast we have to remove the joyous praise and reshape Sundays to feel “Lent-ier.”

Our lives may contain lots of faithfulness but still are not defined by the rhythms of the church year; we face also odd politics and illnesses or hurts and busy days and our personal celebrations and struggles. Yet amid all of that other stuff, this churchiness may glance off of us and shape us to some degree, and God is still continue working to form us.

That’s actually also where we can be seeing ourselves in the perspective of this day. For all the intention and glorious display, in the end this has to be about our ordinary lives and how God is made known not just in grand encounters but in the very commonplace. On a day of readings filled with shining faces (and maybe shining faces the lectionary has smushed together but which don’t really match), it takes some work to get to our own faces, some figuring on how the readings relate and wrestling for good news. But, again, that’s a fruitful and exciting task, so let’s get to it.

We can go ahead and start with Moses in the reading from Exodus. In the course of the story, Moses has already had a lot of time visiting with God, from the burning bush and the “let my people go” with all the plagues haunting Pharaoh and parting the Red Sea and escaping from the Egyptian army. Then they came to Mount Sinai. Moses went up to receive 10 Commandments, plus regulations and guidelines for living in community, and also recipes and a calendar of holidays and more. While Moses was long-engaged in that work, the people got bored and impatient and—as they say about idle hands—ended up making a golden calf. Moses, though also very angry, argued or interceded or prayed for his people, and God reminded Godself, I AM “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity” (34:6-7).

Well, after all of that, Moses had smashed the original stone tablets of the Commandments, and so had to go back up the mountain and ask for a photocopy. As Moses returns, our reading says that he didn’t know his face was shiny because he’d been talking with God. It was so brilliantly beaming he had to put a cover over it.

Aside from wondering if he still needed a flashlight to get around at night or how this goes against Jesus talking about bushel baskets and telling us to let our light shine before others, at the outset we can’t help but notice that this is a peculiar, particular situation for Moses. It’s apparent that, after time talking to God in prayer, none of us has ended up with glowing faces. Moses is special.

The image on your bulletins shows some of this. This Michelangelo sculpture, besides seeming to show Moses’ potential as an arm-wrestler, also depicts him with two horns. Some have said that Michelangelo was working with a bad Bible translation, but the Hebrew word here actually is the word for horns (nrq qaran). Some figure that’s a word for beams or rays of light, which can, indeed, be the same shape as a horn. Others figure that horns may be okay in themselves, because the altar also had horns, and that was a holy place connected with the presence of God, so this is another way of saying that Moses also was where they could go to meet God.

We might note that the reaction to seeing Moses was that the people were afraid. Now, if he had horns growing out of his head we might especially understand the fear. Even if he was extra shiny, people might back away. But at the core, there’s something about God’s presence that is dangerous and unapproachable. So Moses has to put a bag over his head just so people would be willing to talk to him.

That might bring us to the Gospel reading. Some of that fear and uncertainty persists in Peter’s reaction. If we met the grandest of past saintly heroes brightly shining in community neither would we have any idea what to say, and would likewise mutter something incomprehensible. This is the paradigm of a mountaintop experience, the guru-est of gurus up there, basking in a warm glow of ethereal wonder. With Moses, Elijah was the other big name of our Old Testament, as law and prophets, these were the embodiments of the scriptures themselves. In other parallels this is like having Einstein and Galileo together, or Shakespeare and da Vinci, or Gandhi and Mother Teresa, or (with the Super Bowl today) Vince Lombardi and Jerry Rice…or whatever ultimate pairing you can come up with. With apologies to history’s gender inequity, perhaps we could see Sarah and Miriam in the biblical role.

Yet more importantly, from that dazzling, grandest, highest, premier, ultimate setting, we have a huge contrast, a change of tone, even altering the mood lighting. Unlike the Exodus reading where Moses had to keep covered up afterward, in this setting the glow dissipates. In the next verses, Jesus heads back down the mountain and gets back to work, facing problems and met by crowds of people who need his help and who can be frustrating. You know, like regular life.

Even more, in Luke’s setting this Transfiguration is a transition point in the Gospel. From here, Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem, which means toward betrayal and arrest and the cross and death. It might be that the Gospel writer wants a residual hint of this brightness to linger in our minds as we go on to face so much darkness and sorrow and desertion and, it would have to seem, God-forsakenness.

These contrasts become even starker with our reading from 2nd Corinthians that brings our lives into the picture. For readings about shiny faces, this one faces in the opposite direction. Not only are we not in the elite mountaintop tier of the greatest sorts of heroes, not only do we not seem so luminous or glorious, but even seem so regular or dull that we have lots of room to doubt whether our lives could be the place of God’s presence and work.

Paul uses the image of a mirror in this reading. When we look in mirrors, we expect to see more wrinkles or gray hairs. We may expect bags under our eyes and not-quite perfect smiles. Our teeth don’t even glow bright white, much less our foreheads beam a shining ray of light. That’s not to disparage what we see. It’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t be pleased or content when you look in the mirror. It’s just reality, just regular life. None of us looks in the mirror and sees horns growing out of our head, marking a special relationship with God and the divine presence at work in us.

Yet in contrast to those fabulous stories and the saintly heroes of bygone times, in contrast to haloes of light and marks of glory, still Paul says that when you look in the mirror, when you look at each other’s very normal faces, what you are seeing is the place of God’s work. That face is even more glorious and miraculous than the face of Moses. In the presence of Jesus, with this one who went to a cross and died and rose, through the encounter with him here in worship, in Word and Sacrament, in notably unremarkable bread and a splash of wine, through meeting him in the faces of each other and in the faces of those in need, through this ministry, you are being transformed into his same image. When you look in a mirror, you look like Christ. When you look at each other, you see Christ. When God looks at you, you are the very image of God. Today isn’t just the Transfiguration of our Lord; it’s his transfiguration of you.


a very little faith

sermon for 28 June 15 (Mark 5:21-43; 2Corinthians 8:7-15; Lamentations 3:22-33)
[Paul tries to encourage generosity, such a simple, benign detail it could get lost amid big stories of the destruction of Jerusalem and health calamities met with miracles. How do we attend to the day-to-day small stuff?]
We’re often told to “think big,” to “imagine a new world,” or to let our dreams soar. Instead today, let’s get small. Let’s for a moment stop dreaming so big and instead shrink our expectations. To say it more precisely, instead of painting in broad strokes, let’s do some fine-tuning of faith.

This idea is probably going to take some explanation. First of all, this is not to state that you cannot change the world but you can change yourself so do that instead. No. As Christians, we are indeed to be mindful and concerned about and working on changing the world, things like ending malaria and world hunger, like war, like billion dollar budgets and centuries old prejudices. And, biggest of all, that we need to reform our lifestyles which are changing the planet and threatening billions of people and the extinction of species. Yeah, this is huge stuff. But this is our territory, and it’s just plain not right to say you can shut off the news and shut out the world and be a happy little Christian on your own.

Neither, as we’ll see, is this getting small about lowering your expectations of God, of what God is capable of and is indeed up to in your life and for your sake. That all stays nearly unbelievably enormous.

Our task today may be to attend to the smaller, less dramatic stuff, too. As an example: we’ve been given terminology by the insurance industry that says natural disasters are “acts of God,” but in this week of Vacation Bible School, we also spent time exploring outdoors because Martin Luther reminded us that God was just as present in the “tiniest tree leaf.” If our eyes are focused only on huge catastrophes, what do we miss in the small scale of God’s presence?

Now, it’s true that the big stuff can open our awareness. Rather than the worst things driving us away from God, instead that may be when we most seek the connection. Sometimes faith finds you in the most frightful moments. In times of tragedy or facing death can be when we’re most likely to wonder where God is and what God means for us, to try to seek a blessing that speaks a strong word against the overwhelming tones of misfortune.

Our 1st reading did that in a massive way, facing the collapse of civilization.  But that scale seems to fit also with our Gospel reading, right? There are these two big, hard circumstances, the woman suffering in the crowd and the father of the sick little girl. It’s tough to say which person is more…well, the first word that comes to mind is desperate. But that’s not exactly it. See, the word “despair” means “without hope,” hopeless, but these two people somehow still do have hope. That’s why they’re seeking Jesus. Maybe this shows us what a fine line it is, between what we hope and where hope seems lost, that narrow cusp between the relief of good news that sustains our lives and the precipice of bad news that ends in sadness. But not needing to live by extremes is part of where we’re headed with all this, that God is not only last minute make-or-break worst-case-scenario deathbed conversion stuff.

At any rate, the two characters in the Gospel reading are both hoping in Jesus. More than the miracle, the focus is that Jesus is amid regular life, so probably best would be for us to notice that these are ordinary people, that there’s no special claim to blessing, nothing to make it earned. Yet we don’t let it stand as regular life; we have a bad tendency to label people by their brokenness. So, in the story one problem is chronic, with physical and social suffering that has persisted for twelve long years. The other is dramatic and acute, a new illness for a young daughter, a crisis moment, needing critical care.

We notice that Jesus responds, that he offers blessing and good news in the face of both of those tragedies. He overcomes suffering.  And this is just what we expect or anticipate or, again, hope for in our lives. When we’re at dead ends or facing death is when we’re accustomed to turning to God, seeking out Jesus, when we expect there might be a word for us at church.

And most definitely you should hear that that is true. The God who brought you into existence, who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead, will be at your side in every time of suffering or moment of dread, will never leave you, will never stop loving you, will finally breathe into you the breath of new life that will sustain you forever. That is the promise that holds you, the reality we are all heading toward. In those biggest and worst moments, certainly that word from Jesus has value: “Do not be afraid, only believe.” Life in God has the last word. The exuberant, powerful vitality of the Holy Spirit will always win out.

But the question for today, for our expectations and honing our focus, is what else this means. What about when you haven’t been suffering for twelve years, or when your daughter is not at the point of death? What if the woman approached Jesus because she’d been ill for only six years instead? Or if she occasionally got migraines? Or if she had chronic bad breath? Or if her skin was the wrong color, or her sexual identity was unusual? What if she generally felt unlikeable and awkward in social settings? And what if the father came begging at Jesus’ feet because his daughter hurt her leg, or had a runny nose, or because she wasn’t very good at reading, or because she was scared to get in the swimming pool? Or what if he was concerned about his nephew, or a coworker’s grandkid, or somebody else he’d heard about?

The point is, Jesus isn’t only waiting for the most horrible thing to strike closest to your heart, weighing whether you’ve suffered enough for a miracle. Jesus is not dallying off in heaven through catastrophes and disasters, figuring he’ll take care of you later on and that will redeem the rest of this mess. Instead you may know and trust Jesus is with you through every moment, nearer and striving on your behalf more continuously than the respiration and pulse of your body.

Church, then, is not just another commentator to explain the latest gory terror or civil unrest or personal misfortune. Church is where we’re assured that all is indeed held together in God.

And that has meaning for all the non-crisis times of your life; for nice summer days, for the blah of a work-week, for little frustrations, for all the details of life on this planet, not only at the hospital but also the grocery store. It’s not that everything is petty compared to the immense extremes. We need faith for the small, regular moments, as well, since the whole identity of God in Jesus is that the regular is not petty; ordinary life is important, is blessed, is held in God’s embrace. He came to know simple birth and poverty and lakes and hunger and celebrations and friends and strangers, for a sick woman and a common daughter today, for all the crowds. This is what the life of Jesus was, being there in our very regular moments, with the miracle that life should go on.

This is where Paul hones our focus, refines our attention, directs the living of our faith. This faith is not only for going to heaven when you die. It is also for all the days that you live. So Paul reminds us that for genuine love, Jesus embodied generosity, giving everything for your sake. Held forever in his gracious generosity, filled with his abundantly loving life, this shapes what you’re capable of, what you can do, what fruit you will bear, what is so vitally important. For the Corinthians, it meant the ability to contribute more generously and abundantly to the offering collected to support poor people far away whom they’d never met. That blessing flowed naturally from their connection to Jesus.

For you, I’d expect it would reorient your days, that you have life to share and yourself to give away. It enables you to be patient and diligent, not only briefly relieved or else morose as you’re caught up in the sensationalism of the moment’s news story, not only dawdling after some grand miracle hypothetically to erase the problems, but seeing the kingdom of God breaking into our world and your lives in myriad ways, amid times of excitement and enjoyment, of forgiveness and compassion, of creativity and beauty, of encouragement and trust.

Yes, it is most certainly true that Jesus is your savior in the worst times. But he’s also there for you tomorrow, and also for your children, and for your neighbor, and your dog, and people you’ve never met, and the tiniest tree leaf. This is the lavish abundance of our God whose giving knows no ending.

Hymn: God, Whose Giving Knows No Ending (ELW #678)