Transfiguration/Last Epiphany C
28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
Exodus 34: 29-35
29 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant[a] in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33 When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34 but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
Today’s scripture, the stories of the Transfiguration of Jesus and the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai are familiar biblical stories. Those of us that hang around church, go to Bible Study—we know these stories. Moses and Jesus, separated by thousands of years, many generations—have similar experiences with God.
- They both go to the top of mountains to commune with God.
- They both receive wisdom from God during these mountaintop experiences.
- They both come back visibly changed from their experiences with God—their faces physically change—they both have glowing or shining faces in these two accounts.
- They are both met by crowds when they return from the mountain.
The traditional interpretation of the passage from Luke is that Jesus is the heir to the pilgrimage to be with God that Moses began with the Israelite people. That God is to be found up above us—in the mountains, in the clouds. That encounters with God change us, and that God is a big, booming voice.
It is an overwhelming interpretation in my mind—because it feels to me like an interpretation of separateness.
- God is up there. We are down here.
- God is big. We are small.
- God is smart. We are confused.
- God is loud. We are stunned into silence.
Isn’t that the way so many people encounter God?
A way that our theology has encouraged, and that is leaving so many people feeling outside of our faith?
- As something that is so big and overwhelming that it feels impersonal?
- As something that judges, and so they feel inadequate?
- As something that is so intelligent, that we just will never get it?
- As something “up there” and so never here where we live, in the real world?
You see, one of the realities of our world today that preoccupies my mind and my spirit is how many people are disconnected from the faith communities that I grew up in and that nurtured me.
Many are disconnected from traditional religious community, but people are not disconnected from God. They are just disconnected from “traditional religious expression.” Places like this one where you and I are worshiping today. I believe that communities of faith can have transformative power—but I also do not believe that these have to be tied up with how we have traditionally “done church” for so many years…
Traditional church for so many people feels like:
- A mountaintop that is so special they don’t fit in.
- A place where you have to know the right words to fit in.
- A place of judgment or condemnation.
- A place that is not welcoming.
- A place that talks about a God that is disconnected from our everyday reality.
- A place that does not change and so no longer makes sense.
And for most of our congregations—traditional religious communities this is true. And that disconnect is at the heart of the reformation that we are in the midst of today—the sacred space that we are called to go into with faith as the church today—even if it is a difficult space for most of us to enter because it is so foreign and because it means we need to let go of nearly everything we “used to do” or “like to do.” It means we have to change—and change is at the heart of worship today for Transfiguration Sunday—Transfiguration means a metamorphosis—like a butterfly who changes from a larvae to a caterpillar to a butterfly—each change is something completely different, completely new—with a completely changed structure. That’s what we as the “church” and those who dwell in these traditional spaces need to be about today.
Probably the best explanation for the “decline” we are experiencing in our traditional religious communities comes from an a recent article I’d like to share a bit of with you, it’s called “Neighborhoods have been Replaced” which discusses how the shift that has already happened in how people are organizing themselves today through networks:
As I (the author) learned when I spent a Sunday morning outside of a church building, networks are increasingly displacing neighborhoods as our sole sources of community. This is the result of the flow of communication through technology and the increased personal mobility, especially among the young.
A network might center around a hobby—running, hiking, motorcycling and yoga are examples—or around work—information technology, teaching, health care—or around social justice—activism on behalf of immigrants, the LGBT community or victims of human trafficking. Members of networks may or may not live in proximity to each other. Their relationships will often be a combination of online communication and face to face meetings. Each kind of meeting reinforces the other, but the pervasiveness of technology allows for a deeper sense of identity that transcends geography or location.
In Christendom (or church culture), a prominent third place was the local church. In the church (say, for example, in the traditional and disappearing Bible Belt of America) one might meet new friends, establish business relationships, play softball or basketball, make political connections, find potential dating relationships, and discovering a positive peer group for teenagers. Vestiges of church experiences along these lines do indeed remain, although it is becoming more rare to assume that one must accomplish any of these objectives in a local church. And, if we are honest, this was never the mission of the local church in the first place!
Instead, new third places are emerging in our culture: coffee shops, sporting leagues, digital media, entertainment and resort cultures, and pubs. Next generations especially orient their lives around these third places. Many of us know friends who inhabit coffee shops every day of the week, participate in running groups every weekend without exception, and form community in online relationships on a daily basis.
The challenge for us in traditional congregations today is not to figure out how to become a network so that people will join us and help us survive, but to instead figure out how to nurture and support networks that already exist so that those who will never come into our traditional congregations can still have a transformative experience of God in Jesus Christ. We have to figure out where the crowds are, and we have to allow ourselves as the Church and those who dwell in it (in traditional spaces) to be transfigured such that we are ready to radiate the love of Christ in those spaces.
- We have to come down off the mountain.
- We have to risk community in a new way.
- We have to train ourselves to be like Moses and Jesus, those who can translate the Word of God in a way that is not for ourselves—but for the transformation of whole communities and people.
- Messy, holy work of the Spirit.
- Not for the building up of ourselves.
- Never for our survival.
- But for the building up of the kin-dom of God in this world.
In Luke’s Gospel, when Peter realizes what is going on around him, his first thought is to build something:
“Teacher, this is a great moment! Let’s build three memorials, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” As the scripture tells it, he “blurted these words out without thinking!”
- Isn’t that us in the church today!
- We see something shiny, that shiny object and we want to just go for it!
- The quick fix, the answer to our prayers!
- The program that will grow the church!
- People will come back into our building.
- Come to worship.
- Join our choir.
- Our women’s association.
- Our Bible Studies.
- Our youth group.
- Our church school will grow again.
- We’ll be able to fix our budget.
- That’s the shiny object Peter is going after.
And that is when God intervenes.
- Be quiet Peter.
- Listen to my Son, listen to Jesus!
- They come down off the mountain and encounter a man whose child is ill.
- And Jesus heals him, but not without a struggle.
- That’s where the heart of the story is today,
- In the healing
- The connection to a new community.
- The living out of the love of God.
- Even in a place that is a mess, different, where it seems out of control.
The call of the Gospel is for selflessness.
Letting go of self-centeredness.
Being willing to die in order to be born again, new in Christ.
Transfiguration means metamorphosis—complete change into something new. That is what the Church is called to do today.
Let go of everything we were—including, perhaps especially the parts that are more the trappings of social clubs and instead get very serious about Jesus.
Can we do that?
Are you willing to make that change? Is our larger Church willing to make that change?
Theologian Claudio Carvalhaes puts it this way:
The disciples were not transfigured enough to deal with it (the view of Jesus who shone and radiated with the love of God) and the transfiguration of Jesus shows that Jesus has little patience with their lack of power, their lack of understanding/figuring out who he is and what message he has to offer. Thus, Jesus’ indictment of the faith of the disciples “‘You faithless and perverse generation,” sounds true to us as disciples of Jesus today. Our world is dashing the poor against the rocks of despair, hunger, and abandonment everyday. The economic beast controlled by few demons is making our people convulse day and night. The homeless, the immigrant, the incarcerated, those mothers who work three jobs to make a minimum wage to feed three, four kids, they are like that boy, thrown into the shadows of our society, convulsing day and night right in front of us! And we, who seem to not know anything about the transfiguration of Jesus or our own transfiguration (metamorphoses) are looking at these people while asking Jesus: can we dwell in our worship tabernacles basking in your glory, away from the people and their pressing needs?
We begin Lent on Wednesday, in three day’s time—a time of letting go –so that we can be new with God.
What do you need to let go of, what does this congregation need to let go of, what does our Presbytery need to let go of, what does our Church (with the big “C”) need to let go of, what do I need to let go of—in order to be transfigured and changed so that we can meet the new community that is already around us?
What mountains do we need to come down off of so that we can be present?
What hurts of this world must we connect with even more deeply?
What networks must we learn about?
Where must our faces shine?
Commentary provided by Shannon Vance-Ocampo, David Lose, Cláudio Carvalhaes, and Scott Hoezee