Sunday February 24, 2017
First Presbyterian Church
Exodus 24:12-18, Matthew 17:1-9
Today is transfiguration Sunday. A day when the church calendar, in preparing us for the beginning of Lent this week, gives us the story of how Jesus and God prepared themselves and the disciples for Jesus’ coming death and resurrection. Our story begins today with the words “six days later” and any time I come to a lesson plan or sermon lectionary text that begins this way or with “next” or “After that” I first go back and read the story that came before so that I know what happened six days before, or after what. In the case of the story of the transfiguration of Jesus in Matthew what happened six days before was the foretelling of Jesus death to the disciples. For the previous week to this story, jesus’ closest friends have been processing his words that he is to die.
And then, six days later he takes Peter, James and John up the side of a mountain, and all it tells us is that there he is transfigured- he shines bright as the sun and Moses and Elijah appear with him, talking to him.
And then comes the part where our human story enters this miraculous God story- Peter says to Jesus ‘let me build shrines here- one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah. This, from a human friend of Jesus’ and the one who, in the previous story was not only told that his friend will die but that once he is gone, this one will be in charge of his people- he will be the rock of the church. This one says ‘hey, let’s stay here. Let’s stick with this moment when your godliness is visible, we are safe, and in some way life makes sense’. But his dreams of safety and clarity and long term stability are, as they regularly are with Jesus, immediately turned on their heads. A booming voice comes from the sky and says “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!”- a familiar refrain in the Gospels with the addition this time of ‘listen to him’.
The Spirit has come and reminded these humans that Jesus is God’s and that he is dear to God and ended with a reminder that they are to hear him. So then Jesus tells them to get up off their knees (I imagine they were understandably agog at this whole thing- Jesus shines, the patriarch and prophet appear with him, and then the Spirit and voice of God come- one's ego would have to be particularly large not to notice how big a deal all of this is) and he tells them to not be afraid- a voice we also hear again and again throughout the whole of scripture- when humans encounter the divine- from angels, to symbols of God, to God’s very self, the first assurance they need is not to fear.
And then things are back to normal, in a movie I imagine it like when Dorothy wakes up and everything has gone back to black and white. She is confused, she knows they were all with her, but also that it can’t be what it seemed. The disciples walk back down the path, and I imagine, just as with all euphoric or ‘mountain top’ experiences, they begin to feel let down. They feel the return to everyday and are a bit disappointed that what Peter asked cannot happen- they can’t remain at the top of the mountain with Moses, Elijah and Jesus, they can’t spend all their time hearing clear instructions from God’s Spirit. No- life Goes on, lions, and tin men, and scarecrows are really just neighbors, yellow brick roads are in scarce supply, and the battle of good witches and bad ones is far less clear...Dorothy, just like the disciples returns to life and has to figure out what to do and be after the big technicolor experience.
And then, when we reach the spot where things seem down, Jesus adds one more idea- they can’t tell about him and what has happened until he has died and been raised. I would imagine this is tough for Peter James and John. Why can’t they tell?
I have always wondered this- as an evangelist people- ones who are called by the story of God and Jesus to go and tell, to make disciples, to invite people to the table and faunt, why can’t they tell right then?
And I think the answer is very complicated- what could Jesus want for them that would mean they couldn’t tell yet? What more do they need to tell this story?I think of times I have learned ideas and stories that were revolutionary to me- when I began to learn about how LGBT people are treated in our world and the injustice and hate that folks face every day of their lives. Or when I began to learn the realities of current racism and the realities of daily small microaggressions and huge injustices like today remembering the 5 year anniversary of the murder of Trayvon Martin, I began to learn the language and tools of anti-racism and the deep rooted and profound ways people of color in our nation and world know the world to be a different and scarier place than those of us born with the privilege of white skin. Or even when I started studying the geometry of Euclid in college and discovered that math can be not just useful but also beautiful… to say nothing of the mountain tops in my faith.
But each of these times I saw a shining new thing, if I had metaphorically come down from those mountains and shared right away I would have done a disservice to the thing I wanted so desperately to share, and also to those I wished so thoroughly to know the beautiful and hard new thing that I knew. No, in each of those cases I needed to wait, to take my new transformation and not just share it, but to continue to learn and to ultimately keep showing up, bearing witness, and learning.
I have always thought of Jesus words to the three here to be somewhat harsh- how could he ask them not to give the world the thing they had been given? But in reflecting on the story this time, I see that perhaps he is actually asking them to care for themselves so that they can tell the best story, the most true story, possible when they do tell it. They have more to learn, to experience and to share together before they are ready to tell this transformation story.
They can already tell the story of Jesus and of God- that they know Jesus is God, that they know he has come to set us all free, that his life is to end to save us all, but right now the story of the mountaintop and the story of how his visible transformation has transformed them has to wait, because it has to be completed.
So perhaps this is not just the story of the transfiguration of Jesus, but the story of the transfiguration of Peter James and John- the story of how they begin to be the ones who truly can tell the world the story of this man, this God, who would give up everything, even his life, so that we might all have love and freedom from the bondage of sin and death. Perhaps Jesus words at the end of the story are words we might want to heed in these days- are there places in your life where you are seeing a new thing, a new and painful and beautiful thing- if so is it perhaps a time where you need to show up (literally or figuratively) every day- bear witness, offer your presence, add your story to the bigger one, but where you are called to speak only for yourself for now, and not to tell someone elses’ story because you don’t know enough about it yet?
In these strange and hard times it is easy (especially for us privileged ones who have always had a voice) to want to tell the story of people whose stories we see drowned out by the common story- to tell their story for them so that it is heard instead of demanding that they be given the space to tell their own story. In these times it is hard to remember that just because we have ‘seen the light’ doesn’t mean we know yet how to share it, that perhaps we should leave the telling to those whose light we have seen and show up to be partners where our stories can shine light instead of stealing another’s lantern to shine it in a new place.
Maybe Jesus asks them not to tell his story yet because he has more story to tell himself- the story of a table set and all invited, the story of bloody sacrifice at the hands of the government aided by the voices of religion, the story of broken hearted friends visited in miraculous ways and cared for by their God...they can only tell his story once they have lived it.
They can only tell his story once they have seen it all- good and bad, scary and comforting, disappointing and miraculous- because before that point they would tell the wrong story. Coming of the mountain they would tell the story of joy and protection, of the power of God in vibrant technicolor and the clear presence of the patriarchs and prophets- but what they, and the people, need to hear in that story of wonder, the only way the story has lasted all this time to be here for us to consider today, is in knowing that that mountain top was followed even for God by some dark valleys, some scary alleyways and in the end by death and the miraculous overcoming of death by a God whose love is so much bigger than even death.
What mountaintop have you come down from?
What story are you still living but cannot yet tell?
What story of mountaintop, cross, and resurrection is yours to tell in these days?