Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Transfiguration: Where the Magic Happens

2-26-17 - Transfiguration Sunday
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ, amen.

Sometimes the Bible can be pretty gosh darn weird. Every year, at the end of the season of Epiphany, and on the brink of the season of Lent, we get this strange little story told in three of the four Gospels where Jesus - literally - lights up brighter than the Griswold’s house at Christmas.

But perhaps it’s not quite as weird as we may think. After all, the season of Epiphany is all about light shining in the darkness. It began with the shining of a star high up in the sky, which led distant wise men to a child with the face of God, who would grow up to be the king and savior of all. So, it kind of makes sense that Epiphany ends with that same child, now all grown up, whose clothes and face and whole being are shining dazzlingly bright, high up on a mountaintop, also chilling with Moses and Elijah.

But we seem to have skipped a few bits. In the last few weeks we had been making our way through the Sermon on the Mount, in the 5th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, and today we find ourselves in the 17th, just over half way through the gospel! What did we miss? What happened in the meantime? And how did Jesus get up on the mountain and start glowing like a lightbulb?

Jesus and his disciples were in the region of Caesarea Philippi, which is way on the north end of Israel, close to modern day Syria and Lebanon. Six days previously, Jesus had a very important conversation with his disciples, a literal “come to Jesus moment,” where he drops the news of the real reason that he is on his way to the capital, Jerusalem. He is not going there as a conqueror. He is going there to die. And Peter – Jesus’ most famous disciple – his reaction was to say, “no way Jesus, stop talking like that. That can’t possibly be true! Messiahs don’t DO that!”

It is then little wonder that Peter says what he does up on that mountain. He wants to avoid what Jesus said is just on the horizon. Peter wants the “heavenly Jesus” not the “Crucified Jesus.” But what Peter must learn is that to have “Heavenly Jesus” in all his resurrected glory, Jesus must first die.

The Transfiguration of Jesus is just about the midpoint on the Gospel of Matthew. It’s what in stories we call “the point of no return,” that moment when you realize that you can’t turn back, but to go forward seems almost too scary or unknown to bear. In the words of a poem by Catholic mystic John O’Donohue: (from his poem "In the Interim")

“The path you took to get here has washed out;
the way forward is still concealed from you."

This kind of moment smacks you in the face, and you realize that life will never be the same going forward, and yet this moment is so new that you can’t yet conceive of what life will look like tomorrow, or next week, or ten years from now. You have crossed a threshold that you can’t uncross. You are no longer even the same person you were just a minute ago. From now on, everything is different.

This is the reality of change, and it feels very uncomfortable, like we are being pulled in two different directions at the same time. As Lutheran preacher and seminary professor (happened to be one of mine) Karoline Lewis describes change, it is “by definition… a simultaneous holding on of what was and a looking toward the hope of what can be. …”

Holding on to what lay behind us…. While at the same time being pulled into a future that we can’t see yet… as someone who has had my life pretty recently upended, change even for a great reason can make me feel like that Mr. Stretch toy from when I was a kid. Big change, even when it’s good, can still feel new and awkward and still brings complex emotions – grief and loss for what is no longer, mixed with excitement and anxiety for what is to come.

Like the transfiguration story from the Gospel of Matthew, we too are in the middle of our own stories. Brene Brown, the writer and shame researcher famous for her vulnerability TED talk, reminds us that in order to be integrated and wholehearted people, we need to own our own stories, which includes the really messy middle bits (from her book Rising Strong). The parts where the road behind is washed out and we don’t yet know where we are going.

Peter, unfortunately, had not yet heard of Brene Brown, so he had a little trouble. He, like many of us in the middle of our stories, tried to find a much more comfortable way to move through his story, to avoid all the messy dying stuff, which Messiahs aren’t even supposed to do anyway. Peter of course, wanted to skip that part of the story and get on to the glory part. And we can’t blame him. We try to build tents in our own way to delay or cope with change, or to try to make permanent what is only meant to be a temporary phase. Too often we get stuck right along with Peter, trying to move forward into the future, while at the same time driving down the road and using the rear-view mirror to navigate! It’s not going to work out well.

It certainly didn’t work so well for Peter. This is where he ends up at the end of Lent: during Holy Week, he is all talk and no follow through, denying Jesus three times, and abandoning Jesus like all the rest during Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.

And yet, even after Peter refused to accept that Jesus was going to be a Crucified Messiah, even though Peter all too often opened his mouth only to insert his own foot, even though Peter would turn his back on Jesus, Jesus still chose him. Jesus still invited him up the mountain. And I think that gives the rest of us hope.

We may not always “get” where Jesus is leading us. But Jesus calls us to be present with him in the transitional, transfiguration, threshold moments, even when we would do anything we can to stay on the mountain rather than go back down.

Much like Peter, one of my favorite characters from the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis is also someone who acts a bit thoughtlessly, makes mistakes, often misses the big picture, and yet is still sent on a journey that will save all of Narnia. Her adventure also begins on a mountain top, too, and she is also told to listen. Her name is Jill, and Aslan the king of Narnia –  a talking lion and a thinly veiled representation of God – gives her this advice before she sets off down the mountain:  

“Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind…. Remember the signs. Nothing else matters.”

Just like Jill, and just like Peter, we don’t know exactly what is waiting for us down the mountain after our transfiguration moments. Or perhaps, we feel that the air is already thick with stress and distractions, or we have already lost our way down the mountain and missed the signs. We don’t want to be in the messy middle of the story, we’d rather be at the end. This is not where we wanted to go, but this is exactly where Jesus is calling us. Not back into the past, or back to the mountain top. But forward, and downhill, into the messy middle.

The messy middle is where life is happening, and Brene Brown says it’s also “where the magic happens.” We can’t go around change, we can only go through it, day by day, until we get to the other side. And there we will find another threshold moment, and then another. Much like Family of God has done in the past, worshiping in one place then another, then another… until building a permanent home… but your work was not over, there are more thresholds to be crossed and middles to muddle through as best we can.

Most of the time, when change happens, we don’t feel completely ready. Peter certainly wasn’t and we never will be. But we don’t have to be “ready.” We just need to listen to the voice at the top of the mountain. This voice is telling us to listen to Jesus. And what does Jesus then say to Peter and the other two disciples in their fear and awe of the moment? Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”

The rest of John O’Donohue’s poem goes like this:

As far as you can, hold your confidence.
Do not allow confusion to squander This call which is loosening
Your roots in false ground, that you might come free from all you have outgrown.
What is being transfigured here in your mind…

We hold our confidence in being rooted in our past while at the same time being planted in the soil of our new future. We hold our confidence in this slow and hard process because we know how the story ends – Jesus went to Jerusalem to die, but he also went there to LIVE.  

And because Jesus lives, WE LIVE too. We live here, on the threshold and on the mountain and in the messy middle and in the magic. We live here, rooted in the resurrection. We live here, and we are not afraid. Amen.

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