Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Transfiguration

Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99:5-9; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36

I’m not really ready to preach this morning. It’s not that I haven’t read the lessons over and over and over. It’s not that I haven’t consulted the commentaries or read reflections or looked up key words in glossaries or indexes. It’s not that I don’t have a sermon right in front of me.

I’m not ready to preach this morning because this is my last morning to stand in this place and say something about the good news of Jesus Christ. I’m not ready for this.

I actually wrote all that in my journal, the one I do all my sermon preparation in. In fact, it’s the very first thing I wrote, last Sunday night, after I made a few notes on the lessons. I’m not ready.

Of course, Sunday always comes whether I’m ever ready or not, and so I kept writing and making notes and somewhere along the way I found myself wondering whether this very feeling of not being ready was perhaps also part of these stories of Moses coming down from his mountain, and the disciples coming down from theirs.

Moses never really did feel ready to walk all the roads God set before him, out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, across the wilderness toward the land that God had promised. Right from the start, by the light of a burning bush, he asked God to send someone else – he was doing just fine as a shepherd, thank you.

But there’s a light in you, Moses. A burning fire, God said. Shine. God called Moses down from that mountain, and though he never really did feel ready, Moses went.

The disciples thought they were ready to walk all the roads Jesus set before them, but lately they weren’t so sure. When Jesus told them he was walking to Jerusalem, where he would be betrayed and put to death and after three days rise again, the road to glory suddenly seemed to the disciples to be cast in impenetrable shadow. And so on the road up the mountain with Jesus, Peter and John and James carried with them a heavy burden of fear and confusion and disappointment. They were tired, Luke tells us, weighed down with sleep.

How did it all begin? Did the air sparkle? Did it first turn golden-yellow, as when a thunderstorm ends just at sunset? Drifting in that place between waking and sleeping, I wonder if the disciples’ thoughts and prayers turned to burning bushes and pillars of fire and shining faces, all those ancient stories of the glory of God moving behind, before, and among the people of faith. In that place between waking and sleeping, through heavy-lidded eyes, I wonder if they saw Moses and Elijah and the dazzling white glory of Jesus transfigured and thought they must be dreaming?

Transfiguration is not what it may seem. The appearance of Jesus’ face changed, Luke writes, and his clothes became dazzling white (I love that Mark adds, such as no one on earth could bleach them. We who live knee deep in red clay know that there are limits to the power of bleach.). His appearance changed, but Jesus himself did not change at all. He didn’t become something he hadn’t been when they started up the mountain. His appearance changed so that the disciples might see him shining in a new – or rather, in a very ancient light. The light of the glory of God.

Glory. The word itself (when we’re not borrowing it to speak of our own worldly fame and fortune) – the very word sparkles with the mystery of God who is beyond all our seeing and hearing and touching and knowing and yet is closer to us than our own skin. “The unapproachable and mighty manifestation of the immediate presence of God,” states one dictionary. Glory. Frederick Buechner suggests it is “what God looks like when for the time being all you have to look at him with is a pair of eyes.”

God is beyond all our seeing and hearing and touching and knowing, but the witness of scripture, of our salvation history, is to the awesome entry of heavenly mystery into human experience, to how the appearance of that mystery ever changes so that we might see it in a new light. High up on mountaintops at first, far from the disquietude (as our collect puts it) and darkness of everyday life – the dazzling white might blind us down here, and we might not see it at all as we grope and fumble about in our hope for our own glory. But as long ago as the story of Moses (and in the story of Elijah), God’s glory has also come down from those mountaintops, down into the disquietude, glory reflected in the faces of those who have traveled up and then back.

On the night when angels sang, Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth, when an endless sky and a tiny stable were filled with light, on that night heavenly mystery and human experience met in Jesus Christ, in whose face, our own Paul wrote, was not a shining reflection of the glory of God but rather the very light itself, the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, not brought down from a high mountain, but illuminating the dark and disquieted world from within. It was a much different road than had ever been traveled, and no one was ready.

Which is perhaps why Peter, bless him, and probably John and James, too, were so eager to stay on their mountaintop. Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah….Let us preserve this moment, this dream, this vision; let us mark this place of dazzling white glory; let us see you always like this.

There are several reasons why Luke then chides, He did not know what he said, and one of them is this: the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ is not made for mountaintops. It is made for the road. Most of us are far more likely to experience the immediate presence God in the midst of disquietude than we are by escaping it. Peter couldn’t contain God’s glory – he would have to follow it, ready or not.

Transfiguration begets transfiguration, someone once said, changing not Jesus but rather those who would see Jesus in a new light. As the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shined dazzling white for the disciples, so did they carry that light down the mountain and shine it in the world, and so generations of followers have shined that light, and so – perhaps atop a mountain, but probably just on the road – the light was given to each one of us.

The roads that Jesus has set before us have led us all to this place, to St. Paul’s, where we come to the mountaintop to pray. Our liturgy sparkles. Glory to God in the highest. Heaven and earth are filled with your glory. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory. God of grace and God of glory, on thy people pour thy power. And there are many other mountaintops in our life together – in fellowship and formation, in knitting and in acolyting, in singing and in cooking, at Council and at Taize, at bedsides and at gravesides, pulling weeds and stuffing stockings, sitting around a table or kneeling together at that one – many other moments filled with light, when we are certain of God’s presence.

We are tempted to stay where it is safe, where there is light, where we see and feel and know the glory of God, where we are certain of God’s presence. But we are all of us, as the body of Christ, called to carry that light, that good news, that glory, that presence on down the road, wherever it takes us: uphill and down, to our neighbors or to strangers, to the soup kitchen or the shelter, to Meridian, or Brandon, or Honduras, or Gray Center, or Taize, or the coast – we are made for the road. Together met, together bound, we sometimes sing in church. Together met, together bound, we go our separate ways, and as God’s people in the world, we’ll live and speak God’s praise.

We may never feel like we’re ready, but there’s a light in each of us. A burning fire. Did you know that your faces shine? Amen.