Sunday, February 14, 2010

Transfiguration: Sermon

Transfiguration Sunday
February 14, 2010

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration. It is always the last Sunday of Epiphany and the Sunday before Lent begins. This Gospel story is found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. And there is little variation among those three versions. It is the story of an encounter with God that is experienced by Jesus but also Peter, James and John in which Jesus is seen talking with Moses and Elijah. And in the Gospel of Luke, there is one phrase that is different from the other Gospels:

They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Moses and Elijah are speaking with Jesus. The word for “departure” is the word exodus—it is a word that connotes that there is a religious meaning to his journey to Jerusalem. This is not mere travel to the great city of David; it means that there is something of God’s holy acts going to be accomplished in this journey. This is not a business trip to the nation’s capital; it is the accomplishment of the salvation of all creation. It is his journey to his death on a cross as well as his resurrection to new life and glory.

Why is this story so important to us today? What do we learn of God or Jesus and how does it help us live our lives embracing the fullness of Christ? What we see in this passage is the kind of encounter with our faith that we all long for. It is seeing Jesus while he prays being transformed into all that he is to be. In conversation with the heroes of the faith, Jesus is transformed—his face shines like Moses’ did when he came down from Mt. Sinai with the teachings of God. We see in this passage the possibility of the kind of encounter with God that changes us—that accomplishes the divine purpose that God has for US just as surely as God has for Jesus.

Peter, spokesman for the mere mortals, offers to make booths or tabernacles for the great ones so that they can remain on the mountain rather than down in the valleys where ordinary life continues. But in the cloud the voice of God descends upon Peter, James and John and identifies Jesus as the Son and to LISTEN to him. The transformation is to be accomplished by listening to Jesus. Transformation is not merely a mountain top experience. Transformation is the hard work of becoming what God has in mind for us. Jesus must embrace the journey to Jerusalem and all that entails for him to be all that he is.

Now, I am not speaking of predestination here. Jesus is not DESTINED to die on the cross. He CHOOSES to make the way of the cross because that is how he best can teach the world what self-emptying means, what real living really means.
All too often we find living to be somewhat bland. It seems rather relentless—we work, we play, we raise families, and then are somewhat disillusioned by the seeming lack of meaning it has to it. But life isn’t worth living unless we have found a way to give it away. The accumulation of things, success, even happiness pales if there isn’t a way to empty one’s self of SELF to embrace the fuller life of helping others, making the world a better place, fighting injustice. This isn’t mere humanism. It is at the root of faith. And it is interesting all the major religions of the world have this rootedness in this self-emptying. In Christianity, however, this emptying is found in the single act of Jesus’ embracing the Cross. His act of self-emptying brought about a change in the whole equilibrium of humanity. No longer were we destined to live out meaninglessness through sin and selfishness. He saved us from the kind of inanity that is the result of self-service and personal aggrandizement. His journey to the cross reminded the world that unity and wholeness is more important than the need for satisfaction.

The Transfiguration is our story too. It is not merely that Jesus could shine on the mountain top. The Transfiguration is the story that each and every one of us is invited to that opportunity to choose what our lives are to be. Do we choose to merely return to the mundane valleys from our experience of Christ? Or do we allow ourselves to empty ourselves of our selfishness, or self-centeredness?

This past week I saw on TV a story about Nelson Mandela. He was a man who spent more time in prison than he did free, but led his people out of slavery in Apartide in South Africa to embrace the bitterness so that it had no hold on him. The effort at forgiveness and reconciliation to which Mandela led his people was remarkable and unheard of in Africa. You hear of individuals forgiving. But you do not hear often of a concerted effort by a whole nation to enter into a process of forgiveness and reconciliation so that a nation can heal and move on. For a short while during my tenure in Washington, DC, I had a South African priest who was ethnically Chinese serving at my parish. He was on sabbatical learning of the approaches to minister in the HIV AIDS community—a serious issue in his country. He shared with me many of the ways that Mandela embraced the changes necessary for his country to keep from devolving into anarchy in the early 90’s. “We had been angry for so long” he said, “that we had to have a way to ritualize how we could be a peace with one another. It wasn’t a matter of getting the other to change—it was how we were going to change to keep our nation from becoming a blood bath. We finally realized that if we didn’t forgive, we would not survive.”

The Transfiguration is the story reminds us that we MUST change in order to survive. We must change as a congregation in order for any successive generations to find a home here. We must change individually no matter how righteous we are to choose to empty our selves of our selfishness, no matter how old or young we are so that we may find meaningful lives. We must change as a Church to find in other Christian the life that embraces others whose beliefs and practices are just a worthy proclamations of Christ so that Christ’s mission is not mocked. We must change as nations and cultures so that we can find in emptying ourselves of our nationalism and pride we can find a commonness of humanity in Christian love. We must be willing to embrace the journey to Jerusalem just as surely as did our Lord.

On Wednesday, we celebrate Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. We ritualize this time of turning our face toward Jerusalem. Together we will begin this self-emptying. We need to know what it means to be forgiven. But more, we need to know that we are about the kind of transformation that comes when we give up our selves for the sake of others, when we live out the kind of mercy that we want to receive, or when we provide the justice to others that we hope to receive. To be transfigured is not being zapped by God. It is the painful effort of self-denial. It is the hard work of self-emptying so that real meaning fills your life.

The last part of our Gospel reading this morning is a strange story. Jesus returns from the mountain only to find that there is a child that needs healing that his disciples, even though they have been given the power earlier in the chapter, are unable to heal alone.

We are unable to heal ourselves alone. My South African priest friend said that the without the faith in Christ, South Africa would not have been able to heal. Unless we are willing to put ourselves in the hands of God, we cannot know the healing that is necessary to have meaningful lives. The ability to change ourselves is just not ours. It is God’s grace that allows us to make the changes in our lives. Ask any one in recovery from alcoholism or drug addiction. It is only through the grace of a power greater than one’s self can that kind of change be accomplished. It is through the grace of God that we can embrace the kind of life that memorializes Jesus.
So I invite you to embrace the Transfiguration as your own. Allow yourself to imagine yourself as God would have you. Then I would invite you to set your face toward Jerusalem—to embrace the pain and selflessness that it will require to accomplish that. Then I would invite you to spend Lent in practicing the self-emptying necessary for God’s vision for you to be lived out. You will find that you will have a holy Lent. AMEN

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