A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on March 2, 2014 (Last Epiphany, Year A)
“Transfiguration” is not a commonly used word. I don’t think I’ve ever used it outside the context of preaching on this passage. It means a change in appearance, usually with an other-worldly connotation. In church circles it refers to the specific event we just heard about in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus hauled three disciples up a mountain and became transfigured before them. We hear a version of this story every year on the last Sunday before the start of Lent — and here we are.
At first glance this whole scene reads like a cheap third grade production with cheesy special effects and some rickety steps for a mountain. You can imagine the shadowy figures of Moses and Elijah clawing at their itchy fake beards and an awkward pause as the stage hands scramble to dim the lights before shining a spotlight on Jesus to simulate the moment when his face and clothes become dazzling white.
So what’s going on here? The Transfiguration of Jesus, while an account that has confounded readers and preachers alike over the years, is ultimately a story of identity. The three disciples who accompany Jesus up the mountain, Peter, James, and John, are offered a glimpse of Jesus in his resurrection glory. As a foretaste of what is to come, it’s as fleeting as it is dazzling. Jesus’ divinity literally comes shining forth as he is transfigured before the frightened disciples.
Their reaction is natural. Slightly comical perhaps as they dramatically fling themselves to the ground and Peter’s offer to make three “dwellings” is absurd, a caught-in-the-headlights paralysis mixed with the urge to do something. Kind of like when Bryna’s water broke and I ran into the kitchen to boil water. Seriously. Of course we know the context, we know the end of the story so we can watch their reaction with a certain bemused detachment. But like Peter and James and John, most of us are frightened by what we cannot understand. And so often we, like Peter, want to do something.
Whenever we hear of a friend or neighbor or fellow parishioner who has suddenly been admitted to the hospital or who has been diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease or even that someone has died, our first response is often “What can I do?” The spouse or parent or companion generally mumbles something thankful — but in the immediate aftermath of such an event they often don’t know what they need. And that “What can I do” response is both for the family but also for us. We want to do something concrete; we want to be of service; we want to alleviate the pain; we want to help.
There’s no more helpless feeling than wanting to fix something that’s completely out of our control. This is precisely the situation when a friend or loved one is suffering and we want to do something to alleviate the pain. Yes, there are often practical things that need or can be done for someone in need. But sometimes it’s better not to say anything at all — that advice would have served Peter well. Sometimes it’s best to simply be present, let someone know you care, and offer an unspoken hug.
Now Peter’s response to build three dwellings has been interpreted in several ways. Some see it as a natural response of a person of faith encountering the divine presence. The idea of building what has also been translated as booth or tent or tabernacle was to honor these three giant figures of the faith. It may also have been a way to memorialize the moment; to freeze time so that Jesus wouldn’t have to endure the suffering that was to come, the suffering that Jesus told Peter he was soon to endure.
You may recall that just before this, Jesus told the disciples about his impending crucifixion. Peter took him aside and said, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” To which Jesus famously replies, “Get behind me, satan — you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” So you can see the dark mood settling in over Peter, James, and John as they realize the end is drawing near.
These may all be true in part, but knowing Peter’s impetuous nature, I still think, given the circumstances and his frame of mind at this point, he just freaked out and wanted to do something.
But let’s get back up the mountain for a moment. We desperately crave so-called mountaintop experiences, moments when we feel especially connected to God or spiritually plugged in. They’re always more elusive than we hope and when you have one you just want to press the pause button and revel in it before inevitably heading back down the mountain. This last Sunday before Lent is like a pregnant pause. Before we move from the mountain to the wilderness we stand on the mountaintop and enjoy the view. Again, that might have been part of Peter’s thinking — to extend the experience.
The thing about the mountaintop, though, is that it’s hard to reach. It’s slow going getting up the mountain. We don’t hear about Jesus and the disciples journeying up the mountain. The stumbles, the twisted ankles, the huffing and puffing, the frustrated feeling that you’re never going to make it. The reality is that mountaintop experiences don’t usually just happen. There are no shortcuts, no one can hike up the mountain for you. We spend a lot of time diligently climbing our own spiritual mountains. But the more you dedicate yourself to a life of prayer and spiritual growth, the more mountaintop experiences you’ll enjoy. I promise. That’s the real opportunity of the season of Lent but more about that next week.
Now let’s be honest, bright lights and a voice coming out of the clouds aren’t exactly everyday occurrences. Yet as awe-inspiring as this encounter with God may be, I think what happens next is just as moving, just as awe-inspiring. After the three disciples fall to the ground in terror, Jesus approaches the disciples, touches them, and lifts them up. There’s a wonderful tenderness in this moment as we move from divine encounter to human touch. From Jesus in his resurrected glory to Jesus in his compassionate humanity.
When you find yourself seeking to help someone, trying to “do” something, I encourage you to follow Jesus’ example. Touch, pray, walk. Your loving presence is often the most important thing you can “do.” That presence can be face-to-face or remote through the presence and power of prayer. But it matters, it helps, not because you can fix every situation but because you can model the presence of Jesus who never forsakes us and who always accompanies us along our respective journeys up the mountain.
I invite you to allow the bright light of transfiguration that shines forth this day to illuminate your journey into the wilderness. Allow Jesus to touch you, to lift you up, to accompany you down the mountain to the wilderness of Lent. And then prepare to accompany Jesus through Lent to the very foot of the cross. And from the cross right back to the bright light of resurrection glory.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck