Sunday, February 23, 2020
Transfiguration of Our Lord / Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
Prayer of the Day
O God, in the transfiguration of your Son you confirmed the mysteries of the faith by the witness of Moses and Elijah, and in the voice from the bright cloud declaring Jesus your beloved Son, you foreshadowed our adoption as your children. Make us heirs with Christ of your glory, and bring us to enjoy its fullness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Readings and Psalms
Exodus 24:12-18 Moses enters the cloud of God’s glory on Mount Sinai
2 Peter 1:16-21 The apostle’s message confirmed on the mount of transfiguration
Matthew 17:1-9 Revelation of Christ as God’s beloved Son
Title: Our God of Trans
Trans – a prefix that is certainly trending these days, yes? Trending being the current nomenclature for hot topic, buzz word of the moment, something on everyone’s mind and lips. For a simple and common prefix, not even a word, it is getting a lot of attention.
Certainly, this prefix – trans has played an important role, and continues to play an important role in the evolving ministry of this congregation. We have transformed this space to serve way beyond our Sunday morning worship needs. This past Friday evening, at a Lutheran Ministries in Higher Education – aka LMHE, aka the Campus ministry of our synod, I received many compliments on the transformation of this space (there’s that prefix). One person, a wise and very experienced church leader, asked: “how did you get the congregation to go along with this plan?” I answered that we have courageous leaders and willing members who are not afraid to move forward as we follow in faith the Spirit’s leading and Jesus’ calling. Do I dare say we are being transported?
That trending “Trans” has also played in an important role in our reaching out to those that God has called us to serve. We have listened to the stories of people who identify as transgender. We seek to be authentic in our welcome, to show compassion for the challenges they face, to mourn with them as they face too much merciless an senseless violence, and to expand our own understandings of worship, and how culture and personal expression are engaged when we come before God with praise and prayer, song and dance. (Maybe, in this morning’s context it would be right to use the word translate to define how worship is being expanded.)
As you see in these examples alive at St. John’s, and for other examples that you can think of that use this prefix trans – we might define it as to change or move. In transport or transportation – one changes from one location to another. In transgender – one’s identity moves them from one gender understanding to another. In translate – one moves words and ideas from one language or context to another. In the concern over the coronavirus, we are certainly hearing a lot about transmission – as it moves from one person to another. Trans comes from the Latin for “on the other side of.” Which certainly has suggestions of a similar understanding – movement and change.
But anyone who knows anything about human behavior, will tell you that people do not like change. They don’t like to move forward, backward, or to either side. Given a choice, most will just want to stay where they are. They don’t want to “go to the other side of anything.” We see this over and over again in elections, group decision making, congregational discernment, challenges to well-established definitions. We resist being led “to the other side of” our understanding of marriage, gender, identity, mission, worship, even if we are in the position of that frog that is sitting in water that is increasingly getting hotter until the unmoved frog boils to death. Trans anything can cause anxiety.
Welcome the patron saint of trans anxiety – Peter. For there Jesus is, on the mountain top, transfiguring in the sight of those three disciples (hold on, we’ll come back to that trans word in a minute). But there is Peter, seeing Jesus’ outward appearance change, become “on the other side of,” transfigure from his earthly human appearance to that of a heavenly radiant being. And what does Peter do in the face of this trans moment? He suggests unchanging permanence. “Lord, let’s build shelters. Let’s stay here. Let’s not loss this amazing moment. Let’s avoid going to the other side of anything if it means losing this, losing you.”
One wonders how much Peter and the others were avoiding the change that was looming even before they went up that mountain and saw such a dazzling transfiguration. We have spent some time this Epiphany season (that comes to a culmination today) exploring who Jesus is, what did his ministry mean for those who followed him then and who follow him today. But this transfiguration marks a real turning point in this ministry. I’m guessing that his disciples were finally starting to understand Jesus’ style of teaching, of telling stories, of telling jokes (Yes, Jesus did have a sense of humor.) They were probably finally starting to “get him” as a teacher, and now suddenly he is starting to talk about his death. He is transforming from teacher to savior. And one cannot blame Peter and the disciples for saying: Stop! Let’s stay where we are. Let’s keep hearing you shaking up the establishment from a safe distance, from Galilee, from the security of the countryside. But Jesus is starting to set his sights on Jerusalem. To the center of power, both political and religious. And they know that neither entity wants to hear what Jesus has to say. While change causes people anxiety, it causes powerbrokers to swift and ultimate action that squashes any agent of change. Institutions resist change with a vengeance and strength far beyond that of anxious people who can just passively hold tight.
But forward Jesus goes. In both Matthew and Mark’s gospel, this mountaintop story follows right after Jesus starts speaking of his death. And, in both gospels, soon after coming down from the mountain, Jesus parades into Jerusalem on that day that starts the ball rolling that will seek to crush him on the cross. Oh, how Peter must have wished he had just followed through on his suggest and built a nice mountain retreat center where people could come and visit the wise and glowing one.
I typically avoid quoting Greek words, but I just have to today, because I find it both interesting and helpful to look at what the original word used to describe this strange phenomenon that our text expresses with the word transfigured. Both Matthew and Mark use the word from which we get metamorphosis. And for my ears, maybe yours as well, this word metamorphosis suggests a far more profound change than transfigure which seems to focus on appearance. I think of examples in nature like the caterpillar. It doesn’t just transfigure into a glowing worm. It completely changes into the beautiful butterfly. Oh, but maybe now I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe that day of butterfly like metamorphosis is yet to come. And today is more about appearances. Because Jesus’ heavenly nature was always there, it was just more profoundly shown to the disciples on that mountain top. Perhaps like other earthly experiences that transfigure into heavenly glimpses – gathering in worship, gathering at our Lord’s table, hearing God claim us at the fount, caring for one another, showing compassion to the one in need or the stranger – perhaps like these moments of grace, that mountain top moment for the disciples was what they needed to prepare them for what lay ahead. They needed to see the true nature of Jesus, to be reminded to listen to him, to pay attention, because a far greater transfiguring – a true metamorphosis was about to take place. Death was about to be transformed into life. And like the caterpillar to butterfly, there would be no bit of death that this new life of the risen Christ did not transform. It was not just appearance, it was deep, it was complete. And it is ours, in Jesus name.
We see it in Peter’s letter that is our second reading today. It is not just Jesus who is transfigured, who is metamorphosized. This power of God made known in Jesus, morph’s small town fishermen into world changers, denying disciples into bold preachers, hesitant followers into brave leaders. When we open our eyes to the transfiguring, transforming, transporting, translating, trans-whatever power of God – the power that brings us to the other side, brings us from sin to salvation, from fear to love, from despair to hope, from apprehension to peace, from death to life – when we listen to the one God sends to lead us, we too witness this trans-power that stills our anxiety, and leads us to un-imagined new life in Christ.
Having witnessed this trans-power of God, may our Lenten journey, that will lead us down from this glorious mountain top on to the cross and then to the empty grave, continue to metamorphosize us into the people of God, the followers of Jesus, the instruments of the Holy Spirit that are called to transform the world in the name of the God who so loves the world that God gives, again and again, and again, bringing all creation to the other side – eternal life.
The Rev. Mark Erson,