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The Transfiguration of Spirituality

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Mar 02

Transfiguration Sunday

Text: Matthew 15: 1-13

A few weeks ago, our middle school kids here at church led about 40 of us in two extraordinary all-ages learning hours before church about the bestselling children’s book called Wonder by R.J Palacio.  If you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor: pick up, borrow or Kindle a copy! The book is about August Pullman, a 5th grader that was born with a rare craniofacial syndrome.  In the first chapter, Auggie says with typically wry humor:  “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” He then tells the story of his birth as its been relayed to him by his parents. The delivery room nurse holds Auggie's mom's hand as the doctors break the news that her baby might not live through the night and she whispers the soothing word of comfort that she paraphrases from the bible: "Everyone born of God overcometh the world.”  Auggie seems to have more than his share to overcome in his life – the gasps and whispers of strangers when they see his face, the taunts of schoolyard bullies, the seemingly relentless pity of well-intentioned people who don’t understand that he just wants to be treated like a normal kid.  In one of the many heartbreaking and endearing moments in the book, after watching his older sister perform at a play and after he participates in his first ever standing ovation, he thinks to himself longingly, “I think there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives.”  Amen, Auggie!  Without wanting to give too much more away, near the end of the book, after the trial and tribulation of a first year at a new school, Auggie himself receives a distinguished award and a standing ovation from all of his teachers and peers.  On the walk home from the awards ceremony, his mother and Auggie share an intimate exchange that concludes with her saying: “You really are a wonder, Auggie!  You are a wonder!”  Please do read it yourself.  And know that the kids here are already planning a follow-up session.

In the end, the book wasn’t about the facial deformity or disfiguration or whatever inadequate expression we might conjure for what made Auggie standout as different.  The book was about the transformation and even transfiguration that occurred to the characters in the book who had a connection to Auggie.  The word “transfigure” bears defining here because we rarely hear it outside of church.   To be transfigured is to be transformed into something more beautiful and elevated!   Wonder, the book, wasn’t just about the transfiguration of August Pullman. Auggie’s humorous, humble and compassion filled soul shines brightly throughout the book.  Ultimately, it's about the transfiguration and elevation of those around him, to say nothing of the reader.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Feast of the Transfiguration, is second in importance only to Easter! Its rooted in the strange and radiant story of the transfiguration of Jesus that we just read.  Though we may first notice the bright lights and dazzling whites in this account, we need to understand more of the context of know why its part of Matthew gospel, along with that of Mark and Luke.  There’s a lot to unpack in this text and I won’t get to it all.  But for one thing, in Matthew’s gospel especially, the transfiguration account portrays Jesus as the new Moses, offering both a connection to and departure from the Judaism of his times. The mountaintop encounter with God’s voice is intended to echo the story not only of Moses on Sinia but also of Elijah on Mt Horeb. Here we have representations of the law in Moses and the prophets in Elijah upon which Jesus references when summarizing the commandments!

What's more, in the chapter that immediately precedes what we just heard, Jesus begins to teach his disciples about what lies on the other side of the mountain, namely that familiar four-fold messianic formula of suffering, rejection, death and resurrection. The elevation and glorification of Jesus serves to punctuate this claim that Jesus is the Messiah!  In Chapter 16 though, Peter who doesn’t have much of a stomach for the whole suffering and persecution thing, rebukes Jesus out right, says it cannot be!  In turn, Jesus says to Peter that famous line: “Get thee behind me Satan.” Jesus then tells the disciples if any want to become his followers, they must take up their cross and follow him. After a conversation like that, we have to imagine the disciples were relieved when someone suggested a trip to the mountains – a time to get away and to put all that morbid talk behind them.  Peter’s the first to say it.  “Rabbi, its good for us to be here!” -- here, as in anywhere but where we just were and anywhere but where you say we all are going.  This mountaintop is good for me! After all, in addition to Jesus’ usual entourage of Peter, James and John, it seems that Elijah and Moses are also making an appearance for the big moment.  Peter’s instincts tell him to set up a place for them to stay, to make a dwelling.  He wants to hold on to this present state of bright and shining glory.  He sizes up what he thinks this unfolding mystery means and immediately sets to work on a plan.   Knowing what came before this passage and what comes next, we can understand Peter’s anxiety, his confusion and fear, and yet, did you notice what Peter does as soon Moses and Elijah start talking with Jesus! Rather than hanging back and listening, he seemingly interrupts them to share his idea for the dwelling!  He can't wait to capture it, rather than to let the story take its own course.

Here enters the cloud that we are told carries with it “a voice”.  In both Judaism and Christianity, the voice of God, the bat kol, literally translated, the daughter of a voice, is a "heavenly or divine voice which proclaims God's will or judgment”.  In both traditions, it is identified with the Holy Spirit.  And here it echoes that same bat kol, that same ‘daughter of the voice of God” that we hear at Jesus baptism.  This is my beloved, with whom I well pleased” Though here the voice adds a firm instruction:   “Listen to Him!”  As in Peter, stop what you are doing, be quiet for a minute, and listen to what his saying.  He’s just told you what comes next!  Suffering, rejection, death, and then the glory of resurrection of which this here is just a foretaste! Listen to what he’s said to you about what awaits him, the bad news and the good.  Listen to what he said about taking up your own cross.  Yes, experience this bright and shining moment but know that it’s not for keeps.  You’ve got to listen and keep listening to him as you follow him back down the mountain where the rest of humanity lives and where the glory of the mountaintop meets the guts of the valley!

Apparently, the dazzling light and fire of such a mountaintop experience does not exist for its own sake.  Instead, it serves to prepare us and to strengthen us for what comes next.  At the transfiguration, the glory of God shines through Jesus, confirming who he is, the Son of God. It also confirms the path that lies before him and us, the way of the Cross. We can see why this text always shows up for us on the Sunday before Lent.

What strikes me most in this reading is Peter’s stubbornness!  Jesus just rebuked him for denying his fate, and here he his again, atop the mountain, planning his temporary escape from the reality of human suffering and death that awaits us all!  If only he could find a way to freeze-frame that beautiful moment! It takes that angelic daughter of a voice to snap him out of it and tell him what he needs to hear.  The same is true for us.   Imagine earing that voice talking to us, speaking into our humanity, telling us that we too are beloved, that we too are and always have been a wonder, that we too should relax and stop acting to change our lives and our worlds out of fear.  Jesus says, Get up and do not be afraid.  Only when Peter takes these words to heart is the real transformation and transfiguration of this story made complete.  That voice is telling Jesus and Peter everything they need to know to face the journey down the mountain and eventually to Jerusalem and beyond. 

David Sedaris once quipped: “I haven’t the slightest idea how to change people, but still I keep a long list of prospective candidates just in case I should ever figure it out.” Can we relate?  The sad thing about this joke is that foremost on that list for most us would be ourselves!  Like Peter, we are constantly trying to change our lives, or those of others, constantly busying ourselves with building tents or other things that distract us from whatever sins or suffering or pending death that we would rather not be facing.

The Irish writer, priest, poet and Hegelian philosopher, John O Donohue, writes powerfully about our need to be open to transfiguration at precisely these moments.  In his brilliant book, Anam Ćara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, he writes that “Spirituality is the art of transfiguration.”  He goes on to say “we should not force ourselves to change…Rather, we need to practice a new art of attention to our inner rhythm of our days and lives….a new awareness of our own human and divine presence. …It is far more creative to work with the idea of mindfulness rather than with the idea of will. Too often people try to change their lives by using the will as a kind of hammer to beat their life into proper shape. The intellect identifies the goal of the program, and the will accordingly forces the life into that shape. This way of approaching the sacredness of one’s own presence is externalistic and violent. It brings you falsely outside your own self and you can spend years lost in the wilderness of your own mechanical, spiritual programs. You can perish in a famine of your own making”. 

For how many of us does this ring true? It certainly sounds a good bit like Peter, if not like you and me.   In some of those areas in my life where I need change, I’m learning that authentic and lasting changes needs to be about far more than willpower.  The places where I need to be transformed and transfigured are not matters of intellectual plans or willful execution but of growing ever more attuned to the power and presence of God within and all around me.

As Henri Nouwen has said of our passage:  “Jesus showed us all that the very things we often flee – our vulnerability and mortality – can, at any moment, become the place of holy transfiguration, for us and for our world.”  Did you notice what Peter was doing?  He was building dwelling places for Moses, Elijah and Jesus?  In some ways, he was doing exactly what Jesus had just called him to do, to be the rock on which the church was built, and yet he was acting out of fear, or out of a need to please.  He was acting for the sake of acting and doing something, rather than pausing in wonder and awe and reverence at was being revealed right before his eyes.  Its wasn’t about making dwellings there on the mountain, but about making room in his own heart to absorb the radiance of that moment!  What if he could channel his otherwise good instincts to make a dwelling towards that internal work!

Again, quoting O’Donohue:  “If you try to avoid or remove the awkward quality, it will pursue you. The only effective way to still its unease is to transfigure it, to let it become something creative and positive that contributes to who you are.  Nietzche said that one of the best days in his life was the day when he rebaptized all his negative qualities as his best qualities. Rather than banishing what is at first glimpse unwelcome, you bring it home to unity with your life...One of your sacred duties is to exercise kindness toward them. In a sense, you are called to be a loving parent to your delinquent qualities”

I wonder if something like this transfiguration happened that day for Peter as much as it did for Jesus. I wonder if something like this transfiguration is not happening within us right now!  Think about it, what are those persistent traits you possess that need to be re-baptized and re-purposed. What are those things about you that feel dis-figured, deformed that you might want to escape from, but that you need to own in a new way!  What are those parts of yourself that you need to recognizer are born from God and where you need God’s presence and power to be a partner with you in overcoming the world!  That’s the spirituality of transfiguration!  Jesus promises even to transform death itself, the little deaths and parts of us that are dying inside, even those will be transformed by God’s grace and love! 

In the end, Peter, like Auggie, like the rest of us, maybe even like Jesus, just want to fit into the world, without having to hammer ourselves into it.   We may admire Auggie’s life precept, his mottoe that ends the book:  Everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their life because we all overcometh the world!  Indeed, we all just want to know what spiritual belonging feels, and what it feels like to be at once an ordinary kid but also a great wonder! We can catch glimpses of this radiant love and courage and acceptance, maybe on on mountaintops. We can get a taste of it here in worship when we come to the table, where all parts of ourselves even the ones that would sometimes deny or betray us.  In the end, its about being transfigured into that radiant light that God has already placed inside of us, letting that light burn away the dross, letting it shine brightly within us with the knowledge that we are all wonders, and that we are all born by God, that we are all called to make room for God in our hearts and lives -- whether in life’s valleys, or in the mountains, or even on the road to Jerusalem.  Amen.


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