Have you ever seen someone who is so transported by an experience that they beam? Those of us at the Saturday performance of “The Ever After: A Musical” got to see such a moment. During our “audience participation” conga, one of Gordon’s clients got caught up in the moment and took her turn, on stage, down center, to twirl and dance and even do a split! She was uplifted, and she wasn’t afraid to show it. And I dare say I wasn’t the only one who was uplifted by the whole experience as well.
When I started to think about the sermon for today, with our stories of Jesus’ transfiguration and Moses’ shining face, I thought about her. For a moment, she was truly ecstatic, she was dancing in the presence of God, and allowed the rest of us to have that experience as well.
I think that the texts for today invite us to live life like that: to not be afraid of getting caught up in the moment and sharing that joy with everyone around. As I have meditated on our texts, I have come to believe that we need to see transfiguration as something that we ALL need to aspire to—not just something that happens to the few.
Of course Transfiguration Sunday is the Sunday we remember and celebrate what happened on a mountaintop in the presence of the closest disciples. Jesus, who they were coming to know as a very special human, is “caught” in his heavenly appearance, talking to Moses and Elijah. “The appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” It was as if Peter, and James, and John got a preview of the glory that would surround Jesus in heaven. They knew this was a wonderful moment. And they sought to memorialize it by creating dwellings, booths, let’s say altars—one for Jesus and one for Moses and one for Elijah. And then, anyone who knew where the special place was, could come and be in awe. Anyone who could make the climb, could become part of the inside club.
And while Peter is drawing the specs for these glorious castles in his mind, God’s voice interrupts with a message similar to that at Jesus’ baptism. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”
Why didn’t God want Peter and James and John to commemorate the event? It obviously was a story that was told after the fact, because it comes down to us. I think the answer may lie in how they wanted to enshrine it. Off the beaten track, in a far off corner of the world, high above the fray of life. I think that this was exactly opposite of what the transfiguration was supposed to show. Because yes it happened on the mountaintop—yes Jesus was talking with the two most important prophets of Jewish history—but Jesus was in the flesh. Jesus wouldn’t be staying on that mountaintop. Jesus, the one who radiated the glory of God, was going down the path, into the morass of human life.
I think that our texts today give us an opportunity to consider when it is that we are in the presence of God. I would never poo-poo mountaintop experiences, single moments of vision, or awe, or beauty. Certainly the glory of God is found in these, and we should celebrate them when we have them. But isn’t that building dwellings for God far away, in singular capsules? Is the glory of God so infrequent, so unusual, so intimate as to be hidden away?
I think that is how Moses and the people out in the desert saw it. The people were afraid of this God who had showed up to lead them into freedom—who provided weird food to eat, and got mad when they complained, and manifested God’s self as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. So when God wants to talk to someone, to lay down the law, to bring God’s commandments, the people elect Moses to go for them. You go, they say. We’ll stay here at the bottom of the mountain where it is safe. We’ll stay here at the bottom of the mountain where God can’t get too close. We’ll stay here at the bottom of the mountain where we don’t have to make too many changes in who we are, or what we do, or how we live.
And when Moses came down from the mountain with the 10 commandments, many probably patted themselves on the back for having sent someone else, because Moses was different. Moses’ face shone. People were afraid to be in the presence of Moses. And so once Moses had presented what God had said on the mountain, Moses veiled his face. Covering the second-hand glory that he revealed, until the next time when he got to talk to God.
Now I know that talking about veils could get me in all kinds of hot water. Some cultures will tell you that veils are to protect someone, or to hide someone’s beauty from prying eyes. Moses would be right along with those people. His talks with God were personal, and elevated him in the eyes of others. Because he veiled his face we don’t know if the shine of God’s glory lasted for an hour, a day, or was permanent.
What I do find interesting is that Jesus doesn’t try to veil his face—although he knows that not everyone is ready to see the full glory of God. It makes you wonder, did Mary have a glow after talking with the angel? Did the shepherds have a glow after the singing of the heavenly host? Did Jesus shine more than other humans (just in everyday life)? And what does this story have to say to us, about us, today?
You see, I have this inkling that the transfiguration story might be a way to nudge us to find ways to let God’s glory shine in our lives. It might be a reminder that we aren’t supposed to be in the presence of God only on Sundays, only here at 20 Old Indian, (or wherever it is we choose to worship), only at 8am or 10:30am. Transfiguration seems to spread its aura everywhere. Not only is Jesus changed—but we, as Jesus’ followers, are supposed to be changed.
That is a scary proposition. Because if there is one thing that is going to stand out in this world, it is letting God’s glory be see through us. When your face shines, when you light up a room, when your presence is felt, people notice, and not always in a good way. There is a reason Moses chose to veil his face. There is a reason that Peter and James and John wanted to build sanctuaries high up in the hills, away from everyone else. It’s safer to meet our God in private. It’s safer to let God’s glory shine only around people who are “in the know.” It’s safer but our God calls us out of safe spaces into the wilderness to do battle with the enemies of God. Our God calls us out of safe spaces down into the places where homelessness, and hunger, and racism, and all the things that denigrate human beings not only reside but reign. Our God calls us out of safe spaces, down from the mountaintops, into the valleys where so many need to see God’s glory shine.
Seasons of the Spirit suggests that we become glory gatherers. We need to open our eyes to see the glory of God around us. We need to open our hearts and sense God’s glory in others. We need to open our mouths to appreciate God’s glory in those we meet. We need to open our doors so that the glory of God can be found in what we do, in what we say, in what we preach, in what we lift up, in what we pray, in what we teach, in what we live.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his last speech before he was assassinated, spoke of going up to the mountaintop. But he also said this, “It’s all right to talk about long, white robes over yonder, in all of its symbolism, but ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and his children, who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis…” and I think we must add, the new West Orange.
So may we strive to let God’s glory shine through us. May we take our mountaintop experiences and share them. May we peer under rocks, and look around corners, and gaze into unfamiliar eyes, in recognition that God’s glory can be everywhere—we only need to point it out. May it be so. Alleluia, Amen.