February 19, 2023 ~ Transfiguration Sunday ~ Rev. Beckie Sweet
A brilliant magician was performing on a luxury cruise ship. But every time he did a trick, the Captain’s parrot would yell, (squawk!) “It’s a trick. He’s a phony. That’s not magic.” Then one evening during a terrible storm, the ship sank while the magician was performing. The parrot and the magician ended up in the same lifeboat. For several days they just glared at each other, neither saying a word to the other. Finally the parrot said, (squawk!) “OK, I give up. What did you do with the ship?” The parrot couldn’t explain the last trick! It was too much to comprehend, even for a smart parrot.
The transfiguration is one of those unexplainable moments that we are almost afraid to touch. How do you grab onto this story in which the inner circle of disciples were walking up the mountain for a little “down time” with Jesus, and suddenly Jesus is floating through the sky in glowing white robes, speaking casually to two dead prophets who are also, coincidentally, floating in the air???
I have a friend who loves to read science fiction, and says this is one of his favorite stories in the Bible. It is as intriguing to him as it must have been to those who heard the account from the eye-witnesses, and it was just as strange to the first hearers as it is to us today. When you hear this gospel story, you may be skeptical concerning it’s meaning to us, you may wonder about it’s authenticity – having a hard time swallowing the account of a dazzling, floating messiah.
So, this Sunday, I invite you to enter into the Transfiguration with imagination, because imagination is what this story is all about. Not in the sense that it is imaginary, but in the sense that it reminds us that God is greater than what we usually imagine!
Just when the disciples thought they knew Jesus, just when they were getting a handle on his mission here on earth, just when they had received the heart-breaking and hardly believable news that Jesus would be killed and then be raised from the dead, Jesus surprised them one more time by floating up into the sky. They never could have imagined or anticipated that!
Now, Peter was NOT one for imagination. Peter was the kind of disciple who wanted concrete facts. Peter wanted to know what the plan was. Generally when Jesus told him, Peter would argue; but eventually he would come around. Just before this story, when Peter argued with Jesus about his impending suffering, Jesus had to get tough with Peter. “Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus said. But you had to talk to Peter that way to get him to pay attention.
I often find myself feeling sorry for Peter. Every question he asks Jesus turns out to be wrong. He’s always getting smacked down. Why is that? He’s a concrete guy in a mystical adventure. Imagination didn’t come naturally to Peter.
We have Peters with us in the church today. They are the ones who sit in the meeting listening to all of the sharing and prayers, and wondering, “When are we going to get to the details of the Stewardship Campaign?” They are the ones sitting on the Board of Trustees listening to all the big dreams0, and wondering, “When are we going to look at the spreadsheets and specs? Because I want to know exactly what this will cost.” Peter is the person in church who can put up with a long church service but just wants to know before-hand how long it will go. Just keep the Peters informed. Give them something concrete. Let them know the plan, because they cannot cope with uncertainties and ambiguities.
So, when Jesus was swept up in glorious dazzling robes and appeared next to two long-dead prophets, this was not Peter’s idea of a good time! James and John may have also been swept up in the same mystical delight, but Peter, bless his heart, was thinking about the details. His Lord was floating in the sky. All Peter wanted was a little clarity. Was that too much to ask?
By this time, Peter had been parading around the country with this group of mystics long enough to know better than to try to bring Jesus down. By now, Peter was in such awe of Jesus’ power, and so attracted to it, that he didn’t run away screaming, as many of us might have done. But he needed to make this mystical experience concrete in some way. So he suggested building three dwellings that they might in that way record the moment in history.
Now, for a Jew, this really was NOT an outlandish idea. They often built houses of worship on top of places where they recognized God’s presence. And Peter wanted to mark that spot. But here’s the question: Was he marking the spot for God, or was he marking the spot like a dog marks territory? Was he claiming this moment for God or for himself? It’s as if Peter still thought he could control all of this. He still didn’t understand that life in Christ meant the end of building dwelling places in which to capture, hold, or contain God. For in Christ, we are the ones who are captured, captured in a love in which we can dwell!
God’s voice from the cloud was clearly meant for Peter, with his Mr. Fix-it idea of building memorials, and his constant chatter and analysis. “This is my Child, the Beloved,” God said, “with whom I am well pleased.” And then, in the voice of a loving but worn-out mother telling the kids in the back of the van to please be quiet because she has something important to say, God adds more forcefully, “Listen to him!” And they do. And after that, Jesus returns to the disciples just as they knew him – warm, living, fleshy, and real. It was as if they had to let go of all that was familiar in order to find comfort in the familiar once again. That change stretched and challenged the disciples, but did not leave them orphaned.
There is good news in the transfiguration for us. Very good news, indeed! For if you, like Peter, are trapped in the fear that “if you don’t build it they won’t come,” think again. We do not build the dwelling places for the Spirit, God does. If you are trapped in the sense that the concrete world is hard and mean, think again. There is always another world, a world of the Holy Spirit in which Jesus and the prophets may be floating just over our heads, if we can open our eyes to see. If you are trapped in old images of God that don’t work anymore, images that remind you more of cruelty than love, the transfiguration asks you to think again. Jesus shifted himself so many ways for so many people to remind us that we cannot completely define God, explain God, draw God, or place God within human concepts. God draws and explains us! If you, yourself, are stuck and wondering if it is time for you to change, remember this: if God transfigured Jesus, God can transfigure you as well. The day might come when those who think they know you suddenly see you shining in a whole new light. There you are dazzling but changed, watching the people who are still scurrying around trying to build the next great dwelling place. There YOU are, new in Christ, knowing that change might be frightening, but change is also God’s way of shaping us, or stretching us, or transfiguring us and reminding us that we too are indeed beloved.
When the disciples heard God’s voice, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Get up and do not be afraid! As Eugene Peterson paraphrases a verse from 2 Corinthians, he states, “So we’re not giving up. How could we?! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without God’s unfolding grace.” For you are dazzling! You are beloved! You too are always being made new. That passage concludes, “We’ve been given a glimpse of the real thing, our true home, our resurrection bodies! The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what’s ahead. God puts a little of heaven in our hearts so that we’ll never settle for less.”
Thanks be to God! Amen.