Reflection: February 26 “Gratitude — God’s Gift of Transfiguration”

Published on Feb 28th, 2017 by Webminister | 0

         When it comes to writing my sermon, my pattern is that usually, I look through a number of commentaries about the Scripture lesson from which I will preach. I look through both online commentaries and books that I have on my shelf. The range of titles that I found online this week about the story of Jesus transfigured on the mountain (metamorphosed is the Greek word used) were interesting and sometimes funny. For example, there was one title, “Three Saviours and a Neurotic,” referring to Jesus, Moses and Elijah as the Saviours and Peter as the neurotic. There was “Back Away from the Drawing Board.” There was “Transfiguration? ‘The Real Truth’ or a ‘Pernicious Superstition.’”

         What this range of titles means is that scholars and preachers don’t really know what to do with the Transfiguration story. Is it a story? Is it a myth? Is it a misplaced resurrection story? Is it a vision? Is it an eyewitness story? Or is it maybe a combination of these things.

         For me, the clue to the meaning of the story is found in the reaction of the disciples. Peter in particular—the neurotic in that one title I mentioned—as always, articulated what he was feeling. Peter wanted to capture the moment for posterity and build shelters for Moses, Elijah and Jesus.

         Here’s where the story makes sense to me. I’ve mentioned before some of the transfiguring moments I’ve experienced over the years—I’ve heard many of you tell similar stories. My earliest recollection was walking on a winter’s evening in Kenora and suddenly experiencing a profound sense of calm and connection; it was a starry night and cold. I was maybe 12 and it was a remarkable thing, although I didn’t understand it… and didn’t tell anyone about it then. But I appreciated that feeling of calmness and connection and I remember feeling disappointed when it faded. I wanted to preserve that feeling, like Peter perhaps.

         And so, I was delighted to hear about a similar experience in a novel I just finished, Roland Merullo’s “In Revere, in Those Days.” It’s a coming of age story about an Italian from Revere, a town on the outskirts of Boston. Tonio, a first generation American and the main character of the story, loses his parents in a freak plane accident. He is raised by his grandparents and surrounded by his large Italian family. Tonio finds some solace in being alone and likes to walk. Merullo describes how Tonio lost himself in a moment of transformation during one of his walks; he experiences something of his mom and dad and that connection and calmness seemed endless. Merullo describes how Tonio tries to find that feeling again… and he does. But Merullo also describes how Tonio comes to realize that that feeling isn’t the point of his life; it is to live fully the gifts of life he’s been given.

         The challenge of the religious life in some ways is that we want to experience something of a transfiguration and then we want to hold onto it forever. We want that feeling to last. We want to build shelters and make them permanent shrines. We make religion solely about having a feeling and when that feeling isn’t present, we find religion to be empty and dry.

         But what happened at the end of this story in Matthew’s Gospel? They went back down the mountain and re-engaged their lives again. Each took something of that moment, but it couldn’t be preserved. It fades, we are changed for sure, but we can’t live out of a feeling forever. Nor can the journey of the religious life be then about recapturing that feeling. The trip back into the valley was a reminder that we can’t stay on the mountaintop; we can’t stay in the experience because then it just becomes about the experience. We have to re-engage with our lives and live fully the hope and love—the distributive justice—that God promises the world.

         Sometimes we blame ourselves because we can’t recapture a moment of transfiguration. Or we think we are deficient somehow because we’ve never had one of “those moments.” I remember Henri Nouwen, the late wise Roman Catholic teacher and priest, who gave up his academic career and went and lived in one of Jean Vanier’s L’Arche communities in Toronto. He talked a lot about moments of transformation and that the religious life is being open to God’s Spirit, but that the ultimate aim isn’t to achieve a feeling; there is no hierarchy of religious experience in the Church. The point, Nouwen once said, is to live fully the gifts we have been given in community with others. Nouwen wrote of his experience in caring for the vulnerable family members of the L’Arche communities and in those moments of deep caring, there were moments of transfiguration. And these moments of transfiguration led to a deeper commitment to caring for others and ensuring that all life is lived fully. That’s the religious life.

         The saints of the church, the leaders of our church, tell us that transfiguration isn’t the point; that may or may not happen to us. The point is that we engage fully in the gifts of life that we have all been given, and work together to make sure that life is lived fully in all creation. That’s God’s mission for us, and God is part of it. So then, it becomes the little gestures of love and justice that define transformative moments. A gesture of love offered in a moment of despair. An act of justice in the face of oppression. A moment of redemption when someone turns aside from a life of abuse. A moment of hope when a community tears down a wall or overcomes generations of racial division. A moment of possibility when people take to the streets and demand democratic reform or climate justice. Small gestures begin to add up!

         A friend of mine tells of meeting regularly with her father. Rain or shine, they used to have a small picnic in a park near where they both lived. My friend’s father is a retired minister; they would gather together, eat a sandwich, talk about their lives, and then leave. My friend would always leave first; her father would bless her before she left and as she turned back to see him, as was their pattern, his hand would be up in a wave of blessing. And so, it was ok to go through her week engaged in her work. The world was different somehow after that moment of blessing and that difference was to be lived, not preserved.

         It’s a small gesture to bless someone, but a powerful gesture full of love and hope makes all the difference in the world. These gestures of love, hope and justice create pathways of change for the world. That’s the task of our religious life together.


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