Rev. Melanie Hardison
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
Transfiguration Sunday – March 3, 2019
Did you catch all of that story? I can hardly catch it all, even after working with it for a few weeks! There is so much going on.
So let’s recap. We’ve got a spiritual experience of prayer on a mountaintop… Jesus himself being transfigured in the face and his clothes becoming dazzling white… the appearance of none other than Moses and Elijah… a mysterious cloud in which Moses and Elijah disappear… the voice of God saying “Here’s my Son; Listen to him…” And of course the disciples, who witness these events and are so overpowered they cannot even speak. And this is just the mountaintop part of the story!
Then they come down from the mountain, and are immediately surrounded by a crowd. I’m picturing this crowd the way Jim described it a couple of weeks ago: We’re talking busloads of folks, whole caravans, people who have walked for miles to get a glimpse of Jesus. They don’t know about the mountaintop transfiguration that has just taken place, but they have been hearing about Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing. And they might be hopeful, to be in his presence and receive some healing themselves. From the middle of the crowd, a man calls out “heal my son…” and Jesus doesn’t miss a beat. He gets right back to work, rolling up his sleeves to heal the boy and restore him to life.
It can be easy to think of the Transfiguration story as a “mountaintop experience,” all glory, and light, and healing… But when we take a deeper look, it’s not all warm and fuzzy. It’s also a bit unsettling, and for the disciples, Luke says, it’s terrifying.
So what exactly is this moment, this experience that was so powerful, none of them could speak about it afterwards? Well, we don’t entirely know. We do know that this is a moment that connects Jesus to the wisdom of the past, through Moses and Elijah. And that the words God speaks are the words God spoke at Jesus’ baptism. And that this moment looks to the future, to Jesus’ death. We call this story (and this Sunday) the “transfiguration of the Lord,” which certainly refers to the transfiguration of Jesus’ face. I think its placement on the church calendar every year, right before Lent, also points to the transfiguring nature of Jesus’ overall ministry and teaching.
Because in this story transfiguration–or transformation–comes not only to Jesus, but to a little boy. And, as this story points forward to Jesus’ death and resurrection, we understand it, two thousand years later, as part of the transfiguration of the world.
Picture with me this modern-day scene right here in Louisville Kentucky: A conference is taking place in a large hotel. It’s the final night–the big speaker everyone has been waiting for. We’ll call him “Mr. Tony,” a well-known leader in the recovery community, who’s been clean and sober for 18 years and travels around the country sharing his story of addiction and recovery.
Mr. Tony is in rare form tonight, testifying, encouraging, and inspiring everyone. He finishes his address and the room comes to its feet in a standing ovation. Once the applause dies down, Mr. Tony steps down from the platform, hugs the emcee–and collapses. The excitement in the room turns to grave concern as 911 is called and EMS arrives. They get Mr. Tony to the nearest Emergency Room. But the medical team there cannot save him, either. Mr. Tony dies.
This is where I enter the story, as the chaplain for the Emergency Room that night. The family that has gathered is Mr. Tony’s “chosen family:” a whole host of folks from his AA community back home who came from out of state to attend the conference and support their friend and mentor.
At the conference they had been to the mountaintop with Mr. Tony, and now as the reality of his sudden death sets in, they are coming down off that mountain, hard and fast.
I become aware of a young man who has sunk to the floor. He has his head in his hands, saying things I can’t quite hear. What I can hear is the response of another man, crouched down next to him, talking him down from the ledge to not go out and use, but to stay on the path of recovery, just like Mr. Tony had told them a few hours before. Right there in the ER, they couldn’t save Mr. Tony, but life-saving work was happening.
As the night unfolds, people tell story after story about Mr. Tony. His friends come to believe his message that night was his parting gift to them and to the world. They agree they are now Mr. Tony’s ambassadors, the ones who will carry on his work. They say how glad they are that at least he died doing what he loved: talking about recovery and staying on the path. They come down from their mountaintop experience hard and fast. And yet they lift each other up, speaking words of strength and truth where it is needed most, right then and there, quite possibly saving a young man’s life.
Jesus and the disciples come down from the mountain hard and fast. They don’t get to walk and talk for a few hours and absorb all that has happened to them. Instead they are met with a demanding crowd seeking healing. And they get right to work. (Or at least Jesus does… He seems a bit frustrated with the disciples!)
Luke says that when Jesus heals the boy, all are astounded. Not at Jesus’ power, but they’re astounded at the graciousness of God. The graciousness of God. That is what it all points to–all of our discipleship, all of our ministry, all of our work for justice, all of our faith. It points to the graciousness of God. It’s as if Luke is saying that the mountaintop high and the everyday work in the trenches are inextricably linked, one unable to exist without the other. Two sides of the same transforming work that points to the grace of God.
It is easy for us, to look to mountaintop experiences to “hear the voice of God.” However, Jesus shows us that it is in the valley below, the lower places, the everyday places, the ordinary places,
that healing and transformation most often take place.
Which is an apt reminder as we approach Ash Wednesday this week and hear the words that bring me to my knees every year: “From dust you come and to dust you shall return.”
As we move through Lent, it can be easy to look towards the glory of Easter. And yet what Lent invites us to do is to stay in the here and now, to be present to this very moment, to be content with the everyday and the trenches where the real enactment of our faith resides.
We don’t have to be Jesus, and we won’t be Jesus. But we can watch and listen for God’s voice
and for the voices of those who need healing and release. Whether you’re the keynote speaker with a message of recovery, whether you’re on the floor in the midst of tragedy and temptation,
whether you’re on the mountaintop with a dazzling Jesus, or whether you’re doing the everyday work of discipleship.
All of it points to God and God’s grace. If we’re on that path, and we stay on the path, and work our program of good news in the face of injustice and oppression and suffering–If we hear God’s words “This is my Son–Listen to him” and pair it with the cries of our fellow human beings–God will move in and through us, transfiguring our very selves, and transfiguring the world God so deeply loves.
May it be so.