Sermon for Last Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday, February 26 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Ex 24:12-18; Ps 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Mt 17:1-9
I find the Transfiguration a difficult text on which to preach. But since it is a text, almost the only text, which the lectionary has us read twice every year, it’s not possible to avoid, and so I need to examine what it is that I find difficult, and what this text may have to say to me.
The problem is that we seem here to have a brief sighting of Awesome Super-Jesus, a figure beloved by a certain kind of Christian imagination, but not actually found anywhere else in scripture. It is all light and glory and terror, and Jesus chatting, not with whores and lepers, but with leaders, important men from Israel’s history. It is almost Trump Campaign Rally Jesus, the most excellent Messiah, really a great, great Messiah, just tremendous. And this troubles me.
But it also, interestingly, seems to have troubled Jesus himself, or at least to have been something he perceived as a potential source of trouble. The strict instructions to Peter, James and John to say nothing of what they had seen should be taken with some seriousness. This is a thing not to be spoken of now, not until the story has reached its proper culmination. This is an incident that simply cannot be understood if it is separated from crucifixion and resurrection, an incident that can only be spoken of when we know that the true revelation of God’s unbearable light came in a man tortured to death on a tree by the powers of the day, came, beyond the horizon of death, in a gentle encounter in a garden in the morning, in a meal of fried fish on the shore of the lake.
And yet that moment on the mountaintop is important too. It is something Peter and James and John needed to see, even if they could not entirely understand it. It is important to us, as long as we can read it from the end of the story backwards, see it in that framework, as long as we can understand it as a revelation, a revealing, not of power but of love. This is my son, the beloved.
For it is love which transforms, which transfigures. In small ways, we know about this. We know how the people we love with our plain flawed human love are, at moments, revealed to us as heartbreakingly beautiful, precise, individual, luminescent—how we may see them, to some limited degree, as God sees them, wholly beloved. Sometimes, even, we may be able to reach beyond the boundaries of our small human loves, and see suddenly the purity and beauty of a neighbour, a stranger, a passer-by; glimpse, in the brief and often trivial exchanges of our lives, the vivid love which is the inner life of God.
For that is what Peter and James and John saw on the mountain, and what we see through the narrative. The dance of the Trinity, the life of God revealed as the infinite and eternal movement of love, a dance into which we are invited. For by this love we too can be re-made, transformed, the reality of our being brought into light. “Love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be,” in the words of one of my favourite hymns. The worst of us, beloved and beautiful in the eyes of God. Lovely. Transfigured.
And yet the triumphalist misreading lingers. There is still that temptation to turn to Awesome Super-Jesus as the figure of power who will lead us to some kind of victory—I don’t know what kind exactly, I don’t think I want to know. We need to keep undoing that figure, untying that knot of temptation. Apparently, Jesus thought that Peter and James and John might be up to that challenge even before the crucifixion and resurrection, and apparently we are all meant to be up to it afterwards. So what else can we turn to in the story to help us do this?
The voice on the mountain, the voice from the bright cloud, tells us one thing—“Listen to him.” Listen. Listening is not a thing at which we are often very good, but let us at least try.
As soon as the bright cloud passes, Jesus says two things. First, and perhaps in some ways most important, “don’t be afraid.” It is one of the most constant messages in scripture—do not be afraid, do not fear. So much of our current pathology is rooted in fear, a fear that the existence of the other somehow compromises our own, irrational fears of refugees and immigrants, of trans people in bathrooms, of Muslims or Jews. A fear, ultimately, that our own being is so fragile that anyone who is in any way different from ourselves is an existential threat.
Or—not unrelated to this, but more like what the disciples are experiencing in that moment—that fear of God which is not awe and wonderment, but just plain fear, a fear rooted in the vision of God as, precisely, an awesome super-hero, a kind of very very large human being, who does the things we might do if we were God, who punishes, excludes, sometimes even just harms for the sake of harming or to show off the terrific divine power. This false God, this projection of our own selves onto the divine, is hard to escape, and all too often we respond by trying to be precisely like that false God, to hold onto that false power, to identify ourselves with strength in order to defend ourselves against our fear of vengeance.
To give up these fears is to give up that false God, to understand that the divine life comes to us in vulnerability, in difference, in weakness, in the small places, in the open and defenceless hands of compassion. Do not be afraid. Get up. Stand up into this life which needs wage no wars or campaigns, which does not require walls and borders, into the courage which knows that our human lives are fragile, but our ultimate being is rooted in the God of love.
So they get up—and the next thing Jesus tells them is nearly as hard. To be silent. To tell no one of what has happened. To refuse to turn this into an awesome Jesus story. Because it could be, and it could be a story they could use to compel respect, compel belief, compel worship. But they are told to do none of those things. The direction, “Listen to him,” contains a silence within it, the necessary silence of hearing. There is much listening, much hearing, the disciples must still do, before they are at the point where they should speak.
And so for us. It is tempting sometimes to go out in the world and do a lot of talking, to tell stories that will compel belief, to deliver our favourite answers even if no one is asking the questions. But perhaps we are not yet ready to talk, most of the time. Perhaps we have a good deal of silent listening still to do. We, as a church, have only barely begun to listen to Indigenous voices, Black voices, queer voices, disabled voices. We have only barely begun to listen to our Muslim neighbours, about the fear they often live with in this city which so prides itself on diversity. We must hear those voices. We must hear, too, the voices of the people who think the church has nothing to offer them, and the people who’ve been hurt by us, sometimes terribly hurt. We must listen to the voices of those who are afraid, who are confused, who are struggling for meaning, and we must listen for a long time, must not cut that listening off by telling Super-Jesus stories, by asserting a kind of triumphalist truth we have never been meant to assert.
And when, perhaps, we have listened long enough to speak, the story is a different one. It is a story of our own vulnerability, our own simple being, our own wounds and our own loves, and the story of a God who shares all this, who becomes small among the small ones, who comes quietly in peace, who suffers and dies in humility and compassion and mercy.
One of our parishioners who volunteers at the Safe Space wrote a beautiful little reflection during his shift yesterday that I want to share with you:
“I notice that, whatever quirky beliefs get named, whatever philosophical and theological grounds get covered, there are some basic things people talk about.
They tell stories of their lives.They remember wrongs done to them.They say we have to look after each other.
I find myself relaxing unconscious ways of hiding. It doesn’t matter that I have a daft accent, or that I’m gay, or Christian, or privileged. All those things exist here somehow, and I don’t have to apologise.
There’s some sort of respect for me as a human that I don’t earn, that isn’t questioned.
We eat amazing food. We all make food for each other. We eat until there’s none left, and that is enough.
No one is fooled by Mr Trump or Mr Trudeau. People have wacky beliefs and share trite proverbs, they are in no way taken in by the politics and myths that conceal violence.
And they agree—we all have to look after each other.”
This is the Transfiguration, really. This is what it means to be with the beloved, what it means to listen, what it means to be, for at least a moment, not afraid. On these troubled streets, in these troubled nights, this is the mountaintop.