Transfiguration

Sermon for Transfiguration, Sunday, August 08 2021, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Daniel 7:9-10,13-14; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Luke 9:28-36

I find the Transfiguration a difficult text on which to preach—and in fact, I have partially avoided this by going strategically on vacation in August most years. 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 that is both complex and important.

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 may trouble us. 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 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.

But that moment on the mountaintop is important. It is something Peter and James and John needed to see, even if they could not entirely understand it. It is something we need as well, 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. 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 personal 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 the hymn. 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. We need to keep undoing that figure, untying that knot of temptation.

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 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 worst selves onto the divine, is hard to escape, and all too often we respond by trying to be 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 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, though danger is real, suffering is real. Still, 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 violence they often live with in this city which so prides itself on diversity. We must hear those voices. We must hear 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 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 longings, 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. And this is not separate from that moment on the mountain, but is the very meaning of that moment, the vivid light of transfiguring life and love.