Keeping It Real

Today is Transfiguration Day, one of those turning points when we veer in a new direction in the church year. You could argue that everything that had happened in the church year so far was working up to today: All that waiting in Advent, the celebration of Jesus' birth at Christmas time, and the many small revelations of God's majesty throughout Epiphany have been working their way towards this, the day on a mountain top when Jesus is seen at least for a moment as his most real self-human and yet light surrounded-God with us and for us here and now and forever. Amen.

As soon as it happens, it's over and we begin this serious journey of Lent. The One who is for us is out to save us, and that can only happen down the long road to the capital city where a cross stands waiting outside town. The story of the transfiguration is one of the strangest in the Bible, in part because outside of the movies, none of us is likely to have seen anyone transfigured before.

We've seen changes in people. When I was in college, I remember watching the transformations in people who came to Duke to take part in the special diet developed there for seriously overweight folks. Part of the regimen was a daily walk around the mile-long wall of East Campus. When people started, they walked slowly, often stopping to rest, often looking as though they were in pain. A few weeks later they looked about the same, but they were moving faster, making it around the wall without needing to stop. After a few months, they were shadows of their former selves, wearing new clothes to go with their new bodies, some jogging or even running over grounds they could once barely walk. They were right there in front of us every day, these folks whose names we didn't know, doing something life enhancing and hard. It was dramatic. It was inspiring. It was transformation and change, but transfiguration is something else again.

Through modern special effects, film makers now have the ability to portray instantaneous physical transfigurations for us; but when they do, almost always the script calls for the character to be disclosed as a worst self, a monster hidden within. This is the very opposite of the revelation of a glorious shining image of God, which our faith says is our truest self. We've seen on the screen all manner of humans revealed to be evil aliens, an angry hulk, humans turned insect or animal. The single cinematic example I can think of, of a character becoming transfigured in the biblical model happens off screen in Lord of the Rings when the wizard Gandolf the Grey is transformed through suffering and triumph into Gandolf the White. Tolkien was a devout Christian, and he was definitely relying on a biblical framework when he had Gandolf emerge from his exile with shining prophetic face in white, white robes, with white hair and beard. The film makers did the gospels proud when they shrouded his entrance in a cloud of blinding white light. One critic said it looked as though Gandolf had been to a really great salon.

It always seems strange to me when our Christian story comes back to us in movies or books, and people react as if they were encountering the information for the first time. How strange that a central piece of our own story has to come to back to us in a movie in order for us to get a glimpse of what it might have been like on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured.

The story of the transfiguration is found in three of the four gospels. We read it every year, and every year the three disciples who witness the moment tremble and gape. Each year Peter volunteers to make the glory permanent, to keep it high up on the mountain, as it were, by building three booths or tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, even though he is so overcome with fear, he doesn't know what he is saying.

Several features work together in this story to identify Jesus with God's own majesty. The "high mountain" harks back to stories of Moses' commission on Mt. Horeb and the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai. The blinding brightness of Jesus' clothes is a replica of God's agent in the Book of Daniel (7:9) where the Ancient One was dressed in clothes as "white as snow." The whiteness is meant to be a white that human beings cannot manufacture on their own. The appearance of Moses and Elijah connects Jesus with Israel's two most important prophets. The overshadowing cloud is the same as the divine presence in the cloud of the Exodus and at Sinai.

I said earlier we had not seen transfigurations before, but that is not really so. If you spend any time with children, you have seen transfigurations on their faces. How about that moment of amazement when a child with a new toy learns that by pushing this, that happens, not just once but every time! Or that some movement that was once mystifying is suddenly easy to perform. I saw such a look on the face of my two-year old niece this month when she took a toy kangaroo from its stuffed mother's pocket for the first time and then put it back, saying mommy and baby over and over and over again with delight. Then there was the look on my teenage daughter's face when I saw her see a painting by Vermeer. She was not looking as she once had looked. She appeared struck, changed by what she saw; and it changed me, too, to realize how deeply moved she was. I let go of a piece of my parenting forever that day, and neither of us came home from the museum the same. There is no going back from such moments when new things have been mastered, no matter how small. Fredrick Buechner says we have all seen transfigurations like that, fleeting instants when a human face is transformed by understanding or beauty or joy.

Jesus' transfiguration, too, is a momentary glimpse of something permanent that is yet to come. The disciples on the mountain top also know at some level that what they've seen can't be unseen. Maybe that's why Peter wants to fix it there and house it. What has happened up there on the mountain top was real, and perhaps at some level he is beginning to see that what we live day-to-day at present is not permanent. The sorry of the present world is what is transitory, not the shining mountain top moment.

How about you? Can you fathom that the scene on the mountain top is what is real and that what we live day-to-day at present is the thing that is not permanent?

Sometime ago I heard an interview with an amazing man-a man who makes me believe that what this text says about what is real and what is not is true and that what is real is the power we have for love and reconciliation and healing. His name is Father Greg Boyle, and he works with gangs in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles. He has worked there for well over twenty years. In his work he has seen things that might make anyone give up hope. He has buried many teenagers who were victims of gang warfare. He has watched mothers bury not one but all their sons. He has sat by beds of shooting victims and beating victims in hospitals, some of whom never recover. He says mass in 25 jails, but he has also started a business that employs ex-gang members, since kids coming out of prison who are tattooed from head-to-toe are not exactly what employers have in mind when looking for people to man their counter or their cash register. So he started a silk-screen t-shirt factory, and he employs kids there. In the factory kids from rival gangs work side-by-side. "Usually," says Father Boyle, "when a kid begins and is told there will be former members of rival gangs at work beside him, the kid will say, 'Well, I just won't talk to them.' But after a time and a short time at that, they do begin to talk, and they get to know each other. And the old label of enemy or rival gives way to the name co-worker and sometimes friend." Interviewer Teri Gross asked Boyle if he had met kids who he knew would be hopeless to try and help, and he said every time he thought he'd met a kid he could never reach, they, too, turned out to be people who wanted regular lives and homes and families and freedom from what they had known in gangs. She asked him if he talked about the gospel with these kids. "Not really," he answered. "It's more important," he said, "to live as if the truth were true, to go where love has not yet arrived, choose to stand with the folks that God chooses to stand with."

Then he told the story of the desert monks centuries ago who, whenever they were greatly distressed or despondent, would repeat just one word over and over and over. "A mantra," he said, "that keeps you facing the person who's facing you; it keeps you present to God revealed magnificently in front of you. The word wasn't Jesus," said Boyle. It wasn't love. The word was today." Amen.

Let us pray.

Transfiguring God, who breaks in on our lives unexpectedly, we thank you that you are what is permanent and faith is what's most real. When we get confused and think our trials are the truth and your promises just stories, come crashing in on us in some marvel large or small until we learn to see you in each other's faces. Be with those who are sick this day, especially with anyone who is facing uncertain treatment or hard tests. Be with anyone who is lonely and help them feel your presence in these words. Give encouragement to the timid and awaken those who are convinced they alone are responsible for whatever good surrounds them. Break in on those who are too content until their contentment depends on sharing. For we ask in the name of him who came to reveal your love for the world. Amen.