Cuttino Alexander: The Happiest Place on Earth


Have you ever been to Disney World? Or Disneyland? There's a pretty good chance that you at least know somebody who has been there. And there's an even better chance that you've seen advertisements or photos from what they like to call the happiest place on earth. I went a couple times as a kid and once as an adult. And now, I've got a three-year old and he can't wait to go...maybe in the not-to-distant future. We'll just have to see about that.

It's a very popular destination. Apparently last year, over 130 million people visited a Disney park. That's like half the population of the United States. And you can understand why. It's quite the experience - an amazing feat of showmanship - no matter how you feel about Disney as this big mega corporation.

You enter through the gates of the park, into the Magic Kingdom, and you're on Main Street USA, this perfect little turn-of-the-century town complete with a barber shop and a town hall and a fire station and horse-drawn trolleys. But look closely. This is a small town with absolutely no dirt or grime or trash. Any piece of litter gets swiped up almost immediately. The bathrooms are spotless. No "problems" here to worry about (well, unless you've got a screaming toddler, but we won't go there). There's not a single frown among the townspeople. Everyone is so friendly and nice and helpful. And it's been like that since the day the park opened - picture perfect, magical even.

The appeal of Disney and other theme parks, I think, is that they've taken reality (in this case, this recognizable American town) and turned it into something better, something more beautiful. Almost hyperreal.

That's what this word "transfiguration" means - to take something and elevate it, make it more beautiful, make it shine. That's what we are celebrating today on Transfiguration Sunday, when Jesus' glory was revealed through the miracle of transfiguration. It's a little strange, not really a story we talk about much. But let's look a little closer. It all starts when Peter, James and John go on a journey with Jesus up to the top of a mountain. Now, you can picture them climbing, trudging their way upward, wondering where in the world they're going. They're on a road trip and the kids are starting to get a little antsy in the backseat. Are we there yet, Jesus?

But once they reach the top, something incredible happens: They're swept up in a mystical vision. Jesus is transformed: his face shines like the sun, his clothes glow with a brilliant white light. And two of his great spiritual ancestors appear beside him - Moses and Elijah. The big guys.

Now, unlike the healings and exorcisms that we've been hearing about the past few weeks, this is a miracle that happens directly to Jesus, in the same category as his baptism or his resurrection. In this case, Jesus shines in the eyes of his disciples.

Think about how you would have reacted to something like this. Seeing your friend and teacher suddenly shine like a lightbulb and these old heroes appearing beside him? One option would be to get the heck out of there. And indeed, these disciples were terrified, I can imagine that they were looking for the exits. But once they got over their initial shock, and started to realize what they were seeing, they didn't really want to leave.

There they were, standing in childlike wonder. Just taking it all in. This is one of those experiences that we get maybe once or twice in a lifetime - if at all - when the very creator of the universe lets us have just a little peak behind the curtain. Peter says, "Oh man, it is good to be here. Let's stay here. We can just pitch some tents, build some houses! I don't want to go back down there; everything's so perfect, so magical up here. It's the happiest place on Earth!"

Can you really blame Peter for wanting to hold onto that moment forever? After all, if you've experienced this type of spiritual ecstasy, it is a let-down to go back to the mundane, hum-drum of everyday life. When you get a glimpse of the cosmos; well, it's pretty hard to let go of that.

Seeing something transfigured, something so beautiful - even if it's the artificial perfection of an amusement park - it's hard to go back and face the imperfections of the outside world. After all, outside the gates of the Magic Kingdom, the service is lackluster at best and the restrooms are more than a little dingy.

For all the high points of our lives - for all the births and weddings and baptisms and graduations and really awesome vacations - there is the day-in and day-out. The boring. The 9-to-5, card punching monotony.

On Wednesday, many of us in the church will begin the season of Lent. And it's easy to think of this period as a time of plainness, a valley between the peaks of Epiphany and Easter. It's a time for us to put away the fancy things - the silver and the flowers and the Alleluias. We withhold guilty pleasures like chocolate or caffeine. We add disciplines like prayer and exercise.

And look, let's be honest, Lent can be a bit of a drag. I don't like to discipline myself because I look around and see that other people seem to be doing a much better job at it. I look at Peter with envy, because he reached the top and he got a glimpse of God that I don't think I'll ever get. We long to be spiritually perfect people, we yearn to be connected to God on the mountaintop, to see God's face. And it hurts when we don't get to stay up there, and it's even worse when it seems like other people are doing a better job.

Still, we do all these things because we hope that through these 40 days we too will somehow be transfigured - made into these shining examples of Christian disciples when we reach the other side of Easter. But, you know, I wonder how effective this is. Truly. Because we can work to reach this peak of perfection, but we can't camp out up there. We can't stay there permanently. Eventually, sooner or later, perhaps earlier than we think, we'll have to snap back into reality. The park is closing and it's time to go home.

So, maybe we need to rethink our understanding of transfiguration. Instead of it being this singular moment way up there on that isolated mountaintop - what if it were taking place all over, every day, in this time and place? After all, the light of Jesus shines in our world just as much as it did back then. God still speaks to the beloved - to me and you - right now.

Jesus came to earth so that God could be part of the very monotony of life. So that God could walk among us. So that God could know what it was like to be sleepy and hungry and cranky and bored. And let's not forget that Jesus' final moment of glory did not occur on that mountaintop, but on the cross. God takes all of our lives - all of it: the dull, the routine, the unremarkable - even the ugly and detestable. God takes it and turns it - transfigures it - into something amazing and beautiful and truly holy.

The beauty that results from God's transfiguration shines everywhere - in this studio as I speak to you, wherever you may be listening to it - whether it's at your home or in your car, at the gym, or in a prison or a hospital, or some far off continent - it happens anytime and anywhere God enters in and changes our lives. It happens because we are loved, forgiven, accepted.

So, this Lent, instead of trudging up the mountain, trying to blaze our own path to some sort of perfection and achieve some sort of transfiguration all on our own - let's train our ears and our eyes to see it happening all around us.

We don't have to have a perfect world or a perfect life or a perfect faith to experience it.

You don't need to buy some ticket. You don't have to make some long road trip or fight the crowds. It doesn't just exist within the confines of some artificial place. It's everywhere. It's in the middle of the messiness, the suffering, the pain, our own individual journeys to the cross. It's there that we hear God's words and God taking delight in us. The light of transfiguration, the light of Jesus, opens our hearts to see God, to know God, to be embraced by God, wherever we may be.

How is God transfiguring your life? How is God making it into something more beautiful? Something more remarkable? And how is God calling you to transfigure the world around you in turn? Things to think about in this Lenten journey. And for now, here we are, on that mountaintop, surrounded by the light and love of God. It is indeed good for us to be here.

Let us pray.

Holy God, your light shines on us and your love transfigures us. Your call guides us through all the mountaintops and valleys of our daily lives. We thank you for your presence every step of the way. Help us to see all that you are doing in our world, that we may be your servants and do your will on this day and every day. We pray this in the name of your beloved son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.