Being Transfiguration in a time of violence: A Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration, 2017

Today, August 6, in the church’s calendar is the Feast of the Transfiguration. It’s one of the major feasts of the life of Christ and because of that, when it falls on a Sunday, it supersedes the regular lectionary readings for the day. That explains why we are reading lessons from Exodus, 1 Peter, and the Gospel of Luke, rather than the Gospel of Matthew and the readings from Genesis and Romans we’ve been having.

It creates something of a problem for the preacher because there’s another Sunday each year when we always hear the story of the Transfiguration, the Last Sunday after Epiphany (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday). So it was only a few months ago that we heard Matthew’s version of this story. That we read this story each year on the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent is appropriate because the themes of this story are a fitting transition between the season after Epiphany and the beginning of Lent and reflect the story’s position in each of the synoptic gospels. It comes immediately after Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ, after Jesus’ first prediction that he will be crucified and his invitation to his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him. Luke deepens the connection between transfiguration by stating, just a few verses later, that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” In other words, after this mountaintop experience, Jesus begins his final journey that will end on another mountaintop—Calvary—with his crucifixion.

There’s another detail in the story that points ahead to the crucifixion. There’s only one other time that Luke says the disciples fell asleep. On that later occasion, as he faced crucifixion, Jesus asked his disciples to stay and watch with him while he prayed. Luke tells us that after praying, Jesus came back to them and found them sleeping, “because of grief.” This time, the disciples were “weighed down with sleep but they stayed awake and saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.”

Whatever positive spin we might put on the disciples’ behavior here is likely negated by Peter’s response to seeing Jesus with Moses and Elijah. He says, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make booths…” No doubt, you’ve heard sermons criticizing Peter’s response, his lack of understanding, his desire to prolong the experience. But there other ways to think about it. “Booths” is an allusion to the Jewish Feast of Sukkot or Tabernacles, which was in part a commemoration of the Hebrew experience of the Exodus.

And there are all sorts of echoes of Exodus here. Not just in the presence of Moses, the location on a mountaintop. There is also the presence of the cloud and the bright light, which were associated with experiences of divine revelation, including at Mt. Sinai. The word “Exodus” also appears, in Luke’s description of what Jesus talked about with Moses and Elijah—his “departure”—the same Greek word, eksodon is used. In the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish tradition, “exodus is one of the primary examples of God’s mighty acts on behalf of God’s chosen people, and it’s likely that Luke wants his readers to understand Jesus’ departure or exodus in similar terms, as God saving God’s people.

It may be, then, that Peter’s desire to erect booths is not an example of his misunderstanding, but that he wants to worship in this place, to be present with Jesus here, to learn from all three of these men. While the primary point of this story is about Jesus, a confirmation of his ministry, his calling, his identity as the Son of God, the Chosen One, this story may also be about discipleship, about following Jesus.

Jesus took his three favorite disciples, in Luke, the first three disciples he called, Peter, James, and John, up this mountain to pray. They had been with him all along his journey. They had seen his miracles, listened to his teaching, his first prediction of his suffering and death, and his call to them to take up their crosses and follow him. Now on top of this mountain, they saw his glory and wanted to prolong it. Whatever it meant, whatever they experienced, there was more to do; they could not tarry, but the four of them went back down the mountain and soon began that last, fateful trip to Jerusalem. And they kept silent about all that they had seen that day.

We, all of us, are called to follow Jesus. We are called to be his disciples. In our complicated world, with our complicated lives, it’s never quite clear what discipleship means. Is it enough to come to church from time to time and worship, to experience the beauty of God, to catch sight of God’s glory, if only momentarily and partially? I was speaking this week with an elderly couple who are unable, because of health issues to attend Grace. They expressed their deep sadness about missing services, for it was not just the community they lacked, it is the experience of awe and transcendence that they miss, and can find in no other place in their lives.

Worship, the experience of God’s glory is an important part of following Jesus but there is more to discipleship than that. When Jesus came down the mountain, he returned immediately to his ministry of teaching and healing, of proclaiming and bringing into being, the reign of God. And that is precisely what we are called to do as well. Our experience of God’s glory transforms us as well as we do those same things proclaiming the coming of God’s reign, and in our actions and lives, being agents and examples of God’s glory in the world.

The mount of Calvary looms over the mountain of Transfiguration; the cross casts its shadow on Christ’s transfigured face. Our observance of the Feast of Transfiguration occurs in a divided city that has experienced unprecedented violence in recent months. We have seen, as I’m sure you know, 10 homicides already this year, tying the record for the most murders in a year in Madison. Our city is more divided than ever. Our elected leadership is quarreling over what to do in response to this crisis and community leaders are frustrated and angry. Meanwhile, residents of the neighborhoods most affected by the violence are living in fear everyday and mourning the deaths of friends and family.

We, most of us, watch the news reports, read about them in the papers or on social media, but few of us have experienced the ripples of that violence ourselves. Oh, we may know where the events occurred, we may have stopped at the gas stations or convenience stores where incidents took place, we may even live within earshot. But most of us live in a completely different world. There’s a map on Madison.com that plots all of the significant incidents of gun violence in the city since May. Only one of the some 50 total occurred in the downtown, near westside or near eastside. It’s another piece of evidence showing how divided our city is.

As followers of Jesus, called to share the good news of the coming of God’s reign, called to break down the barriers that divide us, we are called to be agents of Christ’s reconciling love in this world. A group of us, the Creating More Just Community task force, has been engaging on issues of racism and inequality for the last several years. We are working on a new initiative to build relationships with our neighbors across the street at the Capitol, and shared information about that effort with you last week.

Now, I am calling us to engage in that reconciling work in our city. The violence we are witnessing is a symptom of something much deeper, of hopelessness and despair, of broken families, broken lives. In the coming weeks, I will be taking part in conversations with clergy and community leaders to see how we at Grace can work with others to heal our divisions, to bring an end to violence, and to spread the glory of Christ’s love in our city.