That’s neat, Jesus, but what about me?
March 3 That’s neat, Jesus, but what about me? * Exodus 34:29-35 * Psalm 99 * 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 * Luke 9:28-43
After a long week of challenges, with me wishing for snow days, the sun finally made a bold appearance on Friday. This time of year, when that happens, something in my brain just snaps and I lose all sense of reality. I begin to think that I too may be transfigured from the grumpy bear trying to hibernate for the winter back into a sometimes-pleasant human being. I was driving around in my school bus taking kids home, with the heater finally off and a window the slightest bit opened, dreaming of what to do after work. I had to do something. Anything, outside. Since I have been getting the stink eye from the dogs lately, I decided to take Sweets and Bub down to the 1000 Acre Dog Park. It was nice at home, but down the hill, by the Columbia River, the wind was howling, and it was cold, but we had a good time anyway, and they could go home and get back to their hard life of napping with bellies full of treats.
The next morning, the wind was howling at home, but when I came over here, it was beautiful and calm, with reminders everywhere of how windy it had been. This lasted about 20 minutes, and the wind started up again. Sorry, it must have followed me over. The weather this winter has served as a reminder of how unpredictable and hard to understand our world can be. Not only in dealing with nature, but in dealing with people. Everyone is different, and certain people are just very difficult to understand. I don’t only mean struggling with different ethnicities and other very different backgrounds. And I don’t mean trying to understand peoples’ dumb ideas or where they come from. I have plenty of my own dumb ideas, and don’t always know where they come from. What I mean is that I would like to understand people at their deepest: their hearts, their hopes, what they are wanting out of life. It seems like in our world today, everyone is so busy and so preoccupied with what is going on in the world that when you actually sit down with someone, they aren’t really there. And what’s even harder to swallow is realizing our inability to be there for them. Despite our best efforts, we let others down, and let ourselves down. At times, we too wish to be transfigured into that perfect image of ourselves that we wish we could be and hope that God still sees .in us
With all this meandering in mind, maybe Jesus’ transfiguration isn’t as weird as it initially seems, for we struggle just to understand one another even when we aren’t doing supernatural things. There are things we don’t understand about Jesus, just as there are things we don’t understand about ourselves, but we still seek to grow and understand more and more, even knowing that we won’t reach perfect understanding within this lifetime. But we can’t stop, or we will stop growing. The antidote to stagnation and hopelessness is curiosity. We keep striving to move forward even when we don’t understand and want to give up. We keep trying to understand others and ourselves even after we are disappointed yet again. We keep trying to understand Jesus even when he is beyond our comprehension.
Our readings for today are fine examples for us, in that we may not understand what is going on, but we can’t help but be curious, and ask questions, even though we may come up short on answers. You read them one day and see different things the next day. I used to think this story about Moses with the shiny face was just too weird, but then you keep reading and there are all these little details which draw you into the scene, of people being overcome, of Moses having to cover his head, and of Moses himself being unaware that God’s glory had physically changed him. Who doesn’t want to have God shining through your very pores so that everyone can see it? These days, everywhere you go you meet people who act like they are a shining star worthy of adoration, but here’s Moses, who certainly could have taken advantage of his new uniqueness, but he remains humble. Of all the people of the Bible, Moses possibly had the most reasons to brag about his God-given abilities and achievements, and yet he consistently only gives glory to God, with one exception. If only our track record was as good! Oscar Romero said: “When we leave worship, we ought to go out the way Moses descended Mt. Sinai: with his face shining, with his heart brave and strong, to face the world’s difficulties.”
Our passage from Luke about Jesus’ Transfiguration is a gift for preachers that keeps on giving. Certain passages cause me to groan when I read them, wondering how to come up with another sermon on something that just doesn’t inspire me at the moment, but here is a story that always inspires. Just what it says about Jesus seems to vary every time I read it, but the main point this time around is to shut up and listen to him. We can debate just what is going on with the clouds, the special effects, the voice, the different reactions of the people, especially when we compare the story as told by the other Gospels, but in the end, we are invited to acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God, and we are to listen to him. Usually when we read Scripture, we immediately try to apply it to ourselves, put ourselves into the story, and twist the story to fit it into our situation. But here, we are invited to just stop and be in awe of Jesus. We acknowledge that his glory is beyond our limited comprehension, it is enough to watch and listen. It doesn’t say we are to understand, we are to listen to him; too often when we think we understand something, we stop listening. With Jesus, we can’t stop listening, because he always has something new for us. Instead, we are to stop talking, and just stand in awe. We do have some understanding of who Jesus is, of course, but hopefully the right amount, so that we stay curious and humble and not think we know everything.
As we read a passage like this, we should always make a point of asking why the story that follows is there, also, for chances are we are still experiencing a spiritual hangover from the Transfiguration and read the story that follows without hearing it. Often, the Gospel writers give us a teaching passage, and then a story that shows that teaching in action. We are to listen to Jesus, but he is not just a man of words, but a man of action. We keep watching him. We listen to his parables, but we also listen to what his miracles say about him. We may shake our heads in disbelief and wonder at the Transfiguration, so we are given an example that points us to the fact that Jesus is the Son of God. He doesn’t stand there striking a pose, basking in the attention like a celebrity walking down the red carpet. Nor is it the time for making a speech, it is time to get to work. And he does not act to draw attention to himself, for after the boy is healed, we are told that those who witnessed “were astounded at the greatness of God.”
One of my heroes of the faith is Dorothy Day, who was an example of personal sacrifice on behalf of the less fortunate in Christ’s name. But she was as human as we and made her share of mistakes and enemies. Towards the end of her life, she said:
“I try to remember this life that the Lord gave me. The other day I wrote down the words ‘a life remembered,’ and I was going to try to make a summary for myself, write what mattered most — but I couldn’t do it. I just sat there and thought of our Lord, and His visit to us all those centuries ago, and I said to myself that my great luck was to have had Him on my mind for so long in my life!”
The Transfiguration is a turning point in the Gospel. Before it, we mainly learn about Jesus. We have seen his glory, his miracles, we have heard his teachings about the Kingdom of God. Afterwards, we learn about what it means to follow him. He gives us warnings of the costs, the tribulations, the broken hearts. After a time of preparation, we too are sent out into the world to share what we know about Jesus. We follow the path he first walked, but the path he is leading us on is headed for the cross. We are reminded of the sacrifices, the loss, not just that Jesus endures, but the ones we are to face also. We stop and worship him now, so we will be strengthened for the troubles on the road ahead.
So what does this mean for us? Can we too be transfigured into people that will point others to the greatness of God, or will they see something else, something we probably don’t want them to see? Will we be faithful, or will we be driven into inactivity by fear and disappointment? We all would like our lives to be pain-free, but that isn’t going to happen. We would like our churches to get along, but that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. We are experts at division and hurting people, we are not very good at unity and humility. We seek to do what is right, but sometimes that means people get hurt, sometimes unexpectedly, usually not. Even when we think we are doing what God wants, there may be consequences to our actions that we regret.
Our reading from St. Paul begins: “Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness.” What Paul is talking about is our ministry given to us from God, through the Holy Spirit. This same glory we see on display at the Transfiguration is the same glory that has called us into ministry here. We may not be able to see or understand the fullness of this glory, but we are connected to it and seek to humbly fulfill our part in it. We will make mistakes. We will hurt others and have our hearts broken. If we deny this reality, we deny what it means to be disciples of Jesus. If building spiritual muscles was like building the muscles of our bodies, we would all look like Olympic body-building champions. But building spiritual muscles are not as easy to see, and the way they are seen is through our actions, and through how we treat others. We know we may hurt others, but if we are doing the right thing, are we at least doing it in a manner that causes as little harm as possible? We seek to practice love and acceptance, but sometimes we must do things that will upset people, and we can’t ignore that fact. We must love fully without guarding our hearts.
As we head into the season of Lent, we remember that one purpose of the season is to examine our hearts and confess where we have come up short. Such things can be counterproductive if we only focus on ourselves. We fast and abstain from things so that our weaknesses will make the glory of Jesus even more obvious to and through us. If we rely on ourselves, we will fail. Only Jesus will lead us into victory.