Face to Face. Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

Luke 9:28-43

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

 

One of the joys of living and serving a church in a rural Indiana for a time was building relationships with other clergy in the community. One of the pastors I got to know was Dale, the chaplain at the hospital in town. He was an American Baptist pastor, (though he once told me that our Lutheran Church was his second favorite congregation). Dale had served at Good Samaritan Hospital long enough to become rooted in the community, accompanying individuals and families through their illnesses and their grieving, celebrating births and successful surgeries, being a part of the healing that took place in the hospital. He liked to say that the whole town was his parish, as he could minister to any one of his neighbors on any given day, and his vocational joy was obvious.

One day, when Dale and I and a few other clergy were meeting in my office to check in and pray together, he mentioned that he was getting ready to go on a hiking trip. We asked about it more and found out that he went on a hiking trip alone just about every year. Then he sat back a little and shared how it all started. He said, “About fifteen years ago, I was hiking in this particular region, up in the hills, and I had a profound experience that I can’t really explain. Suddenly everything seemed brighter, the colors of the leaves and grass and sky were much more vivid, and I had this amazing feeling of peace and connectedness to everything around me. It lasted several minutes, and then it was gone. I’ve never experienced anything like that since, but I guess these hiking trips I keep taking are an attempt at capturing that moment again.”

Who knows what exactly Dale experienced on the trail all those years ago? He can’t explain it. It certainly fits with other descriptions of what have come to be known as mystical experiences, but that doesn’t really explain any more how it all came to be. Whatever it was Dale experienced that day, he found it awe-inspiring and even transformative. I heard him talk about it several times, even in a sermon he gave at our church.

There are probably a couple of people here today who can identify with Dale’s experience. The majority of us, I would guess, have never had a mystical experience of quite that magnitude. However, I am willing to guess that each one of us here has had some experience that was significant and even transformative for our lives of faith. Maybe it was a week at Bible camp where you felt exceptionally close to God. Maybe it was a mission trip that changed how you saw the world and your place in it. Maybe it was a worship service that inspired you for a new path in life. Maybe it was a moment of reconciliation with another person or becoming connected with a new community. There are countless possibilities, but again, I bet each of you can think of some special moment in your faith journey. I invite you to call one to mind if you can. Where were you? Were you alone or with others? What did it feel like? Exciting? Calm? Scary? Have you ever told anyone about that experience? Or did you keep it to yourself because you thought you’d sound strange or just wouldn’t be able to explain it properly? Did you not share it because silence seemed to be the most appropriate response?

In general, Lutherans in North America are probably not as accustomed as others in the body of Christ to talk about personal religious experiences. That’s unfortunate, I think, because the mountain top moments matter. They inspire us. They encourage us. They terrify us sometimes. They change us. They leave us seeking something more.

And it’s the “something more” that I really want to talk about today because while the spiritual mountain tops moments are important and this is Transfiguration Sunday, it’s not just the mountain that we read about in our Gospel today. There’s another piece to this story. The very next day, after descending from the mountain, Jesus and his disciples came across a man and his son. The boy was in serious turmoil, and his father pleaded with Jesus to help him. Seeing it, Jesus had to intervene. But first, either because they would not or could not help him, Jesus got upset with his friends, the disciples. He scolded them, as if to say, “Don’t you understand that the whole point of the mountain was for this boy’s sake and for others like him?” Jesus demonstrated, in word and deed, that the glory of God cannot be confined only to the moments of spiritual high but is consistently found in suffering in and with and for the world. God is present in real world acts of healing.

This conviction is central to our faith and life together as followers of Jesus. Our Christian faith is rooted in the good news that God is revealed most fully and powerfully in real life, real worldly need. We read it in the Gospels. God is present when a Samaritan helps a stranger along the road, when a son is welcomed home, when a neighbor is honored and cared for, when a leper is touched and restored to community, when a crowd is fed, when a guilty one is forgiven, when a child is returned to his parents. God has come to be with us where we are, and in the life of Jesus we see all that God intends for us and our neighbors.* That incredible life of Jesus teaches us to look for the glory of God shining upon us right now, daily, in all of life’s need for healing.

I again think of Chaplain Dale, who longed year after year for that feeling of peace in the woods. I hope he does find that kind of closeness to God again. Yet I am also convinced that through his daily encounters with hospital patients and staff and their families—his parishioners—he regularly comes face to face with the glory of God. In fact, I believe that compels him as much as his hiking memory. When he enters into the lives of people who are grieving, people who are afraid before surgery or grateful afterward, people who sit with sick kids day after day, people who could easily identify with this Gospel’s description of a life beyond one’s own control, in those encounters he is truly looking upon the face of God. Not fully or clearly. No, there’s mystery at the foot of the mountain, too. But Mike himself, like all of us, day after day, is being transfigured into the very life of Christ.

Where will transfiguration lead us?  If it’s the transfiguration of Christ, then it will lead us into places in need of healing. It will lead us to confront powers and systems that keep people in despair. It will lead us to lean into the painful realities of our society and to have difficult conversations where we acknowledge our own need for healing. It will cause us to seek forgiveness and reconciliation with one another, to find ways of caring for the sick, to ease the burdens of parents whose need to work multiple jobs drives them to exhaustion, to help return refugee children to their mothers and fathers in a safe and stable home environment. It will make us restless and will compel us to always seek something more: that is, the very glory of God in our neighbor’s face.

If it doesn’t, then we ought to be prepared for Jesus to say to us sternly and yet with endless compassion, “What do you think that mountaintop was for? What do you think that gift at the table was for? Don’t lose heart. You are not alone. You can be confident that God will not give up on you. The glory of God shines upon you and through you today.”

*With thanks to Walter Brueggemann and his sermon, “Re-formed for Ministry,” in The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann.
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