Sunday, February 3

Sermon: The Transfiguration

The Feast of the Transfiguration
Sunday, February 3, 2008
Readings: Exodus 24:12-18, Ps. 99, II Peter 1:16-21
Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9
Preacher: The Rev. Laura Gottardi-Littell

This past Friday I had the opportunity to hear the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church, Katherine Jefferts Shori. Shori is the first woman to lead the Episcopal church. She has a Ph.D. in oceanography, is a small craft pilot, and is married with a grown daughter. She was in town last week for the ordination of the new bishop of Chicago. On Friday Chicago-area clergy had an opportunity to meet with her as a group, to hear some of her reflections and ask her questions.

Someone in our audience asked Shori if the deep calm she exudes is for real. The presiding bishop said it is in fact who she is, most of the time. Her awareness of herself as God’s beloved allows her to be strong in her own convictions yet open and receptive to others. Shori is a bridge-builder, a lover of dialogue, a believer in keeping everyone at the table. And she needs all that in her job as head of a church that’s currently very divided.

Shori began our conversation by talking about the word “conversation” -- noting that conversation and conversion share a common root.

She spoke about today’s gospel, noting that at both Jesus’ transfiguration and baptism, God speaks out of a cloud and says about Jesus: “This is my beloved son. With him I am well pleased.”

Shori said that understanding our selves and others as God’s beloved can pave the way for more constructive conversations, sometimes even conversion. Particularly when we disagree with the other, or when they are different from us, it’s important to remain rooted in this understanding of our mutual identity as God’s beloved.

Today’s gospel makes Jesus’s real identity clear.

Jesus is up there on a mountaintop with John, James, and Peter.
And at one point Jesus’ face begin to shines, and his garments turn a dazzling white
The disciples see Moses and Elijah there on the mountain talking with Jesus.
A voice from the clouds says: “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

We call this event, as recorded in the gospels, the transfiguration.

The transfiguration is about who Jesus is and it’s also about the glory of God, as reflected in Jesus. Our other Scripture readings today are also about God’s glory. Moses experiences the glory of the Lord on Mt. Sinai. The first letter of Peter offers a eyewitness account of the transfiguration, from Peter’s perspective. Our psalm speaks of God’s glory and might.

As human beings, we all participate in the glory of God, all are part of God’s glorious creation.

At the same time we live in a fallen world.
Paul says all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
That’s our human reality.

But if see ourselves and others only as fallen, flawed, limited we take part in disfiguring our collective humanity. Our conversations become ones of blame, misunderstanding, and contempt. This adds to the fallen-ness and brokenness of the world, rather than helping transform it.

And God is about transfiguring rather than disfiguring humanity.

Jesus’s transfiguration prefigures the cross and resurrection. It’s a preview of coming attractions. In Luke’s account, Moses and Elijah talk to Jesus about the exodus Jesus is going to lead in Jerusalem. They use that word exodus, Greek for departure. Jesus, the second Moses, is going to lead another exodus, going to set humanity free through his departure via the cross. He will allow himself to be disfigured in order to bring about his and our transfiguration.

The cross was an instrument of torture designed to literally disfigure the human person
The forces of hate, fear and judgment put Jesus up on a cross and disfigured him. Those same forces continue to disfigure human beings today, mentally and physically.

But the resurrection proves these disfiguring forces have no ultimate power over our true identity. Nothing could prevent Jesus from being loved by God, not even the cross. He was nailed there in part because he went around saying he was God’s beloved and that others, mostly the wrong people, were also God’s beloved. Samaritans, prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, the poor -- Jesus had the nerve to believe God loved them. Naturally this irked political and religious authorities who believed they had the right to determine who was in and out with God, and that they could control the folks Jesus was going around transfiguring.

The powers and principalities of this world can feel very threatened by the idea that all humans are beloved of God. Because when people feel lovable and valuable, we may demand to be free, may act as if we have rights. Strong and free people aren’t easily controlled.

What would become of wars, racism, sexism, classism, all the other isms, if the whole world saw ourselves as God’s beloved? How would any of that stuff have a leg to stand on?

So this knowledge of our true identity is radical, life-changing, even dangerous, in a world that regular undermines our value, that often cheapens human life. Jesus came that we might have life and have it more abundantly. He came that we might know who and whose we are. He came that we might know that we are part of the glory of God’s creation and that we might live ever more fully into that transfigured reality.

On one level it’s a simple idea – we are all God’s beloved – but it’s very challenging to remember and live out on a daily basis. Do we live as if God knows all about us and still loves us? Can we stop judging ourselves and thinking if only I were x, y, or z, then I would be loveable? Can we stop our petty comparisons and one-upmanships, and act as if there is enough of God’s love to go around?

Can we converse with others, grounded in the knowledge that both we and they are God’s beloved? Can we listen with open minds and hearts? When we seek to deeply understand another’s condition, and hold up the mirror that shows who they really are, it can be life-changing for them. This is the essence of much effective counseling, spiritual direction, and confession –all are ways of bringing a person’s original identity and lovability back to their awareness.

I’ve grappled with my own sense of being God’s beloved. Some years back, I was fortunate to receive a very nice scholarship to Garrett seminary. I had a wonderful three years there and in the process, earned many accolades and affirmations, even an award. After graduating I was fortunate to earn recognition in my work as hospital and hospice chaplain. These were mountaintop moments. I felt a great joy combined with an equally deep humility.

The humility came because I knew on some level, these things were happening because of God’s grace, and for the glory of God. Yes, I had worked hard and cared for others but much of it was God working through me. The joy came from feeling loved by God and in touch with my own identity, my calling. I was doing what I loved and I was appreciated for it.

But there were hazards in all this achieving – sometimes I could forget it was the glory of God, and not my own glory. Another danger was feeling like I had to keep achieving in order to feel worthy. As if the source of my worth was my accomplishments. At one point a good friend and I had a very helpful conversation. She said: “Whether you make a mistake, or whether you achieve something, you are still Laura. You are still loved.” Her words struck a deep chord in me, touched a place that needed to know I was loved and accepted, regardless of what I did or didn’t accomplish.

There were also times in my ordination process when people didn’t always affirm or even see my gifts. That was hard. Then I had to hold on to my own sense of being God’s beloved. I was fortunate also to have friends and colleagues who could hold onto that for and with me.

I think the real deal – as Jesus shows us – is that whether we’re on the mountaintop feeling dazzled by the glory, or whether we’re on Calvary feeling the agony – we’re God’s beloved. As Paul writes, nothing can separate us from the love of God.

There are a lot of people out there who think they have to earn love. Who need to be reminded about grace. Lots of folks walking around who don’t know they’re loved, don’t know how to love themselves or anyone else. But this is the great gift of our faith, that all are God’s beloved. And we need to be shouting it from the mountaintops and rooftops.

I would like to ask you now, as Bishop Shori asked us, to spend a few minutes in silence experiencing yourself as God’s beloved, one with whom God is well pleased. And see what that brings up for you. And if you want to, we can talk about it in our discussion period after the sermon, or another time. We can have a conversation.