I take the title of my sermon from the writing of one of my favorite theologians, someone this congregation knows I quote a great deal. Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “No situation is un-transfigurable.”
The story of the Transfiguration, for many years, was one of my least favorite stories in the Gospels. It seems a bit strange. Jesus climbs up a mountain. His appearance changes. Matthew tells us his face “shone like the sun.” I once heard Mark’s version while visiting an Episcopal Church that shall remain nameless. This church, in the colonial style, is very white. The pews are white. The walls are white. The pulpit is white. The robes, the gloves the acolytes wear to carry the cross and torches, the linens, all bright dazzling white. Even the parishioners were all…you get the idea.
Mark’s version of the transfiguration includes the line: “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” I thought, whoever wrote that scripture, never set foot in this particular Episcopal Church. They never met this altar guild. I often poke fun at the scripture I have a difficult time understanding. In this case, Luke has the disciples walk away from the experience unable to speak as well.
Maybe for you, like for me over much of my life, this story just didn’t connect. Maybe you have strong hesitations about Jesus’ face glowing white being a sign of God’s blessing. Many in this congregation have been judged for the pigmentation of their skin. Some of that judgement has come from those who share their racial and ethnic background. I am going to try to avoid the “light” and “dark” metaphors in this story, because they are problematic in our discussion of race and skin color. And still, I think this story can bring us Good News.
The Transfiguration, like much of the Bible, comes with baggage. For a long time this meant I didn’t hear the good news in this strange story. But there is good news. In order to hear the good news, we have to acknowledge the baggage. We have to organize the issues, and then continue to listen for the Word of God (capital W) written among the words (lower case w) of the Bible. In this sermon, I hope to share the Good News I have found in this odd story.
It helps to know the setting.
In Luke’s Gospel, the story of the Transfiguration comes almost immediately after Peter confesses he knows Jesus’ true identity. Peter has just called Jesus, “The Messiah of God.” Jesus orders the disciples not to tell anyone. Fast forward. Almost immediately after the disciples come down off the mountain of the Transfiguration Jesus foretells his death, and he wants the disciples to understand: “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” The glorious reign they imagine for Jesus won’t come to pass. Jesus tries to get them to hear. The disciples argue over who is going to serve as Secretary of State and Secretary of the Interior when Jesus rules from Jerusalem.
The disciples do not want to hear that Jesus is going to die. Today, we also avoid language about death and dying. We don’t even print the word in obituaries anymore. Have you noticed? The obituaries talk about how people have “passed away.” I really dislike that euphemism. I find “passed away” to be incredibly imprecise language. Why don’t we just say, “she died?”
I think we try to avoid suffering. Somehow we think this avoidance will spare us the pain. Now, I told you this was a sermon about Good News, but in order to really hear the Good News, I believe we have to stop the avoiding. We have to face our mortality. Modern medicine can prolong life. At times modern treatments can even guarantee a high quality of life for those facing dreadful disease. But the miracle of medicine has not yet undone the human condition. As our prayer book reminds us, “all of us go down to the dust.”
Yet. Yet. The prayer book continues:
“even at the grave we make our song Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”
The transfiguration belongs to this mysterious teaching of Christianity, even at the grave we sing Alleluia. Even in the deepest loss we know God’s action can dazzle us. The setting matters to the story. The mountaintop is not the height of Christ’s glory, but the revelation of mysterious truth before suffering. In some way the disciples are unable to fully understand or articulate, the transfiguration is an assurance of the depth, beauty, and power of God’s love, an assurance they will need for the painful road ahead. The beauty they see on that mountaintop will sustain their hope.
As I told you at the get go,
I take the title of this sermon from the words of Desmond Tutu.
Tutu’s ministry is hard to imagine for many of us. The bishop preached and organized to bring hope to those suffering under the most complete racist legal framework since the Antebellum South. His friend Nelson Mandela spent 18 years imprisoned in a tiny cell on Robben Island. Hope was hard work in Apartheid South Africa. Tutu writes:
Of course, there were times when you had to whistle in the dark to keep your morale up, and you wanted to whisper in God’s ear: “God, we know You are in charge, but can’t You make it a little more obvious?”
Bishop Tutu writes about a time that God did make it more obvious to him. He and some of his colleagues were meeting with the Prime Minister of South Africa at a closed seminary, a seminary closed by the racist policies. And the meetings were frustrating, and so Tutu took a break in the seminary garden. He says:
As I sat quietly in the garden I realized the power of transfiguration–of God’s transformation–in our world. The principle of transfiguration is at work when something so unlikely as the brown grass that covers our veld in winter becomes bright green again…The principle of transfiguration says nothing, no one and no situation, is “untransfigurable,” that the whole of creation, nature, waits expectantly for its transfiguration, when it will be released from its bondage and share in the glorious liberty of the children of God.
For Tutu Christians are a people of transfiguration, finding reason to hope in the most difficult hour. Bringing transfiguration, bringing God’s transformation, to our world, this is the Christian vocation. This is true on the macro-scale. Tutu and his colleagues made huge changes in their country.
Transfiguration can also happen on a smaller scale.
I’ve been watching a smaller transfiguration take place over the past few months, right here on our campus. When I came to Holy Communion for my final in person interview, I got my first tour of the house we own, right behind the parish hall. I knew Holy Communion had a house because our friend Jon Stratton, the rector of Trinity in the Central West End, had been saying, “it’s a great little house. You and Eli could live there.”
Eli is my husband. (He also goes by the name “Ellis”) He wasn’t in the interview, where the vestry assured me they were not planning for the rector’s family to live in the house. Eli did join us for the tour. We walked through the dark little halls. We saw the mold forming in the corners of the wall. We tripped a bit on the deteriorating carpets. We saw a kitchen that had last been updated in about 1958. As I said, Ellis didn’t hear that the vestry didn’t want the rector to live in the place. After the tour, we found ourselves with a moment alone on the porch. He turned to me and say, “Ah heck no.” (Except he didn’t say heck). I told him not to worry.
Over the last months, this dark little house has been undergoing transfiguration. Kara Cummins, Susan Norris (your Junior warden), Andy Ludwig, Earl Bonds the whole building committee, and too many volunteers to mention by name have torn out that kitchen. We’ve peeled wallpaper, scrubbed, hauled, and painted. I’ll never forget the day Kara sent me a picture of the beautiful hardwood floors that were hiding under that worn out carpet.
No situation is un-transfigurable. In just a few months, that house will be a home. We are hopefully just about to sign an agreement with a non-profit that will house someone in need of housing. And I will be proud of the space we are offering. As Susan has said many times, the rule of thumb for decisions and work at the house has been, “would I want to live here?” The home will be beautiful, and comfortable, and a gift to the person who lives there.
Now, Kara and Susan and the building committee will rest easier if I say: our little transfiguration still has work ahead. If you’d like to be a part of the transfiguration, come on down. We have detail painting, cabinet hanging, and other tasks ahead. The building committee would be happy to sign you up to help. It will be good for your soul.
Our house has become an icon for me, of God’s power to transfigure a dark and difficult place. When you begin to hold this strange story this way, you begin to see the possibility for the principle of Transfiguration at work in our world. Today’s odd story has a deep truth to teach us: “No situation is un-transfigurable.” God brings hope, and beauty, and love to the most painful times. God invites us to be a people of transfiguration, to bring healing, and hope, and love to the most unlikely people, the most unlikely situations. This story, it is Good News. Amen.