A sermon given by Rev. Ian Gregory Cummins to the congregation at
Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church of Denver
March 2, 2014
Scripture: Matthew 17: 1 – 9
Today is Transfiguration Sunday – a word we don’t use much outside of church. In fact, except for an article about the transfiguration of Bob Dylan through the years, I could only find one other reference in a Google search to anything unrelated to Christianity.
And that reference was to Harry Potter. If you’re a fan of the series you will remember that Hermione says at the beginning of a term: “I do hope they start right away, there’s so much to learn. I’m particularly interested in Transfiguration, you know, turning something into something else…of course, it’s supposed to be very difficult.”
I don’t know that I agree with Hermione that transfiguration means turning something into something else, as I’ll explain later. But I certainly agree that for muggles like us, transfiguration is indeed quite difficult.
We’re in the 17th chapter of Matthew. Six days earlier, Jesus told his disciples for the first time, that he must undergo great suffering and be killed. It’s a turning point in the gospel – from here on, all roads lead to Jerusalem.
In the liturgical calendar, something similar is happening. Transfiguration Sunday is a bridge between the season of Epiphany that we have been in since Christmas, and the season of Lent, which begins this Wednesday.
If we think of Christmas as the season when we receive the gift of the Christ child, Epiphany is the season when we slowly unwrap that gift. We come to know, week by week, who this Jesus is. And then on Ash Wednesday, in the full knowledge of who Jesus is and what it will require to follow him, we are asked to step forward and mark ourselves – not with water, but with ashes – joining him on the road to Easter, that we now know, must pass through Good Friday.
But we are not quite there. Today we have what seems like a peculiar, out of place, interruption in the story. This strange day of voices from clouds, dazzling robes, and visits from prophets past. But if we look closely, we see connections. Connections to where we’ve been. And connections to where we’re going.
First a connection to where we’ve been. When Jesus is transfigured, a voice calls out from a cloud, saying, “This is my Son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased.” We’ve heard those words before, of course – at the baptism of Jesus. Matthew is looking back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
And then a look forward: When Jesus is transfigured, Matthew writes that his face shines like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white. Fast forward to the end of Matthew’s gospel, and that very first Easter morning and we read, “as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.” (Matthew 28: 1-3)
I think Matthew offers the transfiguration of Jesus at this turning point in the Gospel, as a foretaste of Easter resurrection. And what’s really interesting about this text, is that Matthew includes a promise not just of Jesus’ resurrection, but of our own, too.
We have to look closely for it, but it’s there. When the voice of God speaks from the clouds, Matthew says that Peter, James and John are left on the ground, overcome with fear. But then, “Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Two things happen here that would be easy to miss. First, Matthew says that Jesus touches them. But why? Why is that necessary to the story? Well, think about the other stories in the gospels when Jesus touches people. It’s almost always when he’s healing them. From the blind man to the leper, when Jesus touches people it’s a sign of healing.
Then after touching them, our New Revised Standard Version of the Bible has Jesus saying, “Get up”, but in Greek, the word here is ergerthete – which literally means, ‘be raised.’ It’s the same word used only two verses later when Jesus says not to tell anyone what has just happened until the Son of Man has ‘been raised’ from the dead.
So first, Jesus touches them, a sign of healing, and then he says, “Be raised! And do not be afraid.” It’s a clear reference to resurrection, and not that of Jesus, but of Peter, James and John.
In other words, this Sunday is not just about Jesus’ transfiguration and resurrection, but our own. And as we approach Ash Wednesday and our own Lenten journey this year, we might ask ourselves today – what transfiguration, what resurrection are we being called to this year?
Lent is a season that carries with it some baggage for many of us. We hear that word and think of self-imposed austerity measures, designed to starve the demons of our sinful nature. The underlying theology is often that we are not enough as we are, and that if we would pray hard enough, or fast long enough, we might become something that is acceptable to God. It is a theology that suggests we need the kind of transfiguration Hermione was talking about – turning one thing into another.
But this Lent, what if we begin instead from the foundation that we are made in the image of God and are already wholly and completely acceptable in God’s sight? Then the kind of transfiguration we need might be less about changing into something we’re not, and more about returning to something we’ve forgotten.
To illustrate what I mean, I want to tell you the story about how we came to find our kitchen table. We have a beautiful round, oak, pedestal table where we share our family dinners. But it was not always so beautiful. In fact, when we first acquired it, it was headed for the landfill.
You see, I am a devout dumpster diver. I love to make treasures from other people’s trash, and our table was something I spotted one day on the sidewalk, a few blocks from our house. But to get the full impact of the story, I have to begin in the mountains, earlier the same day, when we were packing up to come home from a camping trip and discovered that our car battery had died.
After getting a jump from someone at the campsite, we headed home. And wanting to be absolutely sure the car wouldn’t die in our driveway, when we got home I left it idling while everyone filed out, and then I continued straight to the Auto Parts store for a new battery. It was on the way there that I first saw the table – beaten up, dirty, left by the side of the road with the rest of the neighbor’s trash.
It took everything I had not to stop. But he who will not stop for his own family, shall not stop for other people’s trash – Proverbs 19, I think. I decided that if the table was still there after I got a new battery, then it would be a sign from God that it was meant to be ours.
It was still there. The problem now was that our car was still packed to the ceiling with camping equipment. So I called Laura and got her to ride her bike down to where I was and then she drove the car home to unloaded everything while I guarded our treasure.
After a few minutes she returned, and we took our new table home…where I immediately began to have buyer’s remorse. The table was a mess. It was dirty and stained. The finish was rubbed down to bare wood in places. It wobbled on its pedestal base. There was a reason it had been left out with the trash.
But I had a secret weapon. My father, who is a fantastic woodworker, was coming to visit in a few weeks. And together we went to work on it. If you’ve never refinished a table, it is a process that involves rubber gloves, harsh chemicals, lots of sandpaper, and even more patience. It takes hours to first scrape and then sand every curve and crevice of old finish off.
But what keeps you going is that ever so slowly, the beauty of the original wood begins to emerge. It was there all along, of course, but over time it had been covered over and beaten up enough to be almost unrecognizable.
Isn’t that how we are? We get so many messages, both in our culture and in the church, that tell us in so many ways that we’re not enough – not smart enough, not attractive enough, not good enough. And over time, maybe we start to believe it. And we begin to forget about our natural beauty and our birthright as God’s beloved.
This year, as we enter into the Lenten season, I have a suggestion, an experiment – a different kind of spiritual practice that I’m going to try and I invite you to try with me. In our story today, God repeats the words from Jesus’ baptism, “This is my son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased.” They are, I believe, the words God wants to speak to each of us every day.
And so I invite you to make a practice this Lent of hearing God say to you, at least 5 times a day, “You are my beloved. In you I am well pleased.” Figure out some trick to remind yourself – do it every time you’re stuck at a stoplight, or every time you climb a staircase, or put post it notes on your mirrors…something to remind you to stop and imagine God from the clouds or maybe Jesus touching your hand and saying, “you are my beloved. In you I am well pleased.”
Do this at least 5 times a day – do it a hundred times a day if you can remember. Make it a mantra that you say all day long if you can. But at least 5 times a day, between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. And let’s see what happens.
My hope and my hunch is that like that kitchen table of ours, we’ll see a kind of transfiguration. Not the kind that turns one thing into something it’s not. But the kind that comes from slowly uncovering, little by little, a beauty…that has been there all along.