A Story of Transfiguration
Stories really do matter. Novelist Ursula Le Guin has observed that there were ancient societies which didn’t use the wheel, but there were none that didn’t tell stories. People in all times and places and cultures have told stories about what matters most to them. In fact, there is a saying favored in many parts of the world which declares, "The shortest distance between human beings and the truth is a story." Theologian and storyteller Megan McKenna says that stories reveal what is central to the storytellers. They tell us who we are, from whence we have come, and what we believe. Stories also relate our failures, lacks, and losses and call us to take note of the ragged edges of our lives. Sometimes, McKenna says, we need "stories more than food to stay alive."
Which brings me to our gospel story for today. In my experience, contemporary Christians tend to get hung up on the details of this story. On one side are the more scientific types who are skeptical about the facticity of the story—Jesus transfigured into someone with a glowing face and dazzling clothes; Moses and Elijah, long dead, walking and talking with him; a voice from a cloud. The story, they say, simply cannot be factual, which means it cannot be true.
On the other side are the "walk by faith not by sight" folks who insist that the Bible is true and so the story’s details must be factual, however sensational they may seem to us. And maybe there’s a third side of folks who shift rather uneasily between the other two, having been raised both in a scientific culture and in the church, and who don’t know what to do with a story like this. So, what we often do with it is nothing at all.
What I suggest to us today is that when we struggle with the facts of a story, or ignore a story because we don’t know what to do with its purported facts, we are forgetting that the story is what matters. As my teacher Edward Thornton once reminded those of us in one of his seminary classes, some stories are told and re-told for generations because they touch a deep, spiritual place within us and, thus, have the power to transform us. As far as I’m concerned, that kind of power is what makes a story true rather than only factual.
So, I invite us to look again at the story of the Transfiguration, to receive it as a story that our forebears passed on because they found it to be transformative. I invite us to look at the story again for this kind of truth and to let our [others] worry about the details.
The story begins, as many of us know, rather remarkably. Jesus took three of his disciples with him up on a mountain. If we are attentive to the ambiance the storyteller wants to create, then we take note of this setting on a mountain. Throughout Jewish history key moments happened on mountains, where, in the thinking of the ancients, people were closer to God. Now, another Jewish teacher has gone up a mountain. We might slide forward, even metaphorically, toward the edge of our seats in anticipation.
Sure enough, an astounding moment is recounted: Jesus is transfigured before his disciples—his face shines like the sun and his clothes become a dazzling white. And Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest of Jewish heroes but both long dead, appear and talk with Jesus on the mountain!
I am hugely sympathetic with Peter as he starts to stammer and sputter in response, "Lord…, if you want, I’ll make three booths here. …" I mean seriously, who needs a booth at a time like this? But what do you say at a time like this?
Fortunately for Peter he has no more time to say anything else stupid, because just then they are overshadowed by a bright cloud. And, as if all this isn’t remarkable enough, a voice speaks to them from out of the cloud. Here is what our Jewish forebears would have known as they heard this story—God is the One who speaks from a cloud. So this voice is the very voice of God.
The voice says: "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him."
Right here, I think, is where the storyteller hopes that we are captured. In the midst of all the amazing visuals with which this story unfolds—shining faces, dazzling clothes, dead people talking, a bright cloud overshadowing—the voice of God calls out to us, "Listen to Jesus!"
Not "Look at him."
Not "Look at this whole amazing scene."
Not "Be dazzled."
Not anything having to do with what we see.
Instead, the voice calls to us, "Listen to him!"
Perhaps the dazzling visual elements in the story are supposed to remind us of how significantly God was present with Jesus. Because that is true, we should listen to him.
I suspect we need this call to listen because the things Jesus says are often difficult to hear, not because he asks too much of us (though we sometimes probably feel that way), but because what he says is so counter to the conventional wisdom that loudly surrounds us all the time.
Such was true for Peter. In a world where the Roman Empire had conquered and occupied his country and controlled most of his life, because, so the Roman propaganda declared, the gods had favored the Romans, the conventional wisdom said the way to prove the Romans wrong was to beat them back, to drive them out of the country. So, many Jewish folks were looking for God to send them a conqueror who could beat the Romans at their own game. The Romans have hit us, so we have to hit back harder.
Consequently, when Jesus came to announce that God was with them, Peter heard that and responded immediately, leaving his fishing nets behind, traveling with Jesus, and declaring to him, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."
But when Jesus called his people to follow a different way than that of the conventional wisdom, Peter struggled to hear. In the story that immediately precedes the Transfiguration story, Jesus had told his disciples that he was going to Jerusalem to confront the leadership with the Way of the Lord, and he was going to do so though they would kill him for it. But, even so, he was not going to respond violently. And Peter responded, "God forbid! This must never happen to you!" Peter had been hit, and he wanted to hit back harder! He did not want to hear about another way.
Is there any wonder, then, that the very next story recounts the voice of God calling out, "Listen to Jesus!"
So now, what about us? Ok, here’s some truth about us: we have listened, or we wouldn’t be here this morning.
Even though the conventional wisdom of our day surrounds us, loudly insisting that we must look out for ourselves because no one else is going to; that success is measured by dollars, titles after our names, the stuff we acquire; that ease and convenience are the hallmarks of our age; that those who are "other" cannot be trusted; that health and wealth are the signs that one has been blessed; that tenderness and vulnerability make one look weak, and the weak get hammered in this culture….
Even though we are surrounded by such messages, we have heard a Voice calling us to another way, a way that leads through justice and mercy, forgiveness and redemption, welcoming the other, service, and love. We have listened, or we wouldn’t be here.
This gospel story suggests we should ask ourselves if we are ever like Peter, saying to God, "Ok, I hear you, but…"
I hear you, God…
But don’t ask me to do that,
Don’t ask me to love them,
Don’t ask me now.
Are we ever the ones saying, "I hear you, but…"?
If we should find that we are at all like Peter, then we should know that in response to Peter’s "yes but," Jesus told him to take up his own cross and follow, because those who give up their lives to the gospel will find life. Yes, Jesus’ way was counter to what Peter wanted to hear, but, Jesus said, it is the way to life. And God followed up by telling Peter, "Listen to him!"
Megan McKenna says sometimes we need a story more than food to stay alive. If we are looking for life with a capital L, life that is more than our hearts beating and our lungs taking in air, then maybe this story is such food, nourishing and nurturing a transformed way of living for us by challenging us to listen to Jesus as he teaches us a different way, even when what he says is hard to hear. May God grant us the grace to listen. No buts.
Excerpted from a sermon delivered at Calvary Episcopal Church in Memphis, TN on February 3,2008.