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The Last Sunday after the Epiphany - March 3, 2019 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart

During this church season of Epiphany, we’ve been going up and down mountains. And this Sunday, the last Sunday of Epiphany, we go back up a mountain in the Gospel story known as the Transfiguration.  It’s a story that I like very much but also one that I always wrestle with a lot. It’s a relatively significant narrative moment in the story of Jesus’s earthly ministry but not one whose function and purpose, at least for me, is as obvious other stories like Christmas, or Good Friday, or Easter, or even his baptism, or his time in the desert, or his Ascension. After last Sunday’s Oscars, I found myself thinking that if the life of Jesus was a movie, I wonder if the Transfiguration wouldn’t get axed by the film editors because it’s confusing.  But fortunately we get the Director’s Cut in the Scriptures, so we get to explore what this quirky, mystical set of encounters is about.

Now, throughout the centuries, there have been lots of takes on what the Transfiguration is about. Some intriguing. Some not so much to me. But a few years back, I stumbled across someone talking about the Transfiguration as a time of transition in the life of Jesus. And that has always stuck with me. Remember, at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, he focuses on traveling around the Galilean countryside with his friends. Preaching and teaching.

Healing the sick and the broken. Proclaiming the Good News of the coming of the Reign of God. And he organized a movement of people to follow him and do the same things. Sometimes by joining him in his travels and other times inviting folks to stay in their communities, where they would love God and each other and serve the wider neighborhood.

That, in a nutshell, is what it looks like Jesus did at the beginning of his ministry.  But then came the time that Jesus began to think it was time for something different. To go to Jerusalem, in what we know would lead to his capture, torture and crucifixion... followed by resurrection and ascension. Today’s Gospel story, the Transfiguration, comes at this time of transition. This pivot point for Jesus when his life, his ministry, his mission all shifted in a new direction.

And this for me is the hook that connects the Transfiguration with my life, and hopefully with yours. Because we all have so many times of transition in our lives. Going to kindergarten for the first time or heading off to college. Starting a new job or retiring from a job. Getting married or getting divorced. Moving to a new home or a new geographical location. Or there’s all the loss we endure in this lifetime: our physical or mental health, our financial security if we ever had it to begin with and, of course, the loss of those we love to death.  

There’s so many times of transition in life. Indeed, we are always changing in some way or another.  It’s just a question of how much transition is happening at any one time. My little guy, Duncan, he gets worked up when it’s time to head from one activity at school to another so his teachers say he has trouble with transition. The reality is we all have trouble with transition.

And so this is the lens that I bring in looking at the Transfiguration. What do we learn about how to be in times of transition from Jesus’s experience in it.  So, as the story goes in Luke, Jesus climbs a mountain with a few of his closest disciples and friends to pray and to get away from it all to open himself fully to what’s next.  And, as the story goes, it gets wild quick. He’s transfigured in something like blinding white light. And then somehow Elijah and Moses are there. Moses representing the law and Elijah the prophets, sort of representatives of the whole history of Israel, all that God’s done for the Jewish people up to that point is right there on that mountain.

      Next his friend Peter pipes up and his response to all this is kind of funny.  He says, ‘How about I pitch us all some tents?’ Peter tries to kind of lock down the moment.  Hunker down because it’s all so hard to manage. But Jesus doesn’t hunker down. He remains open,

open to the moment, open to the mystery, open to God on that mountain.  And then God does come in a new way, as they’re all shrouded in this mystical cloud and then this voice is heard, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"

      In this time of transition, this very hard time of transition because Jesus knows full well not only that things are changing but even moreso that going to Jerusalem probably means his death. Even as he faced death, he still was able to make space to let God in.  Or maybe more to retain a posture of receptiveness that made the transition, though hard, a place for blessing and transformation. In this moment, Jesus knows that his history, the whole history of the Jewish people, is there for him. In this moment, Jesus knows that the presence of God, while in some ways imperceptible in the haze of a cloud, is nonetheless also right there for him.  Jesus knows there is a hard road ahead of him but, from the vantage point of the mountaintop, he can see beyond that to a place of hope and possibility. To go on in his calling and mission however daunting it might be.

And further, I wonder a bit about how Jesus was so open in that time of transition. I was chatting a little bit about it with a friend of mine this week. He’s a Christian spiritual director but he grew up Buddhist and so he brings to bear a lot from that tradition as well. I told him I thought was going to preach about times of transition and he brought up the Buddhist notion of impermanence-

that we spend a lot of time trying to cultivate these fixed notions of identity. I know often I preach about Jesus helping us become our best self or truest self or what have you.  But my friend posed the question that maybe all this identity talk is misguided. He quoted to me Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron (Peh-ma Cho-dron) who writes, “With a fixed identity, we have to busy ourselves with trying to rearrange reality, because reality doesn’t always conform to our view….  When things start to fall apart in your life[,] you feel as if your whole world is crumbling. But actually it’s your fixed identity that’s crumbling. [And t]hat’s cause for celebration. The purpose of the spiritual path is to unmask, to take off our armor. When that happens, it feels like a crisis because it is a crisis—a fixed-identity crisis….”

Maybe I’ve got it wrong when I say I think Jesus had a clear sense of his mission.  Maybe it was much more that Jesus was just unfettered by all the fixed identities that we lay on ourselves.  And so he was able to be attentive to the leadings of the Spirit wherever they might lead him. It wasn’t clarity of vision. Or clarity of purpose. Or clarity of identity. None of that stuff that we bring from places like the business world and map onto Jesus. Maybe it was just that he was supremely free. And so supremely responsive to people. And to the world. And to God.

Times of transition shake us up. And they can be unbelievably hard. They can be absolutely crises in our lives. But they also be something utterly transforming and utterly amazing. Richard Rohr puts it this way, “Until we are led to the limits of our present game plan, and find it to be insufficient, we will not search out or find the real source, the deep well, or the constantly flowing stream.”