(a sermon for March 3, 2019. the Last Sunday after Epiphany and Transfiguration Sunday, based on Luke 9:28-36)
Some years ago I was the officiant at a wedding at which there were eight – eight (!) – professional photographers commemorating the event!
Now, the reason for this was not because it was any kind of celebrity wedding invaded by paparazzi (!) but rather because the couple in question had won the grand prize at a bridal show some months before! And despite my initial misgivings – after all, from a pastor’s perspective it’s one thing to have a photographer in the sanctuary taking pictures all through the wedding ceremony but quite another to have eight of them crawling around (!) – it turned out to be a worthwhile experience for everyone involved. Not only were these photographers all true professionals and not at all disruptive but each one had his or her own specialty and brought a unique artistic eye to the celebration which made for a one of a kind portfolio of wedding pictures.
Afterward one of the photographers, I guess as a way of saying thanks for granting them full access, sent me a packet of some of the photos they’d taken around the church that day; and they were all amazing! But as good as the formal portraits and the ceremonial pictures all were, I have to say that hands down my favorites were all the candid shots: you know; the pictures that got taken when nobody was looking. You might remember a few weeks ago we were talking here about how old photos have a way not only of revealing how we were back in the day but also tend to show who we are; well, these candid shots were the wedding pictures that showed forth the true joy of two people deeply in love and of the people who love them!
Actually, you know, the only problem I’ve ever had with someone taking pictures or shooting a video at a wedding is that I don’t want the bride and groom to be distracted from what’s happening. After all, whether it’s a professional photographer doing the job or somebody’s clicking off a shot on their cel phones, when we notice that someone’s about to take our picture it’s only human to suddenly feel a little self-conscious! Oh, no… were my eyes closed? Was my tongue sticking out? Is my hair alright? Let’s try this again; I’ll be ready to smile properly next time! It’s a perfectly normal response, but it’s too bad to have one’s mind wander to such things at a time when the bride and groom ought to be wholly focused on each other (of course!), on God (hopefully!), and on this quintessential moment of their lives! Better to be wholly in the moment; to revel in it and to soak in every feeling, every nuance of it; because it’s a moment that will pass in a heartbeat, and this is what you’re going to want to remember! In fact, I remember one young couple, and this was years ago, who were determined not to have any pictures or video taken at all – professional or otherwise – during the wedding ceremony itself precisely because it was for them a unique and sacred time and they wanted the memory of it to remain solely in their minds and hearts. As they explained it to me at the time, they wanted to be wholly “in the moment,” so that moment could indeed be holy.
The truth is that such moments are not reserved merely for wedding days or, for that matter, for baptisms and funerals, graduations and retirements or any one of countless other major life events I could name. What we know in faith, friends, is that there are holy, truly sacramental moments that can happen to us almost anywhere and at any time; God’s presence and power is to be seen and heard and felt in all of the varied and utterly wondrous experiences of our lives. But the question is, how often in our all-too-human preoccupation with things nonessential do we end up missing out on that divine presence and what it means for our lives? When have we been not wholly “in the moment,” and thus lose a moment that is holy?
Our text for this morning is Luke’s account of a holy moment that was truly one of a kind: the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. Scripturally speaking, this a story that actually reveals a great deal about Jesus: about his power and authority; about his being the fulfillment of all that is contained in the Law and what was promised by the prophets; and about his quite literally being the light which was coming into the world (C.S. Lewis actually said it quite well when he described the transfigured Jesus as “the light streaming forth from God just as light is emitted from a lamp.”). It’s also another story of divine proclamation, in which Jesus is affirmed as God’s own Son, “the Chosen,” one whose word was to be heeded. So as such, this story of the transfiguration is of a true “holy moment;” but that said, we also need to add that it’s also a story about how those three disciples on the mountain with him – James, John, and most especially Peter – were very nearly not “in the moment” at all!
As Luke recounts the story, Jesus and the three disciples had gone “up on the mountain to pray,” and that “while he was praying, the appearance of [Jesus’] face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” And in the midst of that light, two great men of faith – Moses and Elijah – appear “in glory” and they speak with Jesus about “his departure,” (actually, by the way, in the original Greek, “his exodus”), that is, what was about to befall him now that Jesus had turned his face toward Jerusalem. Now, while all this is going on we’re told that Peter, James and John are all “weighed down with sleep;” so that in and of itself tells us that their attention to what was happen was “fuzzy” at best; but even though it must have seemed to be something like a dream to them, they were at least awake enough to see and behold this glorious and radiant moment. But then, what’s the first thing that Peter says as the moment draws to a close and Moses and Elijah are departing? “Master, is this great or what!” (That’s my translation, by the way!) Quick, Peter blurts out without thinking, “’Let’s build three memorials: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’” [The Message] What Peter wants to do is to build a monument; so to somehow capture this incredible moment so it could last forever (no doubt if this had happened today, Peter would have been the one recording the whole thing on his cel phone to post online!).
To be fair, Luke is quick to point out that Peter didn’t know what he was saying; but as that Peter had immediately become so focused on trying to preserve the moment, he wasn’t in the moment the way he could have been, and should have! Perhaps this is one reason why almost as soon as Peter had uttered those words, a dark cloud swept over the mountain “and overshadowed them” to such an extent that all three of the disciples were immediately moved from awe to sheer terror; and why in the moment that followed all they heard was the sound of a heavenly voice saying to them, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”
The thing about “holy moments,” you see, is they include at least two main components: the first is the moment itself – in which the divine enters wholly into our experience and demands our whole attention – and the second is where that moment ultimately and inevitably leads us. At a wedding, for instance, the “moment” is all about love expressed and vows exchanged; but where it leads, what follows after the wedding kiss, is the marriage itself and the forging of a loving relationship over the course of many years. A truly holy moment, whatever it might entail, includes both what is and what’s to come and in the end that’s what Peter and the other two disciples were missing. They were so busy seeking to preserve that truly mountaintop experience that they were totally missing what even in that moment was being revealed about what awaited them in the valley below. Actually, considering the fact that the gospels were composed well after the resurrection of Jesus, and given that we’re also told by Luke that after their shared experience on the mountain the disciples “kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen,” you have to wonder if any of them really understood at all what had just happened to them; or if years later – after Jerusalem, after the cross, after the empty tomb – there was another moment when they looked at one another and said, “Oh, yes; that’s what was happening!”
It’s very fitting that this particular story is one that’s traditionally shared by the church on the Sunday at the end of the season of Epiphany and just before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of our shared Lenten journey to the cross. Epiphany is all about the “holy moments” of Jesus’ coming into the world and our discovery of what that means for our lives and our living; it’s about Jesus calling us follow him, to leave everything to be his disciples and be fishers of people. But the season of Lent is about where those discoveries are going to lead us; it’s all about coming to understand that that being his disciples also means taking up our crosses to do so. It’s the other component of all the holy moments that are ours in following Jesus, and the point for you and me today is, just like those three disciples up there on the mountaintop, that it’s often a difficult thing to discern where and to what Christ would lead us as his disciples. More often than not, you see, the answers we’re seeking as what’s to happens next don’t come to us in a burst of shimmering glory, but rather in the small bits of revelation that come to us along the journey. Faith is a journey, beloved; discipleship is developed and deepened by the pathways we choose to walk. But I would suggest to you this morning that it all begins by being wholly “in the moment” with the one who calls us forth. For how are we to walk with our Lord, even unto the cross, if we don’t first attune ourselves to his presence and his power?
It is interesting to note that the Greek word we translate as “transfiguration,” admittedly not a term that we use every day, is actually metamorphose, which is where we get our word “metamorphosis.” It’s not only an apt description of the “shimmery and shiny” appearance of Jesus on that mountaintop, but it also serves to describe what happens in these (holy) moments with our Lord; indeed, it is in the times that we spend alone with God in prayer and in the eloquent reflection of our souls before God that we also are transfigured, and thus transformed. While our outer selves might not shine a dazzling white as did Jesus, within our hearts we do shine; and in the process we undergo a metamorphosis, becoming persons and a people who are equipped and empowered to walk with Christ along the adventurous way of faithful discipleship.
In another wonderful quote of his, C.S. Lewis once compared our own discipleship to… an egg; which, whatever else you can say about an egg, never ever stays the same. Either, wrote Lewis, that egg is being transformed into a chicken, or else it slowly and inevitably rots away. Much the same can be said for you and me in our faith: either we are growing in our experience with God – in character, in knowledge, in maturity, in wisdom, in action – or because of our inattention to everything that God has set before us, we find ourselves missing out on that which is good and purposeful and full of the glory that comes from a walk with the Lord.
I pray that as our journey continues, yours and mine, that we will be attentive to God’s presence and power as we go. May we truly be in the moment with our Lord, even now as we begin our journey with him to the cross; ever heeding that voice speaking to us as surely as it spoke from that particular mountaintop so many years ago: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
So might it be, friends… and thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry