17Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
(This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)
Today is Transfiguration Sunday, and I must tell you that it is one of the most difficult Sundays of the year to preach, to talk about. Easter is easy, because we know what to do with Easter. Resurrection, we can talk about. And we like Pentecost, the birthday of the church, with its tongues of fire and the Holy Spirit coming like a dove. We even like Lent, which is a funny thing to say, because Lent is a time of sacrifice and repentance, the forty days that come before Easter.
We even like Lent, because though Lent is about sacrifice, at least we know what to say about it. We can get a handle on penitence, we can understand what Lent is about when we come on Ash Wednesday and the pastor scrapes the ashes onto our foreheads and says, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
But Transfiguration Sunday is something altogether different, and so we do not talk all that much about the transfiguration, because we do not know what to say about it. Oh, we have the story, but we do not know what it all means, this New Testament story of the disciples following Jesus up the mountain, and Jesus suddenly bursting into a dazzling white and appearing with the Old Testament prophets Moses and Elijah. The writer of the Gospel of Matthew does not seem to know what all it means either, which makes me feel a little better about the whole thing. He doesn’t tell us what it means; he just tells us that it happened.
The preacher and writer Barbara Brown Taylor says that we with this story what we do to all sorts of experiences in life that don’t seem to fit into any of our already-established categories: we “keep handling it,” she says, “until we wear it down to where it feels safe to us. We just keep analyzing it until we can say something intelligent about it.”
This story certainly does not fit into any of my categories, and as much as I want to whittle it down to some kernel of truth, I have to tell you that I am not sure what to say about the transfiguration. I am in good company. The disciples didn’t know. The Gospel writer didn’t know. Nobody knows. If someone tells you what it means, I have to tell you that what I think they mean is that they have handled this story until it is worn and safe and until it has some nugget of wisdom to be described rather than some truth, some truth much larger than the words that contain it that it cannot so much be described as it can be experienced.
This is what we do with religion, and with Jesus, of course. We have somehow changed the notion of God’s majesty into something to be understood, a list of guidelines, ten commandments, or four spiritual laws, or even one movie which professes to hold within it the truth of Christ.
None of this is inherently bad, but it does not do justice to the wideness of God’s mercy, the complexity of God’s love. The reason that we wear down Jesus and religion into a list of things to be understood is that life is complicated, the world is increasingly complex and it is a scary thing, to live in a complex world. It is a scary thing to realize that things are not so cut and dry, that life is not so easily navigated, that the lines that once kept everything in its right place are not so bright anymore.
Embracing complexity is part of growing up, of course. We who have done some manner of growing up know this. The world is not black and white. But it is scary to live in this place, to come of age in a time where things are not so clear.
So we seek a refuge. We want to go back to how things used to be, to a simpler time. We seek a refuge from the complexity of the world, and what better place to take refuge than the church?
Come to me, all ye who are weary and burdened, Jesus says, and I will give you rest.
And thank God. The world is so difficult, so complicated, at least we’ve got the church to keep us safe.
Only, I’m not so sure the church is the safe place, at least in the way we hope for it to be safe. The writer Annie Dillard says that “It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.”
The minister James Buchanan tells the story of baptizing a two year old child. At one point in the liturgy, the minister said to the child, “You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.” To which the two-year-old child responded, “Uh oh.”
I’m not sure the church is the safe place we wish it were, but maybe “safe” is not the best word. You will find no safer place, I hope, in terms of people who are willing to love you just as you are. But while the church is a shelter from the storm, it is not a refuge from complexity, from difficult issues, from tension. The world is a complicated place, and we come to church to escape, to get some clarity, and if clarity is what you are seeking, I am afraid that I do not have much to offer you today, because I am not sure what to say about the Transfiguration. If you want a sermon on what the transfiguration means, what it is all about, well, I have about fifty bad sermons I can send you. But they do not do justice to the tensions of the story, to the tensions that are an inherent part of the life of faith, to the tensions that are inherent in the person of Jesus Christ.
Oh, feel free to look to Jesus to get away from the tensions of life, but I don’t think he will be much help. Jesus is as full of tension as anybody. Think of the tension between faith and works, for instance. You cannot simply work your way into Heaven, but you also can’t simply believe your way into Heaven and live as if nothing has changed. There is tension, there is a tension between faith and works, and we are called to live in the tension.
Or think of the tension between grace, which says that God forgives us and loves us no matter what, and law, which says we ought to follow. You come down on one end or the other, and you’re missing the richness faith has to offer. You worry only about grace, without some parameters about how we are to live, and you end up doing whatever you want, whenever you want, and hope like Homer Simpson for an opportunity for a deathbed conversion. But coming down on the side of law is no better, because then the life of faith becomes something not about faith at all, but rather a series of hoops through which you are to jump so that you can make it to Heaven, and that is no way to live. There is a tension there, between grace and law. We are called to live in the tension.
The kingdom that is yet to come versus the kingdom that is here now. The call to serve others versus the call to serve God. The truths we see in the Bible versus the truths we see in reason, tradition, and experience. The Old Testament versus the New Testament. Each side is true, but neither side is fully true. The full truth lies somewhere in the tension.
If we want to get even more obvious about it, think of the tension between Jesus as divine and Jesus as human. Why, we’ve been trying to relax this tension for two thousand years, and we still haven’t figured it out. Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine, and nobody knows what that means, exactly. Now, if you said Jesus was half human and half divine, if he were split down the middle, 50/50, I could probably wrap my head around that one. But that is not what we say, nor is it what we believe. We believe that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine, and my God, there is a tension if there ever was one. We are called to live in that tension, too.
And this is the tension of the Transfiguration. Here, Jesus is walking around on earth, like every other human, and he goes to the mountaintop with Peter and James and John, and suddenly he bursts through the pages of the story, just hops right out of the black and white chapters and verses and is transfigured, and his clothes become dazzling white, such that no one on earth could bleach them.
Fully human, and fully divine. It is a tension.
The big problem with living in tension, of course, is that it is tense. Living in tension is much more difficult than living at one side or the other. It is also much more dangerous. Consider the rubber band. Tension can be dangerous. If you stretch the rubber band out, if you give it some tension and let go, it is liable to pop you! It is a tough place to live, in tension.
But without tension, the rubber band is not good for anything. You put a pen inside it, it just falls out. Our faith is like this. If we refuse tension, our faith will be just fine until we really need it, but once we face a crisis, well, everything will just fall out. If you stretch the rubber band to hold more things, if you increase the tension, it will do what it is designed to do. It will hold what it is designed to hold, and it is designed to hold much more than it seems.
The other problem with tension is that it is hard to speak about. It is much easier to talk about one extreme or the other, and if you don’t believe me just turn on the news. We are as polarized as ever in this country, and living somewhere in the center is seen as somehow bad, as somehow lacking core convictions. If you are not on the extreme, you are somewhere in the murky middle.
But when did we allow this center to be associated with apathy, as if only those on the extremes have claim to the truth? As if only one side or the other has anything to say with any truth behind it?
One of the leading bishops in the United Methodist Church has written a book called United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Cen-ter. Not the extreme sinner—we’ve already got plenty of those—but the Extreme Cen-ter. I like this idea of the extreme center. It reminds me that we live in tension, and though we may be pulled to one side or the other—in actuality we are pulled from all sides, all at once—we are called to live in the extreme center: not the murky center, or the ambivalent center, but the extreme center, a place where there is room for ambiguity, a place where there is room for paradox and tension. A place, perhaps, where there is room for God.
The extreme center is a tough place to be, and it is a hard thing to speak about. Perhaps most of us preachers are like Peter, and we come to this story and we see Jesus transfigured, with his clothing dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah, and we say something meaningless, like “It is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,” or some such nonsense, as if—though we are terrified and do not know what to say—we feel as if we must say something anyhow.
And yet the faith of Jesus Christ is so much bigger than we can say, so much more complex than even our own modern lives. To be drawn into a relationship with Jesus Christ is to recognize that the traditional rules do not apply, that the tensions of life are nothing compared to the tensions of religion, and that this is a good thing. Madeline L’Engle says that these tensions offer “a way for us to see beyond limited fact into the wonder of God's story.” They remind us that God is beyond limited fact, that there is something beyond our own understanding, and it is good for me to remember that the world does not work according to my own biases and presuppositions. God is bigger than my biases and presuppositions.
I wish I could tell you what the Transfiguration means. I wish I could sum it up in a nice sermon, but I am not so sure. It is an instance of God breaking through our limited understandings, breaking into our story even when it seems as if we are not good enough for the wonder of God’s story. It is an instance of God’s entrance into our lives in ways that do not fit into any of our categories, at times when we least expect God to enter. It is a reminder that there is something beyond what we see, here on earth. It is an invitation into the myriad of tensions that comprise our faith. It is all of these things, and it is none of these things, because what we say of God does not do justice to who God is and how much God loves us.
But this is all merely introduction. Here, you thought you were getting a sermon, and all you got was an introduction. For the sermon is what comes after the introduction, when you allow yourself to be stretched in tension, when you allow yourself to be pulled like taffy, aerated with God’s spirit and made into something altogether new. There, in that tension, you will meet the God of the Transfiguration, the God who is bigger than you could have possibly imagined.
I’ve offered you a sermon. Now it is time to write your own. Now it is time to write the story of God in your own life. Rather than staying here and setting up dwellings in this holy place, let’s go down the mountain and embody that which we have seen. In the name of the Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit.