Saturday, August 5, 2017
Seeing what's really there: Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration
When I was a kid, my mother bought me a little microscope and a set of glass slides. This was pretty awesome as a gift, because it reminds me that I have ALWAYS been a nerd. I mean really, how many little six-year old kids are thrilled with the gift of a microscope? Dolls I could take or leave, except my Mrs. Beasley doll, but I used that microscope for the next three years to look at all kinds of things—blades of grass, creek water, butterfly wings, and, my favorite, my own blood. That was a trip. It was amazing how something that looked one way with the unaided eye looked completely different with the aid of some magnification and some light. Magnification and light also were at work in the telescope my brother got about the same time—right about the time of the moon landings. We would train it on the moon in hopes that we could actually see the astronauts walking on the lunar surface.
The cheap telescope my family could afford really was not nearly capable of that amount of magnification and resolution, but we still would see some of the features of the moon more clearly than we ever had before. We also saw that some of the things we thought were stars were actually planets!
Those experiences with the microscope and the telescope completely transformed my perception of the natural world. Things are really NOT as they appear. I actually experienced objects differently once my knowledge of them had been changed through a shift in perception. I became aware- and for a little kid, weirded out—by the idea that that blade of grass was made up of thousands of green cells that looked like bricks, and that my blood wasn’t just red liquid but was made up of all kinds of weird round things floating in it. My mother never again had to tell me to not swallow pond water after I saw all the weird little critters like water fleas and bacteria flailing around in a drop of it.
Time can also do a similar trick to how we see things. When we are in the midst of some experience, we don’t really have perspective on it, especially if it is during a time of stress. But later on, our minds have a way of organizing our experiences so that we can make meaning of them.
For instance, I never really understood at the time I taught at the parochial school why it would later be important that I learned the “Hail Mary” prayer. I was just trying to survive making only 10,000 dollars a year and living without health insurance—and without car insurance, if my dad hadn’t continued to pay it). But later in my life, I was able to look back on that time with more gratitude, when I could, for instance, pray that prayer with my mother-in-law when she was sick, or teach it to my daughter when she needed to know it when it was prayed by her team before her CYC basketball games.
I’m not one who tends to hold with the idea that God “gives” us experiences for a reason. I’m more inclined to think that, later on, we attach the reason to the experience, particularly if the experience was difficult at the time we went through it, like when someone you thought was a friend betrays you, or someone takes a dislike to you for no discernible reason. I will admit that I found a great saying about that hanging on a plaque in an Ace hardware store the other day. It said, “There are two reasons why people are in your life-- to be a blessin’, or to be a lesson.” That saying made me laugh, but it once again makes a point about perspective, as well as about learning how to deal with stuff in our lives that can seem to make no sense. I do think we comfort ourselves or allow ourselves to move on in life by making meaning wherever we have an experience that puzzles or frightens us.
In today’s gospel reading, we see one of the most astounding perception-shifting passages in the Bible, and that is saying something. Jesus has been hinting to the disciples that he is more than what he seems to be, but they don’t get it. And let’s be fair—why should they? There certainly hasn’t been anyone like Jesus before.
Let’s set the passage in context: in the previous chapter, Simon declares that Jesus is the Messiah, and gets renamed “Peter.” Jesus then proceeds to foretell his death and resurrection, and then challenges his followers to “take up their cross and follow me.” He concludes chapter 16 with this statement: For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father,….” Then he takes them up on the mountain, and suddenly, their perception of him is forcibly shifted. And of course, Jesus’s three apostles who are with him do not know what to do with this experience of their friend and teacher suddenly being transformed into a dazzling figure. So they are rightfully astonished, and the same guy—Peter—who just a few verses back was expounding upon Jesus being the Son of God is now babbling and blathering about building little booths.
Their perception of Jesus shifts, and suddenly they see him more for who he really is, both human AND divine, the very things Peter had so confidently proclaimed earlier. Sounds simple when you say it, but it is obvious from a careful listening to the gospel that the Christians of Matthew’s time were still struggling to figure out who exactly Jesus is, just as we also are all these hundreds of years later. It doesn’t help that the story depicts Jesus as changing. I wonder if that is not a misstatement. Perhaps my friend Scott Gunn, the director of Forward Movement, is right when he says that Jesus was and is as he appeared at that moment all along—it’s just that the veil between his two natures was more forcefully pulled aside at that moment. Rather than saying that Jesus has changed, it’s more precise to say that the perception of Jesus is changed by this experience on the mountain. The perception we have of Jesus as a wisdom teacher and faith-healers is expanded by this glimpse into his true nature as the Son of God. And Peter’s there to see it all—kind of showing him what is really meant by his proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah.
In the 60s and 70s, there was a lot of effort made by certain theologians to try to discover what they called “the historical Jesus,” and by that they meant they one whose presence could be verified by actual documentary evidence. Of course, what happened as this quest progressed was a stripping away of all of the things that would have made Jesus anything other than a first century Jewish peasant, and often people weren’t left with very much to actually believe in about Jesus. That’s why it is good to remind ourselves that we are engaged not in a scientific experiment, but in a quest of faith throughout our lives—not that there is anything wrong with scientific experiments mind you, because I am a BIG fan of science. Don’t misunderstand me. But science and faith sometimes do not ask the same questions.
What the disciples saw in this experience will never be fully captured in words or descriptions, or explained by science, probably. But one thing that is implied by this story is that Jesus is not merely a human being, limited to a human lifespan, but he is the fulfilling of the law and the prophets—that’s what is suggested by the appearance of Moses, the law-giver, and Elijah, the greatest of prophets. Jesus is the Christ, not just a peasant, although he certainly is that, as well.
Going up on that mountain—mountains are often places where revelations happen—helps the disciples gain a new perspective, if not a new understanding—of what it means when they pronounce Jesus as the Messiah and Savior of the World. And just when that vision has scared the bejabbers out of them, Jesus does that most human thing of all to bring them back from their terror—he touches them with his hand, reminding them that he is ALSO still their pastor and friend. And so he remains for us today.