Pastor Paul E. Hoffman
The Transfiguration of Our Lord
Beloved in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In her novel, St. Maybe, Anne Tyler paints with words a tender scene between a brother and sister in which they long to hold, remember, hope.
The two are elementary school kids, being raised by their loving but unwilling grandparents after being orphaned by two separate tragedies that took first their father, and then their mother.
Looking through their mother’s things, the sister finds a photograph.
Holding the picture by one corner, [she says] “Don’t you dare get a speck of dirt on it,” she said. He took it very, very gently between the flat of his hands, the way you take an LP record. The crinkly edges felt like little teeth against his palms.
It was a color photograph, with Jun 63 stamped on the border. A tin house trailer with cinder blocks for a doorstep, A pretty woman standing on the cinder blocks — black hair puffing to her shoulders, bright lipstick, ruffled pink dress — holding a scowly baby (him!) in nothing but a diaper.
If only you could climb into photographs. [Little Thomas thought.] If only you could take a running jump and land there, deep inside.
If you could climb into a photograph and hold a moment, what moment would it be?
Seeing Moses and Elijah on either side of Jesus like two exclamation points framing him as they had never seen him before, Peter speaks for human longing to capture and save a moment. Climb into it, hold on to it forever. Lord, if you wish, I will make three dwellings here…
We, too, want to climb into the happy moments pictured in our heads and relive them, recall them, hold them. And why not?
In a world where the news is rarely good, can any of us be faulted for hoping to hold that which is lovely, if even for just a moment? We want to hold it by its crinkly edges, keep it from even a speck of dirt, and take a running jump and land there, deep inside.
As tempting as that sounds, it just isn’t the way life is though, is it? We don’t get to live only in the mountaintop moments. Like Jesus leading his threesome to the plain we are constantly reminded that life where we live it is life just one breath away from death. And if not the final death, then certainly all the little deaths that fill the moments, the hours, the months and years that cannot, will not be negated by in some random single triumphant moment.
Do you remember the brilliant Steven Sondheim lyrics from A Little Night Music about all those little deaths?
Every day a little death/in the parlor in the bed,
In the curtains, in the silver/in the buttons, in the bread,
In the murmurs in the pauses/in the gestures, in the sighs
Every day a little sting/every day a little dies
In the heart and in the head/in the looks and in the lies
That about covers it, doesn’t it? Try as we may to preserve those mountaintop moments, to take a running jump and land there, deep inside them, life happens. Death happens.
Far from the mountains’ bright resounding clouds where the voice of God seems so unmistakably near, most of our days are lived in the stifling valleys of dreaded diagnoses, unsettling scandals, endless, meaningless sound bites, threats of violence, unrelenting irrelevance, a planet we seem hell-bent to push to its peril. Is it any wonder we long to join Peter in enshrining the beautiful in a moment, a snapshot, a dwelling where we can hold it forever?
But Jesus is having none of it. The transfigured one turns the tables and leaps instead into all the cherished and all the regrettable photos from the albums of our lives. There is no snapshot into which he will not go, even into the deepest darkest valley of the shadow of death. This story of the Transfiguration, is the mid-point mountain halfway between the celebrations of Jesus’ birth and Jesus’ death. Christ himself reminds the disciples that they are coming down the mountain to his death. This is no Kodak moment to which they descend with holding his dazzling presence in their minds’ eye. They are coming down the mountain where Jesus will leap into the deepest, most dreaded experience of human existence since Eden. They are descending to the grave. His grave. In Christ’s own death and resurrection we are pulled from the grave’s crinkly, jagged edges and into the transfiguring light of eternal hope. The wonder and resplendence of such hope no human eye has ever before seen or dared to imagine.
Christ promises the possibility of turning every day’s little deaths into brilliant, glowing life. Freed from any fear that might be holding us back, we are called to build booths of justice, mercy, and compassion for a world in need. We can only imagine taking care of ourselves. But Jesus brightens our imaginations to see the wonder of love extended to others, that the earth he loves might flourish as each and every life is filled with grace.
Picture this: a world in which the murmurs and the sighs, the stings, the looks, the lies, are replaced forever with pure, bright, unmitigated compassion. That is the picture into which Christ leaps to join us with hope that will never die. That is the snapshot to sustain us as, in Jesus’ name, we work for a transfigured future of endless resurrection and life for all people everywhere. Imagine it – as Jesus’ partners handing those in the world a snapshot of justice where they’ve known none. Of mercy, where they’ve never been seen or heard. Of compassion where they’ve only ever been sidelined or disregarded. Imagine it, as Jesus’ partners. Then imagine watching those snapshots, by the power of the Risen Christ, being transfigured into scenes and movies, and eventually completely new and vibrant lives for all God’s people everywhere. To such sights as yet unseen in this self-absorbed and greedy world, Christ walks with us down the mountain. And in the valleys, Christ equip us to pour our lives into just such grateful service.
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.