Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A meditation given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
Today is the last Sunday, according to the Christian calendar, of Epiphany, the season when we celebrate the light of the star that guided kings to a stable in Bethlehem. Soon, we begin Lent, the time of the cross, the days that lead us to remembering what happened at the end of Jesus’ life - betrayal, anger, disappointment, fear, and crucifixion. But today, on this last Sunday before Lent begins, we read a story describing Jesus’ transfiguration - a story that tells us that Jesus was lifted up and made to shine brightly; in which a voice from heaven reminded the witnesses of the significance of this remarkable human being and his unique relationship with God who sent him. For centuries, Biblical theologians have recognized the profound symbolism in this story. It is reminiscent of Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John the Baptist when a dove descended and a voice from heaven blessed the event. And the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop is a foreshadowing of the Resurrection itself when Jesus appeared, after his death, to his disciples. It is a story that links stories by using the same images, and the same symbolic words. It is a story that tells us that everything for which the Jews hoped, they had in Jesus – Moses, the giver of the law and the great emancipator, and Elijah, prophet among prophets, keeping them on the path of God’s choosing. And it is a story that uses light to describe God’s light in this remarkable life - the light of a star at his birth, the light of his own person on the mountaintop, the light of his everlasting life after his cruel execution.
What else does the story have to teach? Well, responding as the disciples so often did, Peter tried to make some sense out of something they witnessed that just didn’t make any sense at all. They were afraid, of course, who wouldn’t be? And they didn’t understand what the significance of this appearance might have for them or for generations after them. In a mighty effort to be helpful, Peter volunteered to build three booths, one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, booths that would hold them, preserve them, protect them, contain them. If it were an experience Peter had today, he might at that moment say, wait, wait, let me take a picture of this and we can post it on Facebook!
People are always acting inappropriate to the moment. We laugh when we shouldn’t, we interrupt when we shouldn’t, we ask questions that should be left unasked. And people are often certain they understand what’s going on at any given moment, when truthfully, they haven’t a clue. We assume, we over-interpret, we assign meaning where there isn’t any and trample over meaning if we don’t get it in the first blink of an eye. One of the most irritating things clergy often do, is say things with a certain solemnity and, in the stained-glass voice, with partial sentences, nodding meaningfully, leaving unspoken what you’re apparently supposed to intuit. At those moments I’ve taken to saying, “I don’t understand what you’re trying to say”, risking the obvious conclusion that I am as obtuse as a stone. But few things infuriate me more than when someone says something enigmatic, looks at others around the circle as if they all get it, and you, poor stupido, well, perhaps one day you’ll understand.
Had I been on the mountaintop with Jesus, and had I witnessed this odd thing we now call the transfiguration, I wouldn’t have gotten it. And I might be the one asking Jesus, “ok, what exactly was that supposed to be?” But here’s the thing, Jesus knew his disciples were stirred by what they had seen and awestruck and a little afraid of the power they had just beheld and maybe a little stumped as to its meaning. He knew they craved some clarity of purpose, some reassurance they were doing the right thing - that the simple and true message they had heard was actually from God and not just in their sleep-deprived minds. Jesus knew that he was asking them to step out on the assurance of things unseen? Wasn’t he just a little sympathetic for them, that he was asking them to do and be what no one had imagined before him?
I have always been deeply interested in the Civil Rights Movement, not just for its powerful religious justice themes but as a manual on social change strategy. Of course, we read it now, looking back, in much the same way we read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. If one were to read Taylor Branch’s three volume history without ever having heard the story before, one would get the overwhelming impression that the Movement was actually a kaleidoscope of events happening across the south with very little direction except in small ways. We look back at it and see a kind of linear path, but no one, not one of the Civil Rights leaders knew what was coming next. There were hundreds of individual strategy sessions, but no one knew that Rosa Parks’ resistance and arrest would galvanize an entire city. No one foresaw that the integration of the Little Rock schools would inspire such vitriol. And no one, not one of the actors in that most dramatic morality play, imagined he or she would live to see a black president.
We understand things by looking back. We can recognize the meandering path that led us to who we are today. And isn’t that true of just about everything? If we look back, can’t we see the seeds that grew into the poisonous plant of terrorism? Looking back, can we not identify those signposts that brought us here today? Looking back, can we not see how we have been led?
I’m going to close with two brief observations. The first is this. To be a person of faith means that we, like the first disciples, must act, live, move forward without any irrefutable signs that where we are going or what we are doing is the will of God. Sorry. That’s just the way it is. We take steps for justice and peace and love, with no certainly, none at all, that we’re right. Except, and this is my second closing point, sometimes, very, very rarely, we catch a glimpse of meaning, a revelation to use theological language, an epiphany, a flash of light or insight that is reassuring. It never lasts long, and I’m fairly certain if you ask for one of those moments to come, you’ll wait a very long time. Those nano-seconds of knowing are all we get. And we can’t ever count on getting them. But, when they come, they are like this story of the transfiguration of Jesus – surprising, strange, brief, and we sense, in that moment, that God has said something like yes. You got it. That’s it – that’s right.
I wish we could have a little more information, a map, maybe a manual. All we have is light – and that has to be enough. Amen.