What lights you up? Sun. March 3, 2019
Luke 9:28-36; Psalm 99
What lights you up? You know that feeling of excitement, of passion, of angry heat or pure joy that changes the timber of a voice, lights up a face, changes a person’s movement? What lights you up?
I experience it in various ways. One of the most dramatic was years ago during a group dance performance. I don’t remember if it was part of a worship service or a studio recital but what I do remember was getting lost in the movement and music. It was a lyrical dance I loved with maybe 8 or 10 of us in the group. Right near the end, the choreography included several bars of personal improvisation before the music ended and we came to stillness. That one day, something changed in me as I got lost in the music and my improv. I remember the moment of snapping out of my mystical experience with almost panic that I’d forgotten the choreography and didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. I remember the relief of realizing that the dance was over and all was well. I came off the stage in almost a trance, shaken by the experience and wondering “what just happened?!?” When the choreographer, a good friend, saw me, she asked: “What happened to you, Christine?” She had seen and felt me being transported away for a time, into the presence of God. It was evident to that close friend who knew me well, in how I looked and how I moved in those few minutes. So what lights you up? How has… how does… God’s glory manifest in you?
Today we celebrate God’s glory present and exposed in Jesus. The story of Jesus’ transfiguration marks a transition in Luke’s Gospel and in our church year. Today is the last Sunday before Lent begins and we turn, with Jesus, towards Jerusalem and the “departure,” as the story says, that Jesus fulfills there. Earlier in chapter 9, Jesus gave the disciples power and authority, and sent them out to preach on their own, for the first time. Upon their return, we hear the story of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ – and then the first instance when Jesus teaches the disciples that he is to suffer, be rejected, killed and then raised – with the admonition that they should also pick up their cross and follow. The transfiguration story begins “eight days after these sayings…” And not long after this story, verse 51 tells us that “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” The rest of the Gospel of Luke is then all set in the context of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and his passion there.
And so today’s story of Jesus’ transfiguration is a penultimate culmination of Jesus’ mission and ministry. Liturgically, it is for us a rather dramatic culmination with the geographical movement from the plain to the mountaintop. For the past couple of weeks we’ve been hearing Jesus’ difficult teaching in the sermon on the level place from chapter 6 and so the change of setting is something of a relief. Today we get to journey up a mountain with Jesus and bear witness to God’s glory in him, along with his other chosen few. For while Jesus was praying, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory…” The story is mysterious and mystical, making it hard for many of our modern brains to enter. How do we recognize God’s glory, God’s holiness, in our midst… in ourselves? Is it all just transcendent otherness, inaccessible except in infrequent and unplanned moments? Perhaps there are other avenues of understanding.
Our psalm today, Psalm 99, gives us another window through which to understand God’s presence, God’s glory, God’s holiness. It begins with a traditional expression of holiness, with trembling and quaking at God’s greatness and awesomeness, God’s otherness and transcendence. But even here there are hints of something else. “The Lord is great in Zion,” it says. Zion is a specific and earthly place, not an otherworldly one. And then the second section makes even more of a shift. God’s holiness is recognized in equity, in justice and righteousness executed in the world. Far from an indication of otherworldliness, justice, righteousness and equity are relational words grounded in this world. As one commentator describes: “If God is capable of being wholly other, God has chosen not to be. God has invested Godself in the world to set things right among the ‘families of the peoples’,” as it said just a few psalms ago, in Psalm 96. Holiness, in other words, “is re-defined. It is not simply otherness and separation; rather it is involvement and relationship.”(McCann, Working Preacher)
The next section of the psalm offers yet more insight into God’s holiness as involvement with, not separation from, the world. The poet mentions 3 people by name: Moses, Aaron and Samuel, who all “called on God’s name,” and to whom God responded. This God is not aloof but intimate and involved with particular people, who are themselves intimate and involved with many people. The named three “kept God’s decrees, and the statutes God gave them,” but the people they led did not. And yet God responded to their pleas and granted forgiveness, even as consequences for wrong-doing remain. God chooses to remain in relationship with disobedient people, carrying the burden of their sins through forgiveness, and thereby shifting our understanding of holiness beyond the aloof and transcendent to be grounded instead in divine grace and suffering love, in relationship. (McCann, Working Preacher)
I have experienced this kind of power and transcendence, the holiness and glory of God, in intimate and involved relationship, in the past weeks through our SALT-led Community Conversations. We’ve had 3 of them over the past 2 weeks. Each one has been different, and all have been engaging, inspiring, informative and heartfelt. Our little organizing team is meeting again this coming week to review the experiences and decide on a next step. Feel free to speak with me, Dave, Dick or Mitch if you’d like to know more. I heard myself light up when I was telling Kate about them earlier this week. What was most special about the conversations was hearing various people light up with joy or despair, with grief and hope in turn. Each time, we got a glimpse of the glory of God in one another. What lights you up? How does God’s glory manifest in your life? How does God’s holiness become visible and known in this community of St. Andrew’s?
Back in our Gospel story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain-top, we know something of how incredible the vision of God’s glory must have been based on Peter’s first response: “Let us make three dwellings…” Peter suggests. It would seem he wants to hold on to the experience by building monuments. Creating grand, physical reminders of glorious experiences is a good, and very human, impulse. It’s why we buy souvenirs on trips and create photo albums and put up plaques. Such physical reminders help bring the past to memory. But we get into trouble when we cling to them, and cling to the past, at the expense of noticing on-going, renewing experiences of God’s glory and holiness in our present.
While I was working on this sermon, a song came to mind: “Cry Holy” by the Christian group Salvador. It’s a big and powerful and intense song that I also once danced to in a group piece. I was tempted, for a brief moment, to play the song for you. Some of you would likely love it, some would be confused by it, others would have contempt for it. I know that my attachment to the song relates to the incredible memories of dancing to it, with a group of dear friends. When I hear it, I feel the dance, and I have strong visceral and visual memories of one particular time we performed it together, along with the recollection of that critically important, that transformative, time that was in my life… none of which any of you would experience by hearing the song. It would just be a song: beautiful, powerful, annoying. It is important to remember the past… our experiences of God’s glory and holiness… but not to hold on to them through grand monuments.
In our story today, Jesus doesn’t actually respond to Peter’s idea. Instead, “a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’” And that’s it. Talk of monuments is forgotten in the wake of God’s command. And the next day, they continue along their journey, keeping silent for the time being about their experience, even as they are transformed by it.
Part of the Collect for Transfiguration in the Book of Common Prayer pleads: “that we, being purified and strengthened by thy grace, may be transformed into [Jesus’] likeness from glory to glory…” We pray to be transformed, with Jesus, from the glory of transfiguration to the glory of resurrection. Today we celebrate with a story of God’s glory manifest in Jesus, transforming the appearance of his face and his clothing, as the culmination of the first part of his mission and ministry. On Wednesday, our Lenten journey to the cross of Christ will begin, culminating with the glory of the resurrection at Easter. There will be difficult days from glory to glory but we can trust that the glory of God we witness today will carry us through.