Transfiguration InspirationRead Now
A Transfiguration Sunday sermon related to Matthew 17:1-8
That the transfiguration story is s source of inspiration amidst struggle, a theophany of Light and Renewal to "Get up and be not afraid" as we head back down the mountain.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became bright as light. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I[a] will set up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, the Beloved;[b] with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they raised their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
For the Word of God in Scripture
For the Word of God among us
For the Word of God within us
Thanks be to God
They were young and in love (at least 23 and 18 seem young to me now). So they married. She was pregnant and they were happy about it. They loved each other and wanted to be married. The baby came and eventually two others. Young love is not an unusual story, but this love does have an unusual twist of context. You see it was 1958 and husband Richard Loving was what our society calls white (European American) and wife Mildred was what our society called back then "colored." (Her lineage was African American and Native American.) And, in the State of Virginia in 1958, interracial marriage was forbidden, a felony, and punishable by significant jail time.
After marrying quietly in the District of Columbia and returning to Virginia to live quietly, someone tipped off the police who then raided their bedroom in the middle of the night and arrested them. They plea bargained for a sentence of one year in jail to be suspended, provided they left Virginia for 25 years, never in that time to return together. These country people lived in DC for years away from family and the country life they loved before Mildred appealed to Attorney General Robert Kennedy who referred them to the ACLU. The ACLU provided free legal support that over several years finally landed their case in front of the Supreme Court who overturned Virginia’s and all such state laws in 1967.
My wife and I watched the dramatized version of this story some years ago in the feature film titled simply and appropriately, Loving. That cinematic way of telling the story allowed me to see and feel the love between these two and the anguish, pain, and struggle that these two people, these two citizens, endured. Born of fear and systematized into law, the injustice of white supremacy caused these two to be sometimes separated from each other, separated from family, and to be exiled from their home. It was an inspiration to witness their love, their perseverance, their strength, and their courage in staying together and in finally finding a way to publicly and legally resist.
It is appropriate to uplift such stories of courage and justice making, even more so during Black History month. And there are other such stories brought to film. Selma is the dramatized version of the story of seeking voting rights in Selma, Alabama and of the events and efforts of 1965 at the end of this long campaign that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 13th is a documentary film outlining the historic pattern of turning the racial discrimination of slavery into the racial discrimination of criminalization, using the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which forbids slavery, but allows an exception when one is duly convicted of a crime.
Difficult stories these are, yet inspiring in their witness to those who put their lives and bodies on the line for the truth of justice, the truth of liberation, the truth of the dignity of the human person, all persons. Feature films are one of the common ways we tell stories today.
Our tradition of faith is also gifted with stories, ancient stories. Their distance of time and culture can make them seem less accessible than the movies which are a primary form of storytelling in our age, but the effort to overcome that distance can be worth it. These sacred stories are meant as teaching, reflection, and inspiration just as they were for the early Christian communities.
This morning’s story can seem particularly distant, especially if you are not a mystic and not inclined to imaginative prayer visions. It can be easy to classify this story as very "religious" and simply a story to support some kind of high theological and doctrinal view of Jesus as Divine. But, this morning, I offer that, looking closer, we can see something more, something more for Matthew’s community and something more for our community.
Context is important always to shape our imaginations in getting the story’s fullest impact and import. Matthew’s author is writing to a community still wondering what it means to follow the lineage of Judaism now that the Temple has been destroyed by the Romans after another failed revolt. Matthew’s author is writing to a community wondering if they will be safe, if they have a place, in this new version of Roman Empire occupying their land.
My UCC colleague Rev. Anne Dunlap offered insight into the context of this story of Transfiguration in an online sermon on this text and I gratefully follow her lead here in further understanding the context of this sacred story. The baby Jesus, visited by the Magi, subsequently has to flee for safety south to Egypt. After returning, Jesus has grown up, been baptized by John in the Jordan River, and has begun teaching and healing. He has spoken his Sermon on the Mount (much longer than any I would give!), gathered and sent out disciples, and has made his way to many towns and cities.
But something significant happens in chapter 14 that subtly changes the tone of Matthew’s Gospel: the incarcerated John the Baptist is executed. Another movement leader killed by the empire. The one who baptized Jesus, to whom he was related in blood and in a message of Holy resistance and change, murdered by the state. We notice that Jesus from this point on seeks refuge regularly in deserted places like mountain tops. And, just prior to our story in Chapter 17, he begins to talk about the suffering he is to endure, even having to forcefully rebuke his close disciple Peter who discourages the path of suffering. Immediately after our story of transfiguration, Jesus speaks of John the Baptist and his fate.
So it appears the context of the Transfiguration story is of a Jesus under duress of the system, under a growing threat as his movement grows, under the shadow of the cross. And where does he go in such a state? He goes to the mountain to pray. He takes the support of community with him. He seeks and finds the support of the ancestors. He listens for and hears a Divine Voice of Affirmation. Faced with his mortality and vulnerability, he seeks the Divine Light. And while Peter offers to build dwellings to stay there and they all respond with fear to God’s presence and message to follow, it is Jesus who touches them and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
“Get up and do not be afraid.”
The story of Transfiguration is a story for our difficult stories, for our difficult times when Herod or Caesar, the one out in the world or the one inside of us, is on our trail. The Transfiguration Story is a story for us, an invitation to experience the Divine Light and hear Divine Affirmation so that we can be like those who persevered in their love for each other amidst hard times,
so that we can be like those seeking voting rights who got up after being knocked down by State Troopers,
and be like those who see the painful path of injustice and have the courage to seek and even suffer another path for justice.
Transfiguration is a story of Spirit’s power to touch us, bless us, and send us back into the world as it is so we might witness with our lives to how it can be.
One of the possible translations here is that Peter wanted to build three sanctuaries. Jesus’ message to him was that, with the power of Divine Light and Truth, and of the ancestors, we must overcome our fear, get up, and come down the mountain to be sanctuaries in the world. Transfiguration is a story of the Divine Light that has the power to sustain us in the difficult times. We can be like the disciples focused on the power of the Christ Mystery. We can be like Jesus and become infused with God’s Light. We can know Transfiguration Inspiration so that we can come down the mountain and become sanctuaries in the world. May this be so. AMEN
A Middle WayRead Now
Text: Luke 9:28-36
28-31 About eight days after saying this, [Jesus] climbed the mountain to pray, taking Peter, John, and James along. While he was in prayer, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became blinding white. At once two men were there talking with him. They turned out to be Moses and Elijah—and what a glorious appearance they made! They talked over his exodus, the one Jesus was about to complete in Jerusalem.
32-33 Meanwhile, Peter and those with him were slumped over in sleep. When they came to, rubbing their eyes, they saw Jesus in his glory and the two men standing with him. When Moses and Elijah had left, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, this is a great moment! Let’s build three memorials: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He blurted this out without thinking.
34-35 While he was babbling on like this, a light-radiant cloud enveloped them. As they found themselves buried in the cloud, they became deeply aware of God. Then there was a voice out of the cloud: “This is my Son, the Chosen! Listen to him.”
36 When the sound of the voice died away, they saw Jesus there alone. They were speechless. And they continued speechless, said not one thing to anyone during those days of what they had seen.
For the Word of G-d in Scripture, for the Word of G-d Among Us, For the Word of G-d within us, Thanks be to G-d!
A Middle Way[i]
Holy One, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be a blessing in your sight. Oh G-d wherever we find ourselves in this mountaintop story, may we be fed in this time together, to return and work for justice, peace and love. Amen.
Good morning. It’s a pleasure to get to be with you today and to sink into this Transfiguration Sunday with you. And be gathered in person again. As Pastor Hal said earlier, my name is Laura Nelson. I am one of the ministers that this church has sponsored through the ordination process. This means, that you have loved and supported me as I grew from someone curious about ministry nearly 14 years ago to just finishing my first call at the Fort Collins Area Interfaith Council. As always Thank You. I served at Interfaith Council for the past 6 years. If you haven’t come across it before, the Fort Collins Area Interfaith Council is a network of 40-ish faith communities and nonprofits in and around Fort Collins. Our Mission is: facilitating interfaith understanding, cooperation and action towards the greater good in our community. We meet once a month – and when we meet in person we rotate through gathering at different faith communities and nonprofits. Interfaith Council is 43 years old, and has been at the start of many of the crucial nonprofits in town, especially ones about affordable housing, combating homelessness and food insecurity.
Plymouth has always had a strong relationship with the Interfaith Council. We are one of the 10 faith communities that stepped up in 1979 to work together at the very beginning. We have been one of the largest donors. And, because Plymouth has been my church home as I took this first call, that strong relationship deepened even further. So I want to take this time to share with you what we have accomplished together in the last 6 years.
We created a Celebrations of Light Documentary highlighting the many many religious festivals celebrated in the Fort Collins Area from November to January and displayed it at the Museum of Discovery. We sponsored Interfaith Friendsgiving, a town/gown interfaith dinner that brought over 200 people together each year for dialogue and celebration with a kosher meal cooked by students. We gave away over $50,000 pooled by the faith communities to local nonprofits and new interfaith projects. We organized rallies and vigils in response to the attack on the mosque and other instances of faith-based hate in town and around the country. We hosted annual Blood Drives, honoring with our bodies that there is no Jewish or atheist or Christian or Muslim or None blood, just human blood that can save lives.
We celebrated our 40th anniversary, making a documentary about our history, offering awards to organizations we had founded, and having a community dinner with leaders past and present. During lockdown we partnered with the World Wisdoms Project to publish videos from local folks sharing how their faith traditions were helping them through the early days of the pandemic. And after George Floyd’s murder, we entered into the messy work of talking about racial justice as a majority white organization by sponsoring 4 Town Halls on Racism in Northern Colorado. And we worked on how to apologize as an organization, when even our best intended efforts caused harm.[ii] Finally, we offered care to the mountain communities during and after the Cameron Peak Fire, work that has blossomed into a Community Chaplaincy program that you will hear more about.
But those are the big flashy highlights. I think our most important work happened on the person to person level. The surprise and delight members had at getting to know each other on a deep level during our gatherings. So often, people would share with me how excited they were to get to know and then work with people who held such different beliefs than them. Or how people who were working on a project in their faith community could find resources and camaraderie with others, all who hadn’t realized the others were out there. A great example of this is the Climate and Environmental Team, who gather to collaborate on climate justice issues. But they are also a space where folks working on environmental issues in their own congregations can get support from each other, especially when they meet resistance or aren’t taken seriously.
Leading the Interfaith Council, I got to see again and again that all of those things that make us different from each other – be it faith, or age, gender, or race – make us more creative and resilient as a community. We are Better Together precisely because of our differences, not in spite of them. I will say this again: We are Better Together precisely because of our differences. And at the Fort Collins Interfaith Council, we got to embody that together each month.
It has been an incredible organization to lead, and to participate in. And Plymouth – whether you know it or not – has been a major part in making it all happen. Two of the rallies used our parking lots, with permission and organizing happening swiftly and seamlessly. Our Fellowship Hall was often a backup, if there was an emergency at any other host location. As a church we have offered money and volunteer support to nearly every new project that has come out of the Interfaith Council. And, when it came time to make the case for me to be ordained to do this work, this church entered into a new type of covenant with the Interfaith Council to make it happen.
For so many of us who attend here, being deeply a part of interfaith work can feel like second nature, just a part of how we should be as church. But let me tell you, our presence and commitment to work that honors people of different faith traditions or no faith traditions is so powerful. It builds trust among people who are suspicious of Christians, people who have been harmed by the Christian Church. And even if it isn’t Plymouth or the United Church of Christ that did the harm, it is still our responsibility to work for that healing.
So let me bring this alongside our text for this Transfiguration Sunday. Jesus heads up a mountain with Peter, John and James to pray. And during that time of prayer, Jesus’ face changes, his clothes appear dazzling white and Moses and Elijah suddenly join him. Seeing this astounding thing, Peter wants to create a monument to the moment on the mountaintop. But instead a voice booms from the clouds saying “This is my Son, Listen to him!”[iii] And, instead of a monument, Jesus continues on, with healing and teaching.
This text that is all about transformation.[iv] A transformation that reveals a deeper truth about Jesus. It shows how transformation can connect us to the long traditions. And, it is often uncomfortable.
If I were to look at the 43 years of Interfaith Council’s history, and especially to look at the last 6 years when I served, I would say that the most important work that we did was to demonstrate that our City is Better Together. It is a deep truth that I got to see revealed again and again when people of a different faith went from strangers to friends. That friendship made us stronger and more committed to each other when challenging times arose. And it has for every disaster and challenging time that the Interfaith Council has faced in its 43 years, connecting us to a long tradition of people coming together across major differences to meet the needs of the age.
But transformation is not usually comfortable; transformation can often feel relentless. In our text, Peter suggests they build a monument. He wants to stop, to mark this as the moment when Jesus’ work was accomplished. But that’s not how transformation – or really life – works. There is always more growth to be had, more healing, more justice, more learning to be done. I am excited to witness and cheer on the transformation that will happen at Interfaith Council in the coming years. And for my own transformation, it is time for me to explore rest and to learn a new balance before I start whatever is next for me as a minister; let me tell you it feels like a terrifying wilderness. (Big Pause)
Oh Plymouth friends, we’ve certainly been taken by transformation these past few years. And like the disciples in our text this morning, we are tired, overwhelmed, confused. All while change marches on. So as we move into this Lenten season, a traditional time for pause and reflection, how do we honor what we have been through, knowing there is more to come? Can we find a middle way between stopping to build a grand monument and moving on as if nothing has happened? How do we support each other in our very human needs for rest and processing? I hope we take these questions with us into Lent and into our lives this week.
This is a practice that has actually helped me find a middle way, and I hope you’ll join me in it. I’ve learned it while being a part of a group reading through My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem. It is a body-centered approach to healing racialized trauma and working for racial justice. And it feels especially appropriate to check in with our bodies, when we are together in this space after once again having time apart.
So, if you are here in the Plymouth building with me or at home watching the livestream, get comfortable, close your eyes if it will help, and turn your focus inward. What’s it like in your body? Are there places that feel constricted? Places that feel especially open? Does anything feel hot or cold? Is that different from before you entered the building or began this service? As as you notice those things, I invite you to just offer some loving attention to those places that are calling your attention. To be together again, or witnessing some of us be together again is a big thing and paying attention to how our bodies are responding will help us manage that experience.
[i] One of my goals for this sermon is to write simply, keep it short, and to keep my transitions really clear. There are times when I love being artful and cramming everything in.But one of the tenets of trauma-informed anything is to keep speeches short and simple. When brains are processing trauma, we don’t have as much capacity to process other things. And if there is anything that draws us all together right now as a people, it is that we are metabolizing a new global trauma and coming to a more public grips with many of the global traumas already present: inequality, institutional racism and authoritarianism. I’m going to try to use footnotes for the things that I am cutting in order to keep the spoken part more simplified and streamlined. Having now shared this sermon, I am even less convinced that I did this well.
[ii] I don’t think I would have said it when I first started as a leader, but I am convinced now that being able to offer a real apology - that acknowledges harm and makes plans for how to reduce harm in the future and make restitution- is a crucial skill for any organization.
[iii] I just had a vision as G-d the angry mom trying to back up her son. Like I have had to do on the playground at times, or want to but know it won’t necessarily be effective. I’ve never thought of the pull of “have to let them fight their own battles” as being a divine challenge before.
[iv] The Greek word in use here is the root word of metamorphosis or transformation. It’s in the Latin Vulgate that the word becomes the Latin word for “transfigure,” to make the claim that the core of who Jesus was stayed the same. That’s an interesting translation piece meditate on in a sermon, but there was not enough space here.
The Rev. Laura Nelson was most recently the president of the Fort Collins Interfaith Council and is a member of Plymouth. She was ordained here on September 22, 2019.