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