by Ellen Sims
In my lifetime the Latin-rooted prefix “trans” (meaning across or beyond in words like transfiguration, transformation, transition, transcendence, even transgress)—has itself become a word. Like Jesus, who crossed boundaries his culture set in order to be true to his life’s calling, transgender persons cross social boundaries to be consistent with their God-given call and identity. Some negatively label such boundary crossing as transgression. Jesus certainly disturbed his contemporaries with his boundary crossing. But today’s story focuses on God’s affirmation of a bedazzled Jesus revealing his full identity to three trusted disciples.
For the past several Sundays we have heard Jesus bless the marginalized and disregarded while announcing the coming kin*dom of heaven to thousands who followed him up a mountain. The aim of that sermon was transformation of the kingdom of this world into the kin*dom of heaven, which lifts up the merciful, mournful, and meek, the poor, the pure in heart, the persecuted, and the peacemakers.
Today, the final Sunday before Lent, the lectionary leaps ahead twelve chapters in Matthew (we’ll double back later) to position us for the Easter story at the end of Lent. So today we journey with Jesus up another mountain (tradition says it was Mount Tabor) to reflect on the story of Jesus’s transfiguration. In this mountaintop experience, only three disciples joined Jesus in an ethereal encounter that parallels the story of Moses receiving ten commandments on another mountain. In fact, Moses (along with Elijah) appeared to Jesus, Peter, James, and John on this mountain, which is another way the writer of Matthew helps us see Jesus as the new Moses (a theme throughout Matthew).
You’ll recall that in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus challenged the people to be Light and live as if the kin*dom of heaven were already here because it IS already transforming and breaking into this world in bits and bursts of love and courage. In the Transfiguration on the Mount, the writer of Matthew challenges us to see a radiant Jesus as the Light. Whereas the Sermon on the Mount held out to Jesus’s listeners a vision of a kin*dom that was like a shining city on a hill, this transfiguration on a mount revealed Jesus himself as the shining Son of God, whose “face shone like the sun” and whose “clothes became dazzling white” (Mt.17:2).
Admittedly, this is a hard text for progressives, who prefer scriptures that are more, shall we say, down to earth. But this story of an exalted and temporarily physically transfigured Jesus on the mountain insists that although the world does not/will not esteem the meek and merciful, God will and God does. This story lets us hear God repeating Jesus’s baptismal blessing as recorded in Matthew 3:16-17: “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” In verse 5 of today’s text we hear God affirming Jesus in the same way: “While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.’” And this time the voice adds, “Listen to him!”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus announced the disciples were to be Light to the world. Remember? “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. . . Let your light shine before others.” The narrative has moved from the metaphor of Jesus’s followers becoming a shining city on a hill to Jesus himself transfiguring into the shining Son of God on the mountain. What do we make of this bizarre tale about two dead prophets joining three live disciples and a sparkling Jesus atop a mountain? How do progressive Christians approach such otherworldliness?
Transfiguration connotes substantive, dramatic change. Most changes of great consequence happen gradually and imperceptibly. (I want to use the word glacially, but sadly glaciers these days are changing at a much faster place.) Some changes we make intentionally or thoughtlessly or are forced upon us. Some changes are made by individuals and others as a group.
Can you think of time when Open Table experienced a change that was not expected or not chosen or planned for? How did that change/transform us? (One person in the congregation described Open Table’s move from a church we had rented space from that became an unsafe place for LGBTQ person—and how another church in Mobile offered us “safe sanctuary overnight.) Can you recall a time when Open Table carefully planned and chose to make a change and how that “transformed” us? (One person mentioned our careful process to move to the chapel of All Saint and our prayerful discernment process that resulted in the creation of what is now Prism United.)
Substantive change is never easy, but change always presents opportunity for something new to come into being. My retirement will be perhaps the biggest change Open Table has yet to face (and a major change in my life, too). We can approach this time of transition as an opportunity for transformation and personal spiritual growth, yes, but definitely as a communal experience, too.
The mountaintop vision of Moses and Elijah that included the voice from Heaven represents a communal experience of the sacred. Together Jesus and the three disciples found themselves on holy ground. The story says Jesus was physically transfigured, and it at this pivotal moment Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem” where he would soon be executed. But Peter, James, and John were changed, too, though perhaps their transfiguration was gradual and required them to “listen to [Jesus].” Jesus soon began a journey that would end in Jerusalem where he engaged the powers that be and as a result was crucified. Following Jesus on our individual paths and as part of Open Table’s journey may expose us to challenge.
As the Pastor Search and Call team moves forward in the process of seeking your next pastor, consider the way story telling may elucidate Open Table’s needs and hopes and strengthen our community. The transitioning process can be supported by storytelling to recall ways Open Table has dealt with change in our past and to anticipate what lies ahead. I want to give you the opportunity to tell stories so that folks who have joined us recently can feel included in our overarching story and so that we all can reflect on what those stories reveal about us. Story sharing may help clarify what you want and need in your next pastor, yes, but more importantly, can help us be more intentional about the kind of faith community you want Open Table to be.
“Learning to share our stories is central to our faith, integral to our growth together in community, and vital for doing the work of the common good” (1). Lent is a good time for us to share stories. I’m going to begin with a difficult story at our Ash Wednesday service. I challenge you to share powerful stories that reflect how you’ve experienced the presence of God at Open Table during Lent. Your story—told in 3-5 minutes—doesn’t have to include a dramatic mountaintop encounter with a bedazzled transJesus. It might simply describe something that exemplifies how Open Table is supporting your journey.
Interpreting our stories—-doing theological reflection together—-is a vital spiritual practice for a meaning-making community. Sharing our stories helps us process our experiences so that we can integrate them healthily into our lives.
A recent study conducted in Birmingham at UAB corroborates with scientific evidence the healthy effects of story telling. Nearly 300 African-American patients dealing with high blood pressure were given the choice of receiving the usual instruction or watching three videos of real patients telling their own stories of dealing with hypertension. Those who listened to stories had markedly better results. Although the researchers could identify no mechanism that caused the good results in those who listened to the stories of others, they suspect that the stories, told by peers, caused a greater willingness to change behaviors.
Sharing our Open Table stories will also help us go beyond capturing our vision of church to actually acting on that vision. Like Jesus and the disciples, we move down the mountain of transfiguration and out into the world to live a full-throttle life of meaning and love. Peter felt the presence of God so powerfully up on that mountain that his first thought was to build some sort of shelter or monument to the experience and stay up there. But Jesus explained they had to move on. Transfiguration is not an end in itself. We have to leave this place now to act in the world in ways that live out the vision we’ve received. We are called to engage the powers that be. We are called to love extravagantly. We are called to follow Jesus in ways that might trans-gress cultural boundaries.
Don’t expect transfiguration to be like an extreme makeover you’ve seen on a reality TV show. Don’t expect a transfiguration spell from Professor McGonagall at Hogwarts. Don’t expect to become someone you are not. The transfigured Jesus was still completely recognizable, but brighter, lighter, someone who had come into his own, who had found his truest calling, who knew he’d be accompanied by others in the process.
What mountain do you need to climb to get a better view of your life? Whom do you need to take with you? How might you then tell your story and so receive help interpreting it? How will you enact this vision?
PRAYER: Transfiguring God, open to us the doors of perception that reveal the deeper realities of life. Awaken us to wonder, beauty, depth, contrast, challenge – that lead to creative transformation—as individuals and as part of this congregation. Amen
(1) Finnegan-Hosey, David. Grace is a Pre-existing Condition: Faith, Systems, and Mental Healthcare (New York: Church Publishing, 2020), 99.