Gradual Transfigurations: Sermon for February 26, 2017

My favorite books of all time are the Harry Potter books. I was an adult when they came out, and at first the idea of reading books that were written for children held no appeal. But over time everyone kept saying to me, “You’ve just got to read these books…they’re amazing!”

So I gave them a shot, and I thought they were pretty amazing too. I tore through all of the books that were out at the time, and then I went at midnight on the release dates for the rest of them, just waiting for the moment I could get the next part of the story.

rehost-2016-9-13-4685a819-e442-4e36-af5b-9c8c42bfbf00One of my favorite characters is a teacher at the school Harry attends named “Professor McGonagall”. She is brilliant and stern, yet deeply courageous, and she teaches a subject called “Transfiguration”. Transfiguration is a class all the students take, where they learn to change one thing into another, like a mouse into a tea cup or a match into a needle. McGonagall was so skilled at this, in fact, that she could transfigure herself from a human to a cat and back again.

They’re such great books. But…Jesus never went to Hogwarts. So you might be wondering, “What does any of this have to do with church?” Well, maybe not much, except for this: the only two places in my life I ever recall hearing the word “transfiguration” are in church and in Harry Potter.

Once a year, on the last Sunday before Lent starts, we observe “Transfiguration Sunday”, and we read this story. Jesus goes up to the top of the mountain with three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John. And when he gets to the top, Scripture tells us that he was “transfigured”, and his face “shined like the sun” and his clothes were “dazzling white”. And then, Moses and Elijah, two guys from centuries back, appear too. And a voice booms out from nowhere and says, “this is my son, the beloved…listen to him.”

Peter, James and John, understandably, were a little dumbstruck. At my seminary there was a wooden carving of this moment that showed the faces of the three, and what I remember the most is that the eyes were wide open like this.

Fair. Mine would have been too.

The disciples are, understandably, scared to death. They are on the ground, terrified, but Jesus puts his hand on them and says this: “Get up. Don’t be afraid.”

When they get up Moses and Elijah and the booming voice are all gone, and the whole group starts walking back down the mountain. But, one more thing, says Jesus, “don’t tell anyone about this until after I’m raised from the dead”.

Now, had I been up on that mountain, and had I seen Jesus go all glowy, hanging out with Moses and Elijah, with what was probably the voice of God talking to me, I would have had some questions. I would have at least wanted to check in with the others who were up there to make sure we’d all seen the same thing. I’d need to process this. But apparently the three guys came down and didn’t say a word to anyone else.

But they knew. They had literally just had a mountain-top experience, and now they knew that Jesus was even more unusual and amazing than they had thought. And they were supposed to just go back to the world and live their life like nothing had happened.

But something had happened. And they had been changed.

I wonder what their lives were like in the days and weeks that followed. I wonder how they reconciled what they had seen with their everyday lives. I wonder if they wondered why Jesus hadn’t let them tell the world. It would have been a whole lot easier for them if he had.

But sometimes when we are changed, our world isn’t. And that can feel unbearable. It can even make us forget what we have seen, and try to just go back to the way things have always been.


John Newton

There’s a story about a man named John Newton. In the 1700’s he was a captain of ships that brought enslaved people from Africa to America. He was deeply complicit in the evil of slavery. But one night in 1748 his ship was caught in a bad storm, and it started with water. He was about to die. But he called out to God, and some cargo shifted in the hull, plugging the holes, and saving the crew.

From that point on he was a changed man. He became devoutly religious. He even wrote a hymn that we still sing today: Amazing Grace. He gave us swearing, stopped drinking, and didn’t gamble again. He had been to the mountaintop, just like Peter, John and James, and he had been changed.

But, here’s the curious part…he didn’t stop being involved in the slave trade. Maybe it was fact that he was living in a world where most still thought this was acceptable. Maybe he didn’t know how to get out. Maybe he didn’t really understand yet the evil he was committing. For whatever reason, he didn’t stop for a few more years. And even after that, he was silent. In fact, it took him 34 years after leaving the slave trade to finally speak out and become a full-fledged abolitionist. That’s 34 years of being complicit.

When we sing his first lines, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me” we can understand in a real way that he got to a point where he realized what he had done, and he truly repented, and he truly changed. But as much as that life or death experience had changed him, that conversion didn’t come right away, and it didn’t come soon enough.

Peter knew what that was like too. He had seen the Transfiguration of Jesus. And Peter had been changed. Truth be told, it wasn’t Jesus who was changed so much in the Transfiguration. It was Peter. Jesus was just shown more clearly than ever. He was simply revealed as holy, and the son of God. But Peter, James, and John…they got to see it. And they were changed because of it. And even thought Jesus told them not to tell anyone, they could never be the same again.

Even still, it took Peter to really get it. In fact, when the stakes were highest, Peter didn’t stick by this son of God he had seen glowing on the mountain top. Instead, on the night before Jesus is killed, Peter runs away when the authorities come and he denies even knowing Jesus. Not just once, but three times.

Transfiguration is hard. I don’t mean the transfiguration of Jesus. I mean the transfiguration of ourselves. We see the truth, and like Newton yet we drag our feet and don’t do what is right. Like Peter we see God’s glory, and we run away. We see something that changes us right down to our core, and is scares us to death.

Jesus knew that would happen, though. He knew it when Peter, James, and John were lying on the top of that mountain, terrified. He knew it when he reached down, and touched them, and said “get up…and don’t be afraid.”

I think that one of the reasons so many people love the Harry Potter books is because they are about seeing the truth, telling the truth, and responding to the truth with courage. They’re about getting up…even when you are afraid. And, at their core, they are about being changed for the better. They’re about being transfigured.

Maybe it isn’t such a coincidence that “transfiguration” is found in these two places: Holy Scripture and Harry Potter. Maybe it’s a word that only fits when nothing less than life-changing transformation, the kind that will ultimately demand courage from you, will do.

Peter ran away. But that’s not the last of his story.

In the Gospels Peter is right there after Jesus is resurrected. He’s there as the early church is built. His very name, Peter, is taken from the word “rock” or “petros”, and as Jesus says, Peter himself becomes the “rock” upon which the church is built. In fact, in the end Peter is courageous even onto death, ultimately becoming a martyr of the faith and a saint.

It was a long journey from that mountaintop to sainthood, though. And for those of us who have not yet achieved sainthood, it will likely be even longer.

And so here’s where Jesus’ words ring true: Get up, and don’t be afraid.

We have all likely experienced God’s grace or love at some point in your life. The transfiguration of our hearts has been begun. But sometimes it goes so slow. And sometimes it demands from us more than we are comfortable giving.

But go ahead and take that next step anyway. Be transfigured. And get up, and don’t be afraid. Amen?

One thought on “Gradual Transfigurations: Sermon for February 26, 2017

  1. Emily, you preached this sermon on the day my father died at the age of 97. He was a lover of the earth, of peace and justice, and he would have loved to hear you preach. Even in the last years of his life, he was open to learning and to new ideas. One song we won’t be singing at his memorial service is “Amazing Grace.” It’s so overdone, and automatically thought of by people who have no connection to the church. Instead, we will sing “This is My Song,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and Kate Wolf’s “Give Yourself to Love.”

    Thank you so much for your messages of love and hope.

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