The following remarks were delivered by Executive Director, Jennifer Copeland, on Sunday, February 23 at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York focusing on Matthew 17: 1-9.
From the Gospel of Matthew, we have come to expect very important events whenever mountains are in the story. Today’s reading does not disappoint, but first we need to pay attention to what happened right before this midnight hike.
6 days before this mountain climbing expedition, Jesus gave a pop quiz: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Everybody had an answer—John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah. None of them were right. So, Jesus makes it easier, “But who do you say that I am?” This time they give the right answer—“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” For the next six days, Jesus goes matter-of-factly about the business of explaining how it is with the Messiah, the Son of the Living God—how he “must go to Jerusalem,” “undergo great suffering . . . be killed . . . and on the third day be raised.” And then at the end of 6 days of this mind-boggling information, they go hiking up the mountain where we find ourselves this evening.
The scene described here, The Transfiguration, is not a figment of the imagination. It’s not a dream conjured during REM sleep cycles. It’s actually a crack in time, a glimpse of Jesus’ resurrected glory granted prior to even the crucifixion. He’s not even dead yet and we see how it’s going to be when he’s resurrected.
We are at the crux of the matter here, the end of the season of Epiphany, the weeks when we discover and understand who Jesus is. The drama has unfolded slowly but surely, bringing us to the climactic moment when we stand with Peter and James and John on the mountain and receive the unequivocal pronouncement, “This is my Son . . . listen to him.”
For Peter and James and John, words cannot describe what they experienced that night on the “high mountain.” But words are all they had, so they told of “dazzling white cloths” and a face that “shone like the sun.” That doesn’t happen, we think to ourselves. People don’t start glowing right before our very eyes.
The truth is they do. We’ve all had experiences like the one these disciples had, we just didn’t call it transfiguration. Think of falling in love, especially the first time you really fall in love. Not the preadolescent crush or the distant pining for somebody you’re never even going to meet. I’m talking about head over heels, weak in the knees, falling in love. There’s a reason they call it “falling.” When we fall in love, the object of our love glows before our very eyes. We don’t have words to capture how we feel about this other person. We often say things that sound irrational or impossible to our family and friends, who don’t see them glowing before their very eyes. But we do.
I’m told when you fall in love like that—real love for the first time—something chemical happens in your brain that stays embedded in your memory. For the rest of your life you can reclaim the feelings by remembering the experience. Reclaiming the feeling will help you survive many a lover’s quarrel. It can also be a memory that lives long after the lover’s image has passed from your life. You never forget your first love; this might be why.
There are other mountain top experiences that defy words. Winning a National Championship—in hockey, I mean, not basketball. We’ve won a few in basketball, down in Durham, so I can relate to what it’s like. “Awesome Baby!” doesn’t quite capture it, nor do any other words. It’s an experience even while we struggle to find words to describe it.
Maybe you’ve even had a religious experience that warrants mountain top status. Trying to describe it sounds ridiculous. We fall back on metaphors from nature or illustrations from literature, but you can’t tell anybody what it feels like to know that God knows you. John Wesley, founder of my denomination, said: “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” Not exactly headline grabbing commentary, is it?
Falling in love, winning national championships, sensing God—all of these mountain top experiences are crucial to our lives because they carry us through the normal times. Normal is good, but in the midst of normal we rarely pay attention:
- another regular season game tomorrow night—who do we play again? Oh Harvard.
- another first date this weekend—what’s his name again?
- another worship service—what are the songs this week?
In the midst of normal, we need glimpses of the spectacular. We need to believe in the culmination of all this living and loving and playing. Peter and James and John see it in this moment.
They see, not only Jesus as he will be post-resurrection, but they see the world as it is in reflected in God’s eye. From the beginning of time God has always seen us in all our perfection. God has always seen the world as God created it to be. I’m not talking about some mythological return to the Garden of Eden. I’m talking about the faith claim that God is already present in the perfection that awaits us. God already sees what we will become in the fullness of time. God already sees the world at the end of the justice arc we are struggling to bend.
Every once in a while, we get to see it too, like Peter and James and John on the mountain top that night. Yes, we have miles to travel before we can expect to see results, but if we can begin to recognize the transfiguration moments in our lives, we can travel those miles. I’d suggest to you that like falling in love, transfiguration moments are all around us.
Consider the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I bet you didn’t know that was the rest of the title because we usually just stop with March on Washington. But they were there for a specific purpose—jobs and freedom. While there, the marchers were treated to a glimpse of what freedom looks like in God’s eye. It came primarily through the words of the preacher when he proclaimed:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
The people gathered that day could see it. For just a moment there was a glimpse of the world through God’s eye. Parts of it were closer than they thought. Less than one year later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, a law prohibiting discrimination in the work place. Remember, they were there for jobs and freedom and while we have a long way to go on both of those fronts, the Civil Rights Act was an enactment of that glimpse they saw on one hot August afternoon.
Closer to home and more contemporary for us is the conversation in our country right now about gun violence prevention. I’ve been engaged in this work for a long time, trying to tell the truth about where gun deaths happen and why. And I have to say, I haven’t seen much forward progress. If anything, we’d been going backward. And then the shooting occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
We’d had school shootings and mass shootings before, which, by the way, are less than one percent of gun deaths in this country. More people are killed unintentionally by guns than are killed in mass shootings. But in spite of its seemingly statistical insignificance, the shooting in Parkland ignited something through the students of that school that has caught fire and called attention to one of the most serious public health crises in this country.
Those students and others like them who have raised their voices give us a glimpse of what a future safe from gun violence could look like. What safety can look like through God’s eye. There’s no federal law yet, but people are talking about it and there has been some local and state progress. Now we can glimpse what is possible.
A few years ago I was invited to talk to a group of 6th graders who were preparing to travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with their congressional representative and talk about gun violence. They asked me, “What is the most important thing we should say to him?” I replied, “Tell him that in 6 years you’ll be old enough to vote and you plan to vote for somebody who promises to write legislation for good gun laws.” That was three years ago, so those students are halfway there. Many of the students who traveled the country after Parkland are old enough to vote this November. And all of you are old enough to vote. Right?
What is the glimpse you can see of the future you want to have? What does it look like in God’s eye and what will it take for us to get there? What are the stories we can tell ourselves to keep hope alive?
King preached, “I have a dream where my children won’t be judged until their qualities are known.” All of us who come from a place of minority status could say that. Too old, too young, not smart enough. How many times are we told we can’t do something when we know we can. King gave us all a glimpse of what we can do and what it will look like when we do it.
The Parkland students promised to take their cause to the ballot box. Some of them are not yet old enough to vote, but they gave us a glimpse of what it will look like when they can vote. How can we live each day as if we already have the future we want?
The next time we gather for worship, the season will have changed to Lent. In those 40 days, Jesus will turn the concept of saving and losing life on its head by using oxymorons like:
- the one who loses life will find it;
- those to whom much is given, from them will much be required.
The would-be follower of Jesus will adopt a different world view, a view that abandons the language of profit and forfeiture in exchange for language about self-denial and cross-bearing. We can’t do that if we don’t know where we’re going. And starting next Wed, we’re going through Lent.
Before we stride into that truth, we pause here on the top of the mountain with Peter and James and John and we witness a split in time, a crack into the future, a vision of Easter granted on the eve of Lent. The truth of the resurrection seeps into our lives while we are still dazed and confused by the events of the transfiguration. Even though the vision was magnificent—beyond words, our ears ring most loudly with the words from the cloud, “Listen to him.” We know that our glimpse into the future is meaningless without our obedient listening. Listen to his teaching. Listen to his proclamation. Listen to his life. See the world through God’s eye. Listen to him. Thanks be to God. Amen.