Monday, March 3, 2014

Transfiguration, or How to Become Totally Awesome

A sermon preached at St. Andrew's On-the-Sound Episcopal Church in Wilmington, NC on March 2, 2014.  The texts were 2 Peter 1:16-21 and Matthew 17:1-9.


Since stories seem to make the world go ‘round, allow me to tell you one of my favorites:  A long time ago, in a village far, far away, a shady and troublesome young man fell in love with a pure and beautiful young woman.  But taking one look in the mirror, he became all too convinced of his unworthiness, his low self-worth, his wickedness.  In order to just get closer to this beautiful women, he rummaged around in a church basement and found a mask of a saint.  He hoped this mask would prevent the woman from seeing who he truly was.  The ruse worked, and he began to spend time with her, courting her, learning to love her truly and deeply.  She saw the face of the saint and was fooled into believing that he was holy.  As he spent more time with her, some of the unsavory friends he left behind became jealous.  In a public market, his friends approached and loudly announced that the young man was wearing a mask, and that he was really no better than a dog.  Offended, the young woman asked him to remove the mask.  With great fear and trepidation, he unfastened the mask and pulled it off.  The young woman looked stunned, confused…unsure of what was going on.  So too did his friends.  Rushing to a mirror, the young man was stunned himself.  No longer filthy, or unworthy, his face had become the very face of the saint he was pretending to be.  He had been transformed into something new.

I first heard this story in a class studying liturgy.  My professor used it as an analogy to explain what happens to us as we participate in liturgy, receive the sacrament of the Eucharist, and seek to live lives of peace, grace, and mercy in the world.  The more we bathe ourselves in Scripture, the more we resist sinful impulses, the more we eat and drink the body and blood of Christ…something happens within us.  Something we may not be aware of.  Something that may take some time to be revealed.  But, when all’s said and done, we realize that we are becoming more and more like Jesus.  At least, that’s the hope.

But it’s not just a hope for me.  It’s a conviction.  I’ve been at St. Andrew’s for nearly 8 months now.  If you’ve been listening to me preach, you might have noticed some recurring themes.  One of them is this conviction: everyone in this room, in fact everyone in the world, has been redeemed by the saving work of Christ and has within them the possibility to become more and more a mirror image of Jesus Christ.  For me, this isn’t theoretical.  This isn’t ivory-tower, classroom theology.  I’ve seen this in my own life.  Like the young man from the story, I have some checkers in my past.  It’s not too checkered, but checkered enough for me to realize just how far Christ has brought me in my journey of faith.  To be sure, I’ve still got some kinks to work out.  I’m all too aware of my flaws.  But in spite of my flaws and imperfections, I can see within myself the transformation from a troubled young man into someone that aspires to live a holy life.  Aspires.  I’m not completely transformed yet, but I’m on my way.  Thanks be to God.

And in this journey of faith towards living a transformed life, the Transfiguration of Jesus stands as a beacon of light for me in what sometimes feels like a journey through darkness in a cracked and water-less desert.  You know, some preachers don’t title their sermons.  But I do.  And today’s title is “Transfiguration, or How To Become Totally Awesome.”  Awesome is one of those words that is grossly overused.  In one breath, we may look at a sunset, illuminating white clouds into a beautiful cascade of colors and say, “That’s awesome.”  In the next breath, we may look at a large, piping hot slice of pepperoni pizza and say, “That’s awesome.”  Maybe you don’t, but I think hot pepperoni pizza is awesome!  But if what awesome truly means is something that inspires an overwhelming sense of reverence or admiration, it’s totally appropriate to think about the way Jesus turns our rough and coarse humanity into something beautiful and brilliant and shout, “That’s awesome!” Reflecting on his own personal experience of seeing the Transfiguration of Jesus, Peter lays out the story for his hearers in our epistle today and says, “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns, and the morning star rises in your hearts.” 

“Until the day dawns, and the morning star rises in your hearts.” While it’s true that the Transfiguration of Jesus served as a revelation of his identity as the beloved Son of God, it is equally about what redeemed and exalted humanity looks like.  We would do well not to forget that the Church confesses that Jesus is fully divine and fully human.  So if we want to catch the vision of what fully redeemed and transformed humanity looks like, we only need to look to the Transfigured Jesus.  And so on that mountain, his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.  Not just in his divinity.  This wasn’t just a spiritual vision.  The disciples with him saw the same human flesh they had suddenly become enlightened and glorified in a way that they had never experienced.  In this story, we get a glimpse of what humanity is meant to look like, is meant to be.  And it is absolutely, stunningly beautiful.  Like Jesus, and because of Jesus, our faces can shine like the sun, and we can be bathed in a glorious light.  Call me an optimist about the human condition, but I’m an optimist because God was, is, and ever shall be the greatest optimist.

Friends, I preach the way I do because I believe I have to.  I preach about transformation and becoming holy because I truly believe it is possible.  Someone remarked to me that ‘holy’ may actually be an empty word in this age.  So, allow me to fill it with one of my favorite passages of Scripture, also from 2 Peter: “His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants in the divine nature.” We’re flooded every day with images humanity ravaged, warring against each other, divided by prejudice and judgment.  But in spite of all of those things, I remain eternally optimistic and convinced that we really can share in the brilliant glory of Jesus Christ made manifest on that mountain of Transfiguration.  If I didn’t believe it, I suppose I should be doing something other than preaching.

When the disciples saw the Transfigured Jesus and heard the voice of God, they were filled with fear and fell the ground.  All around us we see people with their faces to the ground, fallen down because of fear, hatred, oppression, a low sense of self-worth, and all manner of things that would keep them down.  Perhaps some of us here today remain convinced that our place is on the ground, down below, fallen creatures with no hope of true redemption.  But Jesus couldn’t abide his disciples remaining on the ground in fear.  “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid’.” In some way, that is my hope and prayer for those who come to this Altar and receive the body and blood of Christ.  My hope and prayer is that everyone in this place can realize their absolutely stunning beauty as redeemed and transformed sons and daughter of God.  That you would feel Jesus’ hand on you, lifting you from the dust.  That you would hear his voice say to you, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’

That’s why I preach.  Because Jesus invites us to take a place next to him.  Just as he was Transfigured, so too are we.  He has made all things new.  And that includes you and me.

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