Sunday, February 03, 2008

Transfiguration: A Preview

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
February 3, 2008
Year A: The Last Sunday after Epiphany

Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2
Matthew 17:1-9

Transfiguration: A Preview

Today’s gospel offers us the familiar, mysterious story of the Transfiguration. It’s a brief story with some quick, powerful, vivid images. Jesus with three of his disciples up on the mountain. The face of Jesus shining like the sun – his clothes dazzling white. Elijah and Moses appearing. Peter very sensibly suggesting they memorialize this big day. And then, as if all this weren’t enough, the voice of God declares “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
There is a lot going on here – and it’s hard to make sense of it all – it all happens so quickly. As I’ve thought about it I’ve come to realize that the Transfiguration is not so important on its own. In fact, the Transfiguration is really kind of like a movie preview. The Transfiguration just gives a glimpse, just a taste, of what’s to come.

Now, if you still go to the movies you know that previews have gotten kind of long – and most of the time they pretty much tell the whole story of the movie – or at least show most of the best, or funniest, parts. The Transfiguration isn’t that kind of a sneak preview. Bear with me, but the Transfiguration is actually a little bit like the preview for the new Star Trek movie.

Yes, Star Trek. I don’t know if any of you are Star Trek fans. Or if any of you will admit that you’re a Star Trek fan! I’ll admit that I’ve been since I was a kid – not quite a put on pointy ears and go to a Star Trek convention kind of fan – but I was an eat my dinner in front of the little black and white TV and watch Star Trek reruns kind of fan. Anyway, in December a new Star Trek movie with new actors playing Kirk and Spock and the rest will be coming out.

And a few weeks ago they started showing the preview. The whole thing lasts less than a minute. It starts out with a shot of a welder at work and then there are shots of what looks like some kind of metal and odd angles and then at the very end there is a glimpse of the familiar starship Enterprise and we realize we’ve been watching the ship being built. And across the screen flash the words “Under Construction.” OK, I admit to having watched it a few times online. And I admit that it’s a very effective preview – I can’t wait to find out more about the movie and to see it in December.

Transfiguration - a sneak preview. Just a glimpse. Just a taste. A preview of what’s to come. Under construction. Transfiguration.

Just as we’re about to begin Lent, the Transfiguration is a preview of the glory of Easter. It’s a preview of the glory of resurrection. It’s a preview of the glory of Heaven. Transfiguration is a last little alleluia before we enter a season of penance and sacrifice and later the great joy of Easter. It’s a preview – we can’t see the whole picture yet. It’s just a glimpse of what’s under construction for Jesus and a glimpse of what’s under construction for all of us.

The Transfiguration is also a call for us to pay attention. It’s a call to mindfulness. Just as I’ve carefully studied that Star Trek preview over and over to pick up clues about the movie, we are all called to pay close attention so that we don’t miss the glimpses, the previews of the glory that is to come.

I’ve noticed that very often these glimpses, these previews of glory, happen in the midst of suffering. Maybe God knows that’s when we need the encouragement – it’s when we need the hope. The evangelist Matthew seems to understand this. He places his Transfiguration account right in the middle of a bleak part of his gospel. Matthew reports that the Pharisees and the scribes continually try to trick Jesus with their questions. They are trying to figure out how to get rid of the troublesome rabbi. And Jesus himself has begun to predict his own death – to the shock and dismay of his disciples. Jesus has told them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Yes, for Jesus and his followers the storm clouds are gathering on the horizon. The realization is sinking in that Jesus’ ministry is going to cost him and cost his followers a great deal. And it’s at this time of anxiety and fear that Jesus, Peter, James and John have this mountaintop experience. It’s at this time of anxiety and fear that they get a preview of the glory that is to come.

Of course, the Transfiguration doesn’t make all the bad stuff go away. Even there on the mountain Jesus has to say to the disciples, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And we know all the suffering that Jesus and his followers had yet to face. But in the midst of anxiety and fear and suffering the Transfiguration is a glimpse, a preview of what’s come.

Some of you know that everyone who hopes to be ordained spends time training as a chaplain – usually in a hospital. It’s called Clinical Pastoral Education – CPE. IT was the most intense and most valuable part of my whole seminary experience. I did CPE at Christ Hospital in Jersey City for most of one summer. Talk about a time of anxiety and fear! I was anxious working in a hospital with surrounded by sick and sometimes dying people – people who were looking to me for comfort, hope and sometimes unfortunately even looking to me for answers. I was anxious and afraid. And, of course, many of the patients, their family and friends were anxious.

And yet in the midst of all that anxiety and fear when I prayed and paid attention I was able to experience some real Transfiguration moments. I was able to glimpse the glory of God. I was able to get just a taste of what awaits us. I was able to see what God has under construction for all of us.

I remember an old woman in the hospital who was dying. It wasn’t a good death; the doctors were trying to keep her alive and so she was enduring a lot of suffering. I visited her day after day – often she was confused and would speak nonsense. But one time her eyes cleared, she looked at me intently and I’ll never forget what she said. She looked at me like it was the most important thing she ever said, and she whispered, “I never knew I could love my children so much.”

There was another patient, a woman, about my age. She had clawed her way out of desperate poverty in Jersey City, gone to college, gotten a good job, and then was diagnosed with breast cancer that despite all the treatments was spreading throughout her body. She was one of the people the nurses called “frequent fliers” – she was in and out of the hospital all the time. I talked to her for many hours. She was skeletal and in great pain. Her family was mean and uncaring. She had every reason in the world to be angry and bitter. And yet this woman who had so much suffering and anxiety and fear once said to me that she used to ask God “why me? And then when I saw all the other sick people in the hospital after a while I began to ask God, why not me?”

There are other stories I could tell you, but my experience in Christ Hospital with those two women has stayed with me. In a time of fear and anxiety through them I was able to glimpse God’s glory – to get a preview of what God has under construction for all of us. I was able to glimpse the power to love more than we could ever imagine. I was able to glimpse such humility that in the midst of great suffering asks why not me?

I don’t need to tell you that we live in a time of great anxiety and fear. The problems of our world sometimes – maybe usually - seem insurmountable: The desperate poverty, the polluted environment, the widespread hatred and violence. Many of us are concerned about the economy. In conversations around church I’ve come to understand just how fragile finances are for many of us.

And, of course, the church isn’t immune to anxiety and fear. During the weekday services we read all the names on the parish prayer list. It’s a long list. And each time it reminds me just how much suffering and anxiety there is here in our community. And, although this is the healthiest church I’ve ever been part of, at last week’s parish meeting we acknowledged a dip in attendance and financial concerns. And regardless of finances the start of a building project is always a time of anxiety.

And so just as Jesus went to the mountain to pray this is a time for us to pray. This is a time for us to pay attention. This is a call to mindfulness.
And if we pray, if we pay attention, if we are mindful, I believe – I know – that we will glimpse our own transfiguration. If we look around, if we keep our eyes and ears open, we will see a preview of the glory that God has under construction.