February 23, 2020
Today is considered “Transfiguration Sunday” in the Christian liturgical year, but it’s not a day we get too excited about – Other than it’s the Sunday before Lent begins. We call it “Transfiguration Sunday” because Jesus has an encounter on a mountaintop with God, and Elijah and Moses show up, and he is “transfigured.” Well, his face was shining and his clothes turned white. We read Matthew’s account of it in today’s Responsive Reading.
All these years, and I’ve never understood the difference between “Transfigured” and “transformed.” Thanks to Google, now I (sort of) do. Here goes: Transfigured seems to suggest turning into something more beautiful, elevated, luminous. Transformed can work either way. At least that’s the difference I understood – So a caterpillar is transfigured, but can also be transformed, into a butterfly, but the sour cream living in the back of your fridge purchased 6 months ago for a recipe is transformed into something green and furry. It is not transfigured into something green and furry. English majors and linguists, have at it, because I very well may be wrong here.
Today’s scripture is from the Hebrew Scripture and it describes Moses’ time with God, also on a mountaintop. Moses has helped the people escape the pharaoh who was enslaving them, and they’ve huddled in the wilderness, wondering “what now?” And, people being people, especially under stress, they aren’t getting along so well. Lots of whining, complaining, bickering.
So Moses heads – or, perhaps, escapes, to the mountaintop, because God was calling him – And not a moment too soon, before he lost his patience with these people he’s supposedly in charge of. Listen for a word from God, from Exodus 24:12-18:
The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there. I’ll give you the stone tablets with the instructions and the commandments that I’ve written in order to teach them. So Moses and his assistant Joshua got up, and Moses went up God’s mountain. Moses had said to the elders, “wait for us here until we come back to you. Aaron and Hur will be here with you. Whoever has a legal dispute may go to them. Then Moses went up the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The Lord’s glorious presence settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from the cloud. To the Israelites, the Lord’s glorious presence looked like a blazing fire on top of the mountain. Moses entered the cloud and went up the mountain. Moses stayed on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
May God bless our hearing and our understanding of this word.
Put these two passages side by side, and we hear of how life-changing certain moments can be. The two disciples witnessed what happened to Jesus, and it changed them. Moses was alone with God, and he too was changed by that encounter. There are moments in our lives that are critical, as Robert Frost says of the road not taken, “And that has made all the difference.”
If I were to ask about the life-changing moments in your lives, everyone would have something to share, something probably momentous, that divides your life into “before,” and “after.” A death of someone dear to us certainly cleaves time into a harsh almost unbearable “before,” and “after.” The birth of a baby. A divorce, a new job. Everyone can point to those big moments when everything changed, that changed you.
But other times, we only recognize them in looking back, and recognizing the effect that moment had on our journey, on who we became, on how we live in the world, in who we are today. Jesus and the disciples spent mere minutes in the presence of the glory of God; Moses waited 6 days for God to show up, and then spent the next 40 wrapped in the glorious presence of God. And they were changed, transfigured, transformed.
What if you put aside the big moments of your life. Put aside the births and deaths, the weddings and funerals, the moment of diagnosis, all the obvious life-changing moments. And instead, see if there is a smaller, maybe overlooked moment in your life where things changed, where – whether you knew it or not – you were in the presence of God’s love, when something just started to “click.”
I’m reading a book called “One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America,” by journalist Gene Weingarten. The randomly selected day was December 28, 1986. Anyone remember what was going on that day in your life? He says his heart fell when that was the randomly selected date. It was a Sunday – a very slow news day. It was the week between Christmas and New Year’s – an extremely slow news week. Great, he wondered, project doomed for failure before he’s even begun.
Except, he dug deeper. Deeper still. And what he discovered, the fly-leaf of the book says, “raises this question: Is there even such a thing as “ordinary” when we all lurch and stumble our way through the daily daunting shared challenge of being human?” When I read the story of Jesus transfigured by God, and the story of Moses’ encounter with God, alongside this book, I realized that any moment in our lives has the potential to be infused with God’s grace. Which means every moment in our lives is brimming with God’s grace. And we are transformed, and hopefully transfigured. And our biology shows us just how impossibly true this is.
Dr. Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine coined a phrase several years ago that I love: Interpersonal Neurobiology. Interpersonal: That is, between people. Neuro: that is, having to do with the brain. Biology: the stubgendfsdy of living organisms. Interpersonal neuro-biology studies how our what happens inside us and outside us both shape who we are becoming. We are always being changed, by what happens to us, by the interactions we have, our relationships, what we tell ourselves. Because our brains are quite pliable. every moment has the potential to deepen old habits or grow new connections. And so an ordinary day is far from ordinary, for anyone.
As Gene Weingarten begins his research into the events of December 28, 1986, he happens to mention the date to the person who’s been cutting his hair forever, named Sheila. And apparently, she smiled, and told him she knew exactly what she was doing that day, and she knew exactly how it was the tiniest pin-prick of a new possibility for her, because that day, she had a new thought.
She had just turned 22, and every single person in her life had let her down. She learned everyone had an agenda, everyone had to look out for themselves, because everyone was only looking out for themselves. That particular day, she was an inmate, in prison, at the women’s correctional facility in Jessup, here in Maryland. On that Sunday in December, her family showed up to visit her – Her mother, her paternal grandfather, her maternal grandparents, and her little boy, William, aged 5.
In that visiting room, making small talk, her mother mentioned these strange ladies who stopped by Christmas Day to give 5-year-old William two Christmas presents, one of which was a nice sweater. Didn’t want anything in return, didn’t leave their names, just handed over the presents and left. And then Sheila remembered these two women had visited the prison before Thanksgiving. They claimed to be from a charity organization that made sure children whose parents were in prison still got Christmas presents. And when they asked Sheila what her favorite brand was, she replied, in her huffy way of “yeah, right,” and “I’ll show you fancy-pants I’m just as fancy as you,” “Ralph Lauren.” Sure enough, the sweater her little boy was wearing was by Ralph Lauren.
Remember, it is now 30 years later. A long-time customer tosses off this random date, and not only does Sheila remember the date, she remembers “December 28, 1986 (was) the first date in her young, reprobate, passionately cynical life that she understood that even among strangers… there can be such a thing as unconditional kindness.” (p 16) Nothing changed overnight. But it was the day that the tiniest little spark of a new way of seeing the world broke into her heart.
Betsy Kuhns and Natalie Beal were sharing in Sunday School their mountaintop experiences at the Presbyterian Conference Center Montreat, in the mountains of North Carolina. And some days, I’m guessing, some of us – maybe most of us – wish God would call us to the mountain so we can leave all this behind and hang out in God’s gloriousness for a day – or forty. But what strikes me is that our day-to-day lives are infused with God’s glory. Yeah. I know. This life? Yes.
Peter Sagal reviewed this book “One Day” and said that he doesn’t want the heroic or tragic stories any more. He “just want(s) to know how life is lived. How other humans get things and lose things, and deal with both, how they cope and how they fail and how they live and how they die.”
And I think that’s why the juxtaposition of Moses & Jesus on the mountaintop, and the profound ordinariness of our everyday lives, caught my attention. Hopefully we have mountain top experiences, at least once or twice in our lives. But if we don’t, or we haven’t, maybe we are being invited to plumb the depths of what looks ordinary, and see what is there. Peter Sagal goes on, “The people described in this book are wonderful and flawed, some of them evil, some of them impossibly good, but none of them have lived the kind of lives that normally get told in books.”
Of course, we put Jesus on a pedestal, and assume we can be nothing like him. And even Moses can be hard to relate to – Such a great, great man who more or less stayed faithful to God even when God seemed far away, even when his own people turned on him, even when God invited him to the mountain, then sent him back down to a huge mess.
What if I were to ask you to share a tiny moment in the last week or so that you realize was infused with God’s grace. A tiny moment when your realize, you were in the presence of God’s gloriousness. What would you say? What comes to mind? Maybe write it down in your bulletin. Maybe say a quiet prayer of thanksgiving to God. Maybe, think about how this small moment invites you to share God’s gloriousness with the world, or the person sitting next to you.
My husband Paul came home from work on Friday, and started telling me about his day – It was a pretty intense day, including a very intense interaction when he had to have one of those “Come to Jesus” moments with a staff member. But this is how his day started. He was walking from his parking spot to his office, and it was before 7 in the morning, and he was passing by a police officer sitting in his car. Paul stopped to say to him, “My job is easy – It’s nothing like your job. You have one of the hardest jobs ever. I just want to thank you.”
Such a small, small moment, and Paul was telling me it was all because of spending time in Cambodia watching John, his brother-in-law, be so so kind to every single person he met. I mentioned it a couple of weeks ago, how John would buy bracelets from the little kids selling them and he gave money to anyone who asked. And it had a profound effect on Paul, who spent this past week actively looking for ways he could be kind, and grateful, and generous.
Did you come up with a moment this past week that touched your heart, or made you grateful, or opened your eyes to God’s grace? Some small moment of interaction that maybe invited you to think differently, act differently? If not, maybe go into this week intentionally watching for God’s grace. And if so, maybe go into this week actively looking for ways to be kind, and grateful, and generous.
Because Moses came down that mountaintop changed. So did the disciples, and apparently, so did Jesus. Jesus was transfigured into even more purely who he was, and Moses was given the strength and courage and fortitude to be the leader God called him to be. These small moments change us, over time, just as the Potomac River, over time, carves out the Great Falls, where I went hiking on Saturday. Every moment God is inviting us to wake up, and become more who we’re called to be: Disciples, sharing the saving love of God, in Christ.