Texts: Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36
Every year around this time, you and I hike the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus and his friends. We do not linger long on the mountain before we head down into the long, tangled mess we call the season of Lent. Centuries before Jesus hiked the mountain, another mountain climber paved the way. In the text from Exodus today, Moses is on his second trip up the mountain, this time to get from God a non-breakable set of the Ten Commandments. In the text from Luke, Moses and the prophet Elijah join Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. In both stories, first Moses and then Jesus shine more brightly than your reflection in a mirror on the hottest summer day, and in each story, people around them are flummoxed, bewildered, wondering what to say and what to do next. Most preachers I know are not thrilled when Transfiguration Sunday rolls around. These two mountaintop stories read almost like cartoons. Honestly, what are reasonable, educated people to make of stories that feature glowing gowns and neon faces and ghosts from religious memory eating brunch with Jesus? Is it any wonder that we have lots of Christmas and Easter hymns from which to choose, but very few Transfiguration hymns and even fewer that refer to a literally radiant Moses and Jesus? Later this week, you and I may not like the ashes that will mark our foreheads, but at least Ash Wednesday is down to earth – literally. We can connect the dots between ashes and death and our own mortality. Over the past two years, we have seen enough death from this pandemic alone and now in the cities and countryside of Ukraine not to flinch at the Ash Wednesday refrain, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” But what possible sense do we make of two bright and shining, mountain climbing Jews? Well, if I am right, what shines in the face of Moses and later Jesus is not some mysterious, inexplicable inner light as if they were aliens that have landed on earth; what shines in their faces is the glory of God. As a kid, I learned the logical progression to glory. It goes something like this: you seek fame for recognition sake because recognition means celebrity status and celebrity status leads to glory. It seems logical enough, but it is about as phony and hollow as the idol Moses smashed in camp before he made his second hike up the mountain, as phony and hollow as Putin believing there is anything glorious about invading a sovereign land. Charles Schultz, the late quite popular artist of Peanuts fame, suggested an alternative theory about fame and glory. He would regularly test out his theory by giving two quizzes to any willing takers. Since I have a captive audience, I thought I would give it a try. Ready? 1. Name the ten wealthiest people in the world. 2. Name the last ten Heisman trophy winners. 3. Name the last ten people who won the Pulitzer prize.
So, how did you do? Schultz writes, “The point is, none of us remembers the headliners of yesterday. These are no second-rate achievers. They are the best in their fields. But the applause dies. Awards tarnish. Achievements are forgotten. Accolades and certificates are buried with their owners.” Now, for the second quiz. Ready? 1. List three teachers who inspired you to learn. 2. Name three friends who have been there for you in a difficult time. 3. Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile about life. 4. Name four people who have made you feel appreciated and valued. Schultz continues, “Easier? The lesson. The people who make a difference in your life are not [necessarily] the ones with the most credentials, the most money, or the most awards. They are the ones that care.” I would go beyond Schultz’s conclusion to say: “They are the ones whose faces shine, reflecting something of the glory of God.” One of the great prayers repeated throughout Scripture is not, “Lord, make me famous” or “Lord, make me filthy rich” or “Lord, make Einstein’s brilliance pale in comparison to mine.” No, the prayer that echoes from Genesis to Revelation is: “Lord, make your face to shine upon me.” Why this prayer? Hopefully, so that our faces can in some ways reflect the glory of our God and so that our lives that can be set free from idle pursuits and from pursuing idols, even American ones! On the Mount of Transfiguration, the disciples see Jesus as God sees Jesus, aglow with God’s life-giving grace. I love what Barbara Brown Taylor says about these texts, “The lives God is calling us to are the ones we are living right here, right now. Every night when we lie down to sleep, there is either more life in the world because of us or there is less life in the world because of us, and this remains true whether or not we have even seen a burning bush [and I would add, a transfigured Jesus]. Our purpose, for God’s sake is to increase the abundance of life in this world” (from Feb. 21, 2001 edition of Christian Century). Moses and Jesus each came down a mountain to increase the abundance of life in this world. What about us upon whom the transforming light of God’s grace has shined? “Over the years,” writes Adam Thomas, “our luminosity tends to fade. Every inhospitable word spoken, every neighbor mistreated and every resource hoarded layers grime over our radiance. Every hand unextended, every gift squandered and every road not taken leaves layers of apathetic dust. The world tells us that the radiant things out there are things we purchase: ‘When you wear the shiny stone or drive the shiny car, you will shine’. Too often we cede our light to the glossy detritus of the world and forget that we are the ones God made to shine” (Christian Century, Feb. 9, 2010, p. 18).
Some years ago, Jennell and I traveled to the Bronx where we had a glad reunion with two dear friends from my Seminary days who I will call VJ and Anna. After Seminary in Richmond, VJ and Anna returned India where VJ served large, booming congregations there. After a few years, they felt a call to return to the states. When they moved back to this country, VJ began to pastor a combined Lutheran-Reformed parish of two small congregations, one in New Jersey and the other in the Bronx, one composed mainly of Indian immigrants and the other German immigrants. These congregations had no children, few young people or even those who were middle-aged. In order to have enough people to worship on Sunday, VJ would take his van and pick up older members and then drive them home after morning worship.
When I first arrived, I looked around and thought, “This is sad. A promising and gifted pastor, who has led huge, thriving congregations in India, is now trying to resuscitate churches on life support in desperate urban areas.” I was not proud of harboring these judgmental thoughts, but I imagine even VJ sometimes had to fight them. In a society that measures fame and glory by numbers and notches and names, VJ seemed like anything but a success.
The longer I stayed, I saw New York rush on in its frenetic pace while VJ would visit immigrant widows who couldn’t wait to fix him a cup of tea and chat, while he would teach Gospel stories to a handful of members for whom English was their second language, while he would return not to a palatial palace, but to a cramped few rooms separated by curtains above the church, while he was spending every waking hour holding together two congregations who were alive largely because he felt the call of God to be there.
As Jennell and I drove home the next day, I still felt a deep pain inside me, but it was no longer a pain of sadness or sympathy; it was a pain of envy. For as I looked back, I could swear I saw the faces of VJ and Anna aglow, shining with the very glory of God.
Go home now. Take a hard look in the mirror. If you see what I see when I look out on the Cove family, your heart will rejoice because what I see are a collection of faces aglow with the glory of God.