“How did you get yourself inside this story?” My daughter Hannah remarked, after seeing, at age four, her cousin Beth on stage as Miss Hannigan in her very favorite musical at the time which was ANNIE.
Cousin Beth was not sure what she meant...and the remark coming from a four year old was one that could be interpreted several ways. Beth took it to be a literal question about the functioning of the theater and proceeded to show Hannah just where the stairs were from the dressing rooms to the stage.
“Who were you when you weren't on stage?” Hannah prodded a little more, “Were you Miss Hannigan or were you Beth?”
Not certain what was real and what was not...filled with absolute excitement over her first experience in the live theater, Hannah had been dazzled by the transformation she had experienced.
You see, in her eyes, Hannah's cousin was dressed in a new personality...in that particular play it was not a very loving personality either. Miss Hannigan, you recall, was the veritable warden of the orphanage in which little Annie and her friends toiled all day and received little food and no love…. in their “Hard Knock Life.”
Little Hannah was wanting reassurance that Miss Hannigan was not hiding somewhere inside her beloved cousin, Beth. “Who was she really?” is what Hannah wanted to know.
Walking along the road with his disciples, Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” Who am I really? How do you put together my presence with you - the person you know me as, and the images and visions that people have about the Messiah? “Who do you say that I am?”
“Some said Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets, some said John the Baptist...but Peter said, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God!”
Almost in a way to test that confession, Jesus “began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed... If any would come after me, they must deny themselves, take up a cross and follow.” It is in the context of these lessons that the disciples who are closest to Jesus accompany him to the top of a mountain and experience the mysteries of the transfiguration which has been our scripture reading for the day.
This vision of the Lord radiant, suddenly clothed in dazzling white and walking in the company of the heroes of the faith, Elijah and Moses, is repeated in all three Gospels. In each case it comes immediately after the confession of Peter and the first prediction of the passion of Jesus. It is not so placed to dilute the injunctions to bear our own cross...but is rather, a confirmation of the truth that somehow the promises of the Messiah and the awful images of the passion and the suffering of the cross go together. These incongruent, disparate parts are the same person...parts of the whole of God.
This is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany. We have talked a bit about what Epiphany means...it is the manifestation of God. We have talked mostly about the ways in which Jesus manifested or revealed the nature of God through the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. Many of those sayings are just plain hard – turning the other cheek, loving our neighbor and even more, loving our enemies.
“How did you get yourself inside this story?” is what my daughter Hannah wanted to know over twenty years ago. It is a good question though, how do we get ourselves inside the story of a God who wants us to love in these ways – can we? We can sure try, but what happens when we fail?
Learning to see in new ways is one of the most difficult tasks of the life of discipleship. Transformed life. Old habits of selective vision, old choices about what to leave out and what to focus on tend to dominate us, even as we search for new ways of living that are in closer communion with the life of the Spirit. Transfiguration--that mysterious transformation of vision that is narrated in today's readings--is a radical, if brief, way of illumination.
It seems to me that is a question we might be asking a lot. We are assured in countless ways that God is with us...the promise goes back to the early covenant that God made with Abraham... “I will be your God and you will be my people...” But, frankly, there are lots of times we might wonder just how God got inside the story...what it God doing there? What role is God playing?
When Peter saw Jesus so radiantly dressed in the dazzling clothing of a heavenly being....his first response was to want to capture that moment. He wanted to build a booth. Freeze it...keep it for ever...make the ideal of a glowing, triumphant Christ (the ideal in which he had so recently confessed his belief when he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God...”) into an unchanging, permanent reality. Peter wanted a superhero and for a moment the three disciples got a glimpse of just that. Peter wanted to keep him...savor that image and set it in stone.
I am a baseball fan. I love the game, as I know many of you do as well. But I am not much good at playing it. I never was. That’s why I was attracted to a story told by another minister on the Internet. He was recalling his own baseball career with the assessment that he had always been afraid of the ball. Because the coaches were obligated to play everybody at least some of the time, however, he continued to have to come up to bat. He tells the story, “and then one day it happened.... a transfiguration! I decided to swing on the first pitch. Oh, I closed my eyes, but I did swing and I blasted it to right field. That ball went past the fielder and all the way to the fence. I could have run all the way home. But I did not. I was so excited that I ran to first base and repeatedly jumped up down on the bag shouting and laughing and smiling. All the while, my family and other admirers were yelling ‘RUN! RUN!’”
A home run yielded only a single because all he could not hear the crowd or truly see what was going on. He was too busy trying to memorialize the triumph. He built a “booth” there on first base in an attempt to fix that event in time. He goes on to muse, “I wonder how many home runs I've missed in life since then for the same reasons.” The spiritual quest of a person of faith is in many ways a quest for the ideal...for the perfect hit. But the real...the work of making it around the bases is how the points are made. Wendy Wright, an author who writes about the spiritual journey points out in an article that “...the spiritual life consists only in part in striving for the ideal. The spiritual life is also and perhaps more profoundly about wrestling with the real.” We need to grapple with the tasks of life. The spiritual quest is not all mountaintop experience, but also involves the struggle to understand God in the midst of what is real and difficult and sometimes ugly about life...our lives. The promise of the transfigured, transforming God is a promise of presence there.
While Peter was babbling on about building booths and saving the moment...while he was jumping up and down with excitement, a voice came from the clouds saying, “Listen...Listen. This is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Falling to the ground the disciples were cringing with fear when Jesus came and touched them. “Do not be afraid...” When they looked up he was not a glowing, super God, he was clothed as he had been. He was one of them and he called them to follow him down from the mountain back into the life of the world.
We do spend an awful lot of time trying to define God. God does not seem to want to fit in a box. As was I, when I sought to minister to the woman who lost her grandchild, I am sure that you, too, have been confronted with images of God or Jesus which seemed to be meaningful for someone else yet struck you as totally wrong. Standing on a street corner a young man shouts into a bull horn, “Repent, come to Jesus, and be saved.” Clearly Jesus has come into this person's story in a very real and life-changing way...a way powerful enough to motivate him to spend the afternoon shouting into a crowd of shoppers and sight-seerers on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, that they have got to find the same Jesus in their lives...or all is for naught.
That may be Jesus but it is not the Jesus I know... Just as I used to stop and argue with the folks who came to the door with copies of the Watchtower, I used to get very upset at these street vendors who were selling what I thought was a terrible distortion of the loving Jesus that I was looking for. What I am coming to see now, and what this Gospel narrative seems to be saying to us is that it is OK. To the question, “who do you say that I am?” there is no one right answer. Jesus is transfigured. God is transformable...clothed in many different ways and poised to enter our life stories in many different guises. God is not in a box.
In the 11th Chapter of Matthew, Jesus replies to a question from John the Baptist who is asking... “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Matthew 11:4-6) To all who want to contain or define him, Jesus says, “Get beyond who I am...what I look like...and look at how my presence affects your story.” If it is a healing presence, if it is a presence which liberates and brings good news, then you know who I am...then you know the nature of love.
A physician writes of standing beside the bed of young woman who is just in recovery from radical surgery in which a tumor was removed from her face.
In the process it had been necessary to cut a facial nerve that meant that forever her mouth would twist up in a curious way on one side. “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks. “Yes” I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.” She nods and is silent. But the young man, her husband, smiles. “I like it,” he says, “it is kind of cute.” He bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate hers, to show her that their kiss still works... “And I hold my breath and let the wonder in.”
Jesus is ready, to twist himself, to be transfigured, clothed in a new way determined to get inside of our stories in a way that leads to life. “Who is he really?” we might ask as this Epiphany season closes into the season of Lent: He is the one who is on our life's journey with us, a journey we have come to join. It can lead to the cross, but ends at an empty tomb … the ultimate transformation. Amen.