Transfiguring

Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

You may have noticed the beautiful
photographs hanging in church this morning.
The photographer is a Cape Ann artist: Les Bartlett.
(If you are reading this online, Les’s website is here).
He graciously offered them
on Friday night for a meditation service here,
along with Amy Lohman and Michael O’Leary,
who led us in song.
Les left his photographs up for us this morning,
this Transfiguration celebration
because of his own faith journey.
His images of stones and water are a record
of the way he began to perceive holiness shining through
the Cape Ann landscape he sees everyday.
It didn’t happen overnight, he tells me,
but over time, and gradually, he experienced
what we would call in religious terms epiphanies.
Some people have epiphanies through vision, like Les;
others experience epiphanies through sound, like
our musicians Amy and Michael.
Holiness shines through in many ways.

Epiphany remember, means light shining through,
and today, the Feast of the Transfiguration,
we come to the last Sunday in the church’s season of Epiphany.
Epiphany began with the starlit journey
of the Magi to the cradle of Jesus.
With eyes of faith,
they recognized Jesus as divine,
perceiving God’s glory and light in him.

Religious experiences that transform us
take place in this world—in the landscape of our lives.
In Les’s case, as you can see in his photographs,
epiphanies began to take place in quarries.
And I know for some people, who have lived here on Cape Ann,
the beauty of this place feels sacred.
Something speaks to us, calls to us, reveals itself to us,
a holiness, or loveliness beyond our own capacity,
addresses us, we feel nourished by it.
Faith nourishes our perception, changes it.
We see and hear, and experience
the world differently, because of faith.

Today, as we leave this season of Epiphany,
we hear two beautiful visionary accounts
in Exodus, and in Matthew of holy recognition,
epiphanies through sight and sound.
We’ll remember them as we enter Lent
this week, shining light for our journey
as we walk with Jesus on the road to the Cross.

In these two biblical visions, human beings
are met by the majesty and glory of God.
Both encounters occur on mountaintops.
From the heights of Mt. Sinai,
God calls Moses to come up to him,
and Jesus calls three of his closest disciples
to come climb up a mountain with him.
In the Hebrew scriptures
and in the ancient Canaanite religions,
high places were sometimes associated with God’s abode.
God’s names may invoke high places:
El Elyon, God Most High,
or El Shaddai, God who lives in the mountains.

Sacred mountains like Mt. Sinai,
Mt. Tabor, Mt. Hermon, or the Mount of Olives,
or even the Mound of Skulls, Golgotha,
are places of divine encounter, or revelation.
The mountains aren’t sacred in themselves;
they become sacred because of a relationship
they have to the divine.
The events that happens there, the Presence met there,
makes them sacred—they are holy
because of our memories of divine encounter,
our intense experience of divine Presence,
of ultimate reality, where we see through to the truth.
In our religious tradition, when we hear
a story of a holy person climbing a mountain,
we know he or she expects to find God.
They are called to be there, seeking
God in places of cloud, mystery, and light.
We speak of a mountaintop experience
as flash of great spiritual insight,
or the strong sense of God’s presence.

In Exodus, Moses goes into a shining cloud,
shrouding the Glory of God,
to receive the Commandments.
They place a divine demand on our human lives.
Moses receives the Words of life that shape our relationship
to God and neighbor, Words that form a community, a nation.

In Hebrew, in this lesson, the word for God’s glory is Kavod,
It really means more than glory–it means Presence,
the Divine Presence—written with capitals.
Kavod also literally means “heaviness,”
God’s glory is a kind of super Presence.
Where God’s glory is, God is, where kavod descends
the Presence descends.
The metaphor is a bright cloud, lit from within.
When Moses ascends the Mt. Sinai and enters
the cloud, he enters into the Presence,
and he remains there for forty days and forty nights.
You might think of Lent, a little differently,
if you remember that both Jesus and Moses,
were in the Presence of God during their forty day sojourns.
Kavod, God’s Majestic Presence shines with Glory.

For Jesus and the disciples, too, on their mountain top—
the Presence is experienced in two ways: as bright cloud,
and voice from heaven: “this is my son, my beloved,
with whom I am well pleased.
Listen to him.”
Here, the Word heard directs
the disciples to Jesus.
God’s Presence becomes for them
Jesus himself, shining with Glory;
he manifests The Presence.
Just as Moses received the commandments
that became a divine claim on the Israelites,
so Jesus becomes the divine claim on
the Christian community.
Jesus embodies The Divine Word,
the Word made flesh.
Here is a vision of who Jesus really is,
and for the disciples, then and now,
he himself, in his person, makes God present.
“If you have seen me,” Jesus will say in John,
you have seen the Father.”
We see Jesus in his glorified form,
his light body, a radiant shining being,
dazzling the disciples with wonder and beauty.

Transfiguration is a word about change;
it comes from the Greek metamorphosis,
which means a profound change,
literally beyond body.
The Transfiguration is a glimpse of the Resurrection,
a sign of things to come, a holy hope of transformation.
And the story itself, invites us to see the world
in a new way; faith transforms our perception,
opening us to the possibility of meeting
the divine in the here and now,
in these places, these moments, these people.
God addresses us in our everyday lives.
Faith helps us see differently, so that even unholy places,
those lonely wastes and devastation, become
the site of God’s Presence, of God’s transforming power.

Here’s a story, then, about another Transfiguration.
In February, our Presiding Bishop, Mark Hanson,
visited Haiti to see what has been happening there
since last year’s earthquake.
His host was the President of the Lutheran Church of Haiti,
Rev. Joseph Livenson Lauvanus.
During the visit, the two pastors climbed another sort of mountain,
this one a hill made of “cement rubble and twisted steel.”
As they stood on top of it, they looked out over the landscape;
the hill was surrounded by temporary shelters,
recalling those booths that Peter wanted
to build for Jesus, and Elijah and Moses.
Today, over a million people are still
living in temporary shelters in Haiti.
Everyday life, in Haiti, is still tenuous, a struggle for survival.
But here is what the president of our sister church in Haiti said:
“We Haitians will not be defined by the rubble,
but by restoration, for we are a people of the resurrection.”
He went on to describe the focus of the Haitian Lutherans
on transformation, as they rebuild their country and economy.
ELCA members have given more than $12.6 million,
all of which is being used to provide relief, recovery, and medical care.

The President of the Haitian Lutheran Church
knows about Transfiguration; even a pile of rubble,
even a refugee camp can be a mountaintop where
the Presence of God, the Glory of God, nevertheless, dwells.
“We can be part of the solution,” he says.
“We talk about how new life can rise from the rubble.
We talk about renaissance.
We talk about transformation because the gospel is about good news.
The people are not alone.
Christ is in their midst.”

In our lesson from Second Peter, the author offers guidance
for a little church in the first century,
reminding the congregation that the disciples
had seen the majesty of God with their own eyes,
that they had heard God’s voice from heaven
claim Jesus, as his beloved son.
He testifies to the truth of that visionary experience
and calls his hearers to faith.
Remember, he exhorts them.
Remember the Majestic Glory of
God’s Presence in Christ.
Be mindful, he says. Be ready for such holy encounters.
Watch for them. Expect them.
“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.”
May that morning starlight rise in our hearts,
this and every day of our lives.

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