The Transfiguration of Jesus marks God’s revealing of the potential for all of our lives and this whole world to be changed, and it marks the beginning of the new community that Christ is seeking to build around him. But what sort of world and lives does God in Christ seek to change?
I’ve been thinking about St. Valentine, who, despite Hallmark’s co-opting of his name for a holiday currently known most for cards, flowers, and candy, was, from what we know, jailed and killed - martyred for sharing his Christian faith in the 3rd century and for taking care of other Christians. I’ve been thinking about all the ways people still persecute and even kill each other because of their faith – be it Jewish or Muslim or still in some places Christian.
And I’ve been thinking, as we pass the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine, about the more than 42,000 lives that have been lost there, about all the fear and struggles going on. And who can’t be thinking about the over 46,000 people who have died from the once in a generation earthquake in Turkey and Syria? You know, early in the Covid-19 pandemic, when I was trying to wrap my brain around the number of people who had died in NYS at that time - it was what seems now the paltry number of 33,000 - I realized that this was roughly the population of our local city of Kingston. Now, if we put the death tolls of Ukraine and Turkey and Syria together it is nearly 90,000, nearly three times the size of Kingston, or nearly the population - 98,000 - of our state capital of Albany. So, then, as we try to wrap our brains around these travesties, we might imagine walking through Kingston or now Albany, and having them be, simply, empty. No one there. Not on any of the roads nor in any of the marketplaces or parks or schools or hospitals. No one down by the waterfront. No one. Empty.
And I’ve been thinking, more locally, about my godmother, who like many others in this world, has been stricken by Alzheimer’s and is losing herself, disappearing, as the plaque slowly builds up on her brain, building walls that trap away who she was, leaving someone she and those around her recognize less and less. I’ve been thinking about how quickly these changes came about for her, how quickly things can change for any of us, for good or ill. A person builds a life of love and joy and service to others and then this all gets stripped away by Alzheimer’s. A person like St. Valentine gives their all for faith and their life ends, taken away by those in power as they are killed, martyred. People live their daily lives much as you or I and suddenly that life is over, or forever changed by the death or injury of others they love because of an earthquake or war that is completely out of their control.
We’re coming into the season of Lent – Ash Weds is this week. We’re coming into the season of Lent when, with God’s help and the support of community we ask God redirect us to focus on God and God’s redemptive work through Christ that breaks in amongst the pain of this world – a world where because of free will and sin there is so much that is broken. But Lent is not about counting our brokenness and misery and the misery of others. Lent is about allowing God to help us re-focus our center, and to be discovered again in the reality that God is waiting there for us at the center of our lives and all things.
So, too, on this Transfiguration Sunday, we are invited by our scriptures to be refocused on what is central – the revealing work of God’s love in and through Jesus in this world.
Author Madelaine L’Engle writes that, “God can purify even the most terrible anguish.” (Madelaine L’Engle, “Two-Part Invention,” pg. 150) I wonder, as Peter and James and James’ brother John climbed that mountain with Jesus, as they stood upon that mountaintop and with wonder and it would seem a bit of confusion, beheld Jesus being transfigured; I wonder if they found their own lives being re-centered, their own anquish and the anguish of the world purified ? Their own lives being reclaimed, amidst whatever misery and suffering they and others around them in the world knew, whether because of sickness or the oppression of the Roman government that contributed to their poverty and struggles.
When the equivalent of football stadium lights went on and illuminated Jesus from within, and those first disciples saw Moses and Elijah standing there with Jesus, and then heard God’s voice from the cloud saying, “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased, listen to him,” did they find their lives changed? I think, if we’ll let God in to do the work that is needed, deep in our hearts and souls, that we will find that our lives are changed by witnessing this Transfiguration story. Even that word, “transfiguration,” in its original Greek, literally means metamorphosis. And we might think of the butterfly that emerges from its chrysalis – a caterpillar no longer. Behold, a new creation!
Of course we need to recognize that this world needs changing. We need to recognize that we need changing, that we all too often get lost, trapped in the news and the ways of the world and our own minds and hearts. We lose our sense of center. We need a brilliant light to catch our attention, to fill us with awe and wonder so that we can realize that it’s time again to build our cocoons – not to hide away from the world, but to allow God in Christ to draw us back to center. Or to discover for the first time that we have a center at all!
When Peter and James and his brother John go with Jesus to the top of the mountain, they are being invited to witness God revealing God’s self in Christ on a whole new level. And not just for themselves, but so that God might work through them and through us to build authentic communities that worship God with awe and wonder and who seek to do the work of waking each other up, reminding each other of the redemptive work of God in which we are called to participate. To be communities engaged in the re-centering work of God in Christ.
Amidst her struggles with Alzheimer’s my godmother’s community of faith – her church - has rallied to give her support through visits and care and rides to church that encourage and preserve her dignity, self-worth, and the worship of God who she loves so dearly. These efforts are literally transfiguring my godmother’s journey.
Amidst the struggles of this war in Ukraine and earthquake in Turkey and Syria there is certainly plenty of human disfunction and failure to be witnessed and named, but there are also tremendous acts of generosity and goodness taking place. You might remember the story of a woman in Ukraine who had multiple AirBnB listings and people she hired to clean and take care of them. When the people who worked for her needed to go to their families because of the wars, she put out a plea for people to rent the AirBnBs who never planned to use them so that she could get funds to help these people get where they needed to go and be with who they needed to be with. Even while checkpoints have been painfully slow to open up access for the relief efforts needed in Turkey and Syria, organizations like Lutheran World Relief have been strategically organizing and partnering with others to begin to bring the relief resources needed in that region – and countless individual people – some of you likely among them – are powering that work of God. That transfiguring work of God.
Yes, some combination of sin – that brokenness that haunts humanity – and free will – that allowance that gives us the right as humans to choose badly as often as we choose well, this seems to be at the root of all suffering in the world. Yet like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis; like a garden blooming in the sun after the storms come out; like people and faith communities finding ways to care for relatives and friends dealing with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia; like secular and Church rescue agencies and local faith communities banding together to help the people affected by earthquakes, war, and other disasters; like St. Valentine giving his life so that others might come to know about Christ’s love; in all these ways and more, the suffering of the world is being transfigured – metamorphosized from merely hurt and injury into the stuff and fabric of a New Creation. There on the mountaintop and in all the valleys of this world God is seeking to be revealed, and to build communities of revealing – communities like Redeemer who will proclaim that even amidst suffering; maybe even especially amidst suffering, there is Light seeking to shine forth for all to see. Amen.