It's too bad that worship this morning was cancelled due to snow and ice. Don't get me wrong, it's not the end of the world if Sunday services get cancelled. I feel pretty confident God would rather us stay home and safe than risk life and limb trying to get to church on Kansas City, MO roads which most likely have yet to be plowed.
I think it was a shame though, that we had to miss this particular Sunday--Transfiguration Sunday.
I grew up in a faith tradition that didn't pay attention to the seasons of the church year. Things like Lent, Epiphany, Pentecost and yes, Transfiguration Sunday were terms I really didn't know anything about until I went to seminary and experienced communities of faith that practiced a "high church" form of worship. I remember when my father, a Southern Baptist minister, introduced an Advent wreath at our church. No one protested and it became an annual tradition, but I don't think those Southern Baptists ever were really comfortable with such a "Catholic" ritual going on in our church.
Transfiguration Sunday was definitely not something I was familiar with until I was introduced to preaching the lectionary--the list of scriptures arranged according to the church season over a three year cycle. Each of the three years has different scriptures for each Sunday and focuses on a particular one of the Gospels (Year A = Matthew, Year B = Mark, Year C = Luke with John sprinkled in here and there, especially around Holy Week). Churches that pay attention to the seasons of the church year (also called liturgical seasons) often follow the lectionary. I find in my preaching that when I pick one of the lectionary passages to preach on then I avoid the trap of repeatedly picking one of the handful of my own personal favorite passages. Also, I'm forced to think about and interpret a passage that is more difficult and which I might rather avoid.
For many years, the story of the Transfiguration in Matthew, Mark and Luke was one of those passages I would have rather avoided. What is there to say about this bizarre story? Jesus takes his three closest disciples--Peter, James and John--up to the top of a mountain. There the big names from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Moses and Elijah (representing the Law and the Prophets) appear with Jesus. A voice from heaven speaks, "This is My Son. Listen to him." (A repeat of what some Gospels say was heard at Jesus' baptism.) Then Jesus is "transfigured" and he "glows like the sun." (Sort of like the vampires in Twilight; okay maybe not). Peter wants to stay and hang out with Moses and Elijah, but when all is said and done, Jesus tells him and his buddies not to tell anyone about this. Then they head back down the mountain.
It's not exactly a straightforward narrative to preach on or plan a worship service around. I used to wonder, "Must we really have a Transfiguration Sunday every year?"
I changed my mind, however, when I began to understand where this weird story takes place in the stories that Matthew, Mark and Luke tell. This moment of transfiguration--literally in the Greek "metamorphosis"--is the last thing Jesus does before he heads towards Jerusalem where he will suffer and die. From this moment forward, Jesus has made a choice to face the suffering of the world head on.
The Transfiguration or "metamorphosis" is the moment where we, the readers of the Gospel stories, get to see who Jesus really is--the divine "Son of God." His secret identity as the peasant rabbi from Nazareth finally falls off like Clark Kent's glasses. Yet this "Son of God" doesn't don a superhero costume and fly off to vanquish evil; instead he heads back down the mountain to face scorn, rejection, betrayal, torture and execution. This heroic figure does not stand (or fly) above the suffering of our world, rather he enters fully into it.
Within our church, you can find all sorts of different beliefs about who Jesus' secret identity is--from those who believe he is the full second person of the Trinity--"Son of God" and God incarnate to those who believe he was a Buddha-like enlightened one to those who believe he had no secret identity and was a human first-century rabbi. No matter which way you slice it, I think you in the end come out with pretty much the same answer: Jesus chose to go toward the pain of the world to do something about it rather than to run away from it.
So, if we had been at church together this morning, I would have urged you to consider what following Jesus means? Like Jesus, when God reveals to you your true identity as a child of God, you cannot run away from the pain in this world. Instead, you must go towards it and do your part to do something about the causes of that suffering.
Transfiguration Sunday is the last Sunday before the Season of Lent begins. On Wednesday, we will have ashes "imposed" upon us and we will hear the words "from dust you came and to dust you shall return." We will remember our mortality and set aside the illusions that say there is always more time to start living as God would have us live. If we have been transfigured--undergone metamorphosis--experienced transformation--then we will go towards the hurting places in our world and not away from them.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. The common misconception about the season of Lent is that it is a time to test one's own willpower by giving up a bad habit. How typical of us to think that it's all about us! The season of Lent is supposed to be about God and how we often choose to live in ways that do not reflect our true identity as God's children. Lent is a time for us to remember that we have been transfigured and we have been called to a different purpose--helping God heal a world scarred by human selfishness and greed.
Perhaps on this snowy Sunday, even though we did not worship together, you and I can take some time to remember what Transfiguration Sunday is for.