I preached this sermon on Sunday, February 27, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 9:28-36, an account of the Transfiguration.
Like many of you, I have been transfixed by the images coming out of Ukraine the past several days. I was transfixed by the video clips of parents kissing their children goodbye. I was transfixed by the story of a young couple who got married one day and signed up to defend their city the next. I was transfixed by the images of people sheltering in subway stations last night, the thought of lives upended and ended, and of the incomprehensibility of yet another needless war blighting the face of God’s beloved creation. I have been transfixed by the question: what now? What next?
I use that word, transfix, intentionally. It means “to make motionless with amazement, awe, or terror,” and in the face of the brutalities that too often characterize life in this world, I do sometimes find myself shocked into motionlessness. I find myself without words or insights or any idea how to meaningfully respond. My prayer this week has been little more than silence and variations of, “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.” Even the beautiful language of the Prayer Book has felt dry and heavy on my tongue.
It is easy to feel this way when we are inundated with challenging news. Ukraine is the latest iteration of the world’s grief, but in this interconnected planet, I think we are more keenly aware than ever of the collective heartbreak of the human family. We’ve faced our share of it together in the past few years. And it can feel, some days, like too much to process. Like my heart and my mind can’t hold it all. And so I am simply transfixed.
But our generation is not alone in this experience. As I reflect on all of this, I feel some connection to Peter and John and James in today’s gospel—up on the mountain to pray, they see something incomprehensible—the figures of Moses and Elijah appearing in glory, speaking with Jesus, who is himself visibly changed in some mysterious way. And while we might tend to think of this as an exciting and beautiful vision, in truth it was terrifying and overwhelming for the disciples. It was too big for them, not something they were prepared to process.
I have an icon in my office of this scene, and in it, the disciples are not gazing placidly, reverently up at Jesus and Moses and Elijah. They are falling back in shock, tumbling down the mountainside, as if they are in the process of being struck dead.
Luke describes their state of being while all of this was going on by saying “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep.” They were tired. They were frightened. We might say that they were transfixed. And so I have to wonder whether their prayer as the cloud enveloped them on the mountaintop was also some version of “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.”
In the face of what is new, and strange, and frightening, it is natural for us to not know what to do, and therefore to end up doing very little. We cannot comprehend the mind of God. We cannot save the world. We cannot explain the persistence of evil. And so we get stuck. We tell ourselves that we are just bystanders, poor pilgrims caught up in the storm on the mountain, waiting for the clouds to break, waiting for things to go back to normal. Waiting, transfixed, until someone else figures out what to do, what the next step should be.
But I fear we might be waiting a long time if that is all we do. Because here’s the thing, both about this gospel passage in particular and about our lives as followers of Jesus more generally: it’s not about being transfixed. It’s a different “t” word.
The word of the day today, the key word in this story, and the key word for our discipleship in moments such as this is not transfixion but transfiguration. That is what is happening up on the mountaintop. Transfiguration—the transformation of one thing into another, better thing.
Let me say that again: the transformation of one thing into another, better thing. Now you might think, wait a second—Jesus is already fully God and fully human, long before he went up this mountain—he doesn’t need to be transformed into something better. And you would be correct.
Because in truth, although we usually focus on his changed appearance, Jesus is not the one being transfigured in this encounter. It is the disciples. It is the disciples who are changed—it is the disciples who are given eyes to see and ears to hear. It is the disciples who in this moment perceive the fullness of God’s truth, who feel what it is to bear the glorious weight of God’s love. It is the disciples who are being stretched and shaped and re-formed by this experience into who God intends them to become. And that invitation, that challenge, extends to us as well, we who are the disciples of the present, perilous moment.
Jesus, in revealing his eternal inner radiance, is actually inviting the disciples, and us, to let go of that sleep-heavy paralysis, that transfixed state of limited imagination, and to step out into a transfigured life, a life in which we are awake. A life in which we may not have all the answers, a life in which pain and suffering and war still persist, but also a life in which we are ready to face whatever lies ahead because we have seen, we have held, we have tasted–if only for a moment–the fullness of the glory of God.
And if you wonder, how can I live that way? Where will I find the courage? What if I am not good enough or strong enough or centered enough? Well, yes, I ask myself those things every day, too.
And then I look again at those parents kissing their children goodbye, willing to die to protect them–parents who just a week ago were not very different from you and me. I think of that couple whose marriage is being consecrated as we speak in the laying down of their lives for their friends. And I think of all the saints and the martyrs, the advocates and the prophets, the justice-seekers and the wound-healers, the citizens of God’s kingdom, the famous and the unsung, the ones who gave their lives over to God’s dream of peace even in world that mocks peace, and I don’t know why it must be this way, or how it all works, but I see that it does, indeed, work—that in the mystery of grace, transfiguration is possible. That we can face the moment when it comes. That we won’t be transfixed forever.
So yes, let us pray for peace. In Ukraine, and around the world. And let us also pray for peace to transfigure our hearts, that we might become makers of peace.
And until then,
Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.