Transfixed: A Sermon

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.

After the Light: A Sermon

Today is the last Sunday in the season of the Epiphany—a season that began in January with the Magi encountering the Christ child under the dim light of a secret star, and which now concludes this week as Peter, James, and John encounter the transfigured Christ in searing light atop a wild mountain. 

We actually come upon the Gospels’ transfiguration accounts twice in the Christian year—today, and again in August, on the official Feast of the Transfiguration. It’s worth the double-mention, too, because although we tend to spend a lot more time contemplating Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection, it is in the Transfiguration that we find something essential about all those intervening years, when Jesus was the God who lived among us—it gives us an image of just what it looks like for fragile human flesh to be melded with heaven, burning with God’s incandescent glory. Through the eyes of the stunned disciples, we are given a momentary glimpse of the end of all things—time circled back upon itself in eternal communion; our reunion with the wise ancestors and beloved dead who have come before us; all of creation radiating the light of a thousand suns. 

But it is only a glimpse, only a taste, and a good thing, too, because it seems that Peter and James and John cannot bear much more than that. They are stupefied, trembling, stammering, and God quickly, mercifully, bathes them in the protective cover of unseeing, unknowing cloud. Truth is a beautiful, powerful thing, but it is also overwhelming. Then, as now, God deigns to give it to us in small bursts—in those rare, jewel-like moments we call epiphanies—and it is our task, in the cool, quiet interims to string them together, to fashion our epiphanies into whatever sense we can make of them. 

Such moments are so sharp and precious and enduring because much of our life can feel a bit confusing, a bit murky. Rather than receiving a series of brilliant insights, knowing exactly what we must do next, most days we’re just muddling our way through, half-guessing, half-hoping, praying to God that we’ve got it right. 

And on those sorts of days, at least for me, my relationship with Jesus is an unseeing one, untransfigured, a series of hesitant steps through the cloud and fog; in such times I am not quite sure who I am, or who he is, or what he wants of me, only that he is there, that he beckons, and that he is present, not because I see him, but because he has promised that he will be. 

As the monk, author and contemplative Thomas Merton once wrote in prayer, 

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end, nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.”

So it is. For anyone—the monk, the mystic, the everyday seeker of God—epiphanies of God’s unambiguous intentions for us are rare. 

And that is why, if I am perfectly honest, I possess some ambivalence about fixating on dramatic epiphanies in this season, as important as they might be. Because for the most part we cannot spend our days chasing them; we have to construct our lives out of humbler things, everyday things. 

So I am resistant when, in reflecting upon the Transfiguration, commentators sometimes focus primarily on Jesus’ hidden glory, his dazzling brilliance, as the main event, the main point of interest in this passage, as if it is just sort of “sneak peek” into heavenly reality where the “true” Jesus is revealed.

Emphasizing a distinction between this transfigured, shiny Jesus and the “regular” old desert-wandering Jesus doesn’t help us much, because it suggests that this mountaintop version is the “real” one, and that seeing and knowing him fully is the stuff of private revelations and mystical visions, reserved for the few and the chosen, far removed from the dirty, hungry, conflict-ridden valleys where most people live and die. 

An exclusive focus on the Jesus of the transfiguration would have us always scrambling up our own proverbial mountaintops in search of ecstatic epiphanies, leaving behind the prosaic, humdrum prayerfulness of daily bread and messy relationships. This will not do.

Because as fashionable as it is these days to talk about and pursue mystical experiences of one kind or another, to strive for the extraordinary, the fact remains that most of our lives are quite ordinary. They are not spent in the blazing light of epiphany. There are dishes to wash. Bills to pay. Zoom meetings to get onto. Kids to get to school. Bodies that grow older, softer, more vulnerable. More questions to fill our days than answers.

As Merton says, we cannot see the road ahead of us, and we cannot know for certain where it will end.

And that is why there is something else that I choose to focus on in the Transfiguration. Something that does give me hope: that this momentary glimpse of the glorious, transfigured, impossibly radiant Jesus is in fact, in all the ways that matter, the exact same Jesus who remains after the vision is over, after the impressive lights and sounds are gone–after there is nothing left on the mountaintop but cold wind and damp rock. When “suddenly…they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.” 

Only Jesus. Only the Jesus they already knew, the man, the one in plain, dusty peasant clothes, the one with a face like any other human face, the one who heals and feeds, not with beams of light, but with mud, and breath, and bread and blood and tears…only Jesus, yes, but for all his commoness, not one bit less the eternal Son of God. Not one bit less the Holy Incarnation of light inaccessible.

This is the good news of the transfiguration: that the brilliant, blazing Jesus, and the everyday Jesus—they are one and the same. He is so imbued with Divine love that He carries its power within himself, without spectacle or impressiveness, right back down off that mountaintop, back down into the villages, back down into the landscape of our discontent, back down to you and to me and to every average, confused, hoping, wondering heart. Back to where he is most needed. Back to where he most desires us to follow.

So yes, the Transfiguration is beautiful. Yes, epiphanies are special and ought to be treasured. But let us not obsess too much over hidden brilliance, lest we spend our entire lives chasing after the wrong type of wisdom, missing the obvious, simple beauty right in front of us. Jesus is here, now, consoling us in the middle of our fear and our loneliness and our sickness, and tenderly blessing our best, imperfect attempts to be kind, to be brave, to be true. 

He is satisfied to love you and to teach you here how to build the kingdom of God with the same earthy, everyday tools that he once used to begin it: your hands, your heart, your hope. 

That’s true whether we see clearly or whether we do not. Whether we are impressive or just ourselves. It is only us that Jesus requires. Only you and me, trying our best, in the world we have been given. 

This, in the end, is the only epiphany that we need.