Metamorphosis

Matt. 17:1-9
Last Epiphany

The last time I preached, I talked about epiphanies, particularly the religious epiphany in which one has an insight into that point at which time and eternity intersect, or past, present and future meet. Today I want to talk about transfiguration. In Greek the term is metamorphosis and means transformation, or re-forming.

If you look at the Tiffany window over the altar, you will recognize that it depicts the transfiguration story, which is told in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus is high on the mountain and in the lower panels are Moses, who represents the Law and Elijah, who represents the prophets. Their reappearance was a sign of the coming of the Messiah. Peter, James and John, who wanted to build shrines for Moses, Elijah and Jesus, are present in the other panels. The window is cast so that when the sun hits it fully, the glory of God bursts forth in a dazzling spectra. This is a powerful window Now I want to tell you a story, which I will set over against the story of the transfiguration. Some of you have heard the story before, but it may be worth retelling. When I was a boy, growing up as a Methodist in Illinois and Kansas, people often talked of “mountain top experiences.” Those were experiences that moved you in such a way that they changed your attitude, values or ways of thinking. They often came when people went to a revival or to a camp meeting preferably held on a hill. The conscious and subconscious model for such an event was the story of the transfiguration. In the early l950’s I worked at a Methodist conference center, which was on top of a mountain in Arkansas. On the side of the mountain was a huge sheet metal cross with dozens of light bulbs. At night the caretaker threw a switch and the cross shone brightly and you could see it for miles around. In the west, lay the local town. At the foot of the mountain was the section of town in which the Black people lived. It was a lovely town and the streets and utilities crisscrossed the town in an orderly fashion. The Black section was an exception. The paved roads and utilities came up to that section, stopped and then continued on the other side.

One hot summer evening I sat on a bench near the cross. A conference of the United Methodist Women was in session. These were powerful souls who raised huge amounts of money and supported such good causes as hospitals, homes for unwed mothers, etc. Oral Faubus was the governor and about to be indicted for receiving kickbacks. Eisenhower had passed the public accommodations bill, which ended separate drinking fountains, bathrooms and allowed Blacks to eat and stay in the same places as white folk. Little Rock and the civil rights movement lay ahead. As I looked at the sun sinking slowly in the west, the leaders of the conference came up and stood next to the cross. They were talking about the public accommodations bill. As they looked down at the Black section of town, one said to the other, “I’ll treat them as equal when they come up to our level.” I was stunned. The imagery of the dispossessed at the foot of the cross upon which Jesus died for our sins was traumatic. “How,” I thought, “can they come up to our level if we don’t reach out and put in roads and utilities?” I walked away from these well meaning but morally obtuse women. The women were locked into their old folkways, their own patterns of thinking. Christianity and faith for them was in a state of “stasis.” It was static. It was a stolid way of doing things.

Much can be done with my story. We can cavil against hypocrisy, racism, elitism, etc. The “sin” of the two “church ladies” was similar to that of the disciples, who wanted to make monuments to Moses, Elijah and Jesus. They wanted permanence, to keep the old ways. But the power of Jesus Christ, and the power of the cross is the power of the glory of God. It is the incredible force of transforming and retransforming change. God’s glory is the dazzling Holy Other, the Mysterium Tremendum. It is the awesome power that bursts forth in creation and recreation. It is a cosmos changing power. As John Polkinghorn pointed out, God’s power is in the creative randomness behind and over above the fixed ways of doing things, which we see in the laws of physics. It is the light and movement that is behind the void in the cosmic black holes, which Stephen Hawking has projected. It was on the mountain that Peter, James and John realized that God was present in Jesus - that He was the Christ - that God’s presence and power was superhuman, beyond comprehension, could not be contained in the box of our limited imagination, memory and reason. God’s power bursts forth and can only be described as “His glory.”

Julia Ward Howe had a sense of that when she wrote in l861 what we now call The Battle Hymn of the Republic. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord: He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on. In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me: As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, While God is marching on.” Now “sweet Julia” was a righteous abolitionist and the verses she wrote that I left out were blood curdling. But Julia grasped one essential fact, and that is that in Jesus (who was not by the way born in lilies) God’s glory was His power and was bursting forth. Like the disciples, Julia’s politics, her moral folkways, were tying down the dynamic power of Jesus Christ. Her abolitionist sentiments, though valid, were, like those of my “church ladies,” putting God in a box. And I realize now, to my chagrin, that my civil rights views and my horror at the “church ladies” were to some extent also my mores and folkways, my way of putting God in the box. I saw the power of Jesus in terms of civil rights, and not in the deeper sense of the power constantly to reform peoples’ lives and to renew their souls. The transfiguration window is in the right location. It is over the altar where we celebrate the thanksgiving of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It is in that sacrament and in His body that we are transformed over and over again. With Jesus Christ we are not only transformed but we are challenged to show forth His glory to the world. As the body of Christ, we are called not to be static, to build monuments simply to the past, to commit the idolatry of place and group, like the “church ladies” and Peter, James and John were tempted to do. Rather we are called, to quote Fr. Harding, to be “living stones.” You and are called to be part of the dynamic of God’s constantly changing, creating and recreating power in our own lives and in the lives of others. Our Church, our buildings, our parish are not to be static and dedicated to stasis, Rather you and I are called to be centers which display His glory and which evoke change in the lives and souls of ourselves and those outside our walls.

I see glimpses of God’s glory, of his changing power, in occasional epiphanies. Now and then there is a transfiguration in the life of a family and child at baptism. There is the glory of God in a wedding. Relationships are transformed. I see an occasional transformation in the face of a child when he or she has a moment of recognition in Godly Play. There is the glory of God moving the lives of people at Family Fun Night, which has metamorphosed into Family Night Out. There is transformation in acts of outreach and compassion. You can see it sometimes at the communion rail or at the healing rail.

The story of the transfiguration, and the window over the altar, reminds us of the power of the glory of God which is an incredible, unimaginable gift given to us through Jesus Christ, and which you and I receive in the sacraments and in the life of faith as the Church. My prayer for you this morning is that you continually allow ourself to be transformed, to be transfigured. I pray also that you share the glory of God and that transfiguration with those around you through deeds of compassion, stewardship and love.

Amen.