Sermon – February 23, 2020 – Transfiguration

Seeing in a Different Light


We stand today on the threshold of the church season of Lent, that time for us to pause and reflect on how we are doing at being followers of Jesus, at being disciples.  But before we enter this season of quiet and reflection, we have one more burst of revelation during this season of Epiphany, this season when we celebrate the coming of the Light of Jesus Christ among us.

And what a revelation it is!  At this point, Jesus’ disciples have been with him for a while.  They’ve heard him teach, with unexpected wisdom and authority.  They’ve seen him heal—lepers, the blind, the deaf, the mute, even those possessed by demons.  All of them made whole at Jesus’ touch.  And the disciples have begun to suspect: Jesus is more than just a teacher, just a healer.  In fact, in the chapter just before today’s reading, when Jesus asked them who they thought he was, Peter had answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

So what do you think they were expecting, Peter and James and John, that day when they started up the mountain with Jesus? A pleasant little hike, some time away from the press of the crowd?  Some one-on-one teaching from Jesus?  Maybe Jesus had something on his mind, something he wanted to confide, something that was making him gloomy.  After all, he had been talking a lot lately about how he had come to suffer and die… and that those who wanted to be his disciples would also have to deny themselves and take up a cross, too.  Pretty surprising talk from the Messiah, and not really what you are hoping to hear from the one you are counting on to save you.

Whatever they expected, it wasn’t what they got. In the twinkling of a moment, Jesus is transformed before their eyes, transfigured, his face shining like the sun. And Moses, who brought God’s Torah, God’s Law and Teaching, down from the mountain of Sinai is standing there with him, ages and ages after his death.  And so is Elijah, the greatest of Israel’s prophets—and it’s been a long, long time since Elijah walked the earth, too.  Time has folded in on itself, and the past is present here. And the three of them are talking together as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Well, the disciples are scared out of their wits—wouldn’t you be if you were to witness something so beyond any kind of human control, something so otherworldly, something so mysterious? And Peter starts babbling about building shelters, as if Moses and Elijah and Jesus have any need at all for earthly dwellings.  But a Voice stops him in mid-sentence: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

Listen to him.  And Peter and James and John, who hadn’t really wanted to hear all that unpleasant talk about suffering and dying—or even the puzzling talk about rising again, for that matter—fall flat on their faces on the ground.  They have seen more than they bargained for: this Jesus isthe Christ, the Son of the living God, and his words are true—not just the ones that promise hope and salvation, but the hard ones, too—the ones they would rather not hear.  And there is no way to unsee what they’ve seen, or unhear what they’ve heard.

But Jesus reaches out to touch them, and his touch steadies them, reminds them that they know him, they love him, and he loves them.

                  Listen to him,the Voice says.  And what words does Jesus have for them, when he sees them there on the ground shaking like leaves in the wind?  He simply says, “Get up, and do not be afraid.”

Get up, and don’t be afraid.  Jesus knows what lies ahead for all of them, knows that the road to Jerusalem leads through controversy and pain and death.  He doesn’t try to tell them that it doesn’t. And he doesn’t try to minimize how hard it will be to walk that road with him.  Fully human as well as fully divine, Jesus knows what it is to suffer.

And still he tells them, “Don’t be afraid.” Jesus’ Transfiguration, you see, is a promise—a promise that there is more at work here than meets the human eye. Wherever we see light and life and hope breaking through into our day-to-day lives, the same Spirit of God that transfigured Jesus is at work to transform our present reality into the kingdom of God.

As I was thinking about this text, thinking about examples of God’s transformative power at work in the world, I was reminded of the story of Father Gregory Boyle, who has worked with street gangs in Los Angeles for more than thirty years now. You can read about his work in his books Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion and, more recently, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship.Father Boyle has seen the sorts of scary things that could make almost anyone lose hope: scores of young men, and some young women, too—some of them little more than children, really—who have died as the result of gang warfare; shooting and beating victims by the score, some of whom never fully recover; families who bury child after child after child because of the violence of the streets; drug dealers and users beyond number, caught up in a deadly cycle of addiction and need.  Sometimes he encounters a kid he thinks he won’t be able to reach, but every time, he says, they have turned out to be “people who wanted regular lives and homes and families and freedom from what they had known in gangs.”  When Father Boyle looks at these kids, he doesn’t just see their present reality.  He sees them in a different light, sees them as the beloved sons and daughters of a God of endless possibility.

When he discovered that many of the young people he was meeting had trouble finding work because of their pasts, he started a business to provide employment for at least some of them, started a factory that silk-screened T-shirts.  And he put former members of rival gangs to work together.  Oh, they sometimes rebel at first, he says, but as they work together and get to know one another, the old label of “enemy” gives way to “co-worker”—sometimes even to “friend.”

Today, that silk-screening business—Homeboy Industries—has grown a little.  There are nine separate business venues, including a bakery, several restaurants, a recycling business, and, yes, they still silk-screen shirts. But more astounding than the business aspect is the lives that have been touched and changed. A December article in the Los Angeles Times reported that in the previous year, more than 43,000 tattoos have been removed from former gang members, 26,000 people attended classes of one kind or another there, and of the 492 full-time members of Homeboy’s job-training programs, 80% have reunited with their children and families.[1]

“What’s most important,” Father Boyle says, “is to live as if the truth were true, to go where love has not yet arrived…” believing that it will show up, for that is how and where we will find God at work. That’s how we are transformed into the people of God; that’s how our world is transformed into the kingdom of God.

To live as if the truth were true.  To go where love has not yet arrived, expecting that love will show up in time.  So simple to say, so challenging to do. It can be pretty scary to live that way. But then Jesus reaches out to us, touches us, steadies us, and we remember: he knows us, and he loves us, and we love him.  Jesus doesn’t promise that our way will be easy—in fact, he says that it won’t be. But he walks it with us, all the way to Jerusalem, and beyond.  “Get up,” he says, to you and to me, “and don’t be afraid.”

Thanks be to God for this inexpressible gift of love. Amen.

[1]“Inside Homeboy Industries: 5 Things to Know About Gregory Boyle and ‘Barking to the Choir,’” Los Angeles Times, December 13, 2019.  Accessed online on February 8, 2020.