I had the opportunity this week to read the radiologist’s report of an MRI I had had taken several years ago. Most of it was full of unintelligible (to me) medical terminology, but I did manage to pick up the phrase “grossly unremarkable.” At first, I was a little offended. It sounded like something I would have said about myself in junior high, something I would have written in my diary–”I am so grossly unremarkable.” [I still have my days!] But then I realized that in this context–on an MRI report–being “grossly unremarkable” was a good thing–nothing to be concerned about, no abnormalities or shady spots or anything, really, that warranted further tests or exploration. So, phew! Hooray! Grossly unremarkable!
It occurred to me that “grossly unremarkable” is just about the opposite of “transfigura- tion,” our story for today. “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. [If you think, as the ancients did, that God was “up there,” then going up to a high mountain would be where you’d go to be with God.] And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Utterly astounding.
Author John Aurelio imagines it like this–
“When they reached the mountaintop, Jesus with his arms extended was dancing and laughing and calling out to Elijah to carry him home. The wind was blowing and the dust he kicked up swirled around him like a great cloud. The sun blazed behind him so that they had to squint to see him. ‘I have never seen him like this,’ Peter said to John. ‘Nor I. Isn’t it wonderful?’ John and James took Jesus by the hand and they circled and danced together.”[Imaging the Word, vol. 1, p. 139]
Transfiguration. The opposite of grossly unremarkable. Transfiguration is not just going from vanilla to chocolate, as Donna Schaper says, but from vanilla to music. [UCC Daily Devotional, 2/23/17] This vision of Jesus, transfigured, shining like the sun, dancing and conversing with Moses and Elijah, seared into the disciples’ retinas, so that they might remember it in the days ahead, when they would squint into that dark light that shone behind the cross where this same Jesus hung nailed and suffering. “This is my Beloved Son. Listen to him.” This glimpse of glory would remind them, as Tom Long says, that “Jesus was not victim, but victor, not the one despised and rejected by the world, but …well-pleasing and beloved by God.” [cited by Kathryn Matthews in sermonseeds, 2/26/17] In the agony and in the ecstasy, in the extremes of the human condition, God has experienced what we experience and is present with us wherever we are and whatever we are experiencing.
“Some have suggested that the problem of our times is ecstasy deficit,” writes Bruce Epperly. “We have become so busy about our own affairs that we have lost the vision of beauty…[We have] tamped down wonder to consume, prophecy to profit, beauty to buy, and awe to acquire.” We have turned this awesome, stunningly beautiful and diverse earth into a garbage dump. “We have become oblivious to the wonder of our own and others’ being.” [B. Epperly, adventurouslectionary, 2/26/17] Too many seek ecstasy in drugs with names like “ecstasy,” or heroin, or fentynol, or alcohol, or Oxycodone. An “ecstasy deficit.”
It is not only Jesus who is capable of being transfigured, whose face and being shines like the sun, who is beloved of God, but also we ourselves. “The glory of God is the human being fully alive,” as the 4th c. bishop Irenaeus said. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote back in the 1960’s that our “world is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time” and through each of us. “There is no way of telling people,” Merton said, “that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” [cited in sermonseeds for Women’s Week, 2014]
This is not only stunningly beautiful, but also terrifying, stuff. When the Voice from the cloud spoke and claimed Jesus as Beloved Son, the disciples “fell to the ground and were overcome by fear,” Matthew tells us. One translator says the word is more like, “They were afeared.” [Mark Davis, leftbehindandloving it] Mysterium tremendum is the phrase Rudolph Otto used for this divine presence. Writer Annie Dillard recommends that we wear crash helmets in worship–”Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” she writes [cited by Matthews, op cit.]
And if this power, this radiance, is within us, we can no longer think of ourselves or others or act as though we were “grossly unremarkable.” If, as Alfred North Whitehead affirmed, “the aim of the universe, the aim of God, is toward the production of beauty,” then our response in alignment with that aim is to “bring forth beauty wherever we find it” [Epperly, op cit.] – bring it forth in every person we encounter, in the places we live, in the issues of our time. This ethic or morality of Epiphany, of catching glimpses of glory, does not then allow us to be ”
complacent at millions of children dying and diminished by malnutrition, or choosing to prefer short term financial gain over protecting the planet.” We live in such abundance–that’s what Epiphany teaches us–abundance of beauty, abundance of God’s presence, abundance of wonder, abundance of glory.
But–And–a glimpse of that glory is all we can bear at a time this side of death. We cannot simply set up a tent to dwell on the mountaintop, because life is more than that. Life is also service, life includes suffering, life includes struggle. “‘Master,’ Peter said again [in John Aurelio’s story]. ‘Why not stay here?’ He tried not to look in the direction Jesus had set his gaze, south toward Jerusalem. The sun was setting. It had been an extraordinary and eventful day. They were tired and happy. Jesus stared toward Jerusalem. ‘There is one more mountain to climb,’ he said. ‘In Jerusalem.’”
“Epiphany is about abundance,” Bruce Epperly writes, “Lent turns us toward simplicity. Yet abundance and simplicity complement and inspire each other. Those who live by God’s abundance can live simply, so the planet might flourish.” That true abundance prevents us from settling for ‘faux abundance’ and consumerism. It inspires us to generosity, to interdependence. Our task then is to be part of transforming the world, reclaiming the garbage dump we have made of the planet and creating a garden, restoring broken communities, welcoming the refugee and immigrant because there is enough to go around, reclaiming the radiance that may have been shamed or beaten or denied out of us.
So, one last story of Transfiguration. You may have heard it on Story Corps on National Public Radio this past Friday. It was a conversation between a father and son, the father now a judge in Cleveland, who began the conversation recalling his mother’s face.
“My mother had beautiful, big brown eyes and full, soft lips. I remember her lips from when she would kiss me. I adored my mother, but she was addicted to heroin. She and my stepfather were more concerned about their next fix than about whether we went to school or had anything to eat. I saw things no kid should ever have to see…. The way I escaped was going outside and playing. I would throw my little football up in the air, and I would go to the library and read every book I could get my hands on, anything to escape the reality of my home…. When I became a parent, I determined that whatever my mother and stepfather did, I would do the opposite. …. Other than the doctor, I was the first one to hold you when you were born. I kissed you and spoke to you. I would have given you the shirt off my back, my shoes, my socks, my underwear, I would have gone stark naked to clothe you. I always make sure you eat before I do.
“Is that why you get mad at me for not eating breakfast?” his son asks.
“Yes, because I went without breakfast for so long. I know I can be harder on you than other parents.”
“Sometimes you are overbearing,” the son says to his father. “But I know where you’re coming from, Dad. I only want to see you at home, or at my games, but never in court.”
“You have been a wonderful son and I have loved being your dad,” the father says. “And I love being your son.”
That’s transfiguration. From vanilla to music. That’s the power at work in our lives and in the world. In the agony and in the ecstasy, in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. And we are shining like the sun. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark