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Transfiguration of Christ, Sunday, February 23, 2020 | 4:00 p.m.

Believe in Resurrection

Nanette Sawyer
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 2:1–11
Matthew 17:1–9

There are moments in our lives when everything suddenly changes. Insight flares up in the mind, illuminating the moment, the experience, the problem, in a whole new way. Everything changes in that instant, and you’re never quite the same again.

One such moment for me happened in prayer when I was on a three-day silent retreat many years ago. I was doing the kind of begging prayer that we humans can fall into sometimes. It was a “please, please, please” kind of prayer in which I prayed for relief from emotional pain.

Honestly, I cannot even remember what was making me so unhappy at the time, but I was definitely crying while I prayed. “Please take away this pain,” was the refrain of my prayer, and it went on with a vigorous intensity.

As I prayed, suddenly different words popped into my head. It did not feel like I thought them. It felt like a sudden piercing stream of light shone into the darkness. But it wasn’t a visual experience of seeing light; it was words, spoken in my head in an exasperated tone.

The words were “Let go!” These words didn’t feel like they emerged from my own mind. Rather, I heard them in my mind like they had been inserted there, like someone had spoken directly into my mind.

I was so completely astonished by this experience that I instantly stopped crying and sat bolt upright. Where did those words come from?! “Let go!”

My perspective shifted from being inside my body, inside my pain, to watching myself instead. In my mind’s eye I saw myself crying and praying with my hands clenched tight.

I thought that I was offering my pain to God in prayer, but actually I was holding onto it very tightly and praying about it. I had been circling it and pointing to it from every direction, as though saying, “See, God, look at my suffering! Here it is. This is what it looks like. It’s horrible. It’s awful. See? Look!”And on and on I went with my prayer.

But when those other words (let go!) shone into my mind and shocked me—not just the words themselves but the fact that they had a tone of exasperation—I dropped my experience of pain and had an entirely new experience of astonishment. I realized in that moment that I had a choice between giving my sorrow a lot of attention or giving it less attention. I had the capacity to drop it—to let go.

Now sometimes we all need to pay a little bit more attention to what’s happening with our emotions. Awareness is a step toward liberation. But in that moment, I had the opposite problem. I needed to pay less attention to what I felt. I needed to accept it and let it go so I could move on.

I call this experience a mountaintop experience, because it was radically transformative in my life. It was a transfiguration moment for me. And when I went back down the mountain after my three-day silent retreat, back into daily life, I was different. I couldn’t unsee what I had seen about myself. And I didn’t want to. It made me a better person.

Moses, of course, had mountaintop experiences when he got the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. He encountered God in the clouds on the mountaintop, and his face became radiant from being in God’s presence (Exodus 24:15–18).

Elijah had mountaintop experiences, including the time he heard God’s voice as the still, small voice—or, as the NRSV translates it, as “sheer silence.” Elijah had heard the sheer silence of God.

Mountains and clouds in the Bible are places where God meets humans (Exodus 19:9). When Moses led the people out of slavery and into the wilderness on their way to the promised land, God was with the people in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They could see those signs of God’s presence and be encouraged and strengthened for the journey.

The journey out of slavery and into freedom was not an easy one. It was filled with hunger and thirst in unfamiliar places. It was filled with death threats from crowds of soldiers chasing the people, trying to abduct them back into slavery or kill them before they could get free.

But there was that pillar of cloud and that pillar of fire leading people toward a new mountain, the mountain of Sinai, where God would speak to Moses, claim them as his people, and promise to be their God (Exodus 6:7, 13:22; Leviticus 26:12–13; Numbers 14:14).

Each of these stories show that God is here. God is with the people. We see it again in today’s story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. The Greek word for “transfiguration” is metamorphose, and we see a metamorphosis in Jesus when his face shines like the sun and his clothing becomes dazzlingly bright.

This is showing Jesus in two forms at the same time. He is Jesus of Nazareth, walking up the side of the mountain with his disciples, but he is also the Christ, illuminated by the power of God the Creator.

Eastern Orthodox icons, or images, of the Transfiguration place Christ within an almond shape that indicates a passage between the heavenly and the worldly, the holy and the material. In iconography this passage between the worlds is called a mandorla. Theologians might call it a “thin place,” a place where the separation of the worlds becomes very thin and it is possible to experience holiness more palpably.

Scholar Marcus Borg says, “Mountains and high places are thin places in many religious traditions, including the Bible and Native American traditions. But the notion refers to much more than geographical locations. A thin place is anywhere our hearts are opened. To use sacramental language, a thin place is . . . a means whereby the sacred becomes present to us. A thin place is a means of grace” (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 2003).    

Jesus was in a thin place when he met Moses and Elijah on Mount Tabor. His disciples were there in a thin place, too, encountering holy power and presence.

When I had my breakthrough in prayer, I experienced a thin place, too. God broke through and gave me an experience of grace, a gift that helped me grow. It was a pivotal moment, but it was not the end point. It was just a moment on my long spiritual journey of seeking to draw nearer to God.

Transfiguration is a pivot point. For the disciples with Jesus, they saw Moses and Elijah of their past, and they wanted to set up housekeeping and stay there on the mountain with them. They wanted it to be an end point and not a pivot point. “It’s good for us to be here,” Peter said to Jesus. “I’ll make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

That’s when the bright cloud overshadowed them, and the voice frightened them. From the cloud came the same voice that was heard at Jesus’ baptism, and it spoke the same words. “This is my Son, the Beloved. With him I am well pleased.”

But this time the voice of God added one thing. God said, “Listen to him!” Six days earlier, Jesus had been teaching them about his impending suffering, death, and resurrection. They were on their way to Jerusalem, but Peter had said, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22). Peter wasn’t listening!

Jesus chastised Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” But then he just kept leading him, along with all the other disciples, forward on their journey. Jesus led them up the mountain to have an illuminating moment, to see him in a new way. When God says, “Listen to him!” they fall on the ground in terror.

They’re shocked to hear the voice of God, and they’re afraid that they can’t live on the mountain. They have to move on.

They’re afraid that they can’t avoid the confrontation that will happen in Jerusalem. They have to move on.

They can’t just stay with Moses and Elijah; they have to move on into the future with Jesus. Jesus is the new Moses, and John the Baptist is the new Elijah.

It’s hard to move out of the familiar and out of our comfort zone and into the unknown future. But the illuminated Jesus, the transfigured Jesus, is showing the disciples the real presence of God and the power of resurrection. God says, “Listen to him!”

Jesus has said it, but it’s hard to trust that God has the power to do that. It’s hard to trust that God has the power of resurrection. What does that even mean? What would that look like? It’s hard to trust when we can’t even imagine it.

When they fall on the ground in terror, Jesus comes and touches them, the Bible says. That’s a beautiful detail. Jesus doesn’t just command them to get up. He comes near to them, he touches them, and that’s when he says, “Get up and don’t be afraid.”

That approach, and that touch, that is a sign that God is with us, near us, maybe nearer to us than our own breath. So we can get up and not be afraid. We can change our focus and move on.

We can trust in the resurrection even though we are not there yet. We still have to go to Jerusalem and confront the powers and principalities. We still have to grieve our losses and find each other and come together again.

Today I am thinking a lot about the past and the future and how we pass through the present moment to get from one to the other. Like Peter, we may want to set up camp right here and not move on. “It’s good that we are here,” Peter says.

This morning I cotaught a class with Derrick Dawson in the adult education program here on the roles of LGBTQ+ leaders in the civil rights movement. (You can watch it on video if you missed it.)

We looked briefly at the long sweep of history from the time of Reconstruction after slavery, through the Harlem Renaissance—a period from 1920 to 1935, during which black and brown people reclaimed their humanity and their beauty, and the arts flourished. These were gay artists like Gladys Bentley, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, and philosopher Alain Locke, who was called the father of the Harlem Renaissance.

Langston Hughes wrote his powerful poem called, “I, Too.”

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

Artists in the Harlem Renaissance laid the foundation for artists and activists, attorneys and organizers, decades later, in the 1940s and 1950s.

We spoke of Pauli Murray, a brilliant attorney whose writings were used by Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP in arguing the case against school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. We spoke of Bayard Rustin, one of the primary architects and organizers of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Because these leaders were gay, they were kept in the shadows and on the sidelines.

So many bright lights have gone before us. Poets and singers, dancers and dreamers. Lawyers and politicians, strategists and preachers. Mothers and fathers and mentors. They have brought us to this moment, where we are on this mountain. Will we build houses and stay here? Or will we follow Jesus down the mountain and back into the streets of our own Jerusalem?

Here at Fourth Church, we have a mission statement that says:

We are a light in the city reflecting the inclusive love of God.
Comforted and challenged by the Gospel of Christ,
we strive to be a welcoming, serving community.

At the intersection of faith and life, we share
God’s grace through worship, preaching, education,
and ministries of healing, reconciliation, and justice.

We affirm the worth of all and nurture each individual’s
spiritual pilgrimage. Inspired by our heritage, we confront
our future with hope and confidence in God’s purpose.

It’s a beautiful mission statement. As we reflect on Christ’s call to us, we look back down the side of the mountain from whence we came and we see familiar faces and we grieve the losses that we have sustained.

And we look down the other side of the mountain, where we know we must go, and like the disciples facing their own calling, we too faint from terror. We fall on the ground, afraid.

But we are not alone. We are never alone. It’s Jesus who touches us and says, “Get up, don’t be afraid.”

We want to say, “Lord! This should never happen to you!” We want to say,“There should not be betrayal; there should not be injustice; there should not be suffering.”

And Jesus says, in essence, “What is happening is happening. This is the mountain we must walk down. In three days, I will rise again from the dead. Believe in resurrection!”

Believe in resurrection.

Believe in resurrection.