Transfiguring the Everyday
This is the text of the sermon I preached at Woodland Baptist Church in San Antonio, TX for Transfiguration Sunday March 2, 2014
Do you ever wonder why so many tales end with a “happily ever after.” The adventure is over, the battle has been won, true love has been found, so therefore there is no more story to tell. The climax is reached, the excitement is past, and the reader must be left with the contentment that all is well. We don’t need to know about the day to day life of the Prince and Princess after they wed, the PTSD of that soldier who can never quite get over the war – all the storyteller wants us to know is that a grand and beautiful thing happened and everyone lived happily ever after.
If you’re anywhere near as big of a geek as I am, you might know that Tolkien originally had an additional epilogue to his Lord of the Rings trilogy. It takes place years after the events in the stories – long after the ring is destroyed and the true king returns to the land. It is of Sam sitting at home with his wife and children telling the story of his adventures, and one of his daughters laments how sad it is to hear the tales because real life is nothing like the stories her father tells. The day to day reality of life, so easily summed up as “and they lived happily ever after,” isn’t all that exciting. There are chores to do, meals to cook, work to go to. One doesn’t feel like one is living an epic adventure in the mundanity of the everyday.
I’ve always seen the Transfiguration narrative as one of those moments of epic adventure. Peter, James, and John got to see Jesus revealed in all his glory. As Peter later described it they got to be witnesses to the majesty, to hear the voice directly from heaven, and were moved in that moment to be as lamps shining in dark places. They literally had a mountaintop faith experience that could not help but make them want to respond with offers of service.
It is an experience familiar to many of us. We’ve had those moments when we have been on the spiritual mountaintop in one fashion or another. Perhaps the encounter with the full majesty of Jesus is what brought us to faith or renewed our faith. Perhaps reading a book or listening to a speaker awoke in us that desire to shine as lamps in the world of darkness, working to right the evils and injustices in the world. But as many of us also know, those mountaintop experiences don’t last. We only get a brief moment with the transfigured majesty of Jesus and then we are returned to the everyday.
And of course we have to figure out what to do in the aftermath.
It’s fascinating to look at how the disciples tried to cope with something as overwhelming as an encounter with the transfigured Jesus.
Their first suggestion – build tents to house the majesty of Jesus in. Perhaps it was to honor the greatness of the one transfigured, but whatever the rationale, their first impulse was to contain that glory.
They were human. There was a mountaintop moment and they wanted to build a structure to preserve it in. They didn’t want to forget the moment in the mundane everyday, they wanted to keep it close. It was such a significant moment that they needed to impose some order on it to preserve it and keep the experience going.
Is this not how we so often treat our religious experiences? We have dramatic encounters with God, we are moved to care for the least of these, and often our first impulse is to create a structure to contain it. We construct churches and denominations, we develop rituals, we start committees, we plan missions. Not that any of these things are bad things, but sometimes we end up missing the real point because of them. What matters is the encounter – of having our lives transformed by the majesty of God. When we try to preserve that encounter by creating structures around it, our gaze often gets obscured by those very structures. The containers for the encounter become what is most important to us, sometimes even to the extent that we forget the transformative experience itself.
It is like that popular Zen story of the ritual cat which I’m sure many of you have heard. The story goes that once when a spiritual teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. So the teacher ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice. Years later, when the teacher died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the spiritual teacher would write scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice. What mattered was the meditation and yet it was the ritual that over time became the center of the focus.
Thankfully, Jesus tried to sway his disciples away from such habits on the mountainside. No tents were put up and they were encouraged to focus on that moment of worship instead. At the same time Jesus also knew the danger of the other typical way they could respond to the experience. He had to warn them not to tell about the encounter, for while it was astoundingly meaningful to them in that moment, the telling of it would not have quite the same impact on others. In fact he tells them that many have had the opportunity for such encounters, they saw Elijah, they saw John the Baptist, and it didn’t drastically change their lives. They simply continued to do as they pleased. Maybe they had listened to John speak or had even been baptized, and yet that mountaintop experience was not enough to alter their day to day life.
Jesus knew that the tale could not simply end “and having experienced John’s baptism, he lived happily ever after” or even “having seen Jesus transfigured on the mountainside, his disciples served him faithfully and unwaveringly for the rest of their lives.” Because it simply was not true. We know that not much later Peter denies even knowing Jesus, his disciples can’t stay awake to keep him company in Gethsemane, and almost all of them desert him when he hangs on the cross. This one moment of glory did not change everything. The day to day discipleship proved much more difficult.
On one hand I find this discouraging. If seeing Jesus transfigured before them wasn’t enough to move his own disciples beyond the dangerous tendencies to contain that glory or to lose hope in the everyday, what does that mean for us as we attempt to be faithful disciples some two thousand years later? Oh, we might have our mountain top moments, but nothing compared to encountering Jesus transfigured into glory. How are we as regular people with ordinary everyday lives even to dream of living as hope-filled disciples without falling into the dangers of missing the point behind the known safety of structure and ritual or of simply getting caught up in the everyday mundanity of life? How can we live out that call to daily love God and love others, seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God when even the disciples seemed to have difficulty doing so?
I wouldn’t dare presume to have the answer to that question. But I do want to share a story that gives me some hope.
For those of you who have explored the infrequently read and seemingly daunting Minor Prophets section of the Bible, you may already be familiar with the story of Amos.
A poor herdsman from Judah, Amos was part of a population that was subservient to Israel at the time of the divided kingdom. Judah in that position therefore bore the brunt of the expenses of Israel, with the poor and needy of the land frequently being used and abused to cover the expenditures of those in power. Through the manipulation of debt and credit, the wealthy had amassed more and more of the land at the expense of poor landowners. Some scholars believe that the only thing that would have even brought a poor shepherd like Amos to the big city of Jerusalem was the requirement that he pay tribute to those that controlled his lands at an official festival. It is what happened when he journey to Jerusalem that changed him though. If this was a contemporary event, the click-bait headline would be “Poor herdsman travels to Jerusalem, you’ll never believe what he does next!” For what this struggling working class man saw in Jerusalem was a population that not only lived in extravagance, but one that had stopped asking questions about if they were living in the ways of the Lord. In fact they not only had stopped asking questions about whether their lifestyles based on the oppression of the poor reflected God’s desires, they had been told by the powers that be that it was not proper (or permitted) to ask questions that challenged the ways of Israel.
Seeing this abandonment of the faith in the guise of apathy moved Amos, who was not a religious professional, to speak the word of the Lord to Israel. Although the governing religious hierarchy told him to not prophecy against the ways of Israel, Amos knew he could not remain silent about the injustices he saw. He saw the people going through the rituals of religion as normal while the poor were exploited on their behalf. So this ordinary man took up the mantle of prophet – one who calls people to live into God’s ways. The message he delivered on the streets of Jerusalem was that God hates their worship gatherings and the noise of their praise songs because they have given up on caring about what it actually means to be God’s people. Amos told them – Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches,… who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!”
Israel was enjoying the prosperity injustice and oppression of the poor gave them and therefore had accepted the injunction against questioning the practices of the government and economic system (because why would they question something that let them live a comfortable life?). Amos, this ordinary guy from the countryside, called them to instead to stop exploiting the poor and let justice roll across the land. He begged them to ask the hard questions of themselves and of their rulers – to be disciples despite the cost to their day to day lives. But, of course, questioning the status quo is dangerous. Jerusalem had no interest in hearing the word of the Lord that challenged their economic prosperity. The powers that be moved to silence his prophecy and evicted Amos from Jerusalem. And yet the witness of this man who was moved by the day to day reality of the world to be a better disciple and to call others to do the same stands as scripture in our Bibles.
So while at first it may seem that the story of a guy who has his own book in the Bible might not seem like the best encouragement for us everyday people, I find it to be quite inspiring. Why? Because for Amos, the everyday reality of the world was transfigured in a way that led him to acts of worship much in the same way the disciples who saw the transfigured Jesus were moved. Amos saw the suffering of those around him, the injustice of those who lived comfortably at the expense of others, and the silence of the religious community on such matters and his world was changed. This was his everyday world and it moved him to serve as a prophet of God – calling God’s people to actually live in the ways of righteousness and justice that God demands of them.
And just like Amos – this is our everyday world. Our world is filled with injustice. Women trafficked into sex slavery. Workers repeatedly cheated of wages in sweatshops so that our clothes and electronics can be cheap. People who are hungry. People without access to clean water or affordable medical care. If we open our eyes we can see the same injustices in our world that Amos did in his – and if we choose to look in the right way, such can be our daily mountaintop experience calling us to lives of discipleship – not to lose hope or try to contain it in meaningless structures somehow, but to lives as prophets of God turning the world to God’s ways.
For you see, Jesus is transfigured every day at every moment in the world around us. We are reminded in Matthew 25 that whatever we do for the least of those amongst us, we do for Jesus. Jesus is transfigured every day in the guise of the hungry, the poor, the immigrant, the oppressed worker, the homeless, and the sick. We might not have access to one great dazzling mountaintop moment where we encounter the transfigured Jesus, but if we have the eyes to see, we encounter the transfigured Jesus every moment of every day. When we eat food grown by slaves or buy clothes made by oppressed worker we encounter Jesus. When we deny medical care to those who need it or stay silent as aid for the hungry is slashed in our country, we are doing those things to Jesus.
C.S. Lewis referred to this transfiguration of the everyday as being burdened with the weight of the glory of others. If we had the eyes to see we would be overwhelmed he wrote to see that the world is populated with those whom we might refer to as gods and goddesses if we were to see the full glory of God that is in them. To carry the burden of upholding the image of God in our neighbor, to see in them the transfigured Jesus, is our daily task of discipleship. It is not as simple and no where near as easy as ‘happily ever after.’ It truly is a burden to deal with the glory of the everyday but it is far more hopeful.
So when we lament that the thrill of mountaintop experiences may pass or when we get lost in the rituals and structures we build to try and preserve our moments of encounter with Jesus, we would do well to think like Amos instead and see the glory in the every day. To bear that weight of glory by doing to the least of these as we would for Jesus. To transfigure the everyday and become better disciples for it.