February 7, 2016 // Transfiguration Year C //
First Congregational UCC, Ashland, OR // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk //
“Glory & Imperfection”: Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-43a
Well. I’m not so sure I picked the best time of year to start preaching. Last week, in our scripture story, Jesus narrowly escaped getting tossed from a cliff. This week, the scene sounds like something out of the “Teen Paranormal Romance” section of the bookstore: Jesus goes Twilight, “team Edward,” the vampire gang, and starts glowing on a mountaintop with a couple friends who are supposed to be… dead. This story is not a fan favorite for Progressive Christians. It’s fanciful and supernatural, full of image and symbol. We have apparating long-dead patriarchs, mysterious clouds and a disembodied celestial voice. A Brazilian scholar sees more Isabel Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marques1 than NPR. This is not Melissa Block. This is the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. This is a story of magical realism. This is a story of glory and imperfection. (Which is what I should have titled it in the bulletin.)
1 Claudio Carvalhaes, “Commentary on Luke 9:28-43), www.workingpreacher.org
It might be easier to disentangle the two: the glory and the imperfection. It might be easier to hang out on the mountain top OR stay down below in the mess of the next day. It’s almost two stories. But I’d like to take them together today.
We have realism here, all the imperfection of real life. So much in this story does not work. We read much here that a more politically savvy campaign manager would have edited out or polished or spun more positively: Peter makes this bungling suggestion, sticks his foot in his mouth, the way the best man or best woman at a wedding stumbles when they haven’t prepared their toast. Still half asleep when the ghostly guests show up, Peter suggests a little carpentry project: Let’s make three booths… because… it might rain… on the ghosts from the past… or… what if… the ghosts… need to take a nap… Luke tries to saves Peter’s face a little with his aside, “He did not know what he was saying.” Poor dear. (Pause) But Peter is not the only one feeling his way forward. Coming down off the mountain Jesus has his own little moment. Even the Son of God, apparently, has his limit. A child is ill, convulsing, getting bashed about by demonic forces and no one seems able to do a thing about it. The desperate father implores Jesus, “I tried to get your followers to do something, but they’re busy with… I dunno… some woodworking project.” In responding, Jesus probably should have used a private email account, because now it’s part of the public record. And it’s pretty harsh: “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” It seems like Jesus has just had a moment. I can imagine him smacking his head on facebook or tweeting: “God. I can’t even. With these people.” (Long line of very realistic moments like that from the leaders God asks to lead God’s people.)
But in this story, in and through the real and imperfect, also pulses a powerful Glory. Some of that glory is rooted in the more ancient story of Moses’ glowing face, a hint and an echo of someone who dwells so close to the holy, so face-to-face with pure Love, that their face glows in a way that scares others. Some of this story’s glory speaks through those powerful words: “This is my Chosen; listen to him.” And some of this story’s glory glimmers in a boy who is healed. Jesus does heal. As imperfect and real as this story is, it is also shot through with glory. “All were astounded by the greatness of God,” Luke writes.
I’m not sure I could think of a better gateway into the Season of Lent than a story as magically real as this one. Sure, Jesus’ transfiguration could convince us of his special status as Savior, Messiah, Anointed One, Chosen. His transformed face and dazzling clothes are often used to drive that point home. But Jesus’ transfiguration seemed richer to me this week as a parable for the path offered to those of us who would follow him further into the Kin-dom of God, the Commonwealth of Heaven. Because it’s not all glory up on that mountain. And it’s not all imperfection at the bottom of it the next day. It’s a package. We have to take both stories together to get the life out of them. So, too, our life as church, as the body, is both magical and real… very real. It is marked with signs of blazing glory and potholes of imperfection.
Using these glasses – glasses of glory and imperfection – let’s look at the church, what we call Christ’s “body.”
Let’s talk about the imperfection. Let’s talk about hours given to conflicts that feel so far from the mission and purpose of God. Lillian Daniel wrote a pretty brilliant chapter about a 54-something minute church board meeting debate over the preparation of Chili-Mac for a free community meal.2 It almost perfectly typifies the imperfection of church. People are hungry and we can spend 54 minutes on Chili-Mac? The stakes go much higher when it is people we’re talking about and not a cheese-colored food product. Church is imperfect. Last week, we read from I Corinthians that heart-piercing poem about Love. (“Love is patient, love is kind…”) Paul meant it to describe church. Have you thought about how impossible it is to love the way Paul describes? Love is not envious. Love is not boastful. It is not rude… Love is not irritable… Love keeps no record of wrongs. I can barely pull that off late on a Saturday night when I’m tired and cranky and dissatisfied with the progress of my sermon. I’m supposed to pull it off in church? That’s not realistic. (Pause) It’s magical.
2 Lillian Daniel, This Odd and Wondrous Calling.
So let’s talk about the glory. Let us see the glory of a people naming gifts and a calling in others that they could not, at the time, name for themselves. (That’s what happened to me.) Let’s see the glory of a gospel lived so fully that my gay cousin and my transgender friend and even myself as a woman are embraced as full participants in the Body. Let us see the glory of an occasionally homeless food pantry assistant who gave a dime-store stuffed bear to a church staff person because every human needs to give. As imperfect as this (gesture around church) is, there is so much glory in the way of Jesus and among the people who follow him.
Oh, friends, I hate preaching about church. (I’d much rather talk about God or Jesus or the Spirit or Creation or justice….) But on this my first Sunday in the pulpit with you, I want us to see both the imperfection and the glory of this insane gift of being one body, made one by God in Christ. Jesus doesn’t go all glow-ey like he’s seen the face on God on his solitary retreats. If you pay close attention to Luke’s story, you’ll see Jesus takes plenty of those personal retreats, but only when he goes up on the mountaintop with his friends to pray, and the spirits of Moses and Elijah join him, only then does he change, transform. It could be the mountain. Mountains have a way of altering our vision, our outlook. Mountains have a way of changing us. But Jesus’ transfiguration might be more about the company. Jesus’ transfiguration only
happens in community.3 As we begin our ministry together, this story reminds us: We don’t have to do this perfectly. Let me repeat that, as much for me as for you: We do not have to do this perfectly. Faith is showing up. It’s messy. Other people see our mistakes, our stumbling, our weaknesses… but it is only when we show up to these imperfect relationships that we get to see God’s Glory.
On my mountain, I see Fred, who irritated and challenged me, but who named my gifts and inspired me, and who I probably hurt very deeply once with my words. He’s on my left, and he’s holding an enormous hand-poured candle and a bottle of beer, and I am pretty sure we are fighting over the concept of original Sin. On my mountain, I see Susan, who awed and intimidated me, and also encouraged me to embrace my power and authority. She’s on my right, holding the world’s best Scottish Oat Scones in one hand an enormous book on the theology of evil in the other. These are the characters on my mountaintop. They loom “largely in my past and my future in a way that makes the present thick.”4 I wouldn’t be who I am today without these teachers. It is glory that we got to share the way together for a time. These are the figures on my mountaintop. (Pause) Who are the people on yours? Might they even be some of the people who have met you here?
Paul, arguably one of the most imperfect of the early Jesus followers wrote something glorious in second Corinthians, chapter 3:
All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of God as though reflected in a mirror,
are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.
This comes from God, the Spirit.
All of us. All of us are being transformed from one degree of glory to another.
May it be so in our life together.