Texts: Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36
I want to begin by saying thank you to those who attended the Historic Thousands on Jones Street Assembly yesterday. As I looked out and saw Pullenites of all ages – from 2-year-old Simon, to 4-year-olds Kash and Walker, to a good number of our senior adults and all ages in between – I was grateful that once again our church doesn’t just talk about doing justice but actually practices doing justice. I want to say a special word of thanks to our youth and their leaders who, after spending the night at the church at a youth lock-in, and I’m sure were tired from not much sleep, also participated in HKonJ.
This year’s Historic Thousands on Jones Street assembly was one of the most important in the last seven years. On the heels of a devastating week in the General Assembly, we, the people, needed to march. In two days, and less than 45 minutes of committee meetings, the house passed legislation to reduce unemployment insurance benefits from the current maximum of $535 to $350 a week, limited the duration of benefits from 26 weeks to 12-20 weeks depending on the state unemployment rate, and expanded the waiting period for benefits from one to two weeks. The Senate passed legislation to refuse federal money to expand Medicaid to over 500,000 low income North Carolinians: a decision that is estimated to cost North Carolina over 23,000 jobs. The Medicaid expansion would have been fully funded by the federal government for three years and at 90% thereafter. These actions, that took less than 45 minutes, are devastating to many of our neighbors – specifically those in our community whom Jesus called “the least of these.” And we remember Jesus’ words: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
And more is to come. In the coming days and weeks, the General Assembly is expected to take up voter suppression legislation, including a voter photo identification requirement to vote – action that would potentially marginalize hundreds of thousands of North Carolina voters who do not have the required ID. Legislation has also been introduced to make the “Right to Work” law part of the NC Constitution. There are also the tax reform proposals under discussion by the legislature: including elimination of the corporate and individual income taxes, and creating a regressive consumption tax. Furthermore, legislation is expected that would create a mechanism for public tax money to be used for private school tuition as well as bills that would further disenfranchise immigrants in our state.
I know that not everyone here today holds the same opinion about these legislative actions and issues. And that’s okay. The strength of our community is, in part, grounded in our diversity. But I raise these issues because, as people of faith, we need to be involved in how our elected officials shape laws and policies that impact our community. As a society and as a faith community we have a responsibility to shape our communal life for the “good of the whole.” As I read the biblical text, God’s vision for humanity is a vision of equality and justice for ALL – not just for some. As someone noted this weekend, if you take the Bible and cut out all the passages that have to do with justice for the poor and the oppressed and the marginalized — the immigrant, the stranger, the widow, the children, the poor — there would be some very big holes and empty pages. If what we talk about here on Sundays and Wednesdays and at other times when we gather is to have any relevance for the world in which we live, it must speak to the needs and cries of those living in this world. We can’t walk out of this sanctuary this morning and leave our faith – our light – sitting in these pews. Pullen people have never done that and we can’t start now. Sure, we can have different opinions and still come together to grapple with the question: What does God required of us?
Today is known as Transfiguration Sunday in the life of the Church. It is a day when we reflect on this unique moment of transfiguration in the life of Jesus, and it’s implications for us. It is an unusual story recorded in the Gospels – one that sounds oddly strange to our ears. Let’s face it, while over time we might experience a transformation of someone we know, it’s not every day that we see someone’s face miraculously change in a moment and their clothes become dazzling white right before our eyes. So what is happening in this story of transfiguration? And what does it mean for us as we seek to respond to the question that has become Pullen’s mantra, “What does God require of us?”
Trans-figuration literally means “change,” “figure or form.” It is, in a spiritual sense, that moment when humanity meets God: it is that meeting place of the ordinary and the sacred. We read in Luke’s story of the transfiguration that Jesus’ appearance changed miraculously. This carpenter’s son, this man from Galilee, this teacher, this Rabbi became something else. The Gospels begin with an introduction of Jesus, and throughout the Gospels, little by little, piece by piece, parable by parable, miracle by miracle, we get a more complete picture of who Jesus is. There are hints being dropped all along the way about who he is and what he is about. And this day, on a mountaintop, God once again lifts the veil of our understanding and we see yet another aspect of who Jesus is.
This mountaintop meeting is full of theological significance, depicting Jesus as the fulfillment of both Moses – representing the law – and Elijah – representing the prophets. You may remember that Moses and Elijah also had their mountaintop moments. Moses went up the mountain to meet with God where he hid in the cleft of the rock as God passed by. Elijah went up on the mountain hoping to have the same kind of experience that Moses had, but he discovered that God was in the sound of gentle silence. Now Jesus too is having his mountaintop moment with God and there on the mountain as he prayed, Luke tells us that he is transfigured. What does it mean – transfiguration – this moment of being transfigured?
Maybe a modern day story will help us understand. On November 10, 2008, Eben Alexander was admitted to the Lynchberg General Hospital emergency room with excruciating back pain. Within four hours he slipped into a deep coma that lasted seven days. At the end of those seven days, he opened his eyes and thrashed around in bed. After the doctor removed his ventilator, Alexander took his first unassisted breath in a week, calmed down, and then said, “thank you.” Looking around the room at his family and doctors, he smiled and said, “All is well. Don’t worry, all is well.”
Alexander’s book about his near death experience, Proof of Heaven, rocketed to #1 on the New York Times best-seller list last year. Before his near death experience, Alexander was a friendly skeptic. He wasn’t religious, and only went to church on Christmas and Easter. He had spent twenty-five years as a neurosurgeon, including fifteen years at Harvard Medical School. He had published over 150 peer-reviewed scientific articles. Faith in empirical science was his only creed. His book, Proof of Heaven, is mainly about the “profound spiritual experience” he had when he, in his own words, “was completely free of the limitations of my physical brain.”
What caught me about his description of his near death experience was how he compared it to the “lifting of a veil.” He writes, “although the spiritual realm beyond the brain is available to us, during the brain-based, physical portion of our existence, our brain blocks out, or veils, that larger cosmic background, just as the sun’s light blocks the stars from view each morning.” His use of the term “lifting of a veil” reminded me of Moses’ transfiguration experience on Mount Sinai.
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai after forty days and forty nights, “his face was radiant because he had spoken with God.” He had been radically transformed by his encounter with God; so much so that people were afraid to look at him or even come near him. It was too much, and so we read that “Moses put a veil over his face.” In the Transfiguration story of Jesus, we read there too that as Jesus was praying, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Matthew writes that, “his face shone like the sun.” Mark says that “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” Whatever was going on in that moment of transfiguration, all of the Gospel writers want us to know that the brightness of God’s light is extraordinary.
It seems to me that being transfigured is about a lifting of the veils, whatever they may be, that keep us from seeing the brightness of God’s light in our lives, in the lives of others and in the world. The transformed or transfigured life is about learning to see, and then being willing to see, in new ways – lifting all of those veils that keep us veiled from God’s light. This learning to see in new ways may very well be one of the most difficult tasks of the transformed and transfigured life. And unless we are intentional, our old habits of selective vision, our old choices about what to see and what not see keep us blind or at least seeing dimly to the possibilities of God’s transforming presence and love. In the gospel of John we read that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.” Being transfigured means that we live with a willingness and with the courage to move from behind the darkness and shadows of the veils of greed and power; of insecurity and fear and into the dazzling light of God’s goodness and compassion; of God’s love and mercy and justice for all.
Transfiguration is that moment when the ordinary meets the sacred. And so I wonder on this Transfiguration Sunday, “How might we go through our days differently if we knew that when others looked at us – just ordinary people – what they saw was God’s dazzling light of goodness, compassion and love?” Our scriptures today give us two images – one of a veil and one of a dazzling bright light. Today we choose which of these images to carry with us. Today we have a choice of staying behind our veils, or lifting our veils to be God’s light in the world.
We can’t leave out light here. Our veils yes. We can lift them from our faces and place those burdens down. But our faith is asking us to take our light with us into the world so that our world may be transfigured. Now is not a time to be silent. Now it the time to let your light shine.