Text: Matthew 17:1-9
Defining moments: the first day of kindergarten; the day your best friend moved away because his parents got a job transfer; that first kiss in middle school; going to your first high school dance with the love of your life; freshman year of college; first job; first paycheck; the death of a parent or sibling or spouse; a divorce; a marriage. There are so many defining moments in life. Those moments when something changes and you feel different and people look at you and say, “There is something different about you.” It’s not so much a physical difference but your presence is different and you feel changed on the inside like you have been transformed into a new, or at least, different person. When these defining moments happen, something shifts and you see life differently than you did before.
I can think of several defining moments that occurred in my childhood and youth. One such event happened at the start of second grade. Since age five, I had had four best friends—Paul, Troy, Roy and Thomas. We were inseparable. We went to church together, although I went more often. We went to kindergarten together at the Sandy Plains Baptist Church. Most days, Ms. Price, our kindergarten teacher, made sure we didn’t sit beside one another otherwise we would find ourselves standing at the blackboard with our noses pressed against it in a circle she had drawn on the board for students who didn’t follow the rules. If one of us did something good, we all got credit. And if one of us did something bad, we all got sent to the blackboard. For two years, kindergarten through first grade, we spent six sometimes seven days a week together. It never occurred to me that when I walked into my classroom for the first day of second grade that Paul, Troy, Roy and Thomas wouldn’t be sitting there waiting on me. There sat Paul, Troy and Roy, but no Thomas. He had been placed in another second grade class. The result of that defining moment: I remember very little about second grade. That day, at age 6, I realized that life could change in ways that could hurt and bring disappointment. It still is a defining moment for me. Another such defining moment in my youth was the day that I ran my motorcycle into the side of my sister’s new black Pontiac Trans Am that she had gotten for her 16th birthday. She had had it all of 30 minutes before my “accident.” My parents made sure that that day would be a defining moment in my life. And it still stands as the day I truly learned about consequences.
As I think about my adult years, two defining moments leap out. The first is my journey to Vladivostok, Russia to adopt Nora. Having a child or adopting a child in and of itself can be a defining moment. And while Nora has been and continues to offer many defining moment in my life, the part of that journey that transformed me was actually facing my fear of flying. Some of you know about and have experienced firsthand my anxiety with flying. The Pullen folks whom I traveled to Nicaragua with last year can substantiate any question you might have as to this truth. I still have anxiety when getting on an airplane. But here is the thing. In May of 1999 when I boarded my flight from RDU to Dulles, and then to Frankfurt, Germany on to Moscow and then that last 8½-hour leg from Moscow to Vladivostok—somewhere in those 24 hours between RDU and Vladivostok a mile high I was changed. And by the time I returned to RDU some 14 days later, I had been transformed. I was no longer the same person I was just fourteen days earlier. I had, in that two-week period, faced a fear that had for some years altered the way I lived life. After that journey I knew of a deep well within me that I had not known before. A strength that I didn’t know I had. And I felt changed, transformed, maybe even a bit transfigured.
The other defining moment in my adult life is more recent. It was the decision several years ago to participate in civil disobedience—to deliberately violate a law to, in my case, bring attention to what I thought was an unjust decision made by elected officials that deeply affected our community. Never before had I come even close to feeling such passion for a cause that I was willing to go to jail for that cause. When I take away all the hype around that moment and think about my discernment process in the days leading up to that event, it truly was a defining and transformative moment. To have that kind of clarity about how far I was willing to go for something that I felt passionate about was and continues to be transforming for me. It was that experience that put me in touch with my own family history with racism and my decision to do my part in breaking a cycle of racial prejudice that was and still is common in many white Southern families. Defining moments.
But these defining moments don’t just happen in our individual lives. They happen collectively within our world—the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. They happen collectively within nations—9/11, what’s happening right now in the Ukraine. They happen in local communities like Sandy Hook. I am aware that all of these defining moments are dark and tragic. My life experience tells me that all defining moments don’t have to be that way. There are many defining, life-changing moments that are beautiful, sweet and happy. Yet, it seems quite often that tragedy or deep struggle changes and transforms us most profoundly.
For just a minute longer, I want us to think about some defining moments within the life of our church—those events, decisions, happenings that have transformed and changed us into the community that we are today.
We might start with the death of John T. Pullen, May 2, 1913. Five days after his death on May 7, the members of the Fayetteville Street Baptist Church honored their founder by voting unanimously to re-name their congregation “Pullen Memorial Baptist Church.” A defining moment. On April 22, 1921 a fire destroyed the church on Fayetteville Street and forced the congregation to speed up its decision made four years earlier to move to West Raleigh—now 1801 Hillsborough Street. A defining moment. In more recent years, April 1958, the congregation took final action to adopt a constitution. In that constitution, the church affirmed three distinctive Pullen emphases and practices regarding membership. The first of these distinctive emphases is the fact that the church is open to all people of all races. The second distinctive emphasis is that people from other denominations may be accepted into full membership; No need to be re-baptized if you’ve been sprinkled. And the third distinctive emphasis, dealing with affiliations, stated that the church may also be associated with more inclusive organizations such as the North Carolina Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. A defining moment. Defining moments continued for Pullen—February 1992 the church voted to become a welcoming and affirming congregation for the LGBT community and to bless same-gender unions, a decision that got us kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention; November 2011 this congregation voted unanimously to support marriage equality. Defining moments—there are many for our church.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. Muriel has read us the story of The Transfiguration. The high mountain. Jesus’ face shining like the sun. His clothes becoming dazzling white. The appearance of Moses and Elijah. The bright cloud and the voice coming out of the cloud declaring blessings on Jesus. The fear in the disciples. But what does it all mean? For me, this story of Jesus being transfigured is the epitome of a defining moment.
The transfiguration marks the midpoint in a series of scenes that contain defining moments as to who Jesus is and who he is becoming. At both his baptism and transfiguration the heavenly voice announces that he is God’s son. At his temptation, in Gethsemane, and at his crucifixion, Jesus wrestles with the humiliation, suffering, and abandonment that he must endure in his ministry. And in a final defining moment, the resurrected Jesus claims his identity and sends out his disciples to teach and heal people and preach the gospel.
Of the transfiguration story, Frederick Buechner writes:
It is as strange a scene as there is in the Gospels. Even without the voice from the cloud to explain it, they had no doubt what they were witnessing. It was Jesus of Nazareth all right, the man they’d tramped many a dusty mile with, whose mother and brothers they knew, the one they’d seen as hungry, tired, and footsore as the rest of them. But it was also the Messiah, the Christ, in his glory. It was the holiness of the man shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it they were almost blinded.
Even with us something like that happens once in a while. The face of a man walking with his child in the park, of a woman baking bread, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing.
This Sunday celebrates those defining moments in our lives individually and communally when something happens—it can be grand or it can be small—and we are changed, transformed, different than we were before. We glow, we feel alive, people look at us and say, “Something is different about you.” Today, Transfiguration Sunday, honors those moments when separately and together we raise up out of our fear and we listen to God’s voice coming out of the clouds saying, “You are my beloved, and with you I am well pleased.” Note, I did not say those moments when God speaks to us, or when God is present. No, God is always speaking that love, and is always present to us. Our moments of incandescence are those moments when we are present, when we are willing, when we are courageous enough to overcome our fear and attend to the voice and the presence of God.
I’m betting that Jesus was not the only one transfigured on the mountain that day. My guess is that Peter, James and James’ brother John were also transfigured, transformed, changed. I imagine that they, too, walked down that mountain different people than when they made the trek up the mountain. It’s easy to look at someone else and see how they are being transfigured. My question today is this, “Will we have the courage to look at ourselves, individually and collectively, and own the transformation that God is inviting us to experience. Or will we fear such change and miss a defining moment that could transform our lives forever?” My hope is that we will trust the holiness of this community to shine through our humanness, such that our Pullen face becomes so afire that it is almost beyond bearing.