Drifting or Anchored

The Transfiguration

Year A
Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 99
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

 

The summer after I graduated from high school… in 1971… I went to Israel for eight weeks… it was my parent’s idea… and I went with about 90 other college students… who I think were all Jewish… because the trip was organized by the American Zionist Youth Foundation… we took classes for two weeks at Tel Aviv University… classes that would help prepare us for the three weeks we’d spend on an archeological dig in Beersheba… and after that…  we toured the country for two weeks… going to both Jewish and Christian sites… and then we had a whole week on our own…

There were no digital cameras then… the first digital camera wasn’t sold until almost eighteen years later… so for us… it was either a Kodak Instamatic… or a 35mm camera with rolls of film… 24 or 36 exposures… and you took pictures carefully and judiciously…  because they were kind of expensive to develop and print… and with that kind of trip… lasting almost two full months… there’d be LOTS of pictures…

One of my traveling companions from Long Island… didn’t take any pictures… I’m not sure if Peter even brought a camera… and when we asked him about it… at least two times that I can remember… he said… somewhat flippantly… and perhaps somewhat seriously… I take pictures with my mind… at the time… that decision seemed ill-advised… because how could he then share the experience with his parents and family and friends…

But there may have been some wisdom in Peter’s decision… because although there are times when a photograph can remind us of what was going on that day… what the event or celebration was… can remind us about who was there… or not… maybe even what was said… photos can rarely capture the entire scene the way we saw it… can rarely capture what it actually felt like to be somewhere… any photos from Israel couldn’t have radiated the heat we felt… or the dry dusty winds blown on our faces… they couldn’t do justice to the view from the top of Masada… or replayed the hum of prayer at the Wailing Wall… they couldn’t recreate the taste of the salt water from the Dead Sea… or  anything else we actually experienced when we were there… air so thick with history… and theology… that you could almost cut it with a knife…

And the experiences that we tried to capture on film were certainly formative… in my case… they actually contributed to my later conversion to Christianity… and all of our experiences… all of our stories… and how we understand and internalize them… what we enjoy and accept… and what we dislike and reject… all of this certainly shapes us and helps make us who we are…

But the memories that photographs recreate for us… can be a two-edged sword… if we don’t hold on to them tightly enough… we can lose the moorings from which we come… and can float along aimlessly… but if we hang on to them too tightly… we can end up living in the past… and are not present to… well… the present…

The Rev. Warren Swenson… a priest in the Diocese of West Missouri… writes… remember… on the first Sunday after Epiphany… we encountered Jesus at the Jordan River… Matthew tells us that… when Jesus had been baptized… just as he came up from the water… the heavens were opened to him… and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove… and alighting on him… and a voice from heaven said… This is my Son… the Beloved… with whom I am well pleased… and today… on the last Sunday after Epiphany… we hear a similar proclamation in the Transfiguration story…  This is my Son… the Beloved… with him I am well pleased… listen to him… bookend affirmations from God about who Jesus was… and what he was to be about…

It must have been overwhelming for Peter… James… and John to be confronted with the embodiment of Law… Prophecy… and God… it must have been both overwhelming and affirming… something you wish you’ll get to see before you die… like Simeon did… but also something you kind of wish doesn’t happen… like hoping that Elijah really isn’t there… when you open the door during the Passover Seder… it must have been one of those things you want to tell everyone about… but also knowing that telling it will fall woefully short of conveying the actual experience… it was probably one of those… “you had to be there” times…

But Peter wanted to build three dwellings… he wanted to somehow enshrine the moment… take a photo… as it were… freeze it in time… to provide three dwelling places for the Law… Prophecy… and God… and the Greek word that’s translated as dwelling… also means tent… but it also means tabernacle… it’s a variation of the same word we hear in the Gospel of John… and the Word became flesh and lived among us… the word that’s translated as lived… also means… to pitch a tent… and we can also read it as… the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us…

The Jewish people… carried the Ark of the Covenant with them on their wilderness journey… and the Ark contained… according to Hebrews 9:4… the tablets of Law which Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai… and Aaron’s rod that budded… and a golden pot containing manna… and when they stayed in one place long enough… they erected a holy resting place for the Ark… called the Tabernacle… a tent… described in Exodus 25–27… an inner shrine… the most holy place… housing the Ark… and an outer chamber… also holy… with a six-branched… seven-lamp menorah… a table for the Bread of the Presence… and an altar of incense… and in many of our churches… we store consecrated bread and wine in either an aumbry… a recessed cabinet… or a tabernacle… which is what we have here… 

Moses and Elijah may be talking to Jesus about how he will fulfill the Law and the Prophets… but the Transfiguration experience transcends the three persons… and points to a way… that the blueprint of Law… the prescience of prophecy… and the love of Christ… come together in one irrepressible reality… and Jesus is shown to fully incorporate the Law and Prophets… by going to the Cross… in love…

The Peter in today’s Gospel… wanted to record… and hold on to… perhaps too tightly… his external experience of Law… Prophecy… and God… and he might have been thrilled if he’d been able to capture the experience in 4K video and sound… but he would probably have held onto it too tightly… might have watched the video over and over… and showed it to all his friends… like vacation slides… and ended up living in the past… that may be why the Peter in my Israel trip story took no photos… so he was free to be formed by the experience… and that may be why Jesus exhorted the other Peter… and James… and John to tell no one about the vision…

Pastor Isaac Villegas… pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship writes… transfiguration is not a heavenly escape from this earthly life… the mountaintop experience is not a call to travel to “an elsewhere” in which we remain… this narrative turns the disciples back to the place they already know… back to the familiar… transfiguration is an invitation to return to our communities and our lives with renewed attention and patience… awaiting the luminescence of the mundane… to attend to the present… and wonder at the ordinary… to let this life astonish us with the sacred… we are on holy ground… transfiguration changes us… even when we don’t take photographs… because the tabernacles that God wants to inhabit… are our hearts… that’s what makes scripture the Living Word… because it inhabits us and we inhabit it…

About the author: The Rev. Mike Wernick

The Rev. Mike Wernick is a second-career Episcopal priest who grew up in a Reform Jewish family, and who believes that diversity was never intended to be divisive. He serves as the Ecumenical and Inter-religious Officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Michigan and the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Michigan, and on the ELCA's North/West Lower Michigan Synod’s Task Force on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, "Open Hearts, Open Church."