Sermon by Rev. Laurel Dykstra (no pronouns or they/them)
August 6 is transfiguration Day
The transfiguration is considered so important that we celebrate it every year in Epiphany. And, if the August feast day falls on a Sunday like this year we mark it again.
In each of the synoptic Gospel:
Jesus takes his closest friends,
They go up a mountain
Jesus’ appearance changes and his clothes become dazzling
Suddenly Moses and Elijah appear
Peter offers to set up camp
A voice speaks from a cloud
Moses and Elijah disappear
They come back down
What is that all about?
The church has spent a long time trying to explain the transfiguration: Jesus’ identity? Baptism? Ascension? where human and God nature meet
For me two concurrent days from the non-liturgical calendar “shine a light” on the transfiguration even though at first glance they might seem unlikely.
Today is the Vancouver Pride Parade, thousands will march and 100 thousand are expected to join the celebration
it is also the 78th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima an event perhaps more in our collective awareness with the recent release of the movie Oppenheimer, and the threat of much more destructive nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine.
Besides the dazzling clothing and shining faces of pride
and the bright light and terrifying cloud of Hiroshima,
the similarities are mostly cautionary.
In the Gospel, the frequency of the words “they and them” points to the fact that it is the disciples rather than Jesus who are the focus of the story.
But unfortunately in the Gospels the disciples are often not the best examples of discipleship.
The transfiguration is not an affirmation of those insiders Peter, James and John who go up the mountain with Jesus.
To understand why we need to look at the surrounding material
In each of the synoptic gospels the transfiguration occurs after an episode usually called Peter’s confession:
Jesus asks “who do you say that I am?” And Peter answers “the Messiah”
Jesus immediately disabuses Peter and all the disciples of any heroic or triumphant notion of what that means
He says -Yep, and the Messiah, the Kingdom, Salvation aren’t what you think.
The Messiah be met with rejection, violence, and death
And so will his followers. Discipleship leads to the cross.
The only way to live in this culture of death is to risk everything
And then, in the very next episode, up the mountain they go
Two keys that help us to understand what the disciples are shown in the transfiguration are Exodus and Baptism.
Moses went up a mountain, Jesus goes up a mountain,
A cloud goes ahead of the Israelites, a cloud overshadows the disciples
In both cased God is revealed on a mountain
Moses who led the exodus shows up and
When Moses and Elijah speak about Jesus’ “Departure” they say exodon. The Greek word for Exodus.
And baptism -Twice in this chapter Jesus is mistaken for John the baptizer or the wilderness prophet Elijah (also associated with the Jordan) who John is patterned after. Elijah appears on the mountain.
And then, the voice from the clouds echoes the voice heard at Jesus’ baptism, “this is my chosen one, (or as the other gospels have it, my beloved)”
Exodus and Baptism, or Liberation and Love
—Jesus is transfigured he is not transformed, he doesn’t become something else, In this moment the disciples see Jesus for who he really is.
--sometimes we see people or things as they really are
when you are a parent, or in love, when someone comes out to you, or just particularly attentive we receive the gift of seeing someone in that way, the shining true self, as God sees
But as Moses and Elijah say Exodus and Baptism, Liberation and Love, point Jesus straight towards Jerusalem, towards confrontation with the centers of power.
Jesus already knows this, it is what he said to the disciples not ten verses before.
He has set his face towards Jerusalem. But while preparing this sermon, for the first time in many years of hearing this passage, I wondered about what was happening for Jesus. I was thinking about the way that Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera the trans women of colour who were leaders at Stonewall and who started the first shelter for LGBT youth are often remembered and invoked at pride.
I wondered if in addition to demonstrating to us the not quite getting-it disciples -Jesus’ connection to the liberation tradition and the prophetic tradition that maybe the appearance of Moses and Elijah was a case of Jesus calling on or being visited by his movement forebears, for the strength or the courage to face what was ahead.
But the disciples have a glimpse of who Jesus is and what lies ahead but they don’t really get it. They are “weighted down with sleep.”
Peter offers to build a tent, his response is--this is good, it’s beautiful, I want to be here all the time, I want to stay on the “mountain top”
The disciples do not want to return to the flatland, to the valley to, Jerusalem, to the crucifixion
So back to Pride
The movement was sparked by the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York
-after one of many night-time raids on the Stonewall bar, -where patrons were arrested, publicly humiliated, and sometimes assaulted for the crime of being gay or transgender, drag performers, or sex workers
patrons and homeless youth living in a near-by park took to the streets
At Pride we clearly see the dazzle of the transfiguration
-sequins, satin, feathers,
Faces shining with -sweat, glitter, joy
Appearances changed -by drag, by surgery, by the love of community
And often there are moments of deep recognition and love -that seeing as God sees.
But the cautionary example of Pride is that like Peter and the disciples, we can want to stay at the party too long. Especially if we have experienced harm or discrimination, we can want to set up camp at a place that celebrates our inclusion rather than being encouraged and built up to keep on resisting. We stop noticing when our outsider status has become insider, when the corporate and political floats have pushed out the sex workers and street kids who started the march. The disciples don’t want to go back to “the real world” they don’t want to suffer, to see suffering.
Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker called the bombing of Hiroshima the anti-transfiguration
The event, which hastened the end of the Second World War, killed 12 to 22 hundred thousand people most of them civilians. All hospitals destroyed and 90% of medical personnel. The weapons had been tested on the lands and on the bodies of Pacific Islanders and Indigenous Americans.
Some people argue that at least the first bomb was necessary to end the war with a minimum of casualties, others argue that indiscriminate killing of civilians and destruction of medical infrastructure was a war crime.
Dorothy Day said that the killing of innocents, victory through the threat of anhilation, and especially the jubilation over this act were the very opposite of the non-violent peacemaker revealed in the transfiguration.
Instead of transfiguring, disfiguring human violence was revealed.
Like the disciples we can get caught in that old idea that Messiah and Kingdom and Salvation are about, victory, triumph, winning. Especially when Christianity has for Centuries been tangled up with Colonization and Capitalism. We can fall into a kind of triumphalism –Christian nationalism, where Christ is Lord becomes Christianity is or even Christians are King. When we are willing to forget all the least regarded, the outsiders and expendables who Jesus put at the centre our Christianity becomes the opposite of God’s Kingdom.
So my friends, Look around you, Moses and Elijah and even Jesus are gone, the prophets and heroes are our own flawed and ordinary companions.
Together with James, John and Peter, we must come down from the mountaintop remembering Exodus and Baptism, bearing God’s kingdom of liberation and love to a world that doesn’t want it, our eyes set on the cross. Amen.
Laurel Dykstra is priest of Salal + Cedar Watershed Discipleship Community www.salalandcedar.com
Image: artist Kreg Yingst. You can see his work at: