One of the very first sermons I ever offered in my diaconal life was on the Transfiguration of Christ and it took place during my internship at Christ Church Cathedral. What I remember most about it was that it was rather long and convoluted, managing to address every single one of the readings, including the Psalm, as I pulled them in to support whatever point I trying to make. I can’t remember what that point was, but I know it took me a long time to do it. Some of you here were kind enough to attend that morning, and I can only hope, five years on, that you have recovered.
So this morning I won’t attempt a deep dive into the lectionary readings, each of which describes a life-changing mountaintop experience. In the first we get Moses’ encounter with God on Mt. Sinai, while the other readings tell of the moment when Christ was, in the words of an 8th century Benedictine monk, "changed to a different form, not of nature, but of glory."
In fact, my initial goal for this sermon was very humble indeed, and that was to avoid making a slip of the tongue. I sometimes find myself, you see, accidentally talking about the "transformation" of Christ rather than the "transfiguration" of Christ, as much as I know that’s in error.
That prompted me to think more closely about these two words that I kept using interchangeably. I reminded myself that the Transfiguration story occurs right after Jesus announces to his disciples that he will be meeting his death in Jerusalem. Peter rebukes him, saying "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you." And Jesus pushes back in turn, saying "Get behind me, Satan!" He chastises Peter for setting his mind not on divine things, but on human things.
Soon after, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain with him, where Jesus is transfigured before them; his face shines like the sun and his clothes become a dazzling white. So - getting back to those two words - it is Jesus who is transfigured; but of course, it is Peter whose faith is transformed. It is the three disciples who, through seeing this image and hearing God’s voice, have their minds expanded to encompass a Messiah far greater than the one they had previously understood.
Any of us can be transformed, I think, when we are given a startling new view of something. Think of the first-ever photographs of our planet that were taken by the astronauts on the Apollo missions. Photos like the one above, taken in April 1972, were the catalyst that helped us see beyond national borders; to recognize our common humanity and this uniquely precious planet in a way never before possible.
On his return from the Apollo 8 mission, astronaut Bill Anders said: "We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth."
Now let’s go from outer space to inner space, and the obstetrical ultrasound images that were first made possible in the 1950s. They are commonplace now, of course, and they have been outstripped by 3-D imaging that is astonishing in its detail. But the opportunity to see one’s child in utero was revolutionary at the time and, still today seeing those first images of one’s baby can utterly transform a parent’s relationship with that child.
These may not be quite akin to the extraordinary transfiguration of Jesus before the disciples’ astonished eyes. But whether we are a disciple on that mountain, or just a human going about our everyday business, images have impact. And that led me to think about some of the transfigurations that can - and must - take place in our churches and our culture if important transformations are to occur.
My downtown workplace recently retired the use of a crest that had adorned its office and its letterhead since 1886. For traditionalists, its retirement may have seemed a pity. The heraldic crest, however, was a visual representation of the organization’s colonial beginnings. For many walking the streets today, the crest may have conveyed a reassuring authority. For others, the image was an unwelcome reminder of a society that had been designed without reference to their wellbeing or their Indigenous culture. Understanding this and transfiguring the face of the organization is an attempt to remove barriers and start to transform relationships.
What we see influences our thinking - for good or for ill. We are more likely to apply for a job if we look on the company’s website and see a team of people that to at least some degree reflects our own experience. If we are 60 years old and all the employees and managers seem to be in their 20s, we may think twice. If we are a man and see that the company is composed entirely of women, we may disqualify ourselves before even applying - and visa versa. If we look into a church and there is no one else of our race, we may not feel entirely at home there, regardless of how kind the greeters are.
Over the past decades, our society has paid a growing amount of attention to the transfiguration of governments, companies, schools, hospitals and other agencies by increasing the diversity of their workforce and leadership. But, believe me, it will take more attention yet, and for some years to come. Because the perceptions and biases that we develop over the course of our generational lives don’t just disappear in the blink of an eye.
Here’s a pretty dismaying example. A few weeks ago, on a ferry coming home from the island, I was in the gift shop, absorbed in looking at the books on offer. Only one ear was paying any attention to the announcements being transmitted over the loudspeaker, and I wasn’t really listening to the words. Assuming it was just the standard onboard safety instructions that I had heard a hundred times before, I was on the brink of tuning them out all together when from somewhere in my unconscious a thought flashed up that said "No, keep listening, because it’s a man talking and so it might be important." In the matter of milliseconds, my unconscious mind had apparently reasoned that a women’s voice could be disregarded because she was likely not saying anything too vital. If the ship was going down, my inner Barbie doll had whispered, surely they would have a big, strong man giving us the news.
Can you imagine? I was pretty shocked when this bubbled up from somewhere inside me. But this is the thing - as much as I have enjoyed the life of a woman with many options, as much as I have not had doors closed to me because of my sex and as much as I have long been surrounded by accomplished women, I was born in a time when it was still common for deference to be given to men and to a male-shaped culture of business and politics.
When I was a babe in arms, women had only recently been allowed to open a bank account without their husband’s signature; until I was 12 years old, a woman could be laid off work if she became pregnant. Up until I was a teenager, it was OK to fire a flight attendant because she had gotten married or - horror of horrors! - passed the age of 32. It would be some years after that before women were represented to any significant degree in politics or Parliament, or well represented in traditionally male careers and professions. So perhaps it is not, after all, such a shock that I found myself reacting the way I did on the ferry.
Images have impact. What we see in front of us, changes us. So this week, as we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus, let us consider how we - as individuals, or as a church - might transfigure ourselves in such a way that will positively impact the people we encounter. Just as Jesus’s transfiguration opened the disciples’ eyes, how might changes we make expand people’s understanding of what it means to be Christian?
There are lots of assumptions out there about Christians, many of them not very complimentary. Some folks see us as judgmental. Some folks think we are hoarding wealth that could be used to help the needy. Some folks think we are cliquey. Some folks no doubt assume we are boring and lifeless. Some believe Christians spend too much time preaching the "shall nots" instead of focusing their energy on the "love your neighbour." Many find no reason to think about Christianity at all.
So how might the Church transfigure itself to transform people’s negativity or indifference toward the way of Christ? That is a question that is often on my mind, and it’s a topic that I would love to hear your thoughts on.
The Transfiguration of Jesus falls on the last Sunday before Lent; from here we begin our journey toward the Crucifixion. Just as it did to those disciples 2,000 years ago, the vision of Christ robed in glory offers us strength and sustenance as we travel the hard way to come, helping us trust that death will never have the last word. God knows we can all be doubting Thomases at times, needing to see for ourselves that Jesus is alive and always will be. So let us carry the image of the transfigured Christ within us, today and always; by its divine light may we be continually transformed, and through its power may we be outward and visible signs of God’s light in the world.