Sunday, February 06, 2005

'What Was He Thinking?' - A Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

Matthew 17:1-9

A musician and longtime follower of Miles Davis was at a club one night. His band had just finished their first set and he took a seat by the bar to relax before the group went back on. The bartender motioned to a nearby waitress and said, “You make sure to take extra special care of Miles. He’s a VIP.” The musician’s ears perked up. “Did you just say ‘Miles?’” “Yep,” the bartender replied. “He comes in here all the time. Always sits in the corner booth with a couple friends.” The musician glanced over to find that indeed, Miles Davis was sitting in the corner. What an opportunity! His all-time favorite blues trumpet player, the man on whom he’d based his style, was sitting 30 feet away. Standing up, the musician straightened his jacket, smoothed down his hair, and approached.

“Mr. Davis? My name is Jack, and I’ve been listening to your stuff since I was twelve. I have every album you’ve put out including a couple concert bootlegs. I’ve studied your style since I could pick up a trumpet. Remember that time you played in Seattle in ’85? Well, I was in the club that night. You probably couldn’t see me because I was near the back and actually had to duck out early after I bumped into this waitress and got a whol tray of drinks dumped on my head so I had to wash my hair five times that night to get out the smell and so I totally missed the encore but I’ve seen you six other times so that’s okay. And I have all your albums, and I’ve been listening since I was twelve, and I have all your albums. You are my biggest fan.”

What a moment. What a moment to try to capture, a moment that would live forever in this man’s mind. It would be a moment he’d never forget. The question is, would he remember it because of who he was meeting, or because of how silly he ended up sounding?

Can you relate? A moment comes along that never will again, a moment that just seems so perfect where we can express ourselves to a roomful of people or one particular person. Maybe it’s an important board speech or a job interview. Maybe it’s a first date or even your wedding day. Maybe it’s meeting a person important to you, a mentor, an inspiration. Actor Jim Carrey relates the time he met his favorite actor, Jimmy Stewart. Carrey approached, deciding it would be fun to kick off the introduction with an impression of the movie icon. In response, Stewart brushed by him coldly, clearly not amused by the opening. Well, that’s Jim Carrey, we could say. But surely many of us can recall a moment, a star-struck moment where our nerves do the talking rather than our brains, and we end up with a nice red handprint on our foreheads.

It’s Transfiguration Sunday, and Peter is star struck. Here is this moment where Jesus is transfigured before him and two other disciples close to him. His clothes are dazzling white. His garments are transformed. Moses and Elijah are said to appear. So Peter trying to be helpful, says, “Hey! I’ll build three tents for you, Moses, and Elijah!” Why? What were the three of them going to do there? What was he thinking? Or was he?

What do the gospel writers seek to convey for their communities with this story? What is at stake? Matthew’s community was, by the time this gospel was compiled, getting some heavy heat, particularly from an opposing Jewish community. What was all this blather about the Messiah arriving? Jesus didn’t fulfill the Messiah’s role! He came, he opposed the Romans, he tried to reform a couple Jewish practices, and he got killed. Big deal.

But for Matthew it IS a big deal. Jesus, he wishes to show, continues in the great tradition of Moses and Elijah. He didn’t fail, his death was not the end. He was one chosen and set apart by God to do greater things, to proclaim the kingdom. And his true glory is going to be revealed, just like it is in this story. Something bigger was behind Jesus’ call, something greater behind his message. The story of his transfiguration is a glimpse of God’s greater purposes. We saw greater things in him, says Matthew’s author, greater things like what we tell about Moses and Elijah, greater things in his life. Greater things in his death. And greater things today.

This is what’s behind the proclamation that comes through the clouds: “This is my beloved son. Listen to him!” It is a moment with similar characteristics with the episode at Sinai in Exodus. Matthew wants to show that Jesus and his community’s message of Jesus has integrity and continuity with the sacred stories of Moses before him. Listen to him!

So we’re back to star-struck Peter. Let’s make three tents. He misses the point. The revelation conveyed through the transfiguration lies in Jesus’ being called, set apart, God’s beloved Son. Moses and Elijah are perhaps there more to add weight to the call rather than to have a nice friendly chat in a tent.

So where’s that leave us? Can we always identify more with Matthew’s readers, those ‘in the know’ about the transfiguration’s meaning, scoffing at Peter’s bumbleheaded reaction? Or might there be a moment, maybe an entire era of one’s life, that we can identify with the star-struck mouth-faster-than-brain antics of our dear fully human apostle? After all, many a strange act has been perpetrated where the question of whether the perpetrator listened to Jesus first should be asked. Acts of violence in Jesus’ name are often committed. Doctrine sometimes takes precedence over another’s humanity. ‘Preaching the truth in love’ sometimes tragically and other times violently trumps the recognition that the object of that preaching is a beloved child of God. At other points, self-denial or a primary preoccupation with ‘faith-based’ fear can also result from ignoring Jesus’ touch and his call to us, “Get up and do not be afraid.” How open are our eyes and ears to what God’s revelation to us through Jesus really means?

When I was a chaplain at a St. Louis hospital about a year and a half ago, I entered a new patient’s room to introduce him to the spiritual care department and explain my availability as a chaplain to him. We talked about the reason for his stay and his family, among other things, and at one point he shared that he was legally blind. We talked about what that meant for his life for a moment before passing on to the next subject, and as the visit wound down, like so many visits before this one, I pulled out a spiritual care flyer and handed it to him, saying, “Well, this explains what the department offers, including the number we can be reached at.” By this time a nurse had entered the room to check his heart monitor and said, “I can read it to you later.” Whoops.

We’re entering into Lent, a time to be especially attentive to what Jesus is saying. It requires careful listening, true listening rather than blocking out what we don’t want to hear or pushing our own habits or desires. It is a time to respond to what Jesus is actually saying, to act appropriately to the new ways in which we are called to act. In some moments we cannot help but be star-struck by God’s awesome presence. It is in that same moment that God is speaking.


Jesus as in that great tradition before him, reveals God with us. As we journey toward the cross, we need to pay attention.

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