Today is the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent—Ash Wednesday is this coming Wednesday (unbelievably!)—and so, as every year, the Biblical texts that we are encouraged to consider are those of Moses’ shining face after his interview with God and the shining splendor of Christ as he is transfigured before three disciples on a mountaintop. Before we descend, down the mountain into the valley of real life and the real spiritual reckoning of Lent, our liturgical journey takes us to the shining heights of Mt. Sinai and the Mt. of Transfiguration, so that we can fill our spiritual gas tanks, as it were, with a peak experience, a reminder of our destiny, to fuel us for when the valley path becomes a challenge.
In both of our texts for today, we see that a person shines—they radiate light—when they are or have been in the close presence of God. We understand that the situations described for us in Exodus and the Gospel of Luke are about times when Moses and Christ are speaking to God face-to-face, or are enveloped in the cloud of God’s holy presence. This is not our experience, and yet—we are promised by Christ that we are and will be always in the close presence of God, and indeed we are. How and when do we shine, or can we? Those around us hopefully don’t need to shield their eyes—we aren’t out to blind others—but how can our very knowledge that we are in the close presence of God make us radiate the light of Christian faith? The challenges of our lives can be very great—there is illness, abandonment, rejection and failure, loss—we are still and always in the close presence of God. We endure, and enjoy, new love, success, tremendous happiness and fulfillment, and all the beauty that the world has to offer—and this can be an even bigger impediment to remembering that we are always in the close presence of God. Sometimes our sadness and hardships make more clear the closeness of holy love, or they drive away that knowledge. Even more so, though, do the joyful stretches of life often distract us, through delight, and the lack of awareness of our need for God, to forget that we are, even—or especially—when we are flying high—in the close presence of God. Sometimes our complicated lives have us simultaneously with one foot in challenge or despair and the other in hope and joy. Those are our days! Through it all we must remember that we are in the close presence of God and let that knowledge shine through us. If we can keep that God-awareness through good and bad and regular we can only be a better, more shining conduit for God’s love and grace to others.
And yet—Moses didn’t know that his face was shining! I both want to say that we must persevere in sharing our shining faith with others, and let the grace of God work through us in ways that we may never see or understand. What we see in the case of Moses is that faith shining through us is helped by our intention to be faithful, to be close to God, and to channel God’s brilliance toward others. It is also the case that God can choose to shower us in holy light, making us divine vessels of radiance and grace, without our even knowing it or seeking to make it happen. It isn’t our effort or even consciousness, but only divine gift, and we thank God endlessly for it. Let us make ourselves vessels for God to shine through, whether or not we think we feel the faith, whether or not we think we deserve to be vessels. Let us permit God to use us as notice to all those around us of the power and immediacy of holy love!
Which leads me to wonder with you about what veils we ourselves may don in order to prevent others from seeing God through and in us, or from attracting notice. How do we veil the glory that pushes to shine forth from us? What do we want to hide, and why? Some of us may be overly humble, certain that we are not the material God would ever use to manifest anything lovely, let alone holy. Some of us may doubt the presence or power of God, period, so we certainly couldn’t be a vehicle of God’s self-expression! We put on the veil of doubt, or disbelief, or unworthiness. We put on the veil of overwork, or boredom, or fear of self-exposure as a person who is actually hungry to be in fellowship with God. Perhaps sometimes we don’t want the people who are around us to be overwhelmed! If we could accurately depict the power, and might, and love of God as even we have known it, would we not blow other people out of the room, not by our own power but through gently pointing to God’s? What other veils do we put on? Do we not want others to know how vulnerable we are to God and Christ, and how closely we are attentive to their role in our life, the quiet but formative way in which our faith directs what we do—or that we strive to have it direct what we do? So often, the ways in which we obfuscate God’s shining through our lives are really a product of our feelings of unworthiness. Let us remember that God does not find us unworthy, but lovely! Let us summon within ourselves the faith to be conspicuous witnesses to God’s grace, and every day.
And let us take empowerment and comfort in the fact that, while it was Christ who was transfigured, that the disciples were profoundly included in that miracle. They were touched by traces of the holy power and cloud, and they were included in the whole experience by witnessing its entirety. Many of us may feel that our faces never glow, that shining faith is not our inheritance, but it is because we are in the total picture of glory that we are indeed captured in God’s net of transfiguration. Some of us may feel very much dis-figured by the lives we have led, the things that have befallen us, the choices we have made, and the choices that others have made for us, and yet—God and Christ have the power to re-figure us, and to transfigure us. We can be remade through their power. We can cross-trans-move to a new place of wholeness and blessing. So many of us live with the deep sense that our daily life and the way that others view us is not who we really are. We feel that the choices we’ve made for ourselves may not be about who we really are, or that the boxes we have been put in do not show others who we really are. The grace-full news is that God and Christ know exactly who we are, the good and the bad, and their work in our lives is to redeem us. They are always working to refigure and transfigure us. We are works in progress. We will never be simply a product of our own efforts, good or bad, for God and Christ are at work. They are always in close communion with us, whether or not we know or recognize that.
I began this sermon by saying that when we are blessed to find ourselves on a spiritual high, a shining height, we need to capture the experience and hold on to it dearly, for our next call is to return to the hard valley of service and struggle. The same was certainly true for Christ, who was electrified on the Mount of Transfiguration, before his descent to the valley of ministry; betrayal and death. This experience prepares him for all that is to come, and it can do the same for us. Christ and his disciples were visibly reminded of the ancestors, of those who had gone before, and so are we. We are the current line up in a group of fine and flawed people who have tried to live faithfully in our own day and time. Moses, Elijah, Christ, Mary, Miriam, Peter, James, John—they are our forebears in being refigured and transfigured, and so we take our place in a holy line of people who can only pray to God that they get it right—this life of faith, of discipleship, of humility and discernment and love and care. So many challenges. So much inspiration. So much light to share from our shining faces if we will simply let the work that God is doing pour out from us unimpeded, blessed, imperfect, real, us, beloved, God’s, Christ’s, ours. Let us strive to live transfigured lives—always.
www.workingpreacher.com, Cláudio Carvalhaes, Luke 9:28-36, Feb. 7, 2016
Feasting on the Word, D.L. Bartlett and B.B. Taylor, eds., Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 2009), pp. 452-457