Ars Praedicandi: Feast of the Transfiguration, Ed Foley

In many ways the story of the transfiguration is a bit mystifying
being “transfigured” is ordinarily not part
of our daily discourse, or bucket list.
To try to demystify the term I turned to a favorite source,
the Oxford English Dictionary
which was actually less helpful
than its accompanying thesaurus
The thesaurus provided 10 synonyms for transfiguration
including: conversion, transformation, mutation, metamorphosis
and, my personal favorite, transmogrification:
welcome to the feast of transmogrification!

Besides the linguistic tickle that comes from just saying it
The term transmogrification also triggered chuckles,
since the only place I have encountered it before
is in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip.

Calvin invented a transmogrifier – an upside down cardboard box
that allowed Calvin to turn Hobbes or himself
into quite an array of critters.

The only problem is that while Calvin & Hobbes
saw themselves completely transformed,
everybody else just saw him as the same kid & stuffed toy;
so much for transmogrification.

Most of us would probably be as frustrated as Calvin
if we went through our own transmogrifier
and people didn’t see the change.

If we spent all those hours at the gym
or in the library
or at the hairstylist
or at the computer

and our sweethearts or teachers
spouses or bosses
didn’t see us any svelter or any smarter
any more beautiful or any more productive …

Matthew, however, gives us a different image of holy transformation,
the firstborn of all creation
shining like the sun,
but not just on today’s mountain top
but in so many ways in throughout the gospels,

but often with a fate similar to Calvin
whose transformation was not seen, understood
or fully embraced.

Jesus’ divinity momentarily shone to shepherds and Magi
but was soon chased into exile by a Herod
who wanted no one to outshine him.
Jesus’ prophetic gift glimmered from his hometown pulpit
but his inspired word advocating freedom and justice
quickly triggered rage and rejection
in a community who believed they knew a better God.

And in today’s gospel he shines in the presence of Moses & Elijah
radiant as the new law giver, the new prophet
But drowsy Peter, on cue, misses the point … again!
And hopes for a tent city in the glow of this amazing warmth.

Maybe one of the ways to plumb the depths
of this transmogrifying gospel
is to attend to a central yet often overlooked character
in this mini-drama –
not Peter or Elijah or Moses,
instead the meteorologically elusive cloud & shadow.

it was from the cloud that the divine voice emanated,
obscuring visual cues and distracting appearances,
clearly proclaiming the heart of the matter
as God’s voice is usually wont to do.

Yet while the cloud was a source of intimate revelation,
it also cast a telling, prophetic shadow,
prefiguring the descent down the mountain
and the long journey towards Jerusalem,
where storm clouds gathered on the religious horizon
leading to that most grim of transfigurations,
Jesus on the jib of a tree in the place called Golgotha.

Barbara Brown Taylor is a favorite poet and preacher.
In her book Home by Another Way,
 she writes about those shadowy and cloudy spaces.
She calls them “thin places”:

A couple of summers ago, my husband Ed and I went to Ireland. We both have roots there. It is that Celtic sense of place that is so appealing – of holy trees, holy wells, holy mountains – ‘thin places’ as the Irish call them – places where the veil between this world and the next is so sheer that it is easy to step through…

You can be walking down an ordinary country lane and all of a sudden see a footpath leading off to the left. Follow it for a couple of hundred feet and you come to a little mossy hole full of crystal clear water. It would be easy to mistake it for an ordinary little watering hole if it were not for the tidy bank of stones around it, set there hundreds of years ago by people who recognized a ‘thin place’ right there in the middle of a sheep pasture…. you can sometimes feel it for yourself – a freshness that drenches you as thoroughly as a shower…. Simply to stand near is to experience living water.[1]

Thin places abound, and not just in Ireland.
They are doors ready for opening … invitations to grace.

A while back I received a letter from a young relative
who has spent 20 years in prison for an accident she caused
when she was 19 years old … resulting in 3 deaths.

She has recently moved out of prison into a halfway house.
While her letter was filled with firsts
e.g., the first automatic towel dispenser
that completely startled her,
she also narrated a small but touching vignette.

On her first day going to work, she rode in a van
sitting closest to the door.
She wrote: “when the van stopped, I just sat there.
My coworker said, ‘You can open the door and get out.’
I didn’t know … the prison vans are always locked
and they have to let me out
but that day I opened the door
and from that point on I was free!”

Who ever imagined a van door as a thin space
and permission to open that door a graced veil pulling
an invitation into freedom?

Thin places can be venues of holy revelation
like a mountaintop in Palestine
or a van door in South Carolina.

Thin places, however, can also open in the opposite direction,
and be portals to violence, even the demonic
rending the thin line between respect and disrespect
between humanity and inhumanity
between life giving and death dealing.

It seems like forever that we have been pondering our southern border
as a “thin space” of grace and malpractice
where redemption is achieved, and dreams are dashed.

Then recently, there was the sentencing of Robert Bowers
who five years ago gunned down 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue,
an event that turned a house of Torah and teaching and prayer
into ground zero for the increasingly thinning space
between tolerance and bigotry.

And in the violation of that boundary
we witnessed not only the most heinous anti-Semitic attack in U.S. History
and the traumatization of a world religion,
but the grievous wounding of humanity
both in the killings
and then again in Bowers’ death sentence.

Instead of pulling back the veil on the beauty of the beloved
this curtain was drawn on the ugliness of racial and religious arrogance.

In 1997 Stephen Spielberg directed the movie Amistad.
              It was based on a true story of a slave ship in 1839.
When the Mende tribesmen who were being sold into slavery
rebelled and took control of their captor’s ship,
though they attempted to sail back to Africa,
instead they were captured in U.S. waters
and imprisoned as escaped slaves.

An epic legal battle ensued,
with at least four litigants claiming
that the slaves were their rightful property.

The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court,
where none other than former president John Quincy Adams
defends the Africans.

In a penultimate scene before the court case opens,
Adams tries to explain to the Mende leader, Cinque
how difficult this process is going to be.

John Quincy Adams: Cinque, look. I’m being honest with you. Anything less would be disrespectful. I’m telling you, I’m preparing you, I suppose I’m explaining to you, that the test ahead of us is an exceptionally difficult one.

Cinque: (speaking through a translator) We won’t be going in there alone.

John Quincy Adams: Alone? Indeed not. We have right at our side. We have righteousness at our side. We have Mr. Baldwin over there.

Cinque: (speaking through a translator) I meant my ancestors. I will call into the past, far back to the beginning of time, and beg them to come and help me at the judgment. I will reach back and draw them into me. And they must come, for at this moment, I am the whole reason they have existed at all.[2]

On this Transfiguration Sunday
Christians summon the first born of all Creation,
the invincible son of justice – our life-giving ancestor
who birthed us as church
as he hung on the cross
and blood and water flowed from his side.

In the terrible beauty of that ultimate transfiguration
as the Only-Begotten literally hung
in that thin space between heaven and earth
we the baptized were missioned
to inhabit every thin space,
especially those where the vulnerable,
the lost,
the broken and the oppressed dwell,
whether in a synagogue in Pittsburgh
or on death row in Pennsylvania.

We are missioned to pull back the veil in such spaces,
denouncing the arrogance of bigotry,
and the violence of capital punishment,
acknowledging every human being
as created in God’s image.

In this season of transformation, we are missioned
to uphold the belovedness of every Muslim and Jew,
Hindu and Sikh, Buddhist and agnostic,
and so be the living presence of Christ in the world.

For in truth, in this place, at this moment,
Christianity itself can be imaged as a symbol
of why our divine Ancestor Jesus became human at all,
why the incarnation itself even occurred
and the pivotal way that transfiguring mystery
will continue to be recognized
if only we pull back the veil of belovedness.

Through Christ our Lord.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way (Lantham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 58-9.