“Finding Holiness”-March 3, 2019

Sunday, March 3, 2019

REV. ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM

Stouffville United Church

Exodus 34 and Luke 9

Today is Transfiguration Sunday. The last Sunday of the season of Epiphany, with Lent beginning in three days on Ash Wednesday. In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is presented in the moment of Transfiguration as the fulfillment of both the Law and the Prophets, indicated by the presence of Moses to one side, and Elijah to the other.  Jesus has taken Peter, John and James up the mountain to pray. He begins to pray and as he is praying, the appearance of his face changes and his clothes become dazzling white.

Looking at our other passage from Exodus this morning, we find the great prophet Moses coming down from Mount Sinai, after forty days and nights in the company of God, two tablets of the covenant in his hand. He does not realize that his face is shining. We read: “Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” We gather that this shining comes from being in the presence of God, in the presence of what is holy. Aaron, his brother and chief priest of the people, and all the people themselves were afraid to come near Moses. Why? Because his face was shining. And it disturbed them. It unnerved them. And then the practice of the veil came into play, where Moses would draw a veil over his face when he was with the people, and he would take off the veil when he went in to speak with God in the tabernacle.

Transfiguration Sunday is about being close to God. It involves veils and mountains and things that cannot be explained. And at the root of it all is the experience of glory when coming closer to God. There is a line from the Battle Hymn of the Republic that reminds us of something we’ve maybe forgotten about: “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.”

Desmond Tutu wrote, “God is transfiguring the world right this very moment through us because God believes in us and because God loves us … and as we share this love with others, there is no opposition that cannot be ended, no hunger that cannot be fed, no wound that cannot be healed, no hatred that cannot be turned into love, no dream that cannot be fulfilled.”  Desmond Tutu speaks of the power such a light can bring to this troubled world.

“God is transfiguring the world right this very moment through us because God believes in us and because God loves us … and as we share this love with others, there is no opposition that cannot be ended, no hunger that cannot be fed, no wound that cannot be healed, no hatred that cannot be turned into love, no dream that cannot be fulfilled.”

Moments of encounter with the holy typically produce in us a response of awe, wonder, a feeling of smallness or insignificance in the scheme of things. You’ve been there – when you look at the stars and realize how small our world is. We can look through the Hubble telescope to look at the Andromeda Galaxy or we can look out to our backyard and see the fireflies.  Both are mysteries, enormous and small, that capture our imagination.  The holy is close.

Here is a line of poetry from ‘Holy Now’ by Peter Mayer,

Read a questioning child’s face

And say it’s not a testament;

That’d be very hard to see.

See another new morning come

and say it’s not a sacrament.

I tell you that it can’t be done. [1]

And these words from Drifting, by Mary Oliver,

I was enjoying everything: the rain, the path

wherever it was taking me, the earth roots

beginning to stir.

I didn’t intend to start thinking about God,

it just happened.

How God, or the gods, are invisible,

quite understandable.

But holiness is visible, entirely.”[2]

Transfiguration is defined as ‘a change in form or appearance: metamorphosis, or an exalting, glorifying, or spiritual change.  Transfiguration is a moment that changes you. The encounters of Moses and Jesus invite us into the timelessness of God where past, present, and future are one. It is as if time stands still, or perhaps we glimpse and experience time as God knows it. We come to God with our ‘veil off’.[3] With Lent coming, the Exodus story offers an opportunity to remove our masks before God and reflect on our relationship with the Divine. Hear the echo of the words from earlier in this season, words that spoke of our belovedness: “This is my Child, my Beloved.” Know that the words are spoken to you.”[4]

One famous reference to a glimpse of glory is the mountaintop speech by Martin Luther King. “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountain top.”  No veil here as he continues to share his vision, “God’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land.  And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”  No veil here.  He’s telling exactly what he’s seen and he’s not hiding it from anybody.

Shining faces. Glowing faces.  Brides are said to glow. Grooms too! Expectant mothers glow. Faces glow from happiness and joy. A commentary ponders ‘shining’: “Often we do not think of God’s word as all that glorious or God’s people as shining all that conspicuously … There is nothing self-evidently glorious about most local congregations. Yet Moses’s face shone. Jesus’ figure became dazzling bright. This glory, Basil the Great observed, brings us near to the disturbing events of Easter morning, where the disciples’ bafflement and joy and even terror came face to face with the risen Lord.”[5]

Heidi Neumark served at Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the Bronx, NYC.  In her book, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx, she writes, “The community was struggling, barely surviving … Standing amid poverty and the myriad problems that can accompany such a demon – crime, drug abuse, lack of education and opportunity, lack of hope – Transfiguration mostly kept its doors shut tight to the world around it. .. She continues, “When the disciples of this Bronx church unlocked the doors of their private shelter and stepped out into the neighborhood, they did meet the distress of the community convulsed and mauled by poverty … but they also discovered transfiguration as a congregation in connection with others.”  The story of the transfiguration of Jesus loses its power if it does not include that moment when Jesus and the disciples come down from the mountain. The congregation at Transfiguration Church understood: “But living up in the rarefied air isn’t the point of transfiguration … [It was] never meant as a private experience of spirituality removed from the public square. It was a vision to carry us down, a glimpse of unimagined possibility at ground level.”[6]

I wonder why our world decided it was a good thing to block out the glory of God, with veils and whispers. 

For where the glory of God is, there too is God’s love, bringing hope, and startling newness, not in the rarified mountain air, but here, in the streets and on the sidewalks of Stouffville, where we live and work and play.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Holy Now, by Peter Mayer, Behold Advent-Epiphany 2009-2010, 24.

[2] Mary Oliver, p. 25

[3] Gathering 2006-2007, 22.

[4] Gathering, 2018-2019, 25.

[5] FOTW, p. 436-438, Theological Perspective

[6] FOTW, Theological Perspective, 456.

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