Preached by Rev. Katie Owen, Duke Presbyterian Campus Minister
When Chris asked me to preach some three months ago, I checked the calendar and, knowing that I was available and love the opportunity to be with congregations that support Duke’s campus ministry, wrote back enthusiastically and said, "sign me up!" I, of course, was trusting that the creators of the lectionary were good, holy, Christian folk who were not out to get their pastors and didn’t bother to check the scripture passages for the day before agreeing to preach. So several weeks ago when I began preparing for this Sunday, I dutifully pulled up the lectionary selections for this Sunday and realized Chris-in his great generosity-had saved none other than transfiguration Sunday for me. When he and I were at the Presbytery meeting two weeks ago, I thanked him for the distinct pleasure of this week’s scripture passages and he smiled and said, "I thought it was a good Sunday for a guest preacher!"
So we get to explore these two dazzling and mysterious texts together this morning. What sense are we to make of these texts? As I studied and read commentaries and wrestled with these passages this week, I found that most of the scholarly resources on these texts attempt to explain these texts away. Surely Matthew included this passage to prove Jesus’ divinity. It is logical that Peter would want to build a house because he was to be given him the keys of the kingdom. And truthfully, I find most of their explanations fairly unsatisfying because they attempt read these scripture passages as normal everyday occurrences and not the bizarre and radical encounters with God that they are.
Are we really to make sense of these texts? Are we to do anything besides stand in awe and wonder at these luminous visions of God? I have come to believe that our discomfort with passages like the transfiguration reveals our discomfort with mystery and the unknown. We live in a world where quite literally any fact can be found at your fingertips. You can sit at dinner and wonder about the batting average of Babe Ruth in 1927, the elevation and possible locations of Mount Sinai, or why the sky is blue and answers are literally accessible with the click of a button. We expect that Google will be able to immediately supply answers to our questions, and we place great trust in tangible, measureable, documentable experiences. We are trained from an early age to assess what is true through scientifically verifiable and quantifiable research. Even our theological study brings this criterion to its work-the historical-critical method of scriptural exegesis, the historical Jesus project, the need for your pastors to study Greek and Hebrew to read in original languages-leans on our educational assumption that for the church to remain relevant in the world today, we must engage fully in the ability to prove faith like we can explain the ground under our feet.
I will be the first to argue that we are better for the research and study and scholarship that provides explanation and insight into scripture and science and the created world. But when we journey up the mountain in today’s text and encounter God in a cloud and a devouring fire and we see Christ with a holy sunburn dazzling before us and hear the voice of God from a bright cloud, our ability to measure, explain, and understand falls as silent as the disciples who fell to the ground. And it’s not just a journey up the mountain in today’s text, but those moments when life deals you something-an event, experience, or emotion-that defies those quantifiable, measurable expectations, that leaves us feeling lost, confused, and certain that admitting such an encounter will surely result in our being labeled as crazy.
Thankfully faith is not the task of solving a problem or proving a set of answers, instead it is the task of placing our whole trust in God and "restlessly [seeking] deeper understanding."1 Faith invites us into relationship with a God that remains "a mystery beyond human comprehension."2 In The Mystery of Being, Gabriel Marcel writes, "a mystery is very different from a problem. While a problem can be solved, a mystery is inexhaustible. A problem can be held at arm’s length; a mystery encompasses us and will not let us keep a safe distance."3
What I find so amazing is that despite a world of facts and figures, the desire to experience God and to embrace mystery trumps the disciples’ fear or our fear of judgment from others and draws us into stories like today. I swim in the waters of young adult ministry and spend my days with college students who are engaged in the academic enterprise, who will use their gifts to change the world, and who ask really good questions. As a result, I get asked a lot by congregants and pastors what young adults want in the church. Do we need contemporary music? or better coffee? or a cooler website? And I tend to reply that what young adults seem to want, in my experience, is a chance to authentically encounter God and then to be part of a community where they can figure out how to follow Christ down the mountain and into their jobs and homes and lives. It’s not rocket science and it’s not a marketing ploy, it’s a willingness to speak about and live your own faith and to tread up the mountain to a place where we can meet God and down again into a community willing to embrace our questions and our bewilderment.
Rachel is a junior in Duke PCM who found her way to the ministry this fall and who allowed me to share her story with you today. She appeared out of nowhere last August and started attending worship with us regularly. I took her out to coffee to hear some of her story and she talked about growing up in a complicated home where faith wasn’t discussed. Her parents were atheists and not interested in religion. She talked about family challenges and illness and the struggles of college. In the midst of all of these experiences, she named that something drew her to seek God. Rachel had never darkened the doors of a church or cracked the binding of a Bible but last spring, for reasons she can’t fully explain, she went to Chapel for the first time. For Rachel, climbing the four steps to enter Duke Chapel was akin to the disciples’ climbing up the mountain and meeting God. Six weeks ago, Rachel was baptized and was asked to give her testimony. She stood before a crowd of hundreds and said,
"For a long time I was afraid to go to church because it was new and unknown and I was afraid of feeling like an outsider….Last spring, I was in a pretty dark place. My best friend back home was very, very ill and it was hard being so far away from home when she was suffering. I didn’t really know what else to do and so I came to chapel. At the end of church, I had this beautiful moment of peace that carried me through, through finals and the end of the semester…That was when I decided that I really wanted to follow Christ and be part of a Christian community."4
Rachel can’t fully explain what happened on that spring Sunday, but I think she encountered the living God and could not come down the mountain the same. Like the disciples, she was touched by Jesus and was no longer afraid.
We enter into these biblical stories not to explain them away but as ones who desire to know and experience God as much as Moses and the disciples. We enter into these stories because our faith compels us to climb the mountain and enter into the mystery of God and be changed. Maybe Moses climbed the mountain in pure obedience and without fear. Maybe the disciples longed to be with Jesus so much that they would’ve gone anywhere with him. I imagine that neither of them knew exactly what was going to happen when they got to the top of the mountain. But I believe their yearning to be with God, to walk with God, to be transformed by the living God was real.
The most profound part of the transfiguration story to me is not Jesus’ dazzling white clothes or his glowing face; it’s not even the bright cloud that overshadowed them or the voice of God that spoke to the disciples. The profound mystery of the transfiguration story is that in the moment when they were blinded by the light and sound and sheer awesomeness of God, Jesus reached out and touched them and said, "do not be afraid" (Matthew 17:7). He stood next to them and touched them. The God who is glowing and other and transfigured before their very eyes stands right beside them. The miracle and mystery of the incarnation is that God would choose to be more accessible than a cloud. The miracle and mystery of the transfiguration is that God would choose to be not only holy and other and transfigured on a mountaintop but that with flesh and bone he would choose to be like us and reach out to us with his own hands. The mystery is that Jesus could reach out and, in one arm’s length, give his very self to us.
Mountaintop experiences invite us into the otherness and mystery of God. But God knows that, despite our yearning, mystery is difficult for us. So, God gave Moses the law, offering a tangible way to guide our life with God. God not only transfigured Jesus but also let Jesus walk down the mountain with the disciples in the flesh to make tangible the mystery of God. And not long after he came down the mountain, Jesus sat at table with his disciples and gave them bread and wine, the tangible, visible signs of God’s grace for us. Jesus gave the church sacraments, ways to make tangible the mystery of faith.
To come to the table-as we will in a moment-is an act of faith and participation in the manifold mystery of God. Our forefather John Calvin was not exactly an international man of mystery; he rejected icons and art and spent his time in the Reformation writing theological treatises. But even Calvin yearned to be part of the mystery of God. Because for Calvin, coming to the table is akin to ascending the mountain or being spiritually lifted up into heaven to dine with Christ as he sits at the right hand of the Father.5 In the communion liturgy we share as we pray together, we say,
"The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord."6
Uttering these phrases we participate in the divine mystery, being lifted up to heaven where Christ’s body is literally within reach. Calvin writes in the Institutes,
"Even though it seems unbelievable that Christ’s flesh, separated from us by such great distance, penetrates to us, so that it becomes our food, let us remember how far the secret power of the Holy Spirit towers above all our senses, and how foolish it is to wish to measure his immeasurableness by our measure. What, then, our mind does not comprehend, let faith conceive: that the Spirit truly unites things separated in space."7
The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is the way that we are brought near to God, where Jesus is just an arm’s reach away, just as he was on the mountaintop for the disciples. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper transforms the mystery of God into something tangible and real. It offers the opportunity for us to encounter Christ, to be fed, nourished, and transformed so that we can-in some mysterious way-be the body of Christ to the world.
Sara Miles is a journalist and author and founder of the San Francisco food pantry. She had led a "thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion…until the day she took communion for the first time and it changed everything."8 She writes in her spiritual memoir Take this Bread,
Early one winter morning, I walked into St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco. I had no earthly reason to be there. I’d never heard a Gospel reading, never said the Lord’s prayer. I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian-or as I thought of it rather less politely, a religious nut…[But] I walked in, took a chair, and tried not to catch anyone’s eye…Then a man and a woman in long tie-dyed robes stood and began chanting in harmony. There was no organ, no choir, no pulpit: just the unadorned voices of the people and long silences framed by the ringing of deep Tibetan bowls. I sang, too. It crossed my mind that this was ridiculous…We sat down and stood up and sang and sat and waited and listened and stood up and sang and it was all pretty peaceful and sort of interesting. ‘Jesus invites everyone to his table,’ the woman announced, and we started moving up in a stately dance to the table in the rotunda. It had some dishes on it and a pottery goblet.
And then we gathered around that table…and someone put a piece of fresh crumbly bread in my hands saying, ‘the body of Christ,’ and handed me the goblet of sweet wine, saying, ‘the blood of Christ’ and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.9
Sara Miles met the mystery of God at the table and it changed her forever. She opened her hands and an arm stretched out to feed her and "that impossible word, Jesus, lodged in [her] like a crumb." She writes, "I had no idea what it meant; I didn’t know what to do with it. But it was realer than any thought of mine or even any subjective emotion: it was as real as the actual taste of the bread and the wine. And the word was indisputably in my body now, as if I’d swallowed a radioactive pellet that would outlive my own flesh."10
Sara’s encounter with God led her to found a food pantry that would feed thousands of hungry souls. The hand of Christ that stretched out to feed her compelled her to feed others-to be the mysterious body of Christ to the world. Sara’s life was transformed when God who was inaccessible because tangible in the breaking of bread. Rachel’s life was transformed when the God she was seeking was made known in the tangible body of Christ, the church. The disciples lives were transformed when the one who was transfigured before them reached out and touched them. To live as a Christian today is to be open to encountering the mystery of God in a tangible way. Your walk to the table this morning is not a long distance-maybe it is an easy journey for you, maybe it feels like climbing a mountain-but on this transfiguration Sunday, you are invited to be touched by the outstretched hand of Christ, to be fed by the body of Christ in a piece of crumbly bread and to be welcomed to meet mystery at the table and returned changed. Amen.
1. Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004). 2.
2. Ibid., 3.
3. Ibid., 3.
4. Duke University Chapel Worship, January 12, 2014.
5. John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion. Vol 2. [IV. 17. 18] (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press,
6. sursum corda used in Great Thanksgiving. Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.
7. John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion. Vol 2. [IV. 17. 10] (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press,
8. Sara Miles, Take This Bread, (New York: Ballatine Books, 2008), xii.
9. Ibid., 58-59.
10. Ibid., 59.