A Sermon preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
February 10, 2013, Transfiguration Sunday
Rev. Julie Emery
Text: Exodus 34:29-35
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. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
I awoke to a low, whispered voice calling my name through the tent wall, letting me know it was time to get up. My first response was to groan. I am not a morning person. And I like it even less when getting up in the morning requires getting up when it is still dark.
This particular morning, I was waking in a cold tent, pitched on a field of snow at the base of a mountain peak. I was twenty-two. I reminded myself for what seemed like the hundredth time that I chose this. And I did. I signed myself up for this crazy three-week backpacking trip through the mountains of British Colombia. And more pressing, I was one of the few who said yes when the guides asked if there were any who wanted to rise before dawn to watch the sunrise from the nearby peak. It sounded like a good idea the night before.
As we began the trek up the mountain, I remember listening to the quiet of the morning against the crunching of our steps. I remember noticing the way the darkness began to change to light. I remember feeling desperately tired. We made it to the peak just as the sun began to break the horizon, sweating and sore. We watched breathless as the sunlight pierced our view, set the rocks and ice on fire with orange light. We took pictures, triumphant at our accomplishment. We sat quietly and watched the world awaken around us. Some of us, prayed, awestruck. Some of us stared speechless in wonderment.
Soon enough, it was time to return to the valley. It was almost more painful to leave than it was to wake up that morning in the darkness. And yet, I also knew that if I could carry a small bit of that sunrise inside of me – if I could find a way to hold onto that quiet, that stillness, that piercing sunlight – it would be worth it.
Moses and Jesus both found themselves on mountaintops, each with his own experience of transformation, and these are the scripture lessons which guide us on this Transfiguration Sunday. It is the last Sunday before we begin the 40 day season of Lent, a time of centering in prayer and trust in God. So it makes sense that our texts for today each describe divine encounters – first by Moses and then by Jesus.
Moses has endured struggles already in leading the people of Israel out of Egypt and towards the promised land. Just before our text for this morning Moses has gone up Mount Sinai and come back with the commandments, only to find the Israelites whooping it up in front of a Golden Calf. While he pleads with God to forgive these “stiff-necked people,” Moses himself burns hot with anger against those he has been called to lead, furious and frustrated with their insolence.
But just a few days later, Moses seems to have found his center. After punishing the Israelites for the golden calf incident, Moses returns to Mount Sinai and fasts for forty days and nights in the presence of God. The text tells us that the “Lord spoke to Moses face-to-face as one speaks to a friend.”
When Moses returns to the Israelites the second time, bearing the two tablets, he is changed. We hear that the skin of his face shone so brightly the people were afraid of him. We learn that they were so troubled by his shining face that Moses began to cover himself, presumably to protect or comfort the people. One commentator writes, “The unbearable brightness of Moses’ face is the residue of God’s steadfast love for Israel.” If that is the case, the Israelites are not quite comfortable with the power of that love.
Jesus too goes to the mountaintop to converse with God, bringing his disciples along with him. While praying, Jesus is transformed with light, not only his face but his clothes become dazzling white. Radiant, Jesus is suddenly joined with Moses himself, and Elijah as well, who begin to speak with him what is to come in Jerusalem, what he will face in suffering and death, what will happen as he departs from his earthly ministry.
At first and in their confusion, the disciples want to stay within the vision, but then they are surrounded with a cloud and hear the voice of God telling them, “This is my son, my Chosen, listen to him,” and they become terrified into silence. Whether because of confusion or fear, they say nothing to anyone about what they have seen. Jesus, on the other hand, returns to his ministry, casting out demons and astounding everyone with the greatness of God.
Both of the experiences leave the men changed, bathed in light so that they are luminous with the glory of God. For both, the transformation leaves those around them terrified and confused. For both, the transformation is intimately connected with the challenges they are soon to face as they return to the valley.
Recently I joined a hundred or so local parents and teachers at a lecture given by Linda Lantieri, author of “Building Emotional Intelligence in Children” and founder of “The Inner Resilience Program.” Lantieri, in essence, suggested that cultivation of a child’s inner life is essential to their ability to build resiliency for their lives now and going forward. Like any skill, this takes practice. She advocated integrating practices in public schools that might help to cultivate that inner life, practices like meditation or yoga, and is already working in some of our local schools to do just that.
It’s a topic that is all the buzz these days – in magazines and books, newspapers and radio shows. The field of psychology calls it “resilience:” the capacity we humans can possess to regenerate, bounce back, and even grow emotionally and spiritually from adversity, after we have been temporarily stretched or deformed by difficulty or trauma.
What is it that causes one to survive and another to stumble in the face of the same challenges? What marks the difference between two people who respond so differently to the same amount of suffering? What helps one to struggle and succeed, while the other struggles and falls into despair? It is not surprising that we find ourselves searching for the answer to these questions.
In a world where we are still reeling from Hurricane Sandy, where we are still grieving the terrible loss of Newtown, where we find ourselves looking fearfully over our shoulders for the next tragedy or the next snowpocalypse – of course we wonder how we will ever survive this world in which we live. Of course we wonder how to make ourselves and our children immune to the effects of suffering, or protected from the next awful thing.
We have all known resilient people. Folks who are almost surprising in their ability to face life’s most difficult challenges. Kay, a woman I knew in New Hampshire had faced a life of loss: a child who succumbed to addiction, a husband who lost a long and arduous fight with cancer, financial troubles and physical ailments. And yet every time I saw Kay, her faced shined with light. She would smile at me and ask about my children. She would never fail to remind me of God’s presence and protection. Kay literally glowed with God.
Is this what the Israelites saw on the face of Moses after he came down from the mountain?
People of faith have long been using other words for what makes up this thing called resiliency. Faith, hope, trust. Perhaps it is that spaciousness grown by time spent with God in prayer. Perhaps it is the certainty of faith that makes one glow with wisdom and peace. Perhaps it is the residue of God’s steadfast love for us, when we are truly in touch with the power and glory of what that transforming love means for our lives.
The stories of our faith teach us that “It is our proximity to God that enables us to embody and radiate God’s love in the world. It is the closeness that calls us and sustains us – especially when our work is no longer popular or personally advantageous.”
Psychotherapist Patrick Fleming writes an article* about this thing he calls “soul resilience.” He reflects on the many clients he has seen and the various ways they have responded to lives of adversity, abuse, and suffering. Certainly there is no one thing that creates resiliency: strong relationships in childhood that nurture, give warmth and love. The ability to connect with others, or the ability to re-frame negative scenarios into good. One client, while reflecting on the “why” of his own survival noted some inchoate knowing that he possessed a soul that could not be touched by all of what he had undergone.
“This capacity for resilience is a basic, human, spiritual capacity in all of us.” Fleming writes, “We all have the soul force within us to spring back to form when life tries to knock us down.” The story of Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop comes just before Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, before he begins his long walk toward his own suffering and death. Just before he shows us his own ultimate resilience that can lead us through all our journeys through suffering and death to resurrection and new life. I wonder how his mountaintop experience stayed with him, fueled him for the struggles ahead. Did that transforming light continue to glow within him as he faced hatred, ignorance, injustice and even death?
This is after all the sacred story we hold most dear in Christ’s death and resurrection. And yet, there is an active participation, an intentional cultivation of our own inner strength in the life of faith.
As Moses and Jesus went up the mountain to seek and connect with the Divine, so our closeness to God molds who we are and our ability to respond to hatred and suffering with love emanates out of that closeness. God’s glory is peculiar because it deliberately undergoes suffering and death – something the world does not easily understand or accept. And our proximity to that glory directly affects our own ability to survive, even thrive in the darker valleys of our lives.
So – when is the last time you chose to ascend to the mountaintop? When is the last time you went in and spoke with God, face to face as with an old friend? When did you last carve out time and space so that you might bathe in God’s light and glory?
Perhaps it was just this morning, when you chose to come here for worship instead of staying home and reading the paper. Perhaps it was when you signed up to take a whole week to serve the people in the Dominican Republic. Perhaps it was this past week, when you chose to spend time in prayer instead of turning on the television, or go to a yoga class instead of running errands. Perhaps it was that moment you stole to speak to God about that frustration at work, or that troubled relationship.
When we choose to go to the mountaintop, when we set our faces toward the God who covers us with steadfast love, we shine with the residue of that love. Reflecting that light and resilient with that love, may we go forth sustained for the days ahead. Amen.
*Fleming’s article was found in the Upper Room’s devotional magazine “Weavings.” I highly recommend this publication.