Sermon: Transfiguration (Last Epiphany Year A)
2 Peter 1:16-21
O God, who before the passion of your only begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
May I speak to you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Today is the first time I’m preaching as a deacon, the first time I’m preaching as your curate. You’ve heard me up here before, and some of you have known me or my family for almost my whole life. But I want to take a moment to introduce myself. I’m Jessica. My parents met here in Fresno. I started kindergarten at Gibson Elementary over by Fig Garden. I grew up going to the Episcopal church in that neighborhood with my grandparents.
I was up at the diocesan conference center in Oakhurst for my first clergy conference this past week. My grandpa’s ashes are interred up there, so I stopped by to leave a flower. As I sat on the granite next to the little creek, I was remembering all the time I’ve spent there over the years. I used to get car sick every time on the mountain highways before I started driving myself. I used to go fishing on the lakes in a tiny aluminum boat with my dad and grandpa. I’ve been hiking countless times. Even before I could really walk, my parents carried me in a backpack in Yosemite. This place holds so many memories. I’m so grateful to be *here* and to be serving as a deacon in this place where I’m from.
My connection to this land is deep. And yet, my people are immigrants here. There were people already living here in the 1960s when my grandparents moved here. There were people living here in the 1850s in the gold rush. There were people living here in the 1700s when the Spanish built the missions. There are people living here now whose ancestors lived here thousands of years ago. The Native peoples of this place, the Valley Yokuts, the Chukchansi, the Miwok, and others: these people are “from here” in a deeper way than I can really comprehend.
Sometimes we like to think about land as if it’s empty, a pristine mountain top where you might have an encounter with God like Moses or Jesus. But the reality is that people live and have lived in this land for thousands of years. And in the past couple centuries they have been removed from the land of their ancestors by unjust legal systems. Native Americans have had their languages and cultures educated out of them. Native Americans have been killed and enslaved by colonists and settlers. They have been oppressed, not by any one person or group, but systemically. The effects of this systemic injustice are too big to comprehend. We are just now trying to relearn how to manage the forests in a sustainable way so that wildfires are not so devastating. Agriculture has always been an important part of life in this part of California, but the detrimental effects of always growing water-intensive non-native crops are felt in towns that have run out of water in recent seasons. This is not just an issue here in Fresno. Wherever there is a tropical crop that might be sold in temperate climates, plantations are planted. Wherever there is a mineral that might be mined, mountain tops are dug up for profit.
We can’t change what has happened. But what *is* our response when we are shown the reality of our world?
In the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus that we heard today, Peter’s response to seeing the reality of Jesus’ glorious identity is to get to work right away. He is going to build some booths, he is going to honor Elijah and Moses and Jesus. He is going to DO something. It seems like Peter is always the disciple who acts first and thinks about it later. He wants to build a booth for Elijah so that the vision of the transfiguration fits into the world he understands. He is trying to make the world fit into how he wants it to be. That is often my response to things too. I try to jump in and fix something how I want it to be when I should take a step back to see what is actually there.
I think that’s part of what happened between indigenous people and settlers. Immigrants saw that land wasn’t being used like they thought it should be and took it away from people who had cared for it for centuries. People saw children who could not speak or read English and took them away from their families to educate them for the modern world. This isn’t to say that we should excuse what was done to Native peoples in this place because of good intentions. Some settlers, some conquerors, truly did mean to enslave and kill the Native people of this land. That violence must be condemned. And it must not be ignored and forgotten. If we forget what was done unthinkingly or with bad intentions, we might let it happen again. We might jump in to do something we think will fix it, only to try to fit the world into what *we* want it to be. Like Peter trying to fit Moses and Elijah and Jesus into his booths. At first, Peter didn’t really recognize what was before him.
But when the voice speaks from the cloud, Peter and the other disciples are overwhelmed by the great mystery of God. They weren’t just seeing their friend and teacher Jesus, the voice says. They were seeing the Son of God, the Beloved. The great mystery of Almighty God who became human. Listen to him. Recognize the truth that is in front of you.
Bishop Steven Charleston, Episcopal bishop of Alaska and a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, sees the Native American tradition of the “vision quest” in the life of Jesus. One of the visions that Jesus experiences is the transfiguration. It’s a powerful vision because it’s not just Jesus, but those with him who experience the vision, seeing the bright light and Moses and Elijah. Hearing the voice from above. Bishop Charleston explains that in a Native American spirituality, the emphasis is not on finding answers, but on going deeper into the mystery of God. When Peter first responds to the transfiguration, he is looking for an answer, he is looking to solve the problem he sees and fit everything into his conception of the world.
But when Peter is confronted with the voice from the heavens, he is overwhelmed and afraid. The disciples cower in fear of the great power and mystery that is shown to them. It is terrifying to be overwhelmed by reality. I am terrified when I am confronted with the reality of human history. I cower in fear when I am shown the reality of present day oppression. My response to being shown reality is fear. But refusing to see, refusing to listen, cannot be my ultimate response.
Peter’s response when he shown the vision of glorious Jesus with Elijah and Moses is first to try to contain it, to fit it into what he already knows how to do. Then when he is shown the reality of the great mystery of God Incarnate, the Beloved Son, his response is fear.
In Bishop Charleston’s interpretation of the transfiguration as a vision quest, the response to mystery is not trying to solve the mystery like a detective. It’s not trying to fit reality into a conceptual box. And the response to mystery is not ultimately being frozen in fear. In a Native American spirituality, the response to mystery is to watch and listen to what is shown, to go deeper into the mystery of a reality that cannot be contained or understood.
The voice from the heavens says: Listen to Jesus. The response to being shown reality is to listen deeply. To see what is actually there. Who is actually there.
“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”