Transfiguration C: Church as Nursery for Those Who Can Take the Heat

The readings for Transfiguration Sunday are

Old Testament      Exodus 34:29–35

Psalm                    Psalm 99

New Testament     2 Corinthians 3:12–4:2

Gospel                   Luke 9:28–36 (37–43)

“Get out of the kitchen if you can’t stand the heat.” That’s what they say.

Far too often our best friends, our closest relatives, and the professionals and leaders we look up to, take just that option.

I spoke today with a mother who is trying to love her daughter through a number of personal crises. And perhaps the worst thing about it is that she is so often being “ghosted.” That is, mental health professionals she and her daughter consult far too often avoid meaningful confrontation with complex problems in favor of pushing pills or giving perfunctory, one-size-fits-all advice.

Oh yes, that happens. I once asked a wonderful Scottish shepherd what he thought of a trending scheme for sheep management in the United Kingdom called “Easy Care.” He said it all boils down to “don’t go near any sheep.” And I had an orthopedic doc once who stood yards away from me, talking into a Dictaphone, had an assistant shoot cortisone into me, and had another assistant write up the astute diagnosis of “tenderness of the knee.” It took another month or so to find a doc who would then actually touch me, then operate and cut out the torn cartilage.

What hurts this struggling mother even more is that she is being “ghosted” by some of her closest friends. The moment they get a whiff of the complexity and seriousness of her family issues the more they stop responding to her emails or phone calls.

The only thing I could offer in response to all this misery was my willingness to be her open and eager ear, along with these few observations. First: Truly caring professionals and friends are extremely rare in this life. Second: When we find that rare person, we must therefore treasure her or him. Third: People change. The person who “ghost” us today, may be stronger tomorrow, and be able to stand by our side. Fourth: One is enough. One truly caring person in life, who can stand the heat where our crises are brewing, can be enough to get us to tomorrow.

But my fifth observation is the one I am reminded of by this week’s readings. It is the idea that the authentic church is a nursery that produces people who can take the heat.

This is Transfiguration Sunday. Jesus glows. He is changed into a new and better edition—at least in the eyes of the disciples. But it is in the second lesson that we get a startling idea about what Jesus’ mountaintop experience means for our own daily grind. It is from Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians that we get a sustained meditation on the idea that in our relationship with Christ we ourselves are transfigured. As we look on Christ, we “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Eventually, when we look in the mirror, we recognize Christ.

A first step in our process of being changed is looking at the glory of the Lord with unveiled faces. Paul, the Pharisaic Jew, uses one of the rabbi’s favorite tactics when he goes beyond the literal understanding of the story of Moses in Exodus. According to Exodus 34, the people of Israel are rightfully frightened by the glow, or maybe the leathery look, on Moses’ face. He comes down from the mountain. He has been conversing with God. He has been changed. Immediately the leaders of Israel react by running away. But Moses calls them back to pass on the commandments. But Paul sees something else in this story. He astutely sees a human tendency to not want to believe that God can do a new and better thing. He asserts that Moses hid his face because the Law he would deliver was not to be God’s final word. Its splendor would be great, but it would inevitably be surpassed by an even greater splendor of the gospel. When God’s Son would defeat death, fulfill God’s will for love and gift and promise and Spirit, the new splendor would outstrip the old.  Paul read into the Moses and the mountain story an allegory for the way not only Jews, but all humans, tend to underestimate God’s power to change people. He calls to the Corinthian Gentiles with the same message he preached to his fellow Diaspora Jews: We must exercise the freedom to do away with the veil. We must be willing to hope—to expect that God will do amazing, glorious things with us.

Another necessary step in our process of being nurtured into a different kind of people is to consider what glory is all about. That is the subject for the rest of Luke and the rest of the Gospels. Jesus’ glory was that he could stand the heat. Think about all the encounters he had with people in need: women, little children, the man born blind, the prisoner on the cross. Others, even his disciples, reacted first and foremost by thinking of reasons to “ghost” these hurting souls: They are of the wrong religion, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong side of the Law of Moses. It seemed more natural to blame, to be repulsed, and to “ghost.”

But even when Jesus just longed for a little space and quiet, he never ghosted people. He stayed. He touched. He brought healing.

As a pastor I have been transformed by my life in the church. Gradually I learned to get over my own fear that I would not have anything to give to people in crisis. I don’t have the credentials of a psychologist. I’m not that clever. I don’t even have the time, so I can’t blithely say to anyone, not even my own parents or children, “I’ll always be there for you. You can depend on me.” No, I won’t be able to be “always” anything. I can’t live up to all those promises.

But I can promise not to run out of the kitchen. And I can take the heat because I can listen to needs and I can point to Christ who is always there for us.

I don’t think the Covid-19 pandemic, or the piling up of crises like climate, racism, political division, and now Ukraine, really have caused more ghosting. I choose to believe Christ and the church have been incubating people who can take the heat, can be great professional caregivers, and can be faithful friends. But these folk are far too rare. The church has its work cut out for it. So, we must exercise our freedom to be hopeful as we incubate and transform people from one degree of glory to the next.

Meanwhile we must constantly ask ourselves, “Do we ourselves gladly look forward to letting the church transfigure us into people who care?”  

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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