for Sunday March 3, 2019
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.
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
Luke 9:28-29; full lectionary text linked below
This has been a hard week for the people of God called Methodist, the people among whom I live and work and love, to whom I am committed, with whom I have communion. Some of whom now have been dealt the blow of exclusion. News is still too new to know if, or how irrevocably, communion has broken. But the specter itself aches. I feel uncharacteristically wanting Ash Wednesday, texts and liturgy that match my mood.
But first comes this Sunday, when the church recalls Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain. The lectionary twins the text from Luke with that of Moses’ transfiguration. The writer of the gospel evokes Exodus motifs: dazzling white glory, shining shadow cloud, divinity speaking on the mountain. Jesus is about to accomplish his own (literally) ‘exodus’ at Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). Moses and Jesus. The figures are connected. But I don’t think their comparison is the sum of the gospel’s aim. Such reading is too facile, too swiftly exhausts the significance of the text. If it is about no more than proving Jesus’ identity as ‘Son,’ then we the church could just recite the creed and be done. It would be a much more efficient use of Sunday mornings. But we’re given — yet again — a story.
One story. Doubly told. A story about encounter with the LORD. About how that transforms those who are directly there and those who encounter them.
Moses has been on Mount Sinai 40 days and 40 nights (Exod 34:28). Moses has asked, and been granted, a vision of the LORD’s glory — an encounter so powerful that God himself must shield Moses from its full effects (Exod 33:21-23). The LORD, who knows Moses by name (Exod 33:17), descends in a cloud and proclaims his own name: ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation’ (Exod 34:5-7). Moses has spoken with the LORD; Moses has heard God’s own mouth proclaiming God’s own nature: ‘I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy’ (Exod 33:19). No wonder Moses shines with the reflection of God’s glory! No wonder Aaron and the rest are terrified! Moses mutes his glow, tells what the LORD had told. Ever after, when Moses speaks with the LORD, his face again shines (Exod 34:34-35).
Do Peter and John and James shine when they came down the mountain? Like Moses they had stood in the presence of God, been enveloped by the cloud, heard divine speech (Luke 9:33-35). But unlike Moses, when they came down the mountain, they had nothing to say. Not yet. They kept silent (Luke 9:36). Maybe because they still did not understand the encounter they had had, and until its fullness was revealed after Easter, they were unable to receive it, unable to tell it, unable to glow with the reflection of its glory. In time that would come. In time, maybe, they would glow. In the presence of joy. In the practice of love. In the experience of communion.
I have seen that glow. Not the overwhelming glory that tells me that I am in the direct presence of divinity but the glow that tells me the one whose face is shining has been. And the glow of encounter has shined on my own face. I don’t always know it, think only that I am telling of some newness I have seen, some wonder I have encountered, don’t even realize I am aflame until the person to whom I am talking lights in response and I realize. Oh. This is it.
Here’s the thing: I have seen that glow on those who hold inclusion as dear as I do and on those who do not. I have learned from them; they have learned from me. We have disagreed about how God sees and yet at times — to our mutual surprise — we have recognized a glow of glory and lit a new sight of God for each other. I believe the LORD has been delighted by the spark kindled, the light spread.
Transfiguration Sunday is not only about Jesus but about the church. We live after Easter. We are no longer to remain silent as the disciples did. We are not to turn away from each other’s light nor quench each other’s fire. We are called to encounter God with and through each other, to shine in communion, to glow with the glory of the LORD, the LORD, merciful and gracious.
May God’s mercy and grace heal those hurt, guard the glow, and restore our hope of inclusive communion, that we may all look full and loving at each other whole, ascend the holy mountain, speak with the LORD, and feel our faces shine bright with God’s glory.