Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Aug. 6, 2023

Posted by on Sun, Aug 6, 2023 in Feast Days, Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The Transfiguration

Aug. 6, 2023

The feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus was present in various forms by the 9th century, and is said to commemorate the first church built on Mount Tabor, which is traditionally considered to be the “high mountain” of the Transfiguration. Others locate it on Mount Hermon or the Mount of Olives. What happened on that mountain (whichever one it was) made it a major feast day of the church. It is not only about his appearance changing or that some of the disciples witness it; it revealed something about Jesus’ nature and identity and was a hinge-point in Jesus’ ministry. In the next verses he’ll foretell his death and “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” where he would be crucified. Having evoked Moses and Isaiah, we can see it as an exodus moment from the life he’s lived to the new life he will reveal for all.

Hearing Moses evoked is part of it; Moses’ face shone with rays of light so bright that when he came down the mountain from conversing with God people were afraid. So bright that he began wearing a veil after telling the people what God had commanded. Jesus also went up the mountain, and while praying, his appearance also changed. Centuries of art have indicated a radiant shining light after being in the presence of the Divine. In Hebrew the word for ‘shine’ meant rays of light emanating forth, so Moses would be depicted with cone shaped protrusions on his head —that looked a bit like horns but were intended to indicate radiating light. (Tragically some later took this as support of antisemitic views.) Christian has long used the halo, at times the larger and more intricate the halo the greater holiness it is trying to depict. (Yes, images of God as Creator and Jesus get the big ones!) 

The Hebrew Scriptures denotes a high mountain as a place of divine disclosure, and apocalyptic imagery of God’s dominion. Moses and Elijah were heralds of the Day of the Lord, here they are linked with Jesus and the coming of new life ahead. In Jewish apocalypticism “dazzling white” connotes glorification of God; a cloud accompanies signs or actual appearances of God—which, like the disciples’ reaction, also evokes real fear. 

They have climbed the mountain with him, seen an inexplicable vision and been engulfed by an overshadowing cloud and they are terrified. At which point the voice of God speaks directly to them from that cloud, recalling the words at Jesus’s baptism; “This is my Son, my Chosen.” Then what is clearly a command for all time; “Listen to him!” Of course they are terrified! And no surprise that we hear “they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” Can any of them say what just happened? Fear activated is a warning sign, a survival instinct, it can make us run or freeze us in place, as in their stunned silence. Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE says, “Our fear can seem such an invasive impediment. For God, our fear is a channel of presence, and power, and provision. Our fear is God’s invitation, and Jesus will make good on his promise to be with us always.”

Characteristically, Peter speaks first, even though his response is ahead of his understanding. All he can think of is trying to preserve the moment, the scene, like those little glass biospheres or terrarium ecosystems. Fearing it will not last he hopes to freeze the moment of awe for revisiting. Peter is reaching for normalcy and there’s nothing normal here, he wants certainty. Before I dare say he’s absurd to try, I think of thousands of pictures on my phone that I will never sort out, vital videoclips I thought fantastic as I took them but will likely never review. We feel a powerful sacred moment and in trying to preserve we step out of the presence of God to film it or built a tent around it.

We all have moments of Sacred Presence. Many go to the mountains for nearness of God or renewal of our spirits. Here we also go to the waters. Wherever that is for you I hope you recognize in it a kinship with Jesus, who also went away by himself to pray in nature. Set down the camera or phone and glorify God with empty hands, open heart, and steadfast faithful attention. 

My vacation begins this week, and I look forward to returning refreshed and enlivened by simply taking time to be quietly present with God, no device in hand as a discipline. We all need such times and I know its hard to come by. As busy people (especially in these tumultuous times) there’s much positive reinforcement and expectation that we be constantly accessible. We are encouraged to think whatever we are busy with is of more value or more lionized than time spent in prayer, in spiritually life-giving pursuits. Financial, material, social rewards all hang tantalizingly in the balance as we choose our path to success. Certainly there are things we must do which would have dire circumstances if ignored. Okay, so what then? —Might we commit to a different time? It’s a commitment to God alone, and it benefits you the most, and secondarily those for whom we are then better messengers of Christ’s loving care. Clergy are famous for acting as if the church will run amok without them, and so deluded, we occasionally flunk vacation and retirement. St. Michael’s is a Christ-centered church and you are the body of Christ, so I know to my bones all will be well without me for a few weeks, and we’ll be better off for my acting on that knowledge. I wonder, what do you find stealthily elbowing in on your ‘mountain time’ with Jesus? It doesn’t need to be so much on our calendars as in our way of life, and as such it shines all about you. Oftentimes I’ve seen it on your faces and felt the radiance —noticed halos you may not know you wear. It’s as if the light in the room changes and it’s impossible not to feel touched by God just seeing this in another.

Two weeks ago Jesus’ parable was about the wheat growing alongside the weeds someone had sown. He said to leave them in place until harvest, “Then the righteous will shine forth like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father.” Our ‘harvest time’ is beyond our control, yet that shining radiance is a sign of transformation, from buried seed to sprout, stalk, then ripening heads of wheat.

Transfiguration is the revealing of the true nature, as the disciples saw that day. Transformation is a remaking of that nature, be it a person, object, or other; akin to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly—or like the Resurrection. Today is about Jesus true nature revealed to them, divine radiance, alongside Moses and Elijah. Is it Jesus who was transfigured so that they could see what they had not, or did Peter, James and John having time apart to pray with Jesus mean they were transformed, so as to see what had been right in front of them all along. Does it matter? In seeing Jesus as God’s Son life could never be the same. 

The daily bread of our faith is not on the mountaintop, wondrous as that may be. It is taking your transformed self back down into the valleys as they did, and living as Jesus has commanded us.

© 2023 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.

Post will be removed at 8:00 AM on Wed., Aug. 6, 2025.