A sermon preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at the First Church in Sterling on February 26, 2017, Transfiguration Sunday.
Sermons are meant to be seen/heard. You can watch this sermon here.
It’s transfiguration Sunday. We tell this strange, miraculous story every year of Jesus’ transfiguration, on the Sunday right before Ash Wednesday, which is this week; right before the season of Lent begins. In it, Jesus goes up onto a high mountaintop with his friends. And suddenly his face shines like the sun, his clothes become dazzling white. And a bright cloud overshadows them. A voice from the cloud (presumably God) booms, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.” He is transfigured before them.
To transfigure means to transform in appearance into something more beautiful, or elevated. Transfiguration refers to an exalting, glorifying, or spiritual change from the inside that shows on the outside.
An exalting, glorifying, spiritual change can occur when we know and see ourselves beloved. And I am not just talking about how when you first fall in love and kind of float around thinking you are pretty hot. Like when Maria sings, “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story. I’m talking about the kind of love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. The kind of love that God has for all. That’s the transfiguring kind of Love.
My six year old daughter Eloisa asked me last night: what are you preaching on tomorrow?
I said “transfiguration.”
Eloisa said, “what's that?”
I said, “it's when Jesus goes to the top of a mountain and is bathed in a warm white light and God says "this is my son the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased."
And Eloisa said, “sorry I'm just asking you this now, since you preach on him every week, but who the heck is "Beloved"?
That “Beloved” guy I talk about in every week is all of you.
I want you to close your eyes for a moment, and imagine you are on a mountaintop with God. Picture in your mind’s eye what or who God looks like to you: a father, a mother, a friend, a feeling, your dog’s warm nose, a gust of wind, a light parting the clouds, Love incarnated somehow.
And then I want you to imagine God’s voice booming down with his clear and kindly authority, or gently whispering in your ear, or winking and cracking her gum like a diner waitress while she talks….
Listen, for a moment to God with your eyes closed.
You are my son, my daughter, the beloved. In you, I am well-pleased. You are beautiful shades of white, black, red, yellow, and brown. You are gay or straight or not sure. You are male or female or somewhere else on the gender spectrum. You are temporarily-abled and disabled. You are rich, you are poor, you are somewhere in the middle. And you are my son, my daughter, the beloved. In you, I am well-pleased. It doesn’t matter to me what you’ve done or who you’ve hurt or who you love or where you’ve been or where you are going, you are my son, my daughter, the beloved. In you, I am well-pleased. I knit you in your mother’s womb. I rejoiced on the day you were born. I created you in my image, and every hair on your head is counted. Your life matters. Your love matters. You are my son, my daughter, the beloved. In you, I am well-pleased.
And now, I want you to keep your eyes closed and imagine that God is holding up a mirror. I want you to see yourself the way God sees you. Gaze into that mirror, and look at how beautiful you are. Look at how you’ve been transformed by love. See those lines around your eyes and mouth? They tell the story of your life in joy and laughter. See that comfortable tummy? You have been nourished by the rich food and drink of family barbeques and church turkey dinners and senior center pancake breakfasts. See those silvery stretch marks? They are reminders of the blessed life you have created in your womb. See that bald dome of a head? It shines. That gray hair reflects well and hard-won wisdom. Those not-so-sculpted arms you are quick to criticize have held lovers and babies and friends as they cry. Those wrinkled hands have created art and meals and have hammered nails and changed tires and fixed so many things. They have held together what they can’t fix, too. Your hands are imprinted with the finger prints of the many hands they have held.
Look in that mirror again. Your appearance has changed; transformed by love.
OK. So now that we’ve established that, you can open your eyes. Wow! You have all been given a God makeover and you’re even more beautiful than when you first got here! Someone take a picture.
But we don’t just stop here, basking in our beauty, and shining it on one another in our pews. We leave these walls, and let our light shine on the world, everywhere we go. On Monday, on Tuesday, on Wednesday, on Thursday, on Friday, on Saturday on Sunday.
Because the most important part of the transfiguration story is not the mountaintop moment, but what Jesus did afterward. He didn’t stay up on the mountain, basking in his transfigured state to commune with God forever. He went back down the mountain to be with the people. He healed. He helped. His response to God’s transformative love was to transform others with that love. Ours’ is too. Our job is to come down off of our mountains transformed by love, to transform others.
Two weeks ago, I surprised you all by passing out $5,000 in cash to the gathered congregation in worship during the offering. (Yeah, that’ll teach you to not miss church!) I did this through a generous grant I wrote from the Lily Foundation and Duke Divinity School. I asked you simply to do good with that money, and to come back and tell your story. I knew about this project for months and months, since it was my idea. So, you would think that I would have been wracking my brain all this time about how I would spend my money! I wasn’t. And I found this challenge hard.
So, I called a family meeting. Together, the five people in my family decided to pool our money. Together, we had $140. “What should we do with the money? Who does your heart break for?” We asked the kids. Cecilia wanted to go to a movie, the tickets of which went toward saving endangered animals. Isaac wanted to buy chocolate. Eloisa wanted to give the money to immigrants and refugees. We finally agreed with Eloisa to give all of our money to one refugee family, so it would go as far as possible. We called our friend, Mona, at the Worcester Islamic Center, who works with Muslim refugees, to ask about how we could help. And we got far more than we thought we would in the bargain.
In fact, all five of us got to visit with a Syrian refugee family in Worcester on a Saturday, with translators from the Worcester Islamic Center. Mona set this up for us. We were very nervous. Andy didn’t want to go. He didn’t want to make the family uncomfortable, or feel like they had to thank us, like some family of American saviors. I thought he had a good point. In addition, we were worried about going into someone else’s home, in a strange part of Worcester. We were worried about imposing. “What would we say to them?” We asked each other. We encouraged our kids to be curious, to ask questions. “That’s how you show love for people,” I said.
We were escorted upstairs to a small apartment. We took our shoes off and sat down in their small living room with the two parents, their 6 children, the five of us, and four interpreters from the Worcester Islamic Center. We asked a lot of questions, like, “How do you get the food that you love here? What do you miss the most about home? What is school like? Is learning English hard?” They answered with grace and honesty. Tomatoes taste different here. They miss lemon salt. There are other Arabic speaking refugees at school. Learning English is hard, but they have to learn fast so they can get jobs.
We said to them, "We are Christians who are worried every day, and so angry and scared and sad about what is happening in Syria and to Muslims, and we feel so helpless. We just want you to know that you are loved and welcome here in Massachusetts, and that we will stand up for you, your safety, and your right to be here.” We gave them our reverse offering money. The adults all cried together, especially me and Andy. They told us that in the Muslim faith, they believe that God makes us all brothers and sisters. Turns out that they, too, believe what is written above my head. One God, Father of All.
We gave them chocolate, too, which our interpreters told us is the universal language.
Truthfully, they gave us more than we could ever give to them. They served us Syrian coffee, which is super strong like espresso, flavored with cardamom. They shared themselves with us. They told us the story of a bomb that went off in their kitchen, killing two nephews. Their six-year-old has to be treated for the effects of smoke inhalation, including brain damage. The bomb burned their ten year old over half of her body. They named her Sidra, which they told us means “the light before the dawn on the horizon.” When the folks from the Worcester Islamic Center first encountered Sidra lying in a hospital bed, covered with burns and worrying about what she looked like, they knick-named her “Jameel”, the Arabic word for beauty. Transformed by Love.
Her parents delight in simple things, like the fact that Sidra can now lift her arms above her head. The father talked about how thankful he was to take multiple forms of public transportation with Sidra to get her burns treated in Boston because his family is all together, and he doesn't have to worry about his kids because they are finally safe. Before I left, I kissed her goodbye and called her “beauty,” too. Transformed by Love.
They told us that we are some of their first friends in America, and in their country only family checks in on people, which means we are their family now. They agreed to come over to dinner at our house next. It was a sacred moment we will never forget. Transformed by Love.
Sometimes, we go into a place to “help”, and we realize that our hosts are actually helping us to feel our humanity again. This is what slowly becoming real looks like. We were transformed by Love.
My family wouldn’t have been able to do this without the church’s challenge.
Beloved: you are beautiful. You have been to the mountaintop with God, who has lavished you with the gift of wasteful, extravagant Love. When you and I come down the mountain, we see this: EVERYONE transfigured. We see this: everyone we encounter bathed with that warm white light, which is God. When we come down, we see all people as more than just bodies. As more than just black, or brown or white, trans or gay, male or female, old or young, Muslim, Christian, or Jew--but as people called by their God-given name, which is Beloved. When we come down the mountain we see all people as opportunities to see and touch Christ. These are my sons and daughters, the Beloved. Listen to them.
They will know we are Christians by our Love. Share the Love.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org