The following sermon was preached by Rob Saler, Visiting Professor of Systematic Theology, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Monday, February 20, 2012.
2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.
Towards the end of her life, the great Roman Catholic social activist Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement and its ongoing nonviolent activism on behalf of the poor, was asked by an admirer if she thought that her work would qualify her for sainthood in the Catholic church. She is reported to have responded by saying something along the lines of, “Sainthood? Don’t trivialize me.”
About a generation later, some clarity as to what Day might have meant by this rather provocative reply was provided by another Roman Catholic woman, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Mother Teresa was well aware that, even prior to her death, forces were gathering steam to put her on the fast-track towards beatification, and eventual canonization. Like Dorothy Day, she expressed hesitancy about that possibility, saying that she feared that if people looked upon her work of healing and ministry in the slums of Calcutta and were told that it was the work of a “saint,” it would let so-called “normal” people, non-saints, off the hook for doing similar kinds of work in their own lives. Of course, such talk on her part was taken simply as the humility befitting a true saint, and her canonization was indeed fast-tracked after her death.
For all of our Lutheran talk about simul iustus et peccator, few of us, Lutheran, Roman Catholic or otherwise, walk around thinking of ourselves as “saints” in the classical or popular sense of the term. And so, when we indulge the pious habit of referring to someone or something as “saintly,” it pays to be a bit self-suspicious, and wonder if perhaps we are not simply applying the veneer of sanctity around the things that we would rather not do, the people whom we would rather not touch, the lives that we would rather not be called to lead.
The very terms “holy” and “sacred” have at their roots visions of separation, removal from the everyday, transcendence of the mundane. And so veneration of others on our part can also serve as a convenient cordoning off of “holiness” from our everyday lives. With our praise we run the risk of setting up the orange cones around the scene of sainthood, paint it in bright halos, and then step carefully around the scene so as not to be caught up in it ourselves. And who can blame us? After all, those of us here in this seminary community are probably intimately familiar with how thoroughly disrupting the call of God can be to the security and anonymity of our own plans for our lives.
And if this is our strategy, consciously or unconsciously, then that part of us that would like to keep our lives safe from the messiness of holiness must particularly enjoy the Transfiguration. Just as we in the church have been following Jesus’ baptismal journey, his ministry among the outcasts, the lepers, the demon-possessed, and have more than likely been faced with the question as to how a life lived so on the edge of what seems safe and reasonable might interact with our own lives – just when that question begins to hit close to home, then PHEW! What a relief!
A burst of white light, voices from heaven, a nice comforting bubble of theophanic holiness suddenly surrounds Jesus and gives us the excuse we need to say that here, clearly, is something far above our pay grade. Much higher above us on the holiness scale. So far above that we can stay safely down where we are and not take too seriously the nagging suspicion that maybe we’re supposed to be following Jesus, not just in the sense of ascribing to him all due praise, but actually going where he went, touching the skin that he touched, being seen with the sort of people with whom he was seen, angering the ones whom he angered, maybe even sharing the cross that he shared.
Giving other people their holiness props, fostering saintly separation upon them whether they want it or not, can be such a lifesaver – that is, something so helpful for preserving our old lives.
But, as we’ve already seen, God’s call, and God’s word, has a remarkable ability to defeat the old Adam when it comes to which one has a more stubborn hold upon our lives. When we follow Jesus and the disciples down off the mountain and into the grand sweep of the Bible’s vision, and the church’s vision, then all of a sudden we realize that the holiness that surrounds the body of Christ in the gospel is the same holiness that Christ promises will surround the body of Christ that is the church. And this is not the kind of holiness that sweeps down from heaven and cordons off the church from the sinful world. Rather, it’s the kind of holiness that comes from deep inside the church’s life – from the fount, from the word, from the table – and radiates out into the world that God loves, and that God has claimed for redemption.
For the past two years, in the congregation in Gary where I serve as pastor, we have been reading the New Testament epistles every week. And, despite the abundance of churchy language to which the average parishioner is exposed each week, it remains the case that more weeks than not, we find ourselves taken aback by the sheer audacity of some of Paul and his fellow authors’ images of the church – and indeed, of our lives as Christians. Can it truly be that our lives are hidden with Christ’s, as Colossians states? Do we really dare to look at the messiness and massed imperfections of the Church catholic, and proclaim with scripture that it is nothing less than the body of Christ on earth? And can we look at our lives and understand them, not as mundane days inoculated from holiness, but rather stages on a journey that take us from life, to death, to the fullness of God’s glory where we will know as we are known?
If we can, then the Transfiguration becomes, not an event that places the life, death, and resurrection of the Holy One at a safe distance from us, but rather a sign that points us toward the sheer luminosity that animates even our fragile, imperfect lives, and our fragile, imperfect ministries. Our lives become far less trivial to God’s beloved world than we might ever have dared to believe. And we then carry on, toward the places where our savior would have us go, and toward the place where the boundaries between our lives as they are and our lives as God will make them give way to lives of eternal significance.
Thanks be to God.