Today we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. Now, normally, we celebrate this feast on the last Sunday of Epiphany, right before Lent begins. This is the last celebration in a season of days meant to celebrate the ways Christ is made manifest to us. And what a feast! What better way to close out Epiphany than to use one of the most glorious experiences of Christ’s life – Jesus shining brightly, wonderfully transfigured for an elite group of disciples? But we are not in the season of Epiphany. In fact, we are right in the heart of the season of Pentecost – or what we call “ordinary time.” As we amble our way through the end of summer relaxation, the placement of such a magnificent feast day seems out of context. This is not the season of the year when we come to church expecting drama and flair.
And yet, I wonder if this is not the perfect time to talk about dramatic revelations of God. Just in the past two weeks, I have been a part of two different conversations that talked about how we notice God in the small, seemingly mundane moments of life. The first was a conversation with a study group. We were talking about the concept of synchronicity as coined by Carl Jung. Jung defined synchronicity as “meaningful coincidences” – those events that on the surface seem like coincidences, but upon further reflection the event carries much meaning. The group could think of countless times when a particularly meaningful song came on the radio at just the right time or someone called you just when you needed the call. The second conversation I had was with a group of friends, a few of which had read a book about what the author called “God Winks.” These were little moments when something innocuous happens, but upon further reflection, they may have been moments where God was trying to communicate, affirm, or comfort. Examples included seeing a bird just after the death of a loved one, or seeing a flower bloom in an unexpected place.
I loved the convergence of these conversations because I think they get to the heart of why the Transfiguration is sometimes hard for us to fully appreciate. You see, in Luke’s gospel, the text is quite dramatic. In the midst of prayer on the mountain, suddenly Jesus’ face and clothing becomes a dazzling white. Two of the greats of our faith, Moses and Elijah, not only appear, but are talking to Jesus. And when Peter speaks to try to make sense of this fantastic moment, a cloud rushes in, blocking their sight and booming into their ears the very voice of God. And then, just as quickly as the light and sound show begin, they are left in silence with Jesus as if the event never happened.
We love this story. And yet, there is a way in which this story is so fantastic, we cannot really relate to the event. I imagine very few, and maybe none of us, have ever experienced an encounter with God where we saw blazing lights, an appearance of the fathers of our faith, and heard the voice of God. Occasionally, we will hear stories of someone who dies and is revived, who then tells stories of a bright light. But for most of us, those kinds of moments are beyond our faith experience. They are so fantastic that they feel fictional, or at least inaccessible. The danger with that kind of conclusion is that we can conclude that Jesus himself is also inaccessible – at least in meaningful ways to us. Unless God talks to us with Bose-quality sound or Jesus shines before us like the lights of Las Vegas, we must be doing something wrong.
Episcopalians can be especially susceptible to this kind of dismissal. As a people who value the mind, and who celebrate the gift of our post-Enlightenment era, we are skeptical when people share their mountaintop experiences. I had a friend from high school who went to a pretty conservative, evangelical school for college. Though she herself was somewhat theologically conservative, even she found herself to be in unfamiliar territory. You see, at her school, there was an expectation that people share stories of how they heard God speaking to them. I am not sure why, but apparently the student body had dramatic encounters with God – so much so that not only were you expected to have them yourself, but also they almost became a point of pride or one-upmanship. The whole practice was like Christian bullying from my friend’s perspective.
But the danger with dismissing other’s dramatic God moments or even the Transfiguration is that we can end up dismissing encounters with God altogether. Since we do not live in the time of Jesus, I do not expect that any of us will ever witness what Peter, John, and James do. And since most of us will not have near-death experiences, I do not think we will encounter bright, shiny Jesuses or disorienting, booming clouds. But we will experience God in tangible ways. We will have those moments of synchronicity or God Winks. We may not hear the voice of God directly. But even if we do not hear a distinct voice whom we believe to be God, God is speaking to us all the time.
I cannot tell you the countless times I have talked to someone who said they felt an odd compulsion to call a friend they had not spoken to in a long time. When they acted on the impulse, they found a friend in desperate need who needed a good word. I cannot tell you the number of times someone was clouded with anxiety and the sun shone beautiful rays of light through the clouds, a rainbow appeared, or a creature crossed their path. I cannot tell you the number of times someone has gotten off their routine – a missed bus, a forgotten item in the house, or a traffic jam, only to then have an encounter they never would have had if they had been on time.
I do not think those are mere coincidences. I think, knowing how incredulous our information-overloaded minds are, God finds new, brilliant ways to speak to us all the time. They may not be moments filled with light, but when we realize how we saw God in a person on a particular day, we feel like a light has shined into our minds and hearts. Those moments may not be clear words spoken into our minds by God, but they may be clear words spoken by a stranger that are as disorienting as God’s own words. You see, God is showing God’s self and speaking to us all the time.
Our invitation in light of the Transfiguration is two-fold. First, God invites us to hone our senses. God invites us to let go of all our human-created incredulity, and to be open to those God Winks or meaningful coincidences. In order to do that, we are probably going to have to start sharing our crazy stories, knowing that we may be judged or doubted. But the more we share those experiences, the more we create a community of people looking for tangible signs of God in everyday life.
Second, God invites us to shine light and be God’s voice for others. About the Transfiguration, scholar Cláudio Carvalhaes says, “Unless we get out of the fortress of our worship spaces, and rebuke the unclean spirits of the powers that be, and shed light into the lives of the poor of our communities, we will never know what transfiguration means. Glory will be an unknown word and experience.”[i] Carvalhaes argues that sensing God’s voice and light in our own lives is not enough. Our work is to come off the mountain, as Jesus and the disciples do in the verses following our reading today, and be agents of healing, care, and wholeness. The Transfiguration “was never meant as a private experience of spirituality removed from the public square. It was a vision to carry us down, a glimpse of the unimagined possibility at ground level.”[ii] In sharing Christ’s dazzling light, and God’s booming voice, we also find our lives transfigured – changed through encounter with others. We create space for those God Winks and meaningful coincidences to occur, and in so doing, make space for God in us, through us, and around us. Amen.
[i] Cláudio Carvalhaes, “Commentary on Luke 9:28-36, (37-43),” February 07, 2016, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2756 on August 2, 2017.
[ii] Lori Brandt Hale, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 456.