Sermon: Transfiguration Sunday
I recently received a letter from a young woman in jail. In my role as a street pastor, I visit jails often. And I often write back and forth with people. This young woman writes to say that our little church building in Westport is one of the few places in her life where she has experienced any kind of acceptance. She writes that the harbor is a “dark and depressing place” but that finding some space where she feels welcome and accepted makes things just a little bit better.
As I work on the streets, I am always struck by just how young our community is. Here in Aberdeen, over half our population is under 35. So many of our young people are on the streets, couch surfing, and in and out of jail. Grays Harbor county has, for example, the highest rate of incarcerating children for non-criminal offences in the nation.
And I think about the profound effect that has on generations of young people. For example, I work with many, many young mothers. Most of the baptisms I perform are in hospital rooms, as moms hold their babies and give them names. Sometimes I only have a few minutes, as I borrow hospital water, and trace the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead. Just a few minutes before CPS takes custody. I walk with moms who try desperately to try to find a place to stay, who try desperately to get clean for their baby, who try desperately to make a life and a family that they have never had.
Some of them tell me what it is like to have been in and out of juvie and jail, what it is like to have been told by everyone in their life that they would never amount to anything.
I’m telling you these stories because our text opens this morning with Jesus talking about suffering. Jesus lives in an occupied land. He knows that, as he travels up to Jerusalem, that he is going to be arrested, jailed, and executed. It has happened to so many others.
My ministry also always begins with suffering. We had so many people die last year. The youngest was a 23 year old veteran, a young man who lived for a short time in your parking lot over this past summer. I just sat with a young woman this last week who had just got out of major surgery and was in terrible pain. They could only afford one night in a hotel and then she would be on the street. No time for recovery when you are homeless.
Everywhere in the city, in this county, there is extensive suffering. It can feel unrelenting. It can feel unending. It can be so easy to give up hope.
I think it was that way for Jesus and his disciples too. Which is why I think we have the story of the Transfiguration.
Just after Jesus tells his disciples that he is expecting to face arrest and execution, he takes Peter and John up a mountain. And then the story honestly gets a little strange. I mean, what would you think if your friends come back from a hike and say that they just saw two dead people talking with your best friend?
But, strangeness aside, Peter and John witness an extraordinary moment. Jesus, standing in glory. And, with him, Moses and Elijah, two great figures from the Hebrew Bible.
You know, it is easy to imagine that glory and triumph come from the top. 1000 years ago, many Christians seemed to believe glory came with tyrant kings marching on crusades. Even now, we sometimes equate glory with ornate cathedrals, or with big budgets, or with winning national elections.
But, in our text this morning, glory comes in the person of Jesus, a poor carpenter about to be executed by the state. And, standing with him, is a shepherd and rebel leader who led his people out of slavery and a courageous prophet who spent the better part of his life and ministry on the run from the law.
And, for just a moment, as Jesus prepares to set his face toward suffering and death, we see him revealed in glory. Its only for a moment. The text tells us that, just as soon as the disciples see this, it is gone and they are alone again with Jesus. But, for a moment, they witness glory. In a little corner of an occupied empire, a few poor fishermen witness glory.
Even so, every now and again, I get to witness glory.
And it comes in precious moments when I witness extraordinary courage.
When, against all odds, a courageous mom gets through treatment and fights like hell for her baby.
When a man in prison donates most of his earnings toward helping people get housing.
When people stand up for each other, when a young man-- with warrants out for his arrest no less-- stands in front of the mayor and asks him to listen to the concerns of homeless people.
When people sacrifice for each other. When people, surrounded by so much despair, choose life.
When a few leaders of tent city decided that they wanted to create a community that protects each other and adamantly works to create space that is safe for vulnerable and disabled people.
When young women in jail, stripped of everything, in their early 20s, having spent more of their life locked up than out, still look out for each other.
When a homeless kid who slept in a shack last night and walked in shivering cooks lunch for his neighborhood and greets everyone with a giant smile on his face.
These are my heroes.
Glory. A glory that comes, not in great power, not with great pomp, but glory that comes to us in the middle of great and profound suffering. Glory demonstrated in acts of unspeakable courage and love. Glory that reminds us of a poor carpenter, a rebel leader, and a hunted prophet.
My dear correspondent from jail was not wrong when she said that the harbor was a dark and depressing place for so many. But it is also, in the middle of that, home to profound courage. In the deep suffering that I witness, in all of the pain and the tragedy, I also am humbled and profoundly grateful to witness the glory.
At the end of that vision on that mountain so many years ago, the two disciples hear a voice from heaven saying; “This is my son, my beloved.” Perhaps that is the most glorious thing of all. Being reminded, because this is what Jesus came to remind us, that we are all beloved children of God. On the streets, in jails, under bridges, and in all the tragedy of life on the harbor, people cling to that. They fight for that. They fight for their dignity, their worth as children of God.
As I witness that, all I can do is stand in awe of great and profound courage.
And cry Glory!