So the other day I was walking down the street in University City in Philadelphia, on my way to a meeting. It was cold [of course] and so people were hurrying to class, work, or wherever they needed to go without hesitating one bit. Who could blame them? It was cold. I admit that I also hurried down the street just like everybody else—though I did have about 10-15 minutes to spare before my meeting started. Perhaps it was for that reason or because of some strange coincidence that my eyes made contact with someone else’s eyes. She was standing there, in the cold, not running to the next thing. She just stood there. As the people hurried by, she stood there. Our eyes met and before I knew it, my feet had stopped walking. And now I stood there. Whoosh. A group of students buzzed past. A delivery truck’s engine hummed as they loaded merchandise. Whoosh. A businesswoman walked in between me and the strange, standing still, eye-contact-making woman.
Can you buy me a sandwich, please? Sir? Can you buy me a sandwich?
That is all she said. My first reaction was related more to logistics than to any kind of ethical or moral decision:
She pointed to the door of a food court-type establishment full of UPenn and Drexel students and I followed her inside. It was much warmer, of course, and she asked me if it would be okay for her to buy a sandwich at a particular place, to which I nodded my head and said:
Thank you, sir.
She ordered the sandwich, I paid [as the lady behind the counter looked at me with a strange expression] and then she shook my hand and said:
My name’s Tanya.
Thank you, Josh.
And then Tanya shook my hand for a second time [firmly], and then she was gone—sandwich and all. Out into the cold, out onto the street where the people whizzed by and the cars honked and where my meeting was now a couple of minutes away. I too walked back out into the cold and joined the hurried mess. I made my meeting; then I worked on the worship service for Sunday; I answered a bunch of emails; I made some phone calls; I continued on with my day; but I kept thinking about Tanya.
Now I make no great claim of being a humanitarian. I just bought her a sandwich, after all. I didn’t change the world, I didn’t get Tanya a job, I didn’t fix the poverty and homelessness in Philadelphia and beyond; I did nothing extraordinary. I make no value judgment about what I did, because, honestly, at its core, all I did was make eye contact with someone. And the eye contact led to me buying a sandwich.
I will say, however, that we live in a world full of people. We come in contact with people every day—or, at least we should. We share sidewalks, streets, rooms, offices, schools, churches, air, ground, and the planet with other people. And I think the more we realize that every day we come into contact with another human being and have the chance to treat him/her as a human being—the more we are awake to opportunity and possibility. At our most honest moments, we recognize that the world is a difficult, sometimes-awful place. It can feel overwhelming; it can seem hopeless and therefore not worthwhile to help or to try to make a positive impact. But I wonder–if we considered that every day we come into contact with other people; if we made eye contact with them; if we treated them like human beings and not objects or clients or consumers or agendas or ethnicities or nationalities or orientations or categories—I wonder if we just might awaken to new purposes and perspectives.
Transfiguration. It means metamorphosis; a change; an enlightening; an awakening. Transfiguration is a word we use to describe this crazy story in the Gospels of the Bible. Today is even called Transfiguration Sunday. Why? Because Wednesday, February 13th is the start of the season of Lent, a 40 day period. Most consider Lent to be the oldest Christian observance—starting out as a time for the early followers of Jesus to pray, fast, and undergo self-examination. Over time, traditions change of course, but the purpose remained the same. The reason Lent became a 40 day observance was to remember Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness for, you guessed it—prayer, fasting, and self-examination. And as I’ve mentioned before, the number 40 is incredibly symbolic. Moses was 40 days on Mt. Sinai with God; Elijah spent 40 days walking to Mt. Horeb; 40 days and nights Noah and company dealt with the flood; 40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert before making it to the holy land; and Jonah, premium whale food, gave the Ninevites 40 days to shape up and honor God.
So the transfiguration story is steeped in symbolism, and not a literal tale. There are three versions of the story—in Mark, Matthew, and here in Luke. In the version we read today, Jesus just finished teaching his followers about what it would mean to be disciples. What should they expect? After this, they went up to a mountain for prayer. Right away, the symbol of a mountain should tell us that the story has shifted from down-to-earth action to metaphorical, visionary stuff. Up on the mountain, in Biblical stories, people hear and see things differently. Perspectives change. So Peter, John, James, and Jesus go up the mountain. And Jesus prays. Prayer is something that Luke’s Gospel focuses on. And in this case, it is during the act of prayer that Jesus’ face [and his clothes] brighten up. This is visual—seen. Also seen are two beloved faith heroes of old—Moses and Elijah. These two speak to Jesus about his apparent departure, but really the word better translated is exodus.
Aha! So Luke is directly connecting the exodus story of Moses and the Israelites from Egypt to Jerusalem with Jesus’ ministry. Moses led the Israelites from slavery to freedom. So Jesus would lead people from bondage to freedom. But Jesus and Moses had yet another thing in common. Moses, when he met up with God on the mountain and received commands from God—came down with a bright, radiant face. Luke doesn’t want us to miss this Jesus-Moses connection. Luke wants you and me as readers to see.
But it’s hard to see, don’t you think, if your eyes are closed? Peter and company were weighed down with sleep and we don’t know why. But really, doesn’t this scene look a lot like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? I mean, he was praying there, too, and the disciples were asleep then, too. But our storyteller Luke reminds us that up on the mountain, even with the sleepies still in their eyes, Peter and co. become fully awake. They see Jesus for who he is and Moses and Elijah. Even so, Peter is as clumsy as ever. He interrupts the transcendent, spiritual moment with:
Hey Jesus—it’s good to be here. Let’s make three tents. You can have one, and we’ll give one to Moses and Elijah, too!
Says the narrator: Peter didn’t even know what he said.
But even Peter’s words can’t hold back the vision of clouds and voice from up above, telling them to listen to Jesus. It is pretty clear that the whole story is meant for the disciples [and for you and I] to stop trying to figure everything out and to just listen. Just see.
The veil is lifted up and Peter, James, and John see things as they are—no facades or masks, no false pretense, no filter. This vision is raw. It’s terrifying. It’s the real world.
They come down from the mountain. Right away, the world finds them. A great crowd forms. A man shouts out:
Help my son! He’s sick—he has random seizures. It’s horrific! Your disciples, when I told them about him, couldn’t do anything. Help!
No more visions. No more floating clouds and god-like voices. No more tents for faith heroes. No more sleeping. Real life. Raw life. A sick kid. A desperate dad. A needy crowd.
And an unhappy Jesus, right? Jesus, fresh off the mountaintop experience, is ticked off! He almost cannot bear to be with humanity anymore. The world is so messed up, there is so much injustice and so many people sleepwalking through it all—he’s had it! A calm, passive Jesus petting a baby lamb? No way. He’s Jesus–the one God is actually pleased with, because he tells it like it is, sees things as they are. Yes, Jesus ends up healing the kid, but he does so almost reluctantly, because he knows that one healing won’t change the world. One healing won’t bring justice to all those oppressed by an imperialistic society. One healing is one healing. There is much more work to be done and the road ahead is difficult. And it may get ugly.
Wait—it WILL get ugly.
And we are supposed to see without a veil over our faces. We are supposed to make eye contact with the world as it is. And we are supposed to wake up—fully awaken, to be able to act. But it’s hard—isn’t it—to not lose hope or to get overwhelmed and then apathetic? It’s hard to balance the mystical, spiritual, heartwarming experiences we want to have with the raw, tangible, ugly, and difficult experiences of real life. But that’s the point. The mountain and the street corner are one and the same. The great visions co-exist with the unjust, sad, and sick lives of real people. The spiritual, God-experiences live in the same space with unanswered prayers. The voices in the clouds co-exist with the desperate cries in the street. We have no time to build tents or shrines to commemorate religious things. We have today. And if our eyes are open, we can see the spiritual co-existing with humanity.
We can see that God doesn’t stay far off in the clouds, but lives with us in our pain, our uncertainty, our fears, and our inadequacies. We can see that there is more to the world than just what our physical eyes spot or what our TVs tell us.
There is more to the world. There is more to people than the categories we give them. We are more than categories. We are loved, and gifted, and full of purpose. And so are the others around us. We just need to see. We just need to wake up. Every day is an opportunity to see someone and accept her for who she is—embracing her whole self, her full humanity. Every day is a chance to open your eyes to notice that you can do good in the world if you fully awaken.
40 days are just another 40 days if you want them to be. But Lent could be a mountaintop experience on the city street, if you are open to it. This is an opportunity to see. May our eyes be fully open and our hearts prepared to make eye contact; to listen; to embrace someone’s full humanity; to heal; to forgive; to share; to love. Amen.