Last Epiphany, A
2 Peter 1:16-21
I am not a math person. I come from a family of math people, engineers and so on, back for a generation or two. I even married a math person. I just never could relate to it, math. Never found satisfaction in an equation well solved – it takes a mindset different from mine. But I remember the occasional concept from mathematics that I could relate to -that I found exciting. Cusps were one of the few math concepts that caught my imagination. In mathematics, a cusp is a point at which at which a curve crosses itself and at which the two tangents to the curve coincide.
Less mathematically, it is a point of transition. To move from that spot is to commit to certain futures and leave others forever behind. It is the top of the mountain. It is a mountain pass. Which valley will the stone roll down when it finally moves at all? History is a story of cusps. Will America declare independence? Will we invade Iraq? Cusps often make us uncomfortable. But once you arrive at a cusp, if you are to move at all, you must commit.
We are at a liturgical cusp today. We have been traveling through the season of light; the season of Epiphany. From our mountaintop we gaze back at the rising star lighting the climb of Epiphany, and glance forward to the valley that is the mist-shrouded stark reality of Lent.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story of the Transfiguration. Each year at this time, as Lent stares us full in the face, we stand together on this mountaintop. We hear a story that is frankly, uncomfortable. Clearly it made the disciples uncomfortable. They fell to the ground on their faces, trembling in fright. Well, what would you do if you heard a great booming voice from the sky and the man you thought you knew suddenly started glowing? They were uncomfortable because they experienced the immediate presence of God. We are uncomfortable because we do not. Disembodied voices, chatting with ghosts, unearthly lights? In this age of science and proof and concrete evidence, this story evokes for us not a sense of awe, but rather a sense of disconnect or of disbelief – an uncomfortable feeling for a person of faith.
We have long since learned, however, that the scripture need not be taken literally to be taken seriously, even for a person of faith – maybe especially for a person of faith. As the Rabbi Ben Sylva pointed out, “A literalist interpretation of Scripture tells us that God is a rock that sent a bird to cause a virgin to give birth to a loaf of bread. And this is supposed to be an improvement on obtaining a chiseled code of conduct from a flaming shrubbery in a cloud. If a literal understanding is all that is required for faith, then I’m a yellow ducky.” The truth of scripture is deeper and fuller than historical fact. And lest we imagine that deeper interpretation of scripture is a by-product of our modern need to reconcile it with the modern age, in the 6th century Gregory the Great opined, “Scripture is like a river, broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.”
One of the most common interpretations of this story posits that Moses is a symbol for the law, Elijah represents the prophets, and Jesus, of course, symbolizes the Gospel, the Way. They clearly interact, they are clearly all important, but in God’s words, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” He clearly indicates His desire that His people turn towards the Way. This gives us a clear direction, and a good one, to go with this story. It places things comfortably in the metaphorical realm and fits nicely with our established theology.
“Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days”
“suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Literally or metaphorically, a thick impenetrable cloud, bright and overpowering seems to be the image portrayed of close encounters with the glory of God. Followers of Christ, we travel in the light of Epiphany with Peter and James and John up the mountainside, clear sighted. After all, as the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor points out, “Once you emerge from the cloud, you are supposed to be surer than ever what you believe. You are supposed to know who’s who, what’s what, where you are going in your life and why. You are supposed to have answers to all the important questions, and when you read the Bible you are supposed to know what it means.” That sounds very comforting, very clear.
But what if being comfortable isn’t the point? What if clear understanding is not what it is all about?
Again the Rev. Brown Taylor, “What if the point is not to decode the cloud but to enter into it? What if the whole Bible is less a book of certainties than it is a book of encounters, in which a staggeringly long parade of people run into God, each other, life–and are never the same again? I mean, what don’t people run into in the Bible? Not just terrifying clouds and hair-raising voices but also crazy relatives, persistent infertility, armed enemies, and deep depression, along with life-saving strangers, miraculous children, food in the wilderness, and knee-wobbling love.”
This is Transfiguration Sunday. Peter and James and John witnessed the Transfiguration, the metamorphosis, and their own lives were changed, unalterably. The certainties they held dear on the way up the mountain disappeared and they were themselves transfigured. Peter later shared his new certainty – “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
Liturgically, we stand at a cusp. In our lives we will travel to our own spiritual cusps. We can choose to slide down the curve back into certainty and comfort. Or we can enter the cloud and be changed. We can brave the valleys of darkness, and fear, knowing that we do not stand alone, that the light of God will shine on us, can shine through us.