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The movie “Hidden Figures” tells the remarkable story of the African American women whose mathematical calculations helped get the U.S. space program off the ground—literally. Called “computers,” these brilliant women toiled in obscurity, relegated to back rooms and segregated toilets, subjected to both racism and sexism.
Yet they were determined to do all they could to make the fledgling program successful—and to prove their worth. Katherine Goble Johnson was promoted from the back rooms to the all-male team trying to figure out how get John Glenn into orbit, but again and again her contributions were discounted and slighted.
Then one day she convinced her boss to allow her to attend a critical technical briefing. When she entered the boardroom, all the white men turned and stared, as if she were an imposter with no right to be there. They couldn’t see past her race and gender.
But then, after listening as the men tried and failed to solve a key problem, Katherine approached the large blackboard. Taking a piece of chalk in her hand, she began scribbling complicated mathematical formulas and calculations. Soon, she had covered the blackboard. Soon, she had explained to the men the reasoning and the numbers and what they needed to do to bring John Glenn safely home.
Suddenly, she was transfigured in their eyes. No longer was she simply a black woman, another lowly “computer”; she had become a valuable—no, an invaluable—member of the team. At that moment, when she saved them from failure, it was as if she had a face that shone like the sun and clothes that were dazzling white.
She was, of course, the very same person they had looked down upon when she walked through the door. Indeed, she was the same person who, until recently, had been forced to run all the way across campus—sometimes in the rain and always wearing heels—to go to the “colored” bathroom.
She was the very same person, but suddenly their eyes and hearts had been opened to see her differently. (In the movie, the drama builds; the music swells. We, the viewers, are made to understand that this is a key moment in the story. If you’ve seen the movie, I’m sure you remember the scene; if you haven’t—get thee to the theater!) Because Katherine had been transfigured.
So as we come to our yearly consideration of Jesus’ transfiguration, I wonder if, perhaps, something similar might have been happening with Peter, James and John. Oh, I don’t mean to diminish the mystery of it—not at all—but simply to acknowledge that none of us really knows, much less understands, what happened on that mountaintop, and yet, the glorious truth is that transfiguration is much more common that we think. The mystery is that it is happening all the time. We need only the eyes and the hearts to see it.
And, yes, I realize that transfiguration is one of those churchy words that can alienate or turn people off. Why don’t we just say “transformation”? you might be wondering.
So here’s what I think (this year, at least): Spiritual transformation is a personal process that changes who we are from the inside out. It often involves emotional or spiritual healing, a rebirth or new ways of seeing and understanding, perhaps changes in attitudes or habits, a deepening vulnerability. We ourselves are changed—not on the outside but where it really matters: in our hearts.
The dictionary tells me that transfiguration is simply a certain kind of transformation, that it is the transformation of one thing to something more beautiful or elevated. But that doesn’t quite capture it for me. I want to suggest this morning that transfiguration has to do with a change in how we appear, how we are perceived and experienced—by others.
Think about it: In the movie, when Katherine determines and explains the formula for getting John Glenn into orbit and back, it is as if she suddenly becomes taller and stronger and more authoritative. In your life, when you love someone, their outward appearance doesn’t change but in your eyes, they become beautiful. In our lives, when we truly love and understand and respect other people as beloved children of God, they are transfigured before us; we experience them differently—as more beautiful and elevated, more precious and wondrous.
It is a mystery. And, like the best mysteries, it is about love—opening to it and letting ourselves be changed by it. It can also be about hitting bottom or coming to the end of our rope. It can be about coming to the realization that we need something and someone beyond ourselves. It can be about hope.
As Matthew seems to be suggesting, there is a direct connection between transformation (what happens inside us) and transfiguration (how others experience us on the outside and come to understand us differently). It is our inner transformation that allows the glorious God light to shine in us and through us more clearly.
“Six days later” begins the passage we know as the transfiguration story. If we are paying attention at all, we would do well to wonder, “six days after what?”
And so we backtrack into the 16th chapter of Matthew trying to connect the dots, hoping to discern what he wants us to see, what those three little words about six days might be pointing to.
They point to the cross.
They point to Jesus trying to tell his disciples what is coming, that he will be tortured and killed—and raised. They point to Peter having a hard time with that, Peter not getting it and being only human—that is, arguing for an avoidance of suffering rather than a submission to it. And then, Jesus tries again, saying, “If you want to be like me, if you want to find the meaning of life and to experience life’s fullness, if you want new life and all the favor and the glory of God, follow me. Follow me on the way of self-giving love; follow me on the path of nonviolent resistance; follow me to the margins of society and beyond; follow me outside the rituals of religion and into the heart of God; pick up your own cross and follow me on the path to death. I’ll meet you there—and I’ll greet you in glory.”
Oh, it’s rarely a straight line, but again and again Jesus seems to be saying that opening leads to transformation leads to revelation leads to transfiguration glory.
When we allow ourselves to be transformed by the Spirit—through the process of following Jesus on the journey of sacrificial love, through the continual healing that comes from opening and trusting and loving—we will be transfigured. We will shine more brightly and purely. It will be clearer to ourselves and to others that we are beloved of God. And we will be able to see the God-light shining in others. They will be transfigured before our very eyes.
Six days later. Six seconds later. Six years later. A lifetime later. A moment later.
Matthew doesn’t tell us what happened in the six days between the “take up your cross” talk and the transfiguration. But I’m guessing it included a lot more of Peter’s initial resistance, more of Peter and the other disciples saying, “Oh no, Jesus, surely there’s another way. Surely there’s an easier way. Show us that way.”
But there is no other way.
So Jesus took Peter and James and John, and pulled them away from the others and closer to him. He took them out of their usual routine and to a special place—up on a mountaintop.
Notice the language of the story. Jesus doesn’t do a thing; he is transfigured. That is, the fullness of his glory was revealed to them. The glory had always been there but they hadn’t been able to see it. Because they were beginning to change, because they answered his invitation to get up early in the morning and go for a hike, because they loved him, their eyes were opened like never before. He was transfigured and they were transformed.
That our eyes and hearts might be opened, that we might be both transformed and transfigured, that we might have eyes and hearts to see the full-God given glory of each and every person we encounter, and to let our views of them change from mundane to glorious, that we might follow Jesus to the cross and beyond, so that we, too, might glow with the glory of God, let us hear the story again and pray through it, with meditative responses offered by Steve Garnaas-Holmes:
Jesus said, “If you want to become my followers,
deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.”
Give us grace, God, to follow in the way of the cross.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.
We come to you not by our own design, O Christ,
but by your loving invitation.
And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.
You are our dawn and our light, O Christ.
Fill us with the light of your love.
Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
Fulfill your Word in us, not by mere obedience or prophecy,
not in mere knowledge or lawfulness, but in love.
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Save us, O God, from our temptation
to capture and control our lives, your gifts, and even you.
Give us grace to be alive in the present moment.
While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them.
O Loving Mystery, overcome our knowledge with wonder,
that in a cloud of unknowing we may love you.
And from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved;
with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
When you call us to follow in the way of the cross, help us listen.
In every moment of our lives, help us listen.
When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground
and were overcome by fear.
We confess our fear of the unknown, fear of the light in us,
fear of your grace and your presence that overwhelms us.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Help us always to know your touch, to hear your voice:
You are my Beloved. Do not be afraid.
You are my Beloved. Do not be afraid.”
When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
Our visions are not of another world, but this one.
Open our eyes to see you in our daily lives.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them,
“Tell no one about the vision until after the Human One has been raised from the dead.”
Help us proclaim our faith, not in triumphal self-confidence
but in humbly following in the way of the cross,
trusting in resurrection. Alleluia.