February 23, 2020
Transfiguration, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen
One day last fall, my husband texted me a link to the song, If We Were Vampires. We had just learned of a loved one’s death, and the grave diagnosis of another dear friend, and this is the song that came to mind for him.
Jason Isbell’s 2017 sad, sweet ballad could be sung on a wedding day, as a groom recognizes that the love of his life will not live forever. “It’s not the long, flowing dress that you’re in,” the bridegroom sings, “or the light coming off of your skin. It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever. Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone. Maybe we’ll get forty years together, but one day you’ll be gone. Or one day I’ll be gone[i].”
The song explains that if we were vampires, we could laugh at the concept of death and the passing of time, but those of us who live without any magical, life-prolonging powers are faced with the reality that life and death, love and loss, joy and grief are woven together into every moment of our lives. We all face the ultimate separation from those we hold closest to us, and the truth of it can make falling in love absolutely heart-breaking.
Now in spite of how crushingly sad the song is, it doesn’t end in despair. As his beloved takes his hand, the singer realizes, “Maybe time running out is a gift. I’ll work hard to the end of my shift,” he sings, “And give you every second I can find, and hope it isn’t me who’s left behind.”
The knowledge that our days are numbered can serve to remind us to work so that we end our stories without regret. We are reminded to express love fully in the present moment, knowing that we may only have this day, this time to sing the love we feel right now.
This is the day God gives us to love and care for each other as fully and as truly as we can.
In Matthew’s gospel, whenever Jesus climbs up a mountain, we know something important is about to happen. The mountain is where Moses receives God’s instruction, so when Jesus teaches on the mountain we know its significance. Jesus instructs us in God’s laws, teaching us that they’re still relevant for us. He reminds his followers that God’s laws are still given to show us what it means to love God with our whole heart, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
The mountain is also where God’s presence was most fully revealed to the prophet Elijah. When Jesus climbs a mountain, he reveals God’s power like Elijah did. He heals those who are sick, and has compassion on those who are suffering. It is on the mountain that he miraculously feeds thousands with only a few loaves and a couple fish.
So when Jesus climbs a mountain in today’s reading[ii], we know there’s something important about to happen. And when both of the ancient leaders, Moses and Elijah appear with him, beaming in sacred radiance no less, there is no longer any doubt about the importance of his ministry. All of the power of God’s word, the law and the prophets, surround Jesus in glory. Next to Moses and Elijah, he radiates with the truth and the power of God and reveals in his fullest display the wonder and magnitude of God’s presence.
Peter tries to hold on to the beauty of it all for a bit. Let’s build containers to try to capture this so we don’t lose it. Let’s set up tents so we can stay right here forever.
This scene follows that part of the gospel where the disciples have been arguing with Jesus about his future. He had been warning them that he would face opposition in Jerusalem, predicting that it would lead to his death. The disciples can’t accept such an idea. Surely things won’t have to come to that point. The extent of Jesus teaching and ministry wouldn’t have to be that dramatic, would it?
Here on the mountain, the whole truth begins to dawn on them. The light and love and truth and power of God are present in Jesus. In fact, to be sure they don’t miss it, a voice from heaven echoes the message heard at Jesus’s baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
Peter and the others are fall to the ground, terrified. Jesus embodies the full power and brilliance of all that is good and holy. God’s full presence, God’s holiness, God’s truth, God’s compassion, God’s complete life is present, in the disciples’ very midst. It seems as if it all becomes obvious to them, if ever so briefly, that this may be the only day they have with Jesus.
I wonder whether they suddenly understand what Jesus has been explaining: This can’t go on forever. No tent or booth up on a mountain can protect it. God’s love and might and goodness will be condemned and opposed. The very presence of God could be killed. The disciples, like our liturgical calendar, make the turn from Epiphany to Lent, and recognize that the forces of hatred and fear in the world stand opposed to the love of God.
But rather than leaving them frightened in the dust, Jesus moves toward them with healing kindness. In a gesture of love, Jesus touches his friends and offers them instructions for living the rest of their lives, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
The love and light and power of the transfiguration is no longer there on the mountain; in fact, Moses and Elijah can no longer be seen. Instead, all of God’s love and power are poured into this saving compassion of Jesus’ own presence.
The word Jesus uses when he touches his friends isn’t simply a command to stand up. It’s the same word that is translated other places in Matthew’s gospel as “rise!” Jesus uses the same word that we’ll hear another figure in dazzling light tell the women at the tomb, “He has arisen.” “Rise,” as if from death, Jesus tells his friends, “and do not be afraid.”
This is the compassion and love of God, taking the hand of the beloved ever so gently and reassuring us with the message: Don’t be afraid. Love is worth it. Life is worth it. Even though death will seem to separate us, it will never get the last word on us. Maybe we’ll only get 40 years, together. But 40 years, or even only 40 days of our Lenten journey, won’t finally end with despair or disappointment or separation. Love is stronger than death. Do not be afraid.
Maybe time running out is a gift. It reminds us to live in the present moment, to discover how best to love and care for the world around us right here in our lives today. It forces us to work hard to the end of our shifts, to offer the world all the love that we can find.
When Jesus recognizes that time is running out, he shares the dazzling love and power and goodness of God with his followers, touches them with grace, and raises them to new life. When the disciples realize that time is running out, they claim God’s love as their own and share it with the world around them. They take on the ministry of feeding those who are hungry, gathering those who long to hear good news, healing those in pain, declaring forgiveness to those who are afraid and embodying the compassion of God for a world in pain.
What might it mean for us? Jesus is still touching us with grace and telling us to rise. We live, like those transfigured disciples, in the light of the resurrection, knowing that death won’t swallow up the brilliance of love forever.
Like Jason Isbell in a heart-breaking love song, Jesus tells us to live right now in the present moment. Rise, and love the world today, Jesus sings. Rise, and serve your neighbor. This is the day God gives us to love and care for each other as fully and as truly as we can.
Our Rise, O Church campaign uses this same language reminding us still of the transfiguring, resurrecting power of God in our lives. The whole campaign invites me to consider where God will be leading this congregation for the next forty years. I can commit to the project today, because I pray that future generations will continue to gather in this space to sing God’s praises. I can commit to it because I hope that they too will be inspired by the light shining through these windows, that they too will be touched by a word of welcome or an embrace of peace here. I can commit to it because I want this congregation to continue to be a caring, healing, and welcoming presence on this corner for decades to come.
Rise, Jesus is still telling us, and do not be afraid. Rise to welcome. Rise to sing. Rise to serve a world in need of hope and compassion. One day you and I might be gone. But with our help, the mission of Gloria Dei will continue to serve and care for this community, long past all of us.
Since we only are promised today, let us live already in the transfiguring love of God rising to share God’s love with the world. Thanks be to God.
[i] Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, If We Were Vampires, https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=fyiEJaf-IzE
[ii] Matthew 17:1-9.