February 14, 2021
Transfiguration Sunday, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
In the Eastern Orthodox church, there’s a tradition of blessing grapes on the Festival of Transfiguration. The orthodox celebrate the Transfiguration in August when the grapes are swelling into ripeness. They become a symbol of the whole creation swelling into sweet ripeness in the love of Christ– a symbol of what human life looks like in Christ: brilliant, full of juicy light, saved from itself, a community of prophets and priests; a people who hear what Jesus hears. “You are my beloved.”
Lutherans celebrate Transfiguration right before Lent, as the final symbol of Epiphany, which makes the Sunday usually come in February. It’s hardly a season of ripeness; hardly a season that pops with creation’s glory, unless you’re one of those people who see in ice and snow the reflection of transfigured light. Most of us have to look harder for the miracle of life on a frigid Sunday morning when the high temperature may not rise above zero.
So I brought a Sumo orange. Have you tried these? They are only available in the winter near the festival of the Transfiguration. They don’t last very long, and they’re a little pricey. But they are, oh, so sweet. They’re big mandarins, named Sumo because of the little knot on the top that is like the little hair knot on the heads of a sumo wrestlers. They’re a hybrid fruit that took thirty years to develop, started in the 70’s in Japan. The trees take four years before they produce fruit, so they weren’t available in the United States until about ten years ago. I learned about them when I moved to Minnesota from our office coordinator, Karen Earhuff, when she had one for lunch. They are giant!. They’re a little odd looking: wrinkled, lumpy. The skin feels loose, which makes them really easy to peel.
In winter, the mountain of orange is a kind of summit that glows with the sweetness of a life which promises to come. Or maybe it’s just me that’s desperately looking for some sign of sweetness in a time of variant viruses and impeachment trials, some symbol of heaven as the days of pandemic winter stretch onward. I suspect many of us are desperate for some sign of metamorphosis, the old Greek word for transfiguration—change–in relationships that look hopelessly broken, in marriages that struggle to recover some of the mountaintop of those early Valentine’s Days; in jobs that don’t ever seem to reach the summit; or, truthfully, for so many of us who worship at home, we can’t quite get the same glory on our couch that we do when a whole community sings “Jesus Loves Me” in four part harmony.
Maybe it’s always true that we need something to hold in our hands to know the truth of a resurrected Jesus. It’s why the disciples probably wanted to build a shelter so they could hold on to the experience. It’s why they hold grapes in the East. Or we drink wine and eat bread on Sunday mornings. Or we give one another red hearts and say, “Be mine.” Maybe it’s why we look to the creation for hints of who we really are, how we’re located, and where we are really going.
It’s silly to hold an orange and trust in eternal life. To hold a piece of fruit as a witness to Christ. Or to think that chocolate and flowers can mend our relationships, much less instigate a new one. Probably just as silly to trust the shaky witness of those early disciples who came down a mountain and told us who Jesus really was, an itinerant, poor Galilean preacher, turned into something brilliant; who saw him in the company of Israel’s hall of fame; even heard the timbre of God’s very voice.
We crave signs that we are loved. We crave stories that point us toward a life of grace and justice. We crave to be told, “You are my beloved.” Every single one of us is climbing up some mountain that only we know. Some of us talk about our mountains, and that helps everyone. Many of us just scale them in silence because we’re ashamed or embarrassed, or just not schooled in examining our underlying architecture.
God promises to drop hints, tactile signs, crazy visions, even cloudy days that have an inner voice, right in the middle of our journey. The transfiguration is exactly half-way through the book of Mark, the Easter sign of where we’ve been and where we are most certainly going. It doesn’t diminish the suffering that will come, or ease the trick of hiking on the mountain path, or even deny the shadow of the valley. It simply says, “That’s not all.” There’s more.
There’s always more. I’ve always felt like it’s such a summary of the gospel: In Christ, there’s always more. Imagine whispering it into the ear of your beloved on Valentine’s Day; or to the hungry at the foodshelf or the homeless in an encampment; or the protestor on Lake Street, or at the bedside of a dying saint. There is always more going, and it’s so good, so sweet. God desires more for us.
There are oranges. There are meetings, like today’s annual meeting, where numbers get filled with a community’s intention to love and act with mercy and justice. There are little packets of token signs—hearts, chocolate, beads, dust, seed, prayers, donut holes—that carry a congregation’s love for one another. On the coldest day in winter, there will be love in our parking lot this morning. There is Wednesday, dirt and ashes, marked with the sign of a cross.
There are signs right now in the life that you are living that hold heaven. There are people in whose very being is the glory of God. Moses, Elijah, Jesus, are just ahead. There are places where heaven and earth flow into one another. Life is populated with mountains of transfiguration.
I read a story this week in USA Today about a parking lot in Pekin, Illinois. A local historian has unearthed the lot’s forgotten history. It’s on land that was once a cemetery for African American residents, including the very first slave freed by Abraham Lincoln, long before he was president. His experience with Nance Legins-Costley shaped him after he argued her case at the Illinois Supreme Court. Lincoln was ambivalent about abolition at that time. Historian Carl Adams believes that the case had a transfiguring effect on Lincoln.
Nance Legins-Costley, through a series of unfortunate circumstances and many failed court cases, remained a slave, even though Illinois prohibited slavery. The law still contained so much white supremacy that a slave brought there would have to remain in slavery. As her owners sold her or died, she petitioned over and over again to be free, starting when she was eleven years old. Eventually as an adult, her case ended up in the hands of Lincoln at the Supreme Court, where her family was finally freed from slavery. Her son, the first male slave freed by Lincoln, fought in the Civil War and was part of the African American regiment that brought the news of the Emancipation Proclamation to 250,000 slaves in Texas on June 19th, a date celebrated still as Juneteenth.
Members of the community are at work attempting to preserve and honor the place. There’s a crude sign currently affixed to the chain link fence surrounding the parking lot. On a Transfiguration Sunday, we might see that sign as a symbol of Transfiguration, a way to touch a person and a history that glows with God’s justice; people who heard in their souls, despite the world around them, that they were beloved children of God, part of a beloved community that had an impact far beyond what they could have even imagined.
If I ever traveled to Pekin, Illinois, which is near Peoria, I would want to touch that sign to be connected to the prophets and priests of Jesus’ own family, not dead but their living witness moving forward to the mountain top, where King would say on the night before his own death, “Mine eyes have seen the glory.”
Our prayer on a frigid transfiguration day is that we will be granted wide-eyed vision to see what’s true but often veiled; what’s just on the other side of the cloud; on the inside of history; to taste the sweetness of grace, the brilliance of Christ, and a life that has already been transfigured.
 USA TODAY, “She was the first Black person freed by Lincoln, long before his presidency. Her grave was paved over and her story hardly known,” by Phil Luciano, Journal Star, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2021/02/06/nance-legins-costley-of-pekin-the-first-slave-lincoln-freed/4373306001/.