Seeing with Transfiguration Eyes
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
February 23, 2020
All Saints’ Church
In the summer after I graduated college, I had the opportunity to work as a ministry intern with a very talented mentor. Our church was in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. Most of the residents were originally from the Appalachian regions of Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky, and had come to the nearest big city to pursue economic opportunities for themselves and their families. But here, in this urban neighborhood sitting under the shadows of the downtown skyscrapers just a stone’s throw away, things always still felt a little bit country.
I loved the people I got to know that summer. They were warm, matter-of-fact, and tested by the challenges of a hard life. I also watched how my mentor interacted with them—sometimes with sternness, sometimes with unbounded charity, but always with deep compassion and fierce love. She was constantly worried about the children leaving the elementary school on our block as they passed the drug dealers’ house across the street from the church. She mobilized the community when a twelve-year-old boy in the neighborhood shot and killed his nine-year-old cousin over a fight about a video game. She was constantly present, and in walking with her people, she got to see them in a deep and powerful way that, I came to understand, was a glimpse of how God saw them but the world did not.
She told me a story about a parishioner who had died before I was there. Apparently she was a wild mountain woman through and through who came to church only occasionally. My mentor said she was always filthy and cussed like a sailor, but was also tough as nails. One time, my mentor went on a pastoral call to her house, which was not much more than a run-down shack with no indoor plumbing. The woman had been sick, and my mentor brought her Communion, but when she knocked on the door, the woman didn’t want a visitor. “What the hell do you want?” she said to her priest. Oh, apparently she was also totally naked.
Apparently my mentor was one of few people in the community who had affection for this woman, and when she went on to her greater reward, she was the only clergy person in the neighborhood who agreed to officiate her funeral. And this is actually the part of the story that has stuck with me in the twenty years since I first heard it. My mentor said then when she saw this woman in the casket, she looked completely different. Under all that dirt and grime, the tough talk and the tougher acting, she was a truly beautiful person, with rich hair, glowing skin, and look of peace. All this time—the world had seen this person as an outsider, a nuisance, a gadfly. But this was how God saw her, in all her beauty and splendor--God’s beloved child.
It’s no coincidence that I asked St. John’s in Columbus to sponsor me for ordination a few weeks later. Among the many things I learned that summer, I decided I wanted to be able to see people the way my mentor saw them—transfigured. I was tired of judging people by outward appearances, the way they looked or acted or what other people thought of them. I wanted to see that inner light, the radiance that shone forth from that woman. It turned out my mentor could see it coming from her all along. I wanted those eyes—transfiguraiton eyes—the eyes that give us that power to see our fellow human beings more like the way God sees them. I wanted to see the world in the light of transfiguration.
Friends, I think we all have our transfiguration stories, the ones about the times we caught a glimpse of the world as God sees it. Matthew shows us how to tell a good transfiguration story. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to a high mountain. When they reach the mountaintop, he is transfigured. His face is as bright as the sun, and even his clothes are bright and shiny. Moses and Elijah appear with him. And a great voice proclaims, “this is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased!”
It’s important to understand a little bit of the context of this story. That woman in Columbus stands out to us because we don’t often encounter people who are habitually dirty. But that has only recently become the case. Modern sanitation and hygiene really only got rolling in the last few generations. So most hearers of this story over history would have understood how dirty and smelly Jesus and his companions were that day.
But what makes the story even more fantastical is that this transfiguration miracle would happen to Jesus, of all people. Here he was, son of a carpenter, itinerant preacher and healer, despised of the religious authorities. When Moses and Elijah appear alongside Jesus, it’s as if the light of his entire spiritual tradition is shining through him. And the tradition itself has been transfigured along with Jesus. His message is that God loves each and every one of us—Peter, James, and John, the sinner and the righteous man, even a difficult lady in Columbus two thousand years later. But this isn’t just a message—it is revealed to be the very force of God, shining through Jesus and out into all of us.
Much is made in this story of Peter’s desire to make the moment linger. This is not the story of a permanent transfiguration, but rather of a snapshot in time, a mountaintop moment. On the mountaintop, Jesus shines with the brightness of the sun. Very soon thereafter, he is condemned as a criminal and sentenced to death on a cross. On that day, a dark cloud covers the earth, and the curtain of the Temple is torn in two. But even in that darkest of times, Jesus’ friends must have remembered the mountaintop. The light of their memory would have pierced the darkness of the present.
I have never stopped wanted to see the world with transfiguration eyes. And the story of Jesus’ transfiguration in the Gospel of Matthew teaches us what that’s like. Like Jesus’ unwitting disciples on that day, we don’t get to choose the time, manner, or place when we see the world transfigured. Like them, we most often will be overwhelmed and even afraid when we see God’s glory transfiguring what we see into something different and bright. And like them, we may want to stay in that moment, but will instead be led back down the mountaintop. Because the driving force that lets you see the world with transfiguration eyes isn’t your own worth or skill, and it’s never going to be a situation of your own making. The only way to see with transfiguration is to be faithful. You must follow Jesus up the mountain and believe what your eyes are seeing, then follow him back down and remember what you saw.
I think most of us are here in part because we want to see the world with transfiguration eyes. I think most of are drawn to seek God’s presence because there is a deep and abiding faith within us that there is a spiritual reality within the world around us that is often hidden from our sight, but that might burst through with the dazzling light of the Transfiguration. Honestly, it’s people with that faith who shape the world into something better than what it is today. If you have transfiguration faith, then you can look at even the darkest situation or system and remember a mountaintop vision. That memory will keep you working for change even through the darkest circumstances. And the crazy thing the Bible teaches us is that that memory doesn’t even have to be yours—it can be a spiritual memory told to you by Matthew, or Peter, or even a priest in Ohio. A transfiguration faith is a shared faith, and the stories and memories of it belong to no one in particular.
I’ve shared my transfiguration story with you. What’s yours? When did you unexpectedly see God’s brilliance shining through someone or some thing? Remember your story, and if you dare, tell someone. Tell someone at coffee hour, or later today, or at some opportune time in the future. The light of what you saw will shine through your words and enter someone else’s memory. And then they will be inspired to see the world with transfiguration eyes too.
On Wednesday, we begin the penitential season of Lent. For many, this is a time for facing the darkness—both inside and outside of us. As you do, let the light you have seen with your own eyes light the path in front of you. This is the light of Christ, the light of transfiguration.
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