This was my sermon from this past Sunday – Transfiguration Sunday.
Much of my time on the farm is spent managing manure. The average cow produces 100 pounds of it per day. Then there’s the pigs and the goats and the chickens, and well, you get the picture. It’s a lot. And it all has to go somewhere. All of that… stuff and the used straw bedding gets composted. When I first muck out the pens, it is smelly and gross. If I don’t get to it soon enough the smell of ammonia is overpowering. It all gets tossed into one big, festering pile of… stuff. Since I want to eventually use this compost on my vegetable gardens, I monitor and manage the piles pretty closely. I keep a thermometer nearby and take the pile’s temperature every day aiming for a temperature of around 130-140 degrees. Then comes the task of turning the pile. Steam billows out from the pile and white streaks of thermophilic bacteria lace the decomposing material. The smell of muck and ammonia is gone. I turn the pile every few days at first, each time the pile has changed. Each time the contents of the pile become more indistinct, darker, richer. Finally, the pile no longer heats up and the worms move in to feast. I don’t have to turn it as often, but when I do, the soft, pink-brown bodies of the worms squirm and writhe with each forkful. Before long, the pile is something altogether wonderful. Earthy and sweet-smelling, soft and crumbling in my hand, full of vital nourishment for the garden. A complete transformation from smelly, festering waste to sweet, life-giving compost.
We call this Sunday in the church year, Transfiguration Sunday. Every year it is the last Sunday before the season of Lent begins and always this story of Jesus taking Peter, James, and John to the mountain top where they see Moses and Elijah and Jesus is transfigured into a glowing figure. The disciples are almost overcome with sleep, but they manage to stay awake just long enough to see Jesus in all his divine glory. Then a cloud or a fog moves in and they are overcome with awe as they hear God’s voice telling them to listen to Jesus.
This story is always paired with the story of how Moses had to wear a veil to shield his eyes when he would come before God’s presence on the mountainside. He could only remove it to see God’s backside as God passed. But here, in Luke, it’s as if the disciples were allowed to have that veil lifted, even if for just a brief moment, to see the fullness of Jesus, the glory of God. Jesus is transfigured, which means the truth or fullness of who he is was revealed. And the disciples were transformed in their witnessing it.
Well, except they weren’t, at least not completely. Because Jesus and the disciples come back down from the mountain and the next day a man brings his son to have a demon cast out and he tells Jesus he asked the disciples to do it, but they couldn’t. So Jesus does it, and again the disciples stand in awe. The disciples couldn’t be the agents of change for the boy because even though they saw and experienced God’s glory on the mountain they were not fully transformed, not yet.
Next, Jesus tries to tell the disciples about what is to come, but they just don’t get it and they’re too afraid to ask. And you can almost hear the frustration in Jesus’ voice – “Let these words sink into your ears.”
And then they argue about who will be the greatest.
And then they complain because someone else, who is not part of their group, is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They are jealous and bitter and… clueless. And you can just imagine that Jesus grabs his head in frustration – “At least that other guy gets it!”
It’s just this constant litany of Jesus showing or telling the disciples who he is and they don’t get it. Till finally someone comes to Jesus and declares “I will follow you wherever you go… but first let me do this other thing.” And Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand on the plough and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”
In every encounter, the veil is lifted, just for a moment, and Jesus tries to reveal himself to the disciples, but they are not fully transformed. And they won’t be until the Resurrection. And even then, the transformation has to happen in many ways and times over their lives. And oddly enough I find great hope in that. Even with Jesus right there in front of them, the disciples still struggled. Jesus kept revealing himself to them, over and over, lifting the veil just a little bit more each time. I’ve had times when the veil has lifted for me, times when the space between me and God’s divine glory was erased, and like Peter I’ve wanted to pitch a tent there, to stay in that glory. But then the complicated, messiness of life returns. Like Carrie Newcomer’s song sometimes I want to yell, “If not now, tell me when.” I’m looking at you Methodist church. But I have to hold on to the hope that I have been changed, that the church has been changed, that the world has been changed, even if only a little, and that God’s glory will be revealed again and again in more fullness each time.
You CAN just toss a bunch of manure and leaves and garden waste and such into a pile and wait. Eventually, it will break down. Mother Nature will do her thing. But along the way, it will be a stinking, festering pile. And what you’re left with will be riddled with weeds seeds, harboring potentially harmful bacteria and leached of its nutrients. Not at all the vital, life-giving compost you want to add to your garden. To get good compost, you have to expose all its contents to light and oxygen and most of all heat. You have to do the hard work of turning it over and over. Transformation is not a one and done thing.
On Wednesday we move into the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday. As a part of the typical service, folks have the opportunity to have ashes imposed on their foreheads. A reminder of our mortality and our need of grace. Ashes are one of the things I add to my compost. Like compost, they are the product of exposing waste materials to heat – in this case, fire. Ashes are high in phosphorous and potassium – important nutrients that support root development and fruit production. This season of Lent invites us to add these ashes to our lives, to do the hard work of praying, of reflecting, of fasting, of exposing ourselves to the heat that can root us in good and produce the fruit of a faithful, transformed life.
God’s glory is all around us. In the mountains and the rivers, yes, but also in the faces of those we encounter every day. But, like Moses, we are wearing a veil that keeps us from seeing that glory. Throughout our lives, we get these moments of pulling back the veil, but in between we have to do the hard work of transformation, continually turning the soil of our souls.