The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Last Sunday after the Epiphany
February 26, 2017
The phone rang in the middle of the night. It was one of those calls, those dreaded calls. My uncle was calling my father to let him know that their mother, my grandmother, had taken a sudden turn for the worse. My grandmother had been fighting breast cancer for years, and though they thought she had gotten better, it all came back with a vengeance. I was eight years old when we got that dreaded phone call. My uncle and grandparents were visiting the old family farm in New Hampshire at the time, and my family was in Dallas, so we packed our bags as quick as we could. We took the first flight we could find back east.
We made it to the hospital, and the doctors seemed to think that the situation was not dire. Yes, my grandmother was in bad shape, but it was by no means critical, they said. So, the whole family was gathered around my grandmother’s hospital bed and, because we’re the Abbott family, we were deciding what to eat for lunch. And then it happened. Like a bolt out of the blue. I remember my parents, aunts, uncles, all crying out in shock. I remember the commotion of it all. I remember seeing my beloved grandmother there, and she was no more. It happened twenty-three years ago but I remember it like it was yesterday. It is tattooed on my brain. That moment, those cries, that vision, it is something that I will never “unsee.”
Not only did I see all that, that memory shapes the way I see the world. What I saw changed the way I see everything.
And I will tell you, I was scared of death for years after that. As an eight year old kid, that vision shook me to the core. It still does. When I visit desperately ill parishioners in the hospital, that’s what I see in my head. And sometimes, when I’m talking with my friends about where we’re going to have lunch, that memory, that vision comes racing back. It is something that I cannot unsee.
Now, I’m not looking for pity or for empathy. I’m just being honest. I’ve done a lot of spiritual work, a lot of emotional work to understand that memory. And now, I don’t want to forget that moment, I want to incorporate it into my life. I don’t want to simply see that vision in my head, I want to see through it, so that my whole life is filtered by that memory.
These moments, these visions, they are not unique to me. Those three disciples – Peter, James, and John – they see something they cannot unsee. Jesus is transfigured into all his glory and magnificence. Moses and Elijah stand there with him. They hear the voice from the cloud saying, “this is my Son the Beloved.” Imagine that. They are going to live the rest of their lives with that image tattooed on the brains. They cannot unsee that, they cannot unhear that. It’s not only that Jesus has been transfigured into heavenly glory, it’s that the disciples have been transformed by that vision. I cannot help but think the rest of their lives will be seen through the lens of Jesus on the mountain. The glory of that moment was like LASIK surgery – it forever changed how they see the world.
This week at Bible study, I opened up with a question for us to begin discussing this story. I asked, “what’s been the mountaintop moment in your life?” What has been that moment of clarity, of joy, of nearness to God that has changed you? What’s been your mountaintop moment?
To all of you who came to bible study, I apologize; that was a bad question. Because as I reflected on my life, I realized that more often than not those moments of God’s nearness were not joyful moments. They were moments of pain. Of isolation. Of terror. I realized that many, many times, God presence was most closely felt when I have gotten those dreaded phone calls. That phone call from my uncle. That phone call from the doctor, telling me I had diabetes. Yes, the mountaintop with God might be joyful, but it can also be sheer darkness. I think that’s what the disciples experienced when they saw Jesus transfigured and they heard the voice of God. The scripture says, “when the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.”
And the more I think about it, the more that seems to make sense. Quite often it is our pain that shapes us more than our pleasures. Not that God wanted the disciples to fall down in absolute terror, but in their absolute terror Jesus brings them closer in. Not that God wished my grandmother to die in that moment so that I would see it, but through the utter despair of that moment God has taught me invaluable lessons about family, love, and the uncertainty of life. Not that God wants me to be chronically ill, but that through my illness I have learned compassion. You too, have been on that mountain with God. And it changed you.
Later this week, on Ash Wednesday, our parking lot will become a mountaintop. Cars full of people will be streaming through, looking for a moment of closeness with God. They will be fearful, they will be trembling. I tell you, the pain is real.
I remember my first year out there, a woman drives up, tears pouring down her cheeks. She says, “my husband has just died and I’m all alone.” Another woman pulls up, and a man about my age is in the passenger seat. She says to me, “pray for my son. He’s an Iraq veteran, and he’s not here anymore.” I have heard stories of cancer, of illness, of tragedy. I have heard unrepeatable things. People confess to me their deepest stories. They weep. They tell me how churches have turned them away because of who they are.
They bare their souls and I promise you, God is there, because our parking lot becomes a mountaintop; where the line between heaven and earth is blurred. I don’t think that God wants anybody to experience pain, but in that pain God meets us where we are. And I pray that as those strangers leave our parking lot, they see the world differently. That those who have witnessed God’s love will have their own pain transformed in the process.
This, I think, is the key to the transfiguration of Jesus. It is not necessarily a moment of joy for the disciples. In Luke’s version of this same story, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are talking about Jesus’ impending crucifixion. They are discussing his “departure” from this world. The transfiguration of Jesus is not only a moment revealing God’s eternal glory; it’s a moment that points directly toward the cross. And when Jesus is crucified, it is on a high hill. The crucifixion itself is a mountaintop experience. The crucifixion is a moment that we cannot unsee; it is a moment that changes the way we see the world. The crucifixion doesn’t take away our pain, it fulfills our pain.
As we begin our Lenten journey, as we make our way down the mountain of transfiguration and toward the mountain of crucifixion, I ask you all to be aware of your past. To use this God-given season to reach back into your minds and to face those memories you have wanted to bury. Remember those moments of crucifixion – the dreaded phone call late at night, the pink slip, the diagnosis. I do not think that God wished to inflict that pain on you. But when you have been crucified by the world, God does not wish for you to deny it. Rather, God calls you to pick up the cross and follow him. The cross is not just a reminder that Jesus was crucified. It’s a way to look at the world – to understand that God will redeem all things. Use your own tragic memories, not just as reminders of the pain, but see through them the grace and mercy of God.
I ask you to pray with me: Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.