The Transfiguration: Separating Facts from Truth

At 4:27 a.m. CST today, Andrea's father, William, passed away. He was 85 years old. Until recently, he was able to attend mass every Sunday at St. Mary Parish in Buffalo Grove. He was a model of faithfulness to his family and loved ones. When Andrea or her sister, Mary, would pick Bill up after mass, they would ask him, "what was the homily about today, Dad?" As he aged and his dementia worsened, he was unable to remember the details of the homily, but his answer to this question remained the same, "Be good." So, for those of you who do not have the time to read the following sermon, I urge you to remember Bill's summary: Be Good.

May angels surround William, and saints welcome him in peace. Merciful God, whose Son Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus: look with compassion on all who are bound by sorrow and pain through the death of William. Comfort them and help them to find sure trust and confidence in your resurrection power; through Jesus Christ our deliverer. Amen.

Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church
Epiphany - Last - Year B

Several weeks ago, a man named James Frey made big news when it was discovered that his book, A Million Little Pieces – a memoir of his recovery from drug addiction – that this book was not factual. Oprah made big news too because she had selected Frey’s book for her book club back in September. When the controversy began to heat up in early January, Oprah stood by Frey and his book. In fact, Oprah called in to “Larry King Live” when Frey was being interviewed to show her support. She said, the “underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me.”1 But then, something shifted as eight days later, Oprah had her own live broadcast in which she interviewed Frey and had him reveal some of the lies in his book while Oprah offered an apology to her fans for selecting his book for her club and for defending its author.2

In this morning’s gospel reading we are told that Jesus, Peter, James, and John climb up a big mountain. Things get pretty cloudy up there and some amazing things happen. Let’s see if we’ve got it all: first, Jesus’ clothes become whiter than any white you and I can even imagine; then, Elijah and Moses show up and talk to Jesus (wouldn’t you love to hear what they were saying – sadly that part is left out!); reportedly, Peter, James, and John are pretty scared by now; imagine their reaction then, when a voice began to speak to them from a cloud announcing that this Jesus – the one who just walked up the mountain with them – is the Son of God – “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”; suddenly, everything becomes still – no Moses, no Elijah, no voice - just Jesus, Peter, James, and John left to walk back down the mountain; and Jesus saying, as they walk, “whatever you do, don’t tell anyone about what you’ve seen until I have risen from the dead.”

Two weeks ago, we heard the story of Jesus healing the leper and then ordering him not to tell anyone. Yet, immediately, that man went out and “began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word.” This time though, I bet Jesus’ command was obeyed because if Peter, James, and John did tell others what had transpired on that mountain top, who would have believed them? At least the leper had his cure as proof; all these men had was one another’s eye-witness testimony - not very compelling stuff. In our day, they might find themselves being grilled by Oprah and Larry King over the facts of their story.

What is our present-day fascination with facts? And whatever happened to the truth? For some, fact and truth have come to mean the same thing, but I would like to suggest that they are actually quite different. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, a fact is defined as “a thing done”; truth, on the other hand, is defined as “sincerity in action, character, and utterance.” In fact, the word truth is derived from the Old English word for faithful.3 And, when it comes to the Bible and our praise and adoration of God, I would much rather they be described as faithful and sincere than factual.

With these definitions in mind, it is probably safe to say that the statement “Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves” is a fact – “a thing done.” Once atop that mountain did Elijah and Moses appear with Jesus? Did a voice speak to them from a cloud? Are these things facts – did these things actually occur? Maybe we are asking the wrong question. Much of Jesus’ life is beyond our capacity for finding facts. But that doesn’t make it any less true. Madeleine L’Engle is a wonderfully, gifted writer from within our own Episcopal tradition. In a sermon she preached more than a decade ago, L’Engle spoke of many of the stories in the Bible as myth. For those of us who accustomed to thinking of the Bible as fact, consider substituting the word truth or faithful – just for the moment. The Bible is Truth; the Bible is Faithful. And myth, according to L’Engle offers us a way “to see beyond limited fact into the wonder of God’s story” – it is a way for us to seek “for that truth which Jesus urged us to seek, and which he promised would set us free.”4 For L’Engle, “Mythic stuff . . . [is that] which makes life worth living” and it is that which pushes us in love “to move beyond the limited world of fact and into the glorious world of love itself. Of Jesus standing with Moses and Elijah. . . .” L’Engle continues, “The brilliance of God is indeed blinding, and we need myth, story, to help us bear the light.”5

Peter, James, and John knew this intuitively and so they obeyed Jesus’ command to “tell no one . . . until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” Their story, if told too soon, would be judged by the world of facts, not truth. Their story, if told too soon, would have resulted in ridicule and condemnation – just as James Frey’s book A Million Little Pieces has been condemned despite its message of healing and redemption. Peter, James, and John understood that the world had first to see the death and resurrection of the Christ in order to hear and understand the Truth of Jesus’ transfiguration on that mountaintop.

You and I will never know the facts of what transpired on the mountain top, but what we do know is the Truth: in this moment everything and everyone changed as it became clear once and for all to these disciples – and later to all of us – that this man, Jesus, was and is God’s “Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

1“Transcripts - CNN Larry King Live: Interview with James Frey,” Aired January 11, 2006, accessed online on February 22, 2006 at

2Jonathan Darman, “The Wrath of Oprah: How James Went to Pieces, Oprah Got Her Groove Back, and Other Tales of ‘Truthiness’ in the Publishing Trade,” Newsweek, February 6, 2006, p. 42-3.

3“Fact” and “Truth,” Merriam-Webster OnLine accessed online on February 22, 2006 at

4Madeleine L’Engle, Transcript of “The Mythical Bible,” 30 Good Minutes, Program #3501 first aired January 6, 1991 accessed online on February 19, 2006.