Seeing the Forest and the Trees

Feast of the Transfiguration

Last Tuesday evening, a few of us were gathered at the lakefront for Lectionary at the Lakefront. Nothing unusual – it happens every Tuesday: just a handful of people meeting to read the Gospel lesson for the coming Sunday and to discuss the ways in which it speaks to us and to our lives.  And so this last Tuesday, a member of our group was reading this passage from Luke’s gospel and just as they read the verse that says, “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” – just as they finished uttering that sentence, I heard people cheering and clapping and I looked toward the sound to see a man riding a unicycle and juggling.[1]  But cheering and clapping seems to be exactly the kind of response that the transfiguration of Jesus should elicit, right? I mean it’s like the best kind of magic trick there is.  The only thing better might have been if he had disappeared before their very eyes – but then, that’s the Ascension and a topic for another day.  So he doesn’t disappear. Instead, his appearance changes and though Peter and John and James didn’t break out into applause it is clear that at least one of them – Peter – was duly impressed.  Peter recognized that this was something big, something different, something amazing.  And so he pulled out his cell phone, took some photos and was just about to post them on Instagram – he briefly thought about using Snapchat but he wanted to create a memory that would really last.  But just before he tapped the “share” button on his phone, a voice from the cloud interrupted him to say, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”[2] For those of you not quite up to speed on this technology, I’ll go back a few centuries:  Peter saw this amazing sight and said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”[3]
I don’t know about you, but I have a knack for missing the forest for the trees – for seeing or hearing something, sometimes in great detail, but still missing the point of what it is I am seeing or hearing.  The Biblical witness tells us that the disciples were like that too – even Peter upon whose rock the church would ultimately be built frequently missed the point.  Jesus has pulled aside just three of his disciples – Peter, John and James – and invited them to join him on the mountain to pray.  I like to think that Jesus knew exactly what it is that they would see and that this is precisely why they were invited.  And while it is clear from Peter’s comments that at least he – if not all three of the witnesses – didn’t understand what he was seeing and simply wanted to commemorate it with a monument – an historical marker you might see along the road on a summer vacation, what is also clear is that the moment is as life changing for Peter as it is physically transformative for Jesus.  Because what begins as an offer to build monuments, ends with a decision to keep silent and to tell no one of what they had seen.[4]
I imagine if Peter, John and James had shared their witness with the other disciples later the same day or early the next, it would have been met with much the same response as I heard coming from the eye witnesses to the unicycle-riding juggler at the lakefront – oohs and aahs and much applause for yet another amazing feat. They all would have focused on the event and missed the meaning, they would have missed the forest for the trees.  For this event – the Transfiguration of Jesus – like all of the events of Jesus’ life – the healings, the teachings, the miracles – find their fullness of meaning in death and resurrection of Jesus.  Peter, John and James received a clue from that voice from the cloud declaring, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him” but they needed yet to witness the rest of the story in order to more fully understand its meaning. 
Most biblical scholars agree that the author of the Gospel of Luke is the same as the author of the Acts of the Apostles.  And while Luke’s gospel ends and the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles begins with the post-resurrection ascension of Jesus, the book then continues with  the story of what the disciples and early apostles did after that.  Specifically, in the 2nd chapter of Acts, we have recorded what is perhaps the first sermon of Peter:
“Listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know – this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. . . he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. . . This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. . . Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah.”[5]   
This same Peter – awestruck at the sight of the Transfiguration, ready to build a monument – now, in the days after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, sees the forest for the trees.  This same Peter ready to post photos on Facebook of Jesus in his dazzling white robes now proclaims the Gospel and demands his listeners “Repent and be baptized . . . so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”[6]
As Jesus was physically transformed on the mountain with Peter, John and James as his witness; so too each of us is transformed through the waters of baptism, transformed into God’s chosen, God’s beloved.  Will we only take photos to memorialize that moment of transformation in our lives or will we live fully into the promises we made when we entered the waters of baptism to come fully alive “in the power of [Christ’s] resurrection” – “confessing the faith of Christ crucified, proclaiming his resurrection, and sharing” in “his eternal priesthood” through our words and our actions?[7]
I am blessed to serve as your pastor, to serve alongside a people who through your daily work demonstrate again and again your decision to live fully in the power of Christ’s resurrection through your service to St. Mark’s as a part of the team that makes worship happen – lectors, ushers, altar guild, choir members – or as a volunteer in the office or through service on the vestry or teaching our young people.  You demonstrate again and again your decision for being fully alive in the power of Christ’s resurrection through your service to the community by raising more than $1000 to ensure that Evanston school children go back to school equipped with the supplies they need to succeed, by feeding our hungry neighbors, by hosting the homeless in our parish house by your engagement with other agencies throughout this city and beyond. It is a blessing to serve alongside a people who are fully alive in Christ’s resurrection, a people who – more days than not – have the vision to see the forest and the trees.

[1] Luke 9:29.
[2] Luke 9:35.
[3] Luke 9:33.
[4] Luke 9:36b.
[5] Acts 2:22-36.
[6] Acts 2:38.
[7] Book of Common Prayer, 306, 308.