Transfiguration: Talking About Death
A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Transfiguration Sunday, February 10, 2013. Transfiguration Sunday is the last Sunday of Epiphany and the final Sunday before Lent. In White Plains the congregation wears red as a sign of the Spirits activity among us.
Jesus is praying up on the mountain and his disciples are struggling to stay awake. But their sleepy-eyed efforts are rewarded when they witness his face changed and his clothes a dazzling white. Suddenly Moses and Elijah are there, talking with Jesus. They are talking with him about his death, or, as Luke delicately puts it, they “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.”
Death is not something we find easy to talk about. How often when a loved one desires to talk about their death, we find ourselves wordless, awkward, nervous, perhaps even terrified. When we consider our own death, we can feel a sense of vertigo; that our life is truly out of our control. Some of us may even have tried to gain control by attempting to take our own life.
Others of us delay preparation of a last will and testament and demure from filling out living wills or do not resuscitate orders. Still others of us can’t bring ourselves to determine whether we’ll be cremated or buried. We’d rather not make those decisions.
There are some of us whose desire to leave clear directions to family who survive us outweighs any discomfort we feel in preparing for our death. But few of us wish to contemplate our own death for any period of time.
Even for those of us who have lost spouses or children or lifelong partners, the idea of being reunited with them can feel comforting, but our focus is more on them and our continued love for them, than on thinking about our own death.
Here in White Plains we do not expect that speaking our mind or standing up for what we believe will eventuate in our death, but around the world people face the threat of death when they work for justice and peace.
And when we look at our world, which deals out death so viciously whether it’s a troubled former police officer shooting his co-workers in California or the regularized obscenity of the 20,684 people who will die from hunger today, there is this sense that we are helpless before it.
Most of us fear death in some sense. It is the great unknown. It may entail pain and suffering. It separates us from those whom we love. It is unfathomable. While some people have had experiences of comfort in near death experiences, others have confessed they have felt and heard nothing. We’re anxious when we imagine our own death. As Woody Allen famously quipped, “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
So when we hear this story of the transfiguration, it’s easy to focus on the shimmering garments and the who’s who of whose present and avoid the topic under discussion, namely Jesus’ death. The delicate translation even helps us sidestep the issue, referring to Jesus’ death as “his departure.” And yet this story comes to us this morning with an invitation; an invitation to reflect with Jesus on what it might mean to “accomplish our departure;” to accomplish our death.
This means certainly more than making a will and decisions about medical treatment (though it does mean that too). It is a question that asks us to take stock of how we are living and what yet we must do in order to “accomplish” what God has called us to in this life. For Jesus’ part, he had to turn his face toward Jerusalem. What that meant is that he had to come to terms with the fact that his message of covenant justice and “good news” for the poor and his feeding and healing ministries which demonstrated the abundance God intends for all, put him in the cross-hairs of the Roman Empire and its supporters. Jesus was no naïve idealist. Nor for that matter were Moses, who risked his life confronting Pharaoh, or Elijah, who fled for his life from Queen Jezebel’s wrath, later to return and confront the political leaders of his own day in God’s name. Jesus knows that by going to Jerusalem, the center of political and religious power, he will be marching straight on toward his probable death as an enemy of the state for what he is doing and proclaiming.
Scholar and pastor Howard Thurman reminds us “the fear of death is often one of the final conquests of the courageous spirit…in a sense, all of living is a struggle between the will to live and the will to die,” Thurman writes. “Again, there are some things in life that are worse than death. It is urgent to remember that death is not the worst thing in the world. Again, death is an event in life. It is something that occurs in life rather than something that occurs to life. The distinction is important and urgently significant. If death is an event in life, then it must take its place alongside an endless series of events, none of which exhausts life or determines it. This is the basis of every fundamental hope about immortality or what is generally called life after death. The form varies but the issue is the same.”
Thurman’s meditation points us in two different and equally important directions. First it drives us toward life after death as simply being the next step in life – a different form, but of the same order and one which will lead to the next step in eternal life. But secondly it drives us more fully back into life itself, inviting us to discover the meaning and purpose of our life as we live it. As Thurman puts it, “It is a final tribute to the character of an individual’s living if he can die “unshriven” but full-blown as he has lived. Such a man goes down to his grave with a shout.”
On that mountain top, Jesus and Elijah and Moses discussed what it meant for him to go down to his grave with a shout. To take up his ministry in such a way that every moment was life – even that of death. That is what it means to be transformed. To give up any fear and to live into the hope that Jesus proclaimed of “good news to the poor” of “captives freed”, “of the year of God’s own favor.” When this conversation is over, the disciples wish to linger, but God’s own voice proclaims “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” The next day they are down the mountain and Jesus determines that he will heal and minister even to this faithless generation. Jesus forgives their confusion and anxiety, and takes up his cross by giving new life to this young boy.
The story of the transfiguration is not about appearance, but about resolve. It is about facing fear honestly and facing God’s call just as honestly. It is about receiving encouragement from the prophets who have gone before us; who themselves have faced hardship, uncertainty and death, and gaining strength by being in their company. To be transfigured means to learn through our frustrations and fears to try and see others through the eyes of our tender and just God. To be transfigured means to allow ourselves to be enfolded into God’s story, with its risks and rewards.
So this week as we move into Lent, I invite you to a time of reflection. What would it mean for you to “accomplish” your death; to go down into your grave with a shout? For what do you need to stand up? Who do you need to forgive? Where is God calling you next?
 Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1953), pp. 141-142.