Seeing Beyond Sadness

by Michael Usey

Exodus 34.29-35; Luke 9.28-36

This was a good week for death.  First, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Governor Greg Abbott announced that anyone affirming a transgender young person’s gender identity could be considered “child abuse” under Texas law. In essence, they are trying to criminalize the love of devoted parents and to eradicate the survival opportunities of Texas young people.

Paxton said that gender-affirming medical treatment, “when performed on children, can legally constitute child abuse.” Abbott then issued a directive to the commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to launch investigations into any instances of what he refers to as “these abusive procedures.” Under threat of criminal prosecution, he called on any licensed professionals —including doctors, nurses, and teachers—to report families who affirm their transgender children for potential investigation.

These opinions from Abbott and Paxton set off a wave of panic among transgender youth, their families, their medical providers, and allied communities across the country. Even though neither document is binding on either Protective Services or the courts, Texas political leadership has made parents terrified to send their children to school, to take them to the doctor, and to remain in the state. And even if no legitimate investigation can be born of these political acts by Abbott and Paxton, they have already transformed life for transgender Texans and their families. There is a precariousness that comes with knowing you are being surveilled and that your care and love for your child can be the very thing that leads to government efforts to remove them from your home.

The same politicians touting small government and parental rights are now advancing severe intrusions into the family. Because ultimately this is not about small government or parental rights, but about control—control over people’s bodies, autonomy, families, and survival. There is a long history in this country of separating families. From deliberately ripping apart enslaved families to forcibly removing Indigenous children to separating immigrant families at the border to removing transgender children from their homes, this is a long, interconnected, and enduring practice.  I’m afraid this Texas declaration will result in the deaths of many trans young people.

And then, secondly, as we all know, war has come to Ukraine, and it is a terrible thing. Many people are suffering as a result. Many people are already dead. War is destruction — it destroys bodies, it destroys lives, it destroys souls and it destroys communities and whole nations. It is ugly and horrific and it is a sin. God help all the poor Ukrainians caught in its path. God help us all. It will always be completely insane to live in a world where the pride and paranoia of a single man can condemn so many innocent people to their death.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine invokes various levels of fear in most of us. Ukraine and her citizens, soldiers,and families of soldiers are at the center of our prayers as they are so directly and immediately affected. And like a stone thrown in water, there are so many ripples. Russians who fear for their own lives, the citizens of the former USSR and Europe, and folks here in the States – both in government positions making decisions about our next steps and those of us who feel like all that we can do is watch. 

It might be good to take a moment to sit quietly and with a little bit of humility, to acknowledge the horror and to grieve for the people of Ukraine, to pray that the violence doesn’t spill out of control, knowing that it so often does. Something awful is happening, and it’s not clear that we can do anything to “fix” it — not without possibly creating yet more violence and more suffering. There is no happy ending to this. We are at the limits of our powers. That demands a bit of modesty, a bit of awe. We’ll get back to screaming at each other soon enough, if indeed we ever stop. We pray for all of us at every level of this fear. We pray for all of the folks around the world making extremely difficult decisions. God help Ukraine. God help us all. [Silence]

Against the backdrop of so much hatred and death, we come together to affirm that seeing the divine in our lives can combat our sadness. Here is more serious wisdom. The experiences you have been through will shape your appearance. I know people who have been through some ordeal, some period of sorrow, a time of intensity, a period of stress, and you can tell just by looking at them. Their faces are drawn, their shoulders stooped. They seem to be distracted.

Once in a while, I see them later, and I am amazed at what has happened to them. I say to them, “You look like a different person.” They say, “Well I am. A wonderful thing has happened to me. I am a different person now.” The experiences you have been through will shape your appearance.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince, also wrote about flight. He was one of the pioneer professional pilots. He flew the mail in North Africa before World War 1. He wrote a marvelous book about flight, entitled, Wind, Sand and Stars. In it he drew an analogy between flying and the human spirit. He said, this is what we are born for: our spirits should fly, be free, soar, take risks, and achieve great heights. This is what we are born for. He said he experienced that kind of spiritual exhilaration as he flew, especially at night, over the deserts of Africa. 

When he came back to France, he took a train up to Paris, and sat opposite an older couple in one of the compartments. He said he was shocked at what he saw. Their appearance: defeated and tired. As he watched them, he imagined what they looked like when they were young. He pictured them falling in love, the man bringing gifts of love to his beloved, flowers and candy. She being coquettish. Then getting married and looking forward to a wonderful future together. He looks at them now, seated across from him, and muses how they are like clay. “Into what terrible mold were they forced? What marked them like this? What machine has stamped them? What is it that corrupts this wonderful clay from which we are created?” He could see in their outward appearance that the inner spirit had died. It showed. Our experiences shape our appearance.

Our lessons for this morning illustrate this in a wonderful way. We begin with the Hebrew Bible, the scene where Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets of stone, the Ten Commandments, one in each arm. He comes down to the people at the foot of the mountain. But the people don’t notice the tablets. All they can see is Moses’ face. They stare at his face. They know something has happened to Moses up there on the mountain. They can see it in his face. He is a different man now.

The text contains this great line. It says, “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” Experiences that you have will shape your appearance. The people knew that Moses had been with God. They could see it on his face. Moses had to wear a veil over his face because the people, looking at the glory of God shining in the face of Moses, were afraid to look there, because you were not supposed to look upon God. The “glory” is all you can see of God. “Glory” is biblical shorthand for, “the presence of God.” God is light, like the brightness of the sun. When you look at the sun, all you can see is concentrated light. You can’t see the sun itself. You can’t even look at the light for very long. That is how they believed God was. When you see “glory,” you are seeing the presence of God.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the critic of Christianity, said, “Christians ought to look more redeemed.” Nietzsche was a preacher’s son. He grew up in the Church. He saw what goes on in a church as only a preacher’s kid can see it. Was his devaluation of Christianity based on his empirical observation that Christians don’t seem to be able to assimilate what the Gospel is all about? They don’t look redeemed. Your experiences are reflected in your appearance. People looking at you ought to be able to see that you have been with Jesus, and see some quality in your life that makes you attractive and makes them want to find out, what is it about you? What has happened to you?

Now the gospel lesson for this morning is integrally related to the first lesson. It’s an event called the Transfiguration. This is Transfiguration Sunday, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the season of Lent. This is the end of the season of Epiphany, which began the first Sunday in January. In this season we have been celebrating the way that God’s glory has been manifested in the life of Jesus. 

This event is addressed to the disciples. There are three of them on the mountain with Jesus: Peter, James and John. They have accompanied Jesus up to the mountain where Jesus prays. While he is praying, his face is transfigured. There is a bright light; his face has changed. That can only mean one thing. He was talking to God, just like Moses on Sinai has his face changed by talking to God. That’s what happens when you get close to God. Your appearance changes.

Peter, James and John are there; they see this. In fact, it’s for their edification that the transfiguration happens. They see more: they see Moses standing on one side of Jesus, and on the other, Elijah. Just as quickly as they saw the vision, it disappeared– and there is Jesus, praying, alone. This is what they see.

To understand it you had to be there. So let me take us there. A week before this happened, the disciples are with Jesus at a place called Caesarea Philippi. This is one of the central meetings of the disciples with Jesus. It is next in importance to the Last Supper, because here, a week before the Trans- figuration, Jesus announced to them that they are going to Jerusalem, and there he will be killed. Peter immediately protests, “No, I won’t let it happen! How can you do such a thing! Everything is going so well here in Galilee. Everything that you accomplished is going to be lost!” Jesus interrupted him, shouting at him, actually, “Get behind me, Satan!”

That’s the way that meeting ended. For the next 7 days it must have been terrible. Their relationships, cool and distant. They are a religious community, so they ate together. Can you imagine how it was? They probably weren’t talking at the meals. Then on the 8th day, Jesus tells Peter, James and John, “Come with me while I pray.” There the epiphany occurred; it was for the disciples.

The form it took was determined by the event that happened eight days before; it happened this way. Peter must have been dreaming. Luke says he was half-asleep. But we know that when Jesus went off to pray, he took Peter with him to stand watch. The famous scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, three times he asked Peter to stand watch. Peter says, “I will.” Three times Jesus comes back and Peter is asleep. Peter couldn’t stay up late at night. (This is exactly like me, actually.) He is always going to sleep while Jesus is praying. He is likewise asleep now.

Luke says he was half-awake when this happened. Matthew says that it was a vision. Maybe it is what the psychologists call a “liminal state.” I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter how it happened. What matters is that he saw something up there that changed his life. He saw Moses and Elijah, just for a moment, standing on either side of Jesus. Moses is the giver of the Law. Elijah is the first prophet. So the two together constitute the Law and the Prophets, which is all the authority a Jew needs. There they are, their arms around Jesus. Then a voice from a cloud, “This is my Son. Listen to him!”

So if Peter had any doubts about Jesus, whether he was Messiah or not, or if he had any questions about whether or not he should have given his life to Jesus, they are dispelled in that moment. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, that’s all it was, an epiphany, and the shattered pieces of Peter’s life came back together, and he found new direction, purpose and power for his life.

Now what I want to happen next in the text is for the three disciples to go down the mountain with Jesus with their faces aglow, looking like they have been skiing up there. But instead, as they come down, Jesus says, “Don’t tell anybody about this.” So weird. Then they head for Jerusalem. Yet, it must have been one of those transforming experiences. The kind that can change your appearance, and cause people to ask, “What has happened to you? You are different.”

This story has all the marks of a genuine “Peter” story. Later on in his life Peter will go around to the churches and tell the story of his life, what it was like to be with Jesus. All the apostles did that. That is how we got the stories that are in the NT. The apostles told what it was like to be with Jesus, and the Church wrote the stories down and eventually they became the four gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke tell this story, and each gospel puts it in the same place. That kind of agreement in detail about chronologies is rare. They all say that it happened just before they left for Jerusalem, testifying to the centrality of this story in the life of Peter, and in the life of the Church.

Like all great stories the Transfiguration has multiple meanings. But I suggest that one reason that it was central for the Church was because they expected to have similar experiences. They got discouraged. They, too, went astray. They made mistakes. They too were surrounded by hate and death. They did things they weren’t proud of. They said things that they wished they could take back. They felt terrible about it, and they hoped they could have some experience like Peter’s experience. Peter, they said, is like us. We, too, can have some epiphany, something that will reorder our lives and bring us back together, and give us a purpose and meaning and power in our lives. They said, if that can happen to Peter, then it can happen to us. And we can say, if it happened to the early Church, then it can happen to us.

I don’t know what form it would take in your life. Probably you won’t see anything as spectacular as what Peter saw on the mountain, the Trans- figuration. But on the other hand, you never know. But don’t count on it.

That’s the way we have been trained, not to count on this kind of thing. That is the difference between us and the early Church. We don’t expect to see these things. We’ve been trained that seeing is a psychological phenomenon only, a function of light impacting sensory organs. We are also suspicious of anybody who claims to have seen something that is not easily visible to everyone else. We say, That person’s been seeing things. By which we mean, they are seeing things that aren’t real. It is illusion and fantasy. That’s our way of seeing.

But the Bible has a different understanding of sight. In the Bible there is not only “seeing,” there is also “vision.” “Vision” in the Bible means, seeing what God gives us the gift to see. William Blake, the great poet, who has been called a visionary poet, wrote it this way in a poem:

What will be questioned When the sun rises, do you not see a round disk of Fire somewhat like a [coin]? No, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host, crying, Holy, Holy is God, the Lord Almighty. 

I question not my corporeal or vegetable eye, anymore that I would question a window concerning a sight. I look through it, not with it.

Blake is saying the eye is just an instrument; the vision is the gift. We look through the eye, not with it. Our eye won’t see what it doesn’t know what to look for. Every child who has looked for Waldo, or at a Highlights, looking for  animals, hidden things in a tree, knows that. You have to know what to look for or you won’t see it. The eye is just an instrument; the vision is the gift.

That is the source of this biblical wisdom. You will not see what is really there if your soul is barren. You will not see what is really there if your mind is closed. You will not see what is really there if your heart is hardened. One doesn’t see with the eye; one sees through the eye. The eye is just an instrument. The vision is the gift. So don’t rule out seeing things. Be open.

Annie Dillard in her beautiful book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, pictures herself, not as Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, but as Moses on Mt. Sinai. She remembers the scene where Moses says to God, I beseech thee. Show me thy glory. God said, You can’t see my face. Nobody can see my face and live. But God added, Stand in the cleft of this rock and my glory shall pass by, and I shall put my hand over your face as I pass by. Then I shall remove my hand and you shall see my back side, but my face you shall not see.

Annie Dillard said that, like Moses, she spends her days in the mountains, hidden in the cleft of a rock, looking for glory. She said, “You wait, and you wait, patiently. Then occasionally, in an instant, the mountains part, or the tree with the lights appears, or the mockingbird falls, and in those fleeting shreds I see the back parts. The back parts are a gift, and an abundance.” Anyone whose life has been changed by a vision will tell you, it is just a glimpse, just a fraction of a second. That is all that anyone is allowed. But it is “a gift, and an abundance.”  In a week in which death played freely, maybe a glimpse is enough.