Walking into an Ohio turnpike oasis this summer I saw a sign posted at the entryway:
WARNING: SURVEILLANCE CAMERAS.
I still went in! This did not dissuade me. I was not afraid of someone watching me. It struck me that very few of us need that kind of a deterrent. But, for some, the warning may have been needed. Who’s watching and what are they seeing?
Jussie Smollett has a clearer idea now about the importance of surveillance cameras after his alleged attack. Police scrutinized hours of footage from several cameras positioned in the area where he stated that the attack happened. Finding no convicting evidence of criminal activity, Jussie has found himself facing felony charges rather than getting the hoped-for attention as a Hollywood actor.
Who’s watching and what are they seeing? How does that impact how we live each day?
In Exodus 34 we read a story about God’s glory. When we encounter God, we are visibly changed. Moses radiates such a brilliant light as he descends the mountain that the people are afraid of him. He seems unaware of how he has been transformed while spending time with God. In the previous passage, God promised to lead Moses with “His countenance”. This is when Moses had come down the mountain the first time to find his people dancing wildly around a golden calf. It had been fashioned as an idol in his absence. Both he and God were exasperated with the faithlessness of the Israelites. Yet Moses interceded on their behalf, begging God not to smite them! God promised to lead Moses up the mountain again with His countenance, another word for “face.” Moses continued with a bold request, asking for proof that he would be OK if he ventures up the mountain again: “Show me your glory, I pray.” The Hebrew people believed that anyone who looked upon God’s face would die. But this is the very thing that Moses demands. God does lead and a divine splendor radiates from Moses when he descends such that the whole camp is sent into a frightened frenzy. Those who work on behalf of God Almighty are changed. Moses brings down the mountain with him a sign of God’s love and dignity for the encampment of Jews that they never would have thought they deserved. We are reminded in this story that our communion with God is the defining factor in our own transfiguration.
We remember Jesus’ trip up a mountain with the inner circle of His disciples. In Bible times, mountains were understood to be a traditional site for encounters with God. Jesus went there to pray with Peter, James and John. But His communion with God transfigured Him. The glory of Jesus, the Messiah, was revealed to these startled men. Peter has an awkward reaction to the light show. He wants to pin it down, ride that wave, build an amphitheater than can keep the show as a featured production into eternity! But glorious moments are fleeting gifts. The very next day, down in the valley with the rest of the crew, Jesus learns that His disciples were unable to bring healing to a boy whose father sought them out. Jesus’ response is unusually curt: “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” The mountaintop experience is over. Glory is pushed aside for our ragged humanity. Jesus draws upon God’s strength that had so changed His appearance the day before and heals the boy. The glory of God’s nearness and the pain of our world are not easily separated.
A clergy friend was recently approved for ordination after presenting and defending a beautifully-written paper. In it she acknowledged that the members of her congregation are the ones who have taught her theology. While the seminary courses were rich and challenging, it is the grace of God she experiences regularly with her flock that shows her the face of Jesus. We pastors are eternally grateful to the first congregation that lovingly tolerates our awkward efforts to shepherd our people. It made me think of a time that Garrett and I went together to visit with a couple who cared at home for their severely challenged son. As a boy he had contracted a disease that had rendered him bedbound and mentally challenged. When we knew them they were probably in their sixties and their precious son was about 40—still in diapers and spoon-fed. We took communion to them in a little portable kit that we set up at their dining room table. As we went through the service I tipped over one of the little cups of juice and it spilled on their table. My not-so-holy response was to say, “Darn!” I have yet to find that incorporated into any other communion liturgy! It was a very human moment while intentionally communing with God. The wife was very gracious and quietly mopped up the tiny puddle of juice so that we could continue. The holy and the profane co-mingle.
As a girl there were times we would get up early on Easter morning to attend an outdoor sunrise service. More than anything I remember being cold. Whatever lovely, lacy dress I had on was covered with a burly coat that hardly kept the cold at bay. At one such service, while it was still dark and the wind was blowing, one of the clergy came up to the microphone to do their part: to offer a prayer. I must not have closed my eyes because I know he was using index cards for his conversation with God. At some point there was a wind gust and the cards scattered. The unscripted part of his prayer he uttered into the microphone: “Darn it!” I always remembered that prayer! Down from the mountaintop, the winds blow in the valley, disrupting our holiest intentions!
There was a retreat at our family cottage several years ago. Three dear friends spent three days worshiping God on walks, in a boat, over meals and on their knees. They radiated the joy of serving the God in whose presence they had clearly dwelt. A couple of weeks later I had a group of Christian writer friends at the lake. They had been there before and it’s become a favorite spot for us to share how God has moved in our lives and what we have felt inspired to write. One of the group members held the job of prayer leader for her denomination. She is a prayer warrior who leads others to have mountain top experiences. As she arrived that morning for our retreat she looked around the modest cottage, almost as if she were feeling it, not looking at it. She asked a surprising question: “ What’s been going on here? It feels different?” I asked her what she meant. “It feels holy. It seems as if someone has really been in prayer here.” I was astonished. I realized it must be the time those three women spent in ongoing worship of God several weeks before. This lowly cottage with sand in every crevice had been transfigured into a sanctuary where God’s presence was more palpable than ever!
We learn in these stories that ministry is face work. In an era when we are distracted by devices and screens, face work is hard to come by. Even at restaurants or sitting next to a friend, we can have our heads buried in our phone rather than engaging in meaningful conversation. Every now and then, in spite of our humanity, we connect deeply with another person and it becomes a memory that nourishes us. Peter wanted to pin that glory down so as to hang on to it. But, much as even the best photograph can never capture the beauty of a treasured moment, revelations of God’s glory are rare and transient gifts. The good news is that God has not given up on us! God continues to interrupt our imperfect prayers with just a glimmer of Divine Glory. And that’s enough to change the conversation and maybe even reroute our journey!
The transfiguration of Jesus marks the transition from Epiphany into Lent. Jesus’ movement shifts from the seashore of Galilee into Jerusalem where His glory will be showcased in a most unlikely way—through His suffering and death. In Luke’s gospel, the transfiguration story is immediately followed with a shift in the wind of the Spirit that maps out a new direction for Jesus and the disciples. In Luke 9:51 we read, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Ministry is face work. The direction we face will dictate, to a good extent, the kind of journey we experience. We may think that the world is beyond saving but Jesus clearly did not. Just as the young boy was healed by Jesus the day after His transfiguration, we immerse ourselves in holy habits so that we are ready for the challenges that inevitably come our way. We welcome as good news God’s continual gaze upon us, not as a menacing surveillance camera that threatens to catch us in our misdeeds. We rejoice to know that God’s transfiguring love even now is at work in and through us to showcase just enough Divine Glory to draw us closer!
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!