February 27: Transfiguration and Ashes

Scripture Reading (CEB) Luke 9:28-36

28 About eight days after Jesus said these things, he took Peter, John, and James, and went up on a mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes flashed white like lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, were talking with him. 31 They were clothed with heavenly splendor and spoke about Jesus’ departure, which he would achieve in Jerusalem. 32 Peter and those with him were almost overcome by sleep, but they managed to stay awake and saw his glory as well as the two men with him. 33 As the two men were about to leave Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it’s good that we’re here. We should construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—but he didn’t know what he was saying. 34 Peter was still speaking when a cloud overshadowed them. As they entered the cloud, they were overcome with awe. 35 Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!” 36 Even as the voice spoke, Jesus was found alone. They were speechless and at the time told no one what they had seen.

Transfiguration and Ashes

As Jesus and his friends reach new heights of their journey of faith, this shared divine experience on the mountaintop becomes a pinnacle moment.  Appearing in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (some scholars argue the opening of John captures this too), this is the disciples’ last “good” memory of Jesus.  It was this moment they would look back to, after his death/after his resurrection/long after he was gone, that unlocked the secrets of the universe for them:

the appearance of his face changed and his clothes flashed white like lightning…a cloud overshadowed them…then a voice from the cloud said, This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!

Flashes of light and clouds appearing and before their very eyes, Jesus changes. Unsure of what’s going on, the disciples see more than just a man.  More than the preacher that inspired, or the pastor who healed, and even the priest that faced challenge after challenge with grace, the disciples recognize God.  They glimpse the divine potential found in all of us, a promise that in holy moments, God shines through us and our actions, changes and transfigures all that we are, for good. 

But things don’t stay good for the disciples.  Just after this the disciples would follow Jesus into Jerusalem, and again stand unsure of anything as their watched him helplessly die. 

All experiences of this life change us.  Some in minute, unnoticeable, micro-aggressive ways that over time wear us down, while other events literally change the course of our lives:  births and deaths, pandemic and trauma, war and strife.  We are transfigured.  We are changed.  We learn that not every moment is picture perfect – not every person is either – and we develop a  spiritual discipline of accepting the world as ‘good enough.’

Martin Luther King, Jr, is a hero not because he was brilliant, but because he decided to say yes to things that benefitted others more than it would him. He fought depression his whole lifelong, having first attempted suicide when his grandmother died when he was 12.  Although he graduated with a Doctorate before 30, he didn’t get hired as a Dean of Students at Xavier U., because he “didn’t have the qualities of a leader.” Friends and family dissuaded his relationship with his white girlfriend because stuff like that could get a black man hanged. He smoked like a chimney, and could play pool till dawn–much to the displeasure of his father with whom he argued over his life’s direction.

From ages 26 to 39 he led a public life while he continued to struggle personally. He was picked to lead the Montgomery boycott largely because he was new in town. He turned down an enriching book and speaking deal early on and would die with $5000 to his family’s name. Drama at his church. Strain in the marriage. Hated by as many who loved him…and the realization that he would likely not see 40. He did not see 40.

He is great not because of some inaccessible quality… [and so]…let’s take him down from the rarified air of worship. Let’s ground him to the foundation of example. Let’s do what he did–work for a better world. You don’t have to go broke or risk your life [you don’t have to be perfect – good enough for God is good enough]… speaking Truth to power, resisting intolerance, seeking and promoting solutions, and wait for it…ACTIVELY LOVING EACH OTHER is a pretty good start.[1]

We look to others for inspiration: be they the disciples, Martin Luther King Jr, or even Jesus, not because we marvel at their glimpses of perfection, wishing we could do the same.  Instead, we see those who in spite of their humanity, actively loved others.  The disciples (like you and me) might make plenty of mistakes, but who better for us to pattern our ministry after?  If Peter and John and James were good enough to carry the gospel, then so are we.  We are good.  We are good enough for God.

(Here is where I pull out a ladder from behind the communion table.  The ladder is going to be part of our display for Lent, and I’m going to ask the congregation what they think about when they see a ladder).

What do you think about when you see a ladder?  (Some might answer work, or climbing, or climbing the “corporate” ladder, achievement, etc.  Some might focus on the ladder itself – well worn, a little rickety, unsafe). 

Throughout Lent this ladder will become for us our sign of ‘good enough.’  We’re not trying to work to improve something or climb to great heights just to achieve some type of standing.  Instead, we are practicing a merciful and beautiful act of loving something just the way it is.  When we love something for being ‘good enough,’ we accept it for what it is and not what we want it to be.  The disciples wanted/needed a God – but they got Jesus, fragile, earthly, able to be killed, whose goodness was measured by how he actively loved each and all.  This is why this moment on the mountain was sacred.  Not because of how perfect it was, but because knowing the Jerusalem that lay ahead, Jesus still went down that mountain.  And so, as we too head down the mountain to the Jerusalems that face us all, we begin our journey to ‘good enough’ this Lent.  For those that have never been to an Ash Wednesday service, I hope to explain some of it to you, and why it’s so very important to our faith, and how we begin our journey.  To help mark that transition, we will sing, Dust and Ashes Touch our Face.

                                                         Dust and Ashes Touch Our Face

(words © 1989 Hope Publishing, All rights reserved)

1   Dust and ashes touch our face,

mark our failure and our falling.

Holy Spirit, come, walk with us tomorrow,
take us as disciples,
washed and wakened by your calling.

Refrain Take us by the hand and lead us,

lead us through the desert sands,

bring us living water,

Holy Spirit, come.

2   Dust and ashes soil our hands –

greed of market, pride of nation.

Holy Spirit, come, walk with us tomorrow,

as we pray and struggle through the meshes

of oppression.  Refrain

3   Dust and ashes choke our tongue

in the wasteland of depression.

Holy Spirit, come, walk with us tomorrow,

through all gloom and grieving to the paths

of resurrection.  Refrain

On Ash Wednesday, we use twin symbols — dust and the sign of the cross.  Dust is not only from the Book of Genesis reminding us that “we are dust and to dust we shall return,” but it is also a sign of indifference, and loss, and failure.  For so much of our lives goes up in smoke.  And we can spend the entirety of our lives wishing for what was, actively living in the past as if we could undo it, trying to put back the pieces together, or we can accept that holiness dwells even in brokenness.  We can discover what is good enough even amongst destruction. 

For this is the journey of the disciples on Easter.  They too saw the fate of one who was transfigured by both light and darkness.  The moment of joy on this mountaintop was met with the despair of the cross.  Whatever faith they could muster was going to have to be good enough.  Good enough to be the foundation of the church.  Good enough to give hope to the people.

On Ash Wednesday, it is our tradition to take a piece of paper, and after some prayer, and scripture, silence and song, to write on that paper a prayer that we have been carrying.  It might be a prayer to lift restrictions and the world to go back to normal.  It might be a prayer for someone waiting upon test results or waiting in hospital.  It might be a prayer like that of Martin Luther King Jr, just praying to believe yourself good enough.  It might be a prayer for the Ukraine, as we pray desperately in those times it seems easier to burn a bridge than to mend a fence.  These prayers we carry change us, the longer we hold onto them.  But they are not ours to carry alone.

We write our prayer to pull it from our bodies.  To have it outside of ourselves.  To see it with perspective and distance…before we burn it.  It’s the tradition of Ash Wednesday to burn the palms from last Easter’s Palm Sunday, to remind us of the journey ahead.  Celebration and destruction combined.  Joy and depression.  Good enough for God. 

And so we burn these prayers to place them in the hands of God, and in the hearts of the community, for together, we are one in celebration and destruction, joy and depression, death and new life. 

Following our service today, those wishing to remain, are welcome to write their prayer, burn it, and receive the cross on their forehead, reminding them of the beloved community of which they are a part.  For together, through dust and ashes, we are led to new life. 

                                                     Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying       

(words and music ©1971 Hope Publishing, All rights reserved)

Lord, listen to your children praying,

Lord, send your Spirit in this place;

Lord, listen to your children praying,

send us love, send us power, send us grace!


[1] Adapted from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/life-enough-king-david-cole by David Cole

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