So our scripture reading this morning is the story of the transfiguration. And this is one of those stories that appears in three of the four gospels. It’s slightly different in each one, but we think that the story came from Mark and then Matthew and Luke each used it with just a little bit of a twist on it. This one from Mark is really beautiful. It’s short and sweet, and it also says a lot about who Jesus is. So hear these words from Mark 9, verses 2 through 8:
“After six days, Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them, and there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus: ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters: one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say. They were so frightened. Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: ‘This is my son, whom I love. Listen to him.’ Suddenly, when they looked around they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.”
Here’s the reading of our scripture this morning. When I was in the ordination process, among many of the things that we had to do was write a paper about miracles. I’m not entirely sure how I went about it, but I do remember that at that point in my life I was really struggling with the idea of miracles. I was struggling with them not because I hadn’t experienced them, but because I couldn’t figure out a rational basis for them. You know, I had been in a room with a woman who was so badly hurt by life experiences, and particularly by a pastor who condemned her to hell because she left her abusive husband and took her two kids away and got to a place of safety. And her pastor told her that doing that was a sin, and that she was, you know, breaking every rule in the book. And I remember being speechless. But then, all of a sudden, having the right words to say to her – I knew that was a miracle. But I couldn’t explain it.
When I was three, I thought that Krispy Kreme donuts were a miracle, and then one morning my dad went out and got them and brought them home instead of us going and getting them hot, and I discovered that unless they’re hot, they’re just like any other donut. And I remember thinking, as I was trying to write that paper, “How do I explain the fact that when I was a week away from coming to Boston to go to Boston University as a freshman, I was in a car accident that totaled my car, and it should have taken off my left foot, but the clutch wouldn’t go down when I went to upshift?” And I mean, it would not go down, it was like there was a solid brick underneath it. And a split second later, some guy in a pickup truck came along and smashed the hood of my car from the center line to the driver’s mirror, up in the engine block, right up into my leg. And if my foot had been down on the clutch, I would have lost my foot. I had no clue how to explain that rationally. So I was really wrestling with it.
And in the course of this, I was reading through all of these stories – these miraculous things in the Bible. And the transfiguration was one that really bothered me, because really Moses and Elijah – they’ve been dead. While Moses had been dead, Elijah was taken up into heaven, and that was an entirely different kind of miracle. So how in the world was I going to make any sense at all of this miraculous thing that seemed to happen, not just in Bible times, but in my life as well? And just wrestling with that.
And so as I was writing my paper, I remember saying: “I don’t know if I actually believe in miracles or not, even though I’ve experienced them.” And I went with fear and trepidation to the committee on ministry and presented my paper. And around the room, as we talked about that, several people said that they were very thankful for my honesty on not knowing whether I believed in miracles or not, and especially in talking about this particular passage. And I think I used the Mark passage in it, because it was a stumbling block for them too. It was a stumbling block for understanding how it is that God works in the world, because if we don’t believe in the kind of God who sticks God’s finger metaphorically into the world every single time there’s a problem to fix things, then how do we make sense of the things that God does seem to fix? How do we make sense of the things that God doesn’t fix – things like the Holocaust and the genocides that still happen? How do we make sense of violence and that kind of thing?
So it was a really deep, rich conversation that left me no clearer than I was when I walked in, but at least it gave me the sense that I wasn’t alone. And not having a concept of how miracles could possibly work in my theology – what was interesting to me is, as I got more deeply into science, finally I started reading more about the way that the world works, the rules that govern creation. And I started reading about quantum mechanics, and I realized that the rules of the universe, the rules that I believe God wrote to govern the universe, are all about probabilities, which means that in theory, or perhaps, better, hypothetically nothing is impossible, that everything has at least a scintilla of possibility. And therefore the rules are written in such a way that impossible or seemingly impossible things can happen all the time, especially because of probability. And as long as the probability isn’t zero – which, according to the rules of the universe, nothing is impossible, therefore the probability is more than – improbable things can happen, and in fact improbable things happen all the time. Our very existence as human beings is incredibly improbable because everything had to happen in exactly the right way for us to get here. And here we are – we are capable of questioning how we got here, we’re capable of questioning the Biblical witness that we hear in this story. I still don’t know how the transfiguration happened, but I’ve gotten to a point in my faith where I rationally understand how such things can happen exactly the way they’re reported, even if they’re highly improbable.
When somebody once asked me if I believed in the Virgin Birth, and I said, “Well, I can rationally tell you how we get from the passage in Isaiah, where a young woman is giving birth, to the translation in Luke’s gospel, where it’s a virgin, and that’s perfectly fine, but I also believe in a God who wrote the rules of the universe in such a way that the improbable can happen, so when we come down to this story, for me, it’s a eureka moment.” This is one of those times in my life when all of a sudden things come together. This moment on the mountaintop for me is that moment in the gospels, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, when the story of Jesus coalesces with the story of God in what we call the Old Testament. It brings together all those threads of the wilderness journey that we studied in the fall and of the prophetic witness of the prophets through the times of the kings, and that promise of God’s continuing presence with us. And then God speaks to us, god speaks to the disciples and therefore to us, with that very powerful message: “This is my son, whom I love. Listen to him, listen to the message of Jesus. And that message that he had been proclaiming since the very first day is the message, he proclaimed right through until his time in front of Pilate, before he was crucified. And it’s the message that he gave to his disciples after he was resurrected:
We are called to break down the barriers that make things difficult for people so that all human beings can have a life that allows them to thrive.
We are called to break down the barriers that keep people from fully participating in all the wonders of the world.
Now, if people have things that keep them from being able to get out into the woods, see the grandeur, if people have difficulties because they can’t pay to go someplace where it’s dark enough to see the stars, how do we fix that? How do we make it so people can see the stars and wonder and be in awe? How do we make sure that every single person has a roof over their heads and a warm place to sleep at night? How do we make sure not just that we’re feeding the hungry, but that people aren’t hungry? That was the “eureka” moment for me, when I realized that all of these things are about that moment that God breathed the rules into existence, and said “All things are possible.”
And these miracle stories just keep reminding us that all things are possible, even the vision of the prophets of that new Earth, that time at which all people will have their own vineyard. They’ll be able to sit under their own fig trees in peace and have enough. And that perhaps is the biggest miracle of all, that message that Jesus teaches. And seeing it fulfilled – that Earth as it is in heaven that we pray about every single week when we say the Lord’s Prayer. That was my eureka moment – quantum physics and faith, who knew? And I apologize to any quantum physicists out there who see this and just think I’ve gone off the deep end, but that’s how I’ve come to rationalize it.
So amen, and thanks be to God.
This sermon was originally delivered as part of a Morning Message at the Transfiguration & Faith, Science and Technology Sunday at The Congregational Church of Mansfield, United Church of Christ, on February 14, 2021.