A sermon by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ar.
28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus* took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake,* they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,* one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen;* listen to him!’ 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he* shrieks. It throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.’ 41Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’ 42While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples, 44‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’
Think for a moment on your life. Can you recall an experience that changed your whole perspective and that shaped your moral outlook? If so, what was it? When did it happen? Who else was involved in the experience? What difference has it made on who you are and how you live? These questions come to mind as we ponder the transfiguration of Jesus on this second Sunday of Lent, 2013.
The transfiguration challenges us on several levels. We are challenged by the account of Jesus taking time away from the busy demands of his ministry for a prayer retreat.
That challenges those of us who think we don’t have time to get away. We tell ourselves we don’t have time to retreat for a few minutes during the day for prayerful reflection. We’re too busy to take off a day during the week—a Sabbath—for reflection and renewal. We’re too busy to take time off for a restful and reverent retreat during the year. We’re such responsible parents, workers, church folk, ministers, educators, supervisors, family members, and what have you that we don’t feel right taking a break from the action. And often when we take time off, we seem to be more self-indulgent than reverent.
Perhaps we’re afraid that we’ll miss something if we stop and get away for awhile. We may be afraid people won’t miss us. Perhaps we’re afraid of what we’ll learn about ourselves and life if we stop being busy long enough to experience something other than the sights and noise we and others call “living.” Perhaps we think that retreats for prayer and reflection are the stuff only certain mystics and super-religious people do.
But the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus show us a man who often took time off. Jesus got away from the noise and sights of the ordinary routine. Jesus, our model for what it means to live for God, wasn’t so busy or important that he couldn’t take a prayerful respite. If anything, the transfiguration account and its aftermath show that Jesus was more focused after and because of what he experienced during the prayer retreats.
So my first exhortation to us today is to follow Jesus in getting away for reverent reflection. Based on the example of Jesus, you and I can expect God to do something in and with us—to somehow change our insights and outlooks—when we give ourselves time and space to prayerfully encounter God.
During the transfiguration experience Jesus somehow experienced a mystical visitation from Moses the great Hebrew lawgiver and Elijah the greatest of the Hebrew prophets. Somehow, Jesus received insight about his mission as Moses and Elijah talked with Jesus “of his departure.”
A few days before the transfiguration prayer retreat happened Jesus had predicted to his disciples that his ministry would involve confrontation with and eventual death at the hands of the religious establishment. Peter didn’t like that prediction, and there is no reason to believe that James and John thought much of it.
Sometimes even the people who are closest to us are unable or unwilling to understand what God is doing with us or why we think God is leading us in that direction. But take heart from the visitation by Moses and Elijah! God always has ways of affirming us.
From time to time I am drawn again to Howard Thurman’s autobiography, titled With Head and Heart. Thurman grew up in Daytona, Florida where public education for black children ended at the seventh grade. Without an eighth grade, blacks couldn’t demand a high school. If they demanded one, the demand could be denied on the ground that there were no black students qualified for high school.
So after Thurman completed the seventh grade his principal volunteered to teach him the eighth grade—on his own time—and then told the school superintendent that he had a boy ready to take the eighth grade exam. Thurman’s passion to learn was affirmed by that principal who volunteered to teach him when all the odds were stacked against him. God has ways of affirming us.
There were only three public high schools for black students in the whole state of Florida. But there were several private church-supported schools. The nearest church-supported school to Daytona was Florida Baptist Academy of Jacksonville. I now quote Thurman’s own words from With Head and Heart concerning his experience in getting from Daytona to Jacksonville.
When the time came to leave for Jacksonville, I packed a borrowed old trunk with no lock and no handles, roped it securely, said my good-byes, and left for the railway station. When I bought my ticket, the agent refused to check my trunk on my ticket because the regulations stipulated that the check must be attached to the trunk handle, not to a rope. The trunk would have to be sent express but I had no money except for a dollar and few cents left after I bought my ticket.
I sat down on the steps of the railway station and cried my heart out. Presently I opened my eyes and saw before me a large pair of work shoes. My eyes crawled upward until I saw the man’s face. He was a black man, dressed in overalls and a denim cap. As he looked down at me he rolled a cigarette and lit it. Then he said, “Boy, what in hell are you crying about?”
And I told him.
“If you’re trying to get out of this damn town to get an education, the least I can do is to help you. Come with me,” he said.
He took me around to the agent and asked, “How much does it take to send this boy’s trunk to Jacksonville?” Then he took out his rawhide money bag and counted the money out. When the agent handed him the receipt, he handed it to me. Then, without a word, he turned and disappeared down the railroad track. I never saw him again.
Howard Thurman is rightly remembered as a black minister, philosopher, educator, and mystic whose sensitive spirit and ministry touched countless people of all races, faiths, and cultures. He was dean of Rankin Chapel and professor of theology at Howard University, dean of Marsh Chapel of Boston University, and co-pastor of the interdenominational and inter-racial Fellowship Church in San Francisco. The dedication page of Thurman’s autobiography has only the following words: “To the stranger in the railroad station in Daytona Beach who restored my broken dream sixty-five years ago.”
God always has some Moses and Elijah forces around to affirm us! Somehow they show up even when it seems that everything is working against us. They show up even when nobody else believes in us.
Howard Thurman, like Jesus, was comforted and strengthened by the encounter with the “stranger in the railroad station in Daytona Beach.” His broken dream was restored by that encounter. That encounter was a prayerful experience! It affirmed that Thurman wasn’t alone. It gave him reason to believe God had something more for him.
The encounter Jesus had with Moses and Elijah had a similar effect. From that prayerful encounter during a mountain prayer retreat with doubtful friends, Jesus received mystic encouragement to press onward. From that mountain prayer retreat, Jesus drew strength to confront and overcome forces that held a boy hostage to seizures. From that retreat, he pressed boldly onward for God despite opposition, criticism, and threats. From that retreat, Jesus changed for the better and made the world better for God.
God has prayerful changes for you and me also. There are places and spaces for us to enter, away from the routine noises and sounds of our living, where God will inspire us, reassure us, and prepare us to be divine instruments of righteousness, love, mercy, joy, hope, and peace. Let us turn aside to them.
Who knows what God will do for and in us as was done for Jesus and for Howard Thurman? And who knows what blessings God will work in the world, like in the boy Jesus healed of his seizure disorder and like the world Thurman blessed, because of the prayerful changes we experience?
God knows! Amen!
 Howard Thurman, With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman, pp. 24-25, Harcourt Brace, 1979.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.