So what exactly do Texas Independence Day and the Transfiguration of Jesus have to do with each other?
On this day we are observing Transfiguration Sunday. Also on this day, March 2, in 1836, 178 years ago, a group of convention delegates gathered at Washington-on-the-Brazos to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence. One of those delegates who signed the declaration was my Uncle Elijah Stapp. My great-great-great-great-great uncle, actually. A few years ago, my father, my husband and I took the kids to Washington-on-the-Brazos State Park. We toured the museum and grounds, took in a stage show and made a point of hunting for Elijah in group portraits, and in the list of signer’s names on the monument outside.
One of the more interesting parts of our visit was seeing people in period dress re-enacting pioneer life in the 1830s at an outdoor campsite. My favorite was the guy who portrayed Sam Houston – you know, the guy that huge city in Texas is named after? That’s the one. I’d first seen him leaning against a wall inside the museum, and confess I got a bit giggly with excitement. I’m not sure if there’s a Sam Houston fandom, but I might be the de facto fan club president. Years ago, I started my college career at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, and several of my friends graduated from Sam, as SHSU students called it. My best friend in college (now my kids’ godmother) was studying to be an archivist, and she and I spent a lot of time wandering around the Sam Houston museum on campus. My husband and I were actually engaged right on the museum grounds. So that day visiting Washington-on-the-Brazos with my kids, seeing Sam Houston in person was awesome. Like the original, reported to
be about six-feet-six-inches tall, this guy was imposing, with great-big mutton chop sideburns. He was the well-dressed version of Sam Houston, in a cutaway Southern gentleman’s coat and shiny, knee-high leather riding boots. The actor really got into the part, striding about confidently on his long legs. He was what you would picture a larger-than-life character from the pages of Texas history would be like. He WAS Sam Houston.
Later, while touring the grounds, we spotted Sam Houston walking across the lawn. “Look kids! There goes Sam Houston!,” I said excitedly, my outstretched arm tracking his trajectory. “Look, he’s walking into the parking lot…he’s looking for something. ….He’s – getting in his Nissan Sentra and driving away. Um. Bye Sam Houston.” My pointed arm turned into a wave at his departing vehicle. Talk about bursting my bubble. Of course, the kids didn’t seem to be bothered by it at all – it was really me who was reacting like Santa Claus had pulled off his beard in front of my kids.
This last Sunday in the season of Epiphany we are observing a transformation that doesn’t disappoint – Transfiguration Sunday. Christ’s physical revelation of himself as the Son of God, described in Matthew 17. There’s a sense of completeness as we finish Epiphany as we began it all those weeks ago at Christmas with the first incarnational revelation, God revealing that he has become flesh and blood in the Baby Jesus. And today, we end Epiphany with the Transfiguration, the flesh and blood man revealing that he is, in fact, also God. For Peter, it’s just a few days after he acknowledges that the One he is following is the Messiah, the Son of God. Peter is the rock on which Jesus plans to build his Church. Yet Peter, James, and John are struggling to accept the news that together with Christ, they are journeying into Jerusalem and toward his sacrificial death, and resurrection. We’ve all lost friends, but I can’t imagine how hard it is to ponder losing the one you’ve give up everything to follow, who is your hope for the salvation of your people.
Jesus takes Peter and James and John up the mountain with him, and before their eyes, he is transformed. His face shines like the sun, his clothes are radiant white. And if that weren’t enough, appearing with him are two pillars of the Hebrew faith, Moses and Elijah (the original one, not my uncle). Suddenly Christ’s disciples see in him a real, tangible vision of who he really is – God’s son, the fulfillment of both the law and the prophets.
And Peter, the Rock, the Foundation, has a predictable reaction. He suddenly wants to start building right there and then. This is great, Lord, to be here, he says. We’ll build three places for you, Elijah and Moses. You’ll stay in them here awhile and….God cuts him off. While Peter is still talking, God interrupts and makes his pronouncement over Jesus, the son with whom he is well pleased, calling Peter to stop building and to start listening. God demands Peter acknowledge the moment happening before him, the moment of God revealing himself. Understandably, they are terrified and fall on their faces. The next sensation they experience is Jesus, his hand touching them, his words gently reassuring them to get up and not be afraid. It’s not like they’ve been through much – seeing God’s glory, hearing his voice, and all. “Oh, and don’t tell anyone about this until later,” Jesus says, as they’re walking down the mountain. That may seem less than compassionate for their fears, even harsh. But in today’s reading from 2 Peter, we discover the wisdom in Jesus’ response. Jesus is preparing his disciples for the work ahead. They need time to process their growing understanding of who he is, and they will need these epiphanies as anchors to hold them through the rough times, to hold up against their experiences in both the glory and the dark days of Christ’s ministry to come. They are witnesses to the fact that the Gospel is not a myth – because they have seen it with their own eyes.
As we get ready to enter Lent this week, it’s time to slow down. To look at how we encounter the revelation of God’s glory in our life and ministry, particularly when it comes to suffering. This Lent, as we walk with Jesus through Jerusalem and toward his cross, we understand again how he suffered for us, and how we are witnesses to the fact that he is with us in our suffering.
Because of this epiphany – understanding God’s sacrificial love for us – we are a people whose particular ministry can include the ability to sit with those who are suffering in a way nobody else can. People who are dying, who are ill or who have lost dear loved ones want a safe place to talk about it. We can be that safe place. Fear of what to say to the grieving is what keeps us from doing ministry. It’s what keeps us from making a hospital or nursing home visit, or picking up the phone, or going to the house where somebody’s lost a loved one. But the good news is that we don’t have to know what to say: Instead of the typical response of shutting up the grieving with “Everything’s going to be ok,” or telling a joke or whatever we think we have to say instead of listening, we can stop building excuses and instead be quiet enough to listen for what nobody else will let them say: I’m scared. I don’t want to die. I don’t know how to live without my child.
The reason we can do that is because we don’t serve a myth. We serve a God who offers us freedom and independence from sin in Jesus Christ. We serve a God who reveals himself in the midst of suffering. And because of this, we are witnesses who can tell the firsthand story of his glory, revealed in shining moments, or in a gentle touch on our shoulder, saying, “Get up. Don’t be afraid.”
Very good, Ashley. I like the way you’ve related these two events. BTW, we learned last year that my 8th-great-grandfather, Robert R. Houston II, is a cousin of Sam Houston. So, I feel I have the right to give you permission to start a fan club, if you like. I’ll join. But meanwhile I remain a fan of you, my dear!