Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
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Scripture: Exodus 24:12-18 24:12 & Matthew 17:1-9 17:1
A couple of Sundays ago at the Garden Church, I saw the scripture come to life in front of my eyes. We were reading the text from Isaiah where the prophet is calling out to the Lord about what kind of fast they should take.
The text reads: Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Then the verse goes on to say these powerful words:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Now, let me set the scene a little more. For those of you who haven’t been there, the Garden Church is not your typical church. We took an empty lot in the heart of San Pedro and transformed it into an active urban farm and outdoor sanctuary. We worship outdoors in the middle of the garden, with the ground beneath our feet and the birds and wind and sun above. And we work and worship and eat together right in the heart of our community. People are always walking by, all kinds of people, and we get to know our neighbors as we work and worship and eat together.
So on this particular Sunday…
I noticed a man hovering outside the gates; he stopped and stood at one side and I waved at him, but he didn’t come in. Then he walked a little further down the fence and looked through.
As I was passing the Bible to the next person to read, I whispered to Connie, “Would you go do your friendly welcoming thing?” and she popped up and went over.
As we were hearing the powerful words of the prophet Isaiah read, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
I watched as Connie tenderly listened to this man who was standing there in his slippers and tousled hair. After talking to him for a bit, she went back to the food table and walked back towards the gate with a full plate. I saw her gesture welcoming him in, but when he did not, she took the plate out to him. And as they were standing, Nora started to sing the interlude and he stopped, and he and Connie stood there and listened together, And then they said goodbye and he walked down the street with his plate of food.
When Connie came and sat down we were about to start the sermon, but rather than opening my prepared texted, it seemed right to first acknowledge the sermon that had just happened in front of our eyes. Connie shared that the man had not eaten for two days and was so hungry. He knew that The Garden Church was a safe place and wanted to come in and knew he was welcome, but “just wasn’t ready quite yet.”
We went on to read and reflect on the scriptures, God’s call not to just do pious acts of worship, the acts of fasting are not what God asks, but that our fasts are fasts that break the yoke of injustice and share our bread with the hungry. Tears were in many of our eyes as we heard the scripture, as the Word came to life, it shimmered, in shown, it was transfigured in the face of this hungry neighbor at our gates and the simple act of sharing compassion and a meal.
Our scripture text today has me thinking about moments that change us, that shimmer, moments where something shines differently in the face or an interaction that we have come to be familiar with.
In the cycle of the church year, today is Transfiguration Sunday, marking the day in the cycle through the stories in the Word where we land on this powerful mountaintop moment where Jesus takes Peter, James, and John (his close disciples and friends) up onto a high mountain, apart, by themselves, and he was “transfigured” or transformed—he was “changed in face.” His clothing became dazzling white and then, up on that mountaintop with Jesus, Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking to Jesus.
Whenever I read this text, I have to put myself in the place of these disciples and wonder at what they might have been thinking and feeling. Here they are, hanging out on a mountain, just like any other day, and all of a sudden this guy they’ve been hanging out with, the one they have claimed as Messiah, anointed one, changes. And not just slight change, he in TRANSFIGURED, and the light that shone from him sounds as if it was beyond their experience of worldly like. Such dazzling white, “such as no one on earth could bleach them.”
And then with him are these figures from the scriptures, not just any figures, but the well-known and important ones: Moses, the receiver of the Ten Commandments, representing the law, and Elijah, the prophet. And there they are, all together on that mountaintop—with Jesus.
And it makes me wonder, what were the disciples thinking, witnessing this moment, wondering at this change in the one they thought they knew?
Now by no means have I ever had an experience quite like this mountaintop moment we read about in our scriptures. But I have seen the Divine shine through and take a face that I thought I knew about and change it to another. I experienced a face being transfigured back in 2004 when a woman walked into the women’s group I was leading at the time and began to share her story. Other women in the group pushed back and were impatient; this person wasn’t “a good fit” for the group and changed the tone. Until, a few months later, after we had prayed together, and eaten together, and shared life stories and we all learned to call each other friends.
I’ve seen a person transfigured who I had written off, along with a whole swath of other voters, when I had the opportunity to sit down at their kitchen table, experience their hospitality and welcome, and find the things that we connect on and mutually care about.
I saw myself change back in 2011 when I met my now good friend Brent at seminary, and heard his story about his transition from being Brenda, to embodying his gender identity as a male and finding peace and grounding and integrity in himself and with his God. Brent was so kind and gentle to me as I learned and asked questions and began to understand something that I had not encountered closely before. And through listening to his story of transformation, I too was transformed.
I see this change in people’s faces every time I have the privilege to hear someone’s story, to shift their identity from “that homeless person living on the street” to our neighbor with a story and a journey who becomes a friend. When I hear the stories of any of you, many of you, and we find the connection points, we listen to the particularities, we see the imprint of the Divine in each other’s eyes.
I’m sure you all have your stories. Stories about how you saw a person, or a group of people in one way, until something changed and shimmered, and your assumptions and ideas of that person or group changed.
Maybe it was when you had that long, real conversation with a relative who has a different political stance than you. Maybe it was sitting across the table from one of our un-housed neighbors and hearing their story. Maybe it was the time you met a Muslim for the first time and encountered them as a fellow-human being, rather than an unknown group. Maybe it was when you hear someone’s faith story, or learned you grew up in the same town, maybe it was through a photograph, or a piece of art. Maybe it was the quiet knowing that your heart needed to soften, to change, to be open to the many ways that the image of God shines and transforms humanity all around us.
These are the moments when a little wind blows the thin veil between heaven and earth out of the way. Like when Peter saw in his teacher the face of God, within the deep wrinkled flesh, the imprint of the divine. It’s fleeting, but it’s an experience that I think all of humanity shares. It’s something I find myself on the lookout for… These moments of transcendence. These moments where I can see beyond the everyday, or beyond my veil of prejudice and not knowing, and see in another person the face of the Divine. It’s a precious moment, something beyond what I can manufacture, something I long to replicate and hold on to.
I can’t blame Peter for wanting to build those little dwelling places, to keep the face of God preserved forever, for him (and others) to go look at as often as they needed to see God and the kingdom revealed, and restore their faith in humanity, in the earth, in God herself. I think that’s totally human. To want to cling as long as possible to moments where we see everything that’s bigger than ourselves so clearly and we glimpse the face of God.
And yet, like the disciples in the story, wanting to build a dwelling place, to capture this moment and not let it go, Jesus says to us, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And then things are back to how they were. Moses and Elijah are gone and Jesus is no longer glowing like the sun. But something has changed. Something has shifted. We know that that moment of transcendence is possible and that God’s presence is shinning within the faces of all that she has created, whether we immediately see it or not.
And I can’t help but believe that something still shimmered as they sat there on the mountain and reflected on what had just happened. Everything returned to normal, yes, but something was also forever changed. Once we see the face of God in another, we really can’t ever go back. Once I have seen that person who I once despised, instead as a fellow human with a story, I can no longer dismiss their entire grouping or person. Once we see that spark of the Divine in that face we wanted to lower our eyes and walk by, it starts to sparkle elsewhere. And we might just find that these moments of transcendence, these moments of God shining through start happening more frequently, as we open our eyes and hearts.
When our hungry neighbor came by the gates later that week, I waved from the back where I was deadheading basil. He paused by the front gate, in his shorts and old bed slippers. He still wasn’t ready to come in. But as he paused, and waved, I saw a faint glimmer and glow in his face. God shining through. Amen.