Rev. Rebecca Heilman-Campbell
(Matthew 17)

My Aunt Cathi was spunky woman. She loved the Beatles, loved musicals, enjoyed baseball and dramatic movies and a sip or two of a Yuengling beer, but never any more than that. She had a memory to depend on. Anytime my mom wondered about a childhood friend, Aunt Cathi was the woman to call. She was also very private and lived a harsh and hurt single life for most of her years. There was a sadness and grief to her that we saw, but never spoke to. She was outspoken, loud at times, told wild childhood and teen stories and she was certainly dramatic herself. Towards the end, she moved closer to my parents, and they would keep an eye on her, take her out to eat, invite her over, but my Aunt Cathi enjoyed a quiet, recluse life. After she died two years ago, mom had to go through her house. There was a lot we didn’t know about Aunt Cathi, a lot we wish we knew. With her love of drama, came a deep creativity. She designed and sewed intricate, detailed, beautiful costumes for Barbie Dolls and kept them hidden away. Never seen by her nieces who loved Barbies or her sister who sews quilts and weaves towels and anything else textile you might imagine. With herlove of music came fun Beatles items hidden all over her house. We found clothing that she had designed for herself and she could draw like no one else. She was creative and gifted. We learned that at one point she was a part of a religious cult and was deeply hurt by someone she loved. Which explains so
much about the sadness and grief we saw in her. And we missed it. We missed it all. It was a surprise illumination and we saw Aunt Cathi for the first time in a new light.

Have you ever experienced this? Have you ever felt like you knew the person you loved and found out later there was so much more to them, hidden
away? Deep down that maybe there was something they loved about themselves, but they didn’t want to share it with the world? Or maybe they were ashamed or struggled with something deep? Maybe we were only gifted to know the surface? Douglas John Hall, a theologian, writes “Often in retrospect, one is moved to consider the life of someone no longer living – a parent, a friend or mentor – and to realize how inadequately, even perhaps how wrongly, one has [failed to] grasped the real character of that one, or how one has missed the depths of meaning that he or she held for one’s own life.”1 What we know or wish we knew is grief and sadness swirled and mixed into the bright cloud of transfiguration, where we wish the sacred veil of those we love was lifted before their passing so we might glimpse the essence, the true-ness of who they are and embrace them and love them even more for it. An Epiphany about our loved one. Someone we thought we knew, seen in a completely new light.

Maybe it’s only natural to experience an epiphany, a realization of something new or unknown after one has died. I like to imagine the disciples
looking back to this mountain top experience after Jesus’ death. They were left with large theological questions, frightening and traumatic memories and lingering loss mixed with faith and doubt and faith and hope and faith and grief. I’m sure they remembered conversations, healings, feelings of awe all perceived in the eyes of faith. And I imagine Peter, James, and John looking back on this memory of the transfiguration. They remember that just days before that mysterious moment, Jesus reveals to them that he is Christ for the first time and of his coming death. Peter, as typically Peter does, physically takes hold of Jesus and blurts out with pain, “God forbid, Lord. This won’t happen to you.” Jesus reminds Peter that he is God and Peter is thinking like a human. “It’s going to happen, Peter. I am going to die.”

Then, just six days later, Peter, James and John, hike up the steep mountain, huffing and puffing maybe exhausted by Jesus’s asks and clueless that
mountaintops with Christ are aways moments of illumination and prayer. When they arrive to the top, there is no time to linger, no time for conversation or even rest. Jesus transfigures in front of them. His face shines like the sun and his clothes are dazzling white. As white as light. Moses and Elijah appear and they seem to be in conversation with Jesus and we don’t know for how long. The three disciples are seeing Jesus as no one else has ever seen him, which is to see him with Moses, the giver of God’s law, and Elijah, the prophetic voice of Israel’s promised future. To see him as God. Jesus is not just transformed, but transfigured before their eyes.

What’s the difference, you might ask between transformation and transfiguration? The difference appears to be around the matter of appearance
versus essence. Around the matter of physical change verses revelation. Transformation, a change of someone’s appearance or self versus transfiguration, the enhancement, growth, or revelation of who one truly is. The preacher Tim Hughes Williams uses a butterfly as an example. When a caterpillar changes into a butterfly, it transforms from one creature to another creature. It’s a process of change. Completely different in image, size, and weight. Transfiguration, as Williams describes it, “implies the revelation of a fuller truth than was previously visible. [Christ’s] transfiguration simply lifted the veil for a few sacred moments on the truth of who Christ always was.”2 Christ never changed. Christ was and is always God. The truth was and is always there, just as it is here. For just a few moments, the disciples were permitted a deeper understanding of Christ as God and God as Christ.

So often, we want to change who we are, we talked about this the last time I preached. Never feeling like we’re enough. And honestly, we can never hear this enough. We want to be better, do better, change the color of our hair, hairline, weight. We want to be more on time, be a better friend, parent, spouse, partner. We long to change, especially in the New Year as we reinvent something we’ve felt like we didn’t do well the year before. We’re never happy with who we are and we’ve been taught self-criticism to protect us from the harshness and bullies of our world. It’s ingrained into who we are so that we might hide bits of ourselves from those around us.

Transfiguration invites us to lean into who we’ve always been, who God intricately wove together and called good. Transfiguration invites us to lift our protective veil and share our true self for a few sacred moments or even longer than that. The bits about us that we’re not so sure about or have tried to hide away, but are exactly who we are meant to be – the quiet introvert, the exuberant extrovert, our sexuality, our gender identity, our anxiety or fears, or sometimes being overly hopeful. We worry about being too curious, too empathetic, too energetic or sharing sassy jokes around the dinner table – all the things that are a part of us, that are who we are, but we tend to hide from the world. Transfiguration is to discover something deeper about ourselves or others – our true selves, our authentic selves, our lovable, loving selves. The shimmering, dazzling moments that reveal who we are and is loved deeply by those close to us. Transfiguration lifts the veil so we might see God in each other.

After Moses and Elijah appear, a bright cloud surrounds all who were on that mountain. And a great voice booms out of the cloud saying, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” Hearing God’s voice forces the disciples to their knees as they shake with awe. “Listen to him!” rings in their ears as Christ places a hand on their back inviting them to stand and to not be afraid. And so they stand and look ahead, down the long, steep mountain they are to descend together. Shook by what just happened and knowing they are slowly walking towards death in the days to come, we know now, 40 days to come. And as they walk together, the protective veil of God will be lifted here and there – towards the vulnerable, the lonely, even the powerful, they all will be transfigured and welcomed into a faith where they listen and trust Christ. God will be revealed in the breaking of bread and in the blessing of children. God will be heard in the voices of hope singing and shouting Hallelujah
as Jesus rides into Jerusalem. Christ through his transfiguration, through the lifting of his veil, transfigures us, welcomes us, reveals in us our authentic, beautiful, and faithful selves. And so we stand on our mountain top this morning, looking ahead, knowing we will slowly descend the mountain for 40 days, towards Christ’s death that cannot be stopped. And as we walk, for the sake of ourselves and our broken world, we lift our veils for a few sacred moments and invite Christ to transfigure us so we might honor who God made us to be.

Pray with me. Loving God, we believe, help our unbelief. Amen.


1 Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume)
(p. 1061). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

2 Tim Hughes Williams, Transfiguration Sunday (Year A) — February 19, 2023, May 2022 / Baltimore, MD / By The