Epiphany Last B 2006 Mark 9:2-9
As we were away the last week and a half on family business I began to think about today’s sermon and the Transfiguration
of our Lord high on the mountaintop. It struck me that, on our trip, we were transformed into one role after another. We
set out as two young at hearts across the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia and arrived in western Kentucky where we
were transformed into the role of caregivers – Pauli especially – for her 92 year old mother in a nursing home
for two and a half days.
Then we drove south southeasterly to Atlanta, where we were transformed for four days into the dual roles of parents to two
young adults on the threshold of middle age and as grandparents to three lovely – and very lively -- young grandchildren
aged eight, five, and two.
And then on our way home we found ourselves transformed once again, this time into very tired and exhausted senior citizens
who couldn’t wait to reach the Northern Neck and the gentle tides of Shell Creek -- and our very own bed.
I think we all find ourselves transformed into the many, often simultaneous, roles that our busy lives demand of us.
And so it was that, as I was pondering in Atlanta, on my role as preacher today, my daughter and granddaughters whipped us
off to the movies, which was the last thing I wanted to do that day. But God is good. The movie we saw was Nanny McPhee.
Nanny McPhee had been billed in the movie ads as the new Mary Poppins. “Just great, “ I thought to myself. “I
have to sit through a children’s movie, bored to tears. Well, at least I can nap.” God also has a sense of humor.
I was swiftly fascinated.
Nanny McPhee is a movie about transformation and, indeed, transfiguration. As the film begins, the 17th Nanny in six months
is leaving the house in tears because of the behavior of the seven young children. Their mother has died and the children
have conspired – effectively – to see how quickly they can force their new nannies to quit and leave.
But then Nanny McPhee arrives, unbidden – and actually unwelcome. She is a large, heavy, even ugly looking woman with
a swollen red nose, two large warts on her face, and a prominent front tooth protruding over her lower lip. Not a pretty
On her arrival the seven children have taken over the kitchen of the large Victorian manor house, terrorizing the cook, and
messing up everything in sight. When the children refuse to obey her order to stop and go to bed, Nanny McPhee stamps her
walking cane as a mysterious force seizes the children forcing them to continue what they are doing over and over again without
Until they say please. Which is the first lesson she was sent to teach them in the process of their transformation into polite
and delightful children. She has five lessons to teach. And to go to bed when told, and to say please and thank you are
the first three.
During the night the children plot to claim to be coming down with the measles, spotting their cheeks with red ink and heating
the thermometers on the radiator. When they refuse to get up, Nanny McPhee, who isn’t fooled by anything, stamps her
walking cane on the floor again, and the same mysterious force holds the children fixed in their beds all day. They remain
bound until they say please to let tem go and thank you for it when it happens. To get up when told is the fourth lesson
the children learn.
The most important lesson learned by the whole family is to listen to each other whether agreeing or not. A good lesson for
the Church, to listen to each other whether agreeing or not, rather than seeking to force rival orthodoxies one over the other.
Interestingly, as the children learn each lesson, one of Nanny McPhee’s deformities disappears until in the last scene,
only the red bulbous nose remains. In that last scene the now completely transformed and lovely – though no less lively
children – arrange it so that their one time scullery maid – Evangeline – who has been adopted by a wealthy
benefactress and turned into a beautiful young woman is to be married to their father. And as Nanny McPhee escorts Evangeline
to the garden wedding her last deformity disappears. Nanny McPhee is now transfigured – metamorphosis is the Greek
term Mark uses – into a slender and elegant woman who looks remarkably like the great English actress, Emma Thompson.
In the last scene, the metamorphosed – transfigured – Nanny McPhee is setting off down the hill into the valley
below to seek out another family who needs her.
The ending of the Nanny McPhee film has a fairy tale quality to it. But in reality, transition and change often produce
stress and turmoil for us. We much prefer the status quo. Transformation of ourselves is often very difficult, very hard,
and often very unwelcome, if we’re honest about it. We are all too human in preferring the stability of the familiar
and the settled. Transition, change and transformation can shake, rattle and roll our lives and worlds, unhinging and turning
upside down our comfortable habits and perceptions constructions and producing a loss of meaning, value and purpose. Such
occasions often call forth from us efforts to construct new understandings and meanings, and these efforts are neither always
easy nor comfortable for us. Listen to one another the good nanny said. Listen whether you agree or not.
Transition and change become even more traumatic when we perceive they are called forth and brought about by God, especially
when such transition relates directly to our mission and ministry as God's people. We are a parish at the beginning of such
a transition and we pray a transformation. It is a time when we set our eyes toward the future and not a focus on the past.
And listen to each other.
Transfiguration Sunday reveals a transition period in the life of ancient Israel and in the life of the disciples of Jesus.
This day in the liturgical calendar also marks a transition for us in the Church from the Epiphany Season with its emphasis
upon the manifestation of God's glory to Lent with its journey to the cross and the manifestation of God's power in the weakness
of suffering and death for Jesus.
As we focus on our future in God’s time, what is most urgent, ultimate and true about our life and faith is elusive.
The Gospel – all Scripture -- is veiled and contradictory. Peter's response to the transcending mountain-top experience
was to want to enshrine it, to try to capture the moment and the vision in a set of booths, a structure. S o we try to preserve
our moments of transcending vision with boxes of our own making: creeds, rituals, formulas, literalisms, and narrow rigid
orthodoxies of every sort.
But any attempt to capture the transcendent in a booth is to strangle it. To "institutionalize" our faith and our ideals as
the only true orthodoxy has the same effect as "institutionalizing" people in our society: it separates them from on-going
life, putting them in the straitjacket of and alien and rigid orthodoxy. The Spirit must blow where it wills, or it is no
longer the Spirit. Perhaps that is why Jesus, to protect the integrity of the mountaintop transfiguration experience, cautions
silence, expecting his disciples to tolerate the elusiveness of enigma and ambiguity as part of what it mans to envision the
How can we be sure of God's calling for us, of God's ways to peace and justice in the world, even of God's love and presence
in our lives? We can't be sure, because all the means of insurance and guarantee are ultimately inadequate; all the booths
and containers cannot hold God's calling or love, or they distort it. So we are left, like Elisha, following as closely as
we can what is destined to disappear into the clouds, beyond our reach.
But that is precisely the good news in today’s lections. When we are at the edges of our own sureness, beyond the boundaries
of prudence and security and safety, we are in the realm of mystery and enigma and risk and ambiguity --the eerie mountaintops
of transfiguration -- where the God who loves us dwells and awaits us and encounters us. (1)
And let us take the experience of God into the valleys where we live.
(1) Last few paragraphs adapted from Sermon Mall Commentaries, etc, for Epiphany Last/Transfiguration 2006