The Happiest Place on Earth

Raise your hand if you have ever been to Disney World at any time in your life…

It’s quite the popular destination. Apparently last year, over 130 million people visited a Disney park. That’s like half the population of the United States.

And you can understand why—it’s quite the experience. However you feel about Disney as this sentimental and/or sinister corporate empire, you have to admit that their parks are an amazing feat of showmanship.

You enter through the gates of the park, into the Magic Kingdom, and you’re on Main Street USA, this perfect little turn of the century town complete with a barber shop and a town hall and a fire station and horse-drawn trolleys.

But this is a small town with absolutely no dirt or grime or trash. No problems here to worry about. Among the townspeople there are no unsmiling faces. And it’s been like that since the day the park opened—everything is picture perfect, magical even.

The appeal of Disney, I think, is that they’ve taken reality (this recognizable American town for instance)  and turned it into something better, more beautiful. Almost hyperreal.

That’s what this word “transfiguration” means—to take something and elevate it, make it shine. 

transfiguration-of-our-lordWe hear today that Jesus and a few of his disciples go up the mountain together. And there they all have this collective mystical experience, this vision of Jesus glowing white and Moses and Elijah appearing alongside him. The booming voice of God declaring Jesus the Beloved Son.

Unlike the healings and exorcisms that we’ve been hearing about the past few weeks, this is a miracle that happens directly to Jesus. Jesus shines like the sun in the eyes of his disciples.

Think about how you would have reacted to something like this. Seeing your friend and teacher suddenly light up like a lightbulb and these old prophets appear like Jedi ghosts? One option would be to get the heck out of there. And indeed these disciples were terrified, I can imagine they were looking for the exits. But once they got over their initial shock, and started to realize what they were seeing, they didn’t really want to leave.

Peter says, “Rabbi, it’s good to be here. Let’s pitch some tents and stay up here permanently.” I don’t want to go back down there, everything’s so perfect, so magical up here. It’s the happiest place on Earth!

When we catch a glimpse of something transfigured, something so beautiful—even if its the artificial perfection of an amusement park—it’s hard to go back and face the imperfections of our world, the plainness of our daily lives. The dirty restrooms and the lackluster service.

On Wednesday, we start Lent. And it’s easy to think of this as a period of plainness. A valley between the peaks of Epiphany and Easter. It’s a time for us to put away the fancy things—the silver and the flowers and the Alleluias. We withhold guilty pleasures like chocolate or caffeine. We add disciplines like prayer and exercise. This year, I’ve challenged this congregation to add the discipline of daily generosity.

We do all these things because we hope that through those 40 days, on the other side at Easter, we too will somehow be transfigured—made into these shining examples of Christian disciples. 

But I wonder how effective that truly is. Because we can work to reach this peak of perfection, but we can’t camp out up there. We can’t stay there permanently. Eventually, sooner or later, perhaps earlier than we think, we’ll have to snap back into reality. The park is closing and it’s time to go home.

Perhaps we need to rethink our understanding of transfiguration. Instead of it being this singular moment way up there on that isolated mountaintop—what if it were taking place all over, every day, in this time and place? After all, the light of Jesus shines in our world just as much as it did back then. God still speaks to the beloved—me and you—right now.

This week, we said goodbye to Dean Smith, Carolina’s legendary basketball coach. Now, regardless of who you root for during basketball season, whatever shade of blue you prefer, we can all agree that he was a brilliant coach. He had this ability to see talent in players, to see value in each individual. And he took it and cultivated it, brought it out both on and off the court, shaped it, transfigured the very game into something even more meaningful.

But I think more admirable than his coaching was his Christian witness. Dean Smith was not afraid to speak out about hard issues. In his autobiography, Smith devotes an entire chapter to how his faith motivated him to take public stands on moral issues. “God loves all humans the same,” he writes. “It is enough for me to know we are all loved, forgiven, and accepted as we are … I believe the Christian faith is motivated by gratitude, which we can repay with ethical action to others.”

Gratitude. Gratitude for the beauty of God’s grace in our lives. Gratitude for the wonder of God’s love. When we see it, we can’t help but want to shine like Jesus.

The beauty that results from God’s transfiguration shines everywhere—in this building, on those streets, on a basketball court, in a prison or a hospital, in some far off continent we’ll never see—it happens anytime and anywhere God enters in and changes our lives. It happens whenever we are loved, forgiven, accepted. 

So this Lent, instead of trudging up the mountain, trying blaze our own path to some sort of perfection and achieve that transfiguration all on our own—let’s train our ears and our eyes to see it happening all around. And let’s strive to be motivated by gratitude, to live in a way that reflects our own love and gratitude to God.

We don’t have to have a perfect world or a perfect life to see it. Because it’s in the middle of the messiness, the suffering, the pain—our own individual journeys to the cross—that we hear God’s words, taking delight in us.

You don’t need to buy some ticket to experience it. You don’t have to make some long road trip or fight the crowds. It doesn’t just exist within the confines of some artificial place. It’s everywhere. The light of transfiguration, the light of Jesus, opens our hearts to see God, to know God, to be embraced by God, wherever we may be.