When Jesus was transfigured, no one said he was a different person. Christians confess that Jesus was fully human and fully divine; that did not change. Transfiguration did not mean Jesus was utterly changed with an entirely new, ontologically different foundational self.
Transfiguration refers to a change in the outward appearance—that part which is visible to the world. That’s why the Gospel story mentions that while Jesus was praying, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Like a glow-up. Like a photo filter that makes everything sparkly and twinkly, but in real life.
What shows on the outside reflects the truth of Jesus’s being—still fully human and fully divine, same as he always was. But something about the truth of him became more visible. And it was dazzling to witness.
Maybe you know how it feels to put on some article of clothing that changes the way you project yourself and your identity in the world—high heels and the way they click on hard floors, a crisply-ironed button-down shirt, the denim jeans with just the right amount of structure and just the right amount of stretch to make you feel both comfortable and powerful. Maybe you have clothing that’s special— a roomy sweatshirt worn by someone you love, a piece of jewelry gifted to you by your beloved, something that reminds you how much you are loved.
Or you have some clothing that elevates a specific moment in life: the suit you got for confirmation, your prom dress, a baptismal gown that has been passed down through the family for generations. All of these things communicate some kind of inner truth made outwardly visible—you don’t become a different person, but you may catch a glimpse of what it is like to be transfigured into the most beautiful and the most real, authentic version of yourself.
Now do you sometimes get it wrong? Anyone here ever look back at photos of yourself, maybe as a young person unafraid to experiment with hairstyles or cosmetics or trendy fashions that you can reflect on years later and say, “Huh, that didn’t quite fit”? Anyone ever destroy such pictures? Or have you granted yourself the freedom to look back and simply laugh and say, yeah, that was part of the journey?
For each one of us, every person created by God, there is always the invitation to learn and explore and grow closer to the creation God made us to be. There is always more to be learned, always more to be celebrated, always more grace, always more freedom. God, the source and ground of all goodness, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, desires this freedom for all of creation.
When Jesus was transfigured, did any of his disciples ask him, Jesus, could you stop being so shiny—it’s distracting? Jesus, could you go back to the way you used to look because that’s what we’re used to? Jesus, your sparkliness is scaring people away.
I wonder this because it really sounds like something human beings would say—we’re not okay with the new look. OH, you changed your hair! OH, those shoes really are…somethin’! WOW, you sure look…different! Our reactions usually betray our wishes that everything in life could all fit into neat categories, so that the world is understandable and we never need to be challenged, never need to learn or grow, because that’s inconvenient and it’s hard work and no thank you.
But occasionally, in God’s grace, there’s just enough love that breaks through and invites us to expand our sense of the world. This is holy ground, my friends—you might even want to remove your shoes and let your feet rest on the solid ground of this grace. You’re invited into this holy space today, right now—this is transfiguration in process.
Today in worship we will bless the name of Aria, who we have come to know as our music director, and her identity is a transgender woman. If you’re not sure what transgender means, let me explain. I consulted a book written for children, because this concept is not actually so difficult to understand. This book is called “It Feels Good to Be Yourself,” written by Theresa Thorn and illustrated by Noah Grigni.
The reader is introduced to several children who are growing in their own sense of gender identity, which means how they understand if they feel more like a boy or a girl or both or neither. Gender identity begins at birth, and the book shows an illustration of a baby being held in the hands of an adult, with this explanation:
“See, when you were born, you couldn’t tell people who you were or how you felt. They looked at you and made a guess. Maybe they got it right, maybe they got it wrong. What a baby’s body looks like when they’re born can be a clue to what the baby’s gender will be, but not always.”
Some of us will match the gender identity given to us at birth, and some of us will not match with that gender identity, which can be a difficult process to put words to, but be assured: it is holy discernment work to keep asking the question, who has God created me to be?
That’s right: I said God created. An ELCA pastor, the Reverend Asher (O KAA leh gehn) O’Callaghan, a transgender man, explains this exceptionally well, so let me quote him:
“In the beginning, God created day and night. But have you ever seen a sunset!?!? Well trans and non-binary people are kind of like that. Gorgeous. Full of a hundred shades of color you can’t see in plain daylight or during the day.
In the beginning God created land and sea. But have you ever seen a beach?!?! Well trans and non-binary people are kind of like that. Beautiful. A balanced oasis that’s not quite like the ocean, nor quite like the land.
In the beginning God created birds of the air and fish of the sea. But have you ever seen a flying fish, or a duck or a puffin that swims and flies, spending lots of time in the water and on the land!?!? Well trans and non-binary people are kind of like that. Full of life. A creative combination of characteristics that blows people’s minds.
In the beginning God also created male and female, in God’s own image, God created them. So in the same way that God created realities in between, outside of, and beyond night and day, land and sea, or fish and birds, so God also created people with genders beyond male and female.
Trans and non-binary and agender and intersex, God created us. All different sorts of people for all different sorts of relationships. Created from love to love and be loved. In God’s image we live.
God is still creating you. You are no less beautiful and wild than a sunset or a beach or a puffin. You are loved. You have a place here.”
Could it be that these spaces beyond the binary, these people beyond the binary categories of gender, could it be that these people can help us understand God and God’s creation even a little better?
If it feels uncomfortable to speak about this, that doesn’t mean we should not speak. The shame is not in the gender identity—the shame is our fear of speaking out. Our fear of speaking clearly, or even fear of speaking wrongly, shouldn’t stop us from trying. If the goal is freedom, if the speech is grounded in love, then go ahead and speak: concern yourself with justice, educate yourself, ask questions, learn, and do better. If you misjudge a person’s gender or use an improper pronoun, apologize and move on with your conversation. Let personhood and dignity be your guide. Don’t leave people out of the conversation just because you happen to feel awkward. Let’s be real: we’re all humans, and humans are awkward, period.
Paul was a passionate missionary who built communities of faith, like the church in the city of Corinth, and Paul wrote letters and never seemed to let awkwardness get in the way of speaking. After making a somewhat awkward comparison between wearing a veil and lacking spiritual understanding, he ends up making this encouraging point: “Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides…”
Is it possible for us, in our day, to renounce the shame of speaking about gender? Is it possible to deal with the discomfort, mostly because that’s about yourself and your own stuff and has nothing to do with liberating anyone? Is it possible to break the silence because that silence deals in death?
Refusing to speak merely enables more shame, and don’t be mistaken, friends—that is death-dealing. People die in that silence. Transgender people, especially persons of color, are at higher risk for harassment, hate crimes, death, and suicide.
Could speaking up mean saving a life? Are we not called to save life, to bring healing in God’s name? There’s power in speaking up, in speaking truth. Last Sunday, with Aria’s permission, I made an announcement in worship about today’s “Blessing of a Name” liturgy, saying specifically that this is to honor her identity as a transgender woman. Later on, we reflected on that moment, the saying of the words “transgender woman”—is it revealing something too private, too personal to say those words? Aria said she had a visceral response to hearing it for herself, a transgender woman. Yes, she told me, that’s ME.
And that is the power of speech, using language to love and to honor and to speak the truth. To let a transgender person know: you are loved, and you are seen, and you don’t need to hide—your essence is shining as if you have been transfigured.
Jesus can identify with you. He knows what this is like. And the transfigured Christ, still gleaming, goes down the mountain, to continue the work of healing, to cast out demons. Demons like hatred. Demons like intolerance. Demons like a commitment to ignorance.
To Aria, to transgender women like her and transgender men, and to non-binary folx, and to everyone else with and without gender: being who you are is a testimony to God’s creative power. Your presence bears witness to God’s healing power. Don’t dim your light, don’t hide your shine. Your transgender, transfigured self transforms the world. How blessed we are by your presence.
Aria, child of God, you chose us to join you today. We give thanks to God for creating you as a transgender woman. We thank God for calling you here as music director and for calling us together in ministry. We might be transfigured here together, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.