The Truth of Saving The World

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 17:1-9
This American Life Episode 231: Time To Save The World

There is something peculiar about change. And, I mean change in a physical or emotional sense, especially if it is a rather quick and swift change. Whether getting excited about an every-day guy or gal changing into an evil-fighting Power Ranger or knowing that a beautiful butterfly was once a catipillar, we get mesmerized by certain transformations. But, what is more striking about these types of transformations, at least for me, is that they reveal some sort of truth. Maybe not truth in an absolute knowledge sense but some truth about the thing or person undergoing change. The truth that a seemingly ordinary person can be the one who saves the day from monsters. Or, that a flying insect was once a crawling bug. In that same sense, the transfiguration of Jesus reveals something about him and about his disciples.

Douglas John Hall writes, “[the transfiguration of Jesus] intends to confess that these untutored, down-to-earth men and women who left everything and followed him, hardly knowing why – that these same persons, later, knew that they had been drawn to him because, for all his obvious humanity, something radiated from him that spoke of ineffable and eternal truth.” (Feasting On The Word, 454)

In other words, that burst of change reveals a certain truth, not because it was not true before but simply that it was not fully known. And, just like that, we find everyday instances of that burst of truth that can throw us off – sometimes in good ways and sometime in not so good ways.

This American Life Episode 231: Time To Save The World has several examples of people saving the world and, as host Ira Glass says, “in every story people have these sudden moments of truth delivered to them by complete strangers.” So, much like Jesus – a savior or redeemer, however your theology defines that – who, at a short but intense moment during his transfiguration, reveals to his disciples that, well that this guy is for real, they didn’t just abandon their parents, family, fish nets and workshops for some weird guy, these people who are out trying to save the world one person at a time reveal something about they people they’re trying to help. Just like that, instantly.

Act I, for example, is the story of Starlee Kine who wants to do everyone a favor by getting rid of small talk. Her approach is something called the Rundown – it targets something specific within a conversation that would otherwise just be small talk and opens it up revealing a lot more about the person that anyone could ever imagine know from just a casual conversation. In her story, what was a routine conversation about breakfast while purchasing a ticket, turns into knowledge about a person who loves and how he loves and whom has he loved (OK, the story is more about sex than love but you get the idea.)

Following this idea of getting rid of small talk, Act II tells the story of phone conversations that started as a prank. Kids back in the 50s would dial “Heather” on the phone (H-E-A-T-H-E-R) and the tradition kept going for years and years. This man answered and just talked to the kids. Eventually people would call him with real problems, not just trying to prank someone. He would help them out over the phone by simply talking to them. Kirsten, for example, was going through a rough time and her conversation with this person she didn’t know helped her out. She found some truth in those conversations – a conversations that started as nothing more than childish pranks on an old guy.

Then, there’s Act IV. The story revolves around the Hartman Value Profile, a test developed a Robert Hartman to determine whether a person was good and evil in hopes to eradicate some of the evil in the world as Hartman witnessed in Nazi Germany. The test is used today but mainly for performance and character evaluation at businesses. The goal is still somewhat the same – to reveal to people how they are in hopes that they would improve. The catch, however, is that most people do not change, even if they know that how they act is not the best. Robert’s son, Jan, argues that this unwillingness to change, even if the face of logical possibilities and consequences, is the downfall of the test and its proposed system. And so it brings the question, can revealing the truth about someone be beneficial? In this case, it doesn’t make people change but it does help management make leadership decisions.

So, what does all this have to do with the transfiguration of Jesus? Well, as I quoted Hall earlier, the transfiguration served to reaffirm the disciples’ commitment. They find themselves in a moment of truth, knowing that they are following someone who is definitely not lying about his work. In my opinion, we experience those moments of truth regularly. It helps us to know others better than what we would learn from insignificant small talk. Or, it helps us affirm ourselves and dig out of some of the problems we face. And, even if it’s a long shot, those moments of truth can provide the catalyst to change our ways that might not be so great.


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