It is not uncommon to hear people from other cultures, refer to their ancestors in ways that are quite foreign to us as Westerners.
In my short three years living in Tanzania, one of the most striking pieces of village life was the regularity with which people died, both young and old.
While funerals had prescriptive customs for mourning based on the age, the gender, and other circumstances of the deceased, there was also a ritual called a matanga that happened a year after an ancestor died.
The matanga was a gathering of the relatives, friends, and ancestors of the deceased 12 months from their time of death.
At this occasion, the world stopped again in the community, for a shorter time, and people gathered to tell stories about the deceased, their ancestor, and to eat, drink, sing, and dance in remembrance of the dead.
It is a strong African saying that “Those who are dead are not dead.”
Truly, it is an African custom to believe that death does not break family and community links.
Rather, those on the other side of the grave continue to inform community life.
A Tanzanian poet, Birago Diep, wrote this poem about the relationship between the living dead and the world.
“Those who are dead have never gone away.
They are in the shadows darkening around.
They are in the shadows fading into day,
The dead are not under the ground.
They are in the trees that quiver.
They are in the woods that weep
They are in the waters of the rivers
They are in the waters that sleep.
They are in the crowds, they are in the homestead.
The dead are never dead.
Imagine with me that a similar worldview existed in the time of the hearers of the gospel story of the Transfiguration.
The story of the Transfiguration is often used as the exemplar of the transition between Jesus’ early stages of ministry to a marked and intentional shift to his sacrificial march to Jerusalem and ultimately to the cross.
And, indeed, the Transfiguration can be seen as a bridge between the two different journeys that Jesus and his disciples are on.
But, a less explored motif of the Transfiguration also has a lot of say about the power of ancestors, the power of imagination, and the ability of the followers of Jesus to live somewhere between the natural and unnatural words.
This story is filled with what some would call in literature circles “magical realism.”
After all, we are dealing with all kinds of mystical and magical moments.
You have Moses and Elijah just showing up on top of a mountain talking to Jesus.
(Remember that Moses and Elijah come from very different parts of the Biblical canon.)
In the midst of this discussion, the disciples try to make order out of this uncertainty, and as they seek to do so a cloud envelopes them.
Once they are enveloped in this cloud, we are told that they are terrified, as a voice speaks to them from this cloud.
Assumingly this voice is God, and when the voice is finished speaking, Moses and Elijah are gone.
Whoosh, disappeared, vaporized and then essentially everybody goes silent.
So, what are we to do with dead people appearing, without any explanation, having conversations and voices coming from clouds?
With the presence of Moses, the disciples would have been quickly reminded they were in the presence of the ultimate leader of the Israelites.
Moses is the one who is associated with the law and is also a symbol as of their liberation from bondage.
Now if we have the pinnacle of the law mentioned with the appearance of Moses, we have the pinnacle of the prophets appearing with the portrayal of Elijah.
The Gospel of Luke is very careful not to portray Jesus as Elijah; so Elijah’s presence on the mountaintop certifies that the penultimate prophet is present with Jesus—helping him and abetting him with the work begun on their behalf.
We have the law and the prophets.
We have ancestors and a cloud.
We have silence.
The presence of these ancestors connotes a reality that is fantastical, but is also directional.
After all, the association of Moses and Elijah with Jesus is auspicious—putting these three people all together should make us feel like we, too, are in good company with these ancestors.
But, auspiciousness is not the primary function.
These ancestors mark that God, through Jesus, is in the process of consummating his eschatological purposes.
No matter what, Jesus’ company with these ancestors reminds us that God’s purpose is to bring liberation from bondage.
We know that with Jesus that piece of the story relies on his transfiguration from the cross to the empty tomb.
And we know through the Transfiguration that God works through people, ancestors of the faith, and time to bring about God’s ultimate purpose.
In this vignette the ancestors are the dead who are never dead. In the cloud, “They are in the shadows darkening around.” The dead are never dead.
We rarely mark the anniversaries of our dead as a community except in countercultural places like the church, where we celebrate All Saints Day and have requiems on All Souls.
But, most of us, cling to time in a very linear way.
We think of time as marching forward.
We think of time as moving into the future.
We think of time as a trajectory that often eludes us.
If anyone has ever bought an Apple product, we know that time is measured in the moments between one version of the Iphone before it becomes outdated and upgraded by the next.
Time, like the phone, becomes lost and disposable.
But, the Transfiguration gives us a moment to pause and mark the continuum of time which we share with our ancestors.
It allows us to map salvation history.
The Transfiguration reminds us that there was a great thing accomplished on the mountain top which was started a long, long time ago.
And the pinnacle of that work is what God has accomplished in the fullness of time in Jesus.
And with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, all of our ancestors, we are the church gathered. Triumphant.
Triumphant not because of what we have done, but triumphant because of what God has accomplished.
And so how fitting it is that we gather at our 167th annual parish meeting to contemplate the marking of another year in the life of the Redeemer.
How fitting to think about buildings and establishing permanence while our lives are temporal.
How fitting that we remember the dead, who are never dead, who reside just a stone’s throw from this pulpit.
Together, with them, we have inherited a great trust--this church, this churchyard, these edifices…
How amazing that our ancestors have built these buildings that have become the places where we have built our faith, where we have been transfigured.
Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ jesus forever.