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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

February 11, 2018

Mark 9:2-9


As the parent of a very verbal toddler, I spend a lot of time these days with children’s books.  Our house is full of them.  Standing on shelves in the living room and Samuel’s bedroom, stacked on the coffee table and the kitchen counter, strewn about the floor—they are everywhere.

Many of them came from you, from the beautiful generosity of this congregation as we anticipated Samuel’s birth.  It is such a gift to see your names and your notes inscribed inside the covers as we open them up, and we always tell him, before we start to read, which of our friends shared a particular book with us.

One of our perpetual favorites, which I’m sure is known to many of you, was a gift from our friend Brittany LaFleur, who is now in the midst of student teaching in a first grade classroom and finishing up her final semester of college.  Brittany chose for us one of her childhood favorites.  Here it is:  The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle.

Do you remember?  “In the light of the moon a little egg lay on a leaf.  One Sunday morning the warm sun came up and—pop!—out of the egg came a tiny and very hungry caterpillar.  He started to look for some food.”

Maybe this book was part of your childhood, too.  Maybe you remember reading it to your children or grandchildren.  If you don’t know it, I’ll leave it out after worship so you can take a look.  But in short, with apologies for ruining the surprise, it is the story of a caterpillar who eats a lot of food, grows from little to big, and eventually, transforms into a butterfly.

When I was in elementary school, one year, our teacher brought in a collection of monarch butterfly caterpillars for a science lesson.  We kept them in a terrarium in the classroom with plenty of milkweed to munch on, and we watched in fascination as those fat, stripy caterpillars grew.  And then one day, seemingly out of nowhere, the caterpillars were gone, and in their place were pale green chrysalises hanging from the branches in the terrarium.  They were so still and so silent, you wouldn’t even know that they were alive.  And then, after what seemed like an eternity, butterflies emerged—looking a bit wet and rumpled at first, but quickly drying into their stately orange-and-black-winged beauty.  Our teacher taught us a big, fancy word to name that process of going from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly.  You probably know it.  It’s called metamorphosis.

It was once thought, long ago, that caterpillars and butterflies were entirely different creatures.  After all, they look different, they move differently, they behave differently, they eat different things, they favor different habitats.  If you didn’t watch them undergo metamorphosis in your third-grade classroom, why would you think that they would be one and the same?

But over time, with careful observation, scientists realized that they are related—that they are different stages in the lives of a single organism.  For a while, it was thought that the caterpillar died and was born anew as the butterfly.  But later, biologists discovered that inside of a caterpillar, there are rudimentary wings, ready to develop when the larva transitions into its adult phase.  Today, geneticists know that the genes within the insect are the same from start to finish, and that there are clusters of cells in place even before the embryonic caterpillar emerges from its egg that will, eventually, metamorphose into adult body structures like wings.


Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.  And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 

Scholars and preachers call this story “the transfiguration.”  It shows up three times in the New Testament, in the gospel of Mark (whose version we read today), and also in Matthew and in Luke.  It’s a weird little story, full of special effects and supernatural phenomena that defy rational explanation.  But the fact that each of those three evangelists thought it worthy of inclusion in their version of the story of Jesus tells us that it was important to them.  And the fact that it comes up every year in the lectionary, the assigned set of readings for the Sunday before Lent begins, gives us plenty of opportunities to wonder what it means for us today.

And here’s what I noticed this time around.  In the original Greek text, the word we read in English as “transfiguration” is actually metamorphosis.

Linguists and biblical scholars tell us that the Greek word metamorphosis means transformation, changing into another form, becoming something more beautiful or elevated.  Geneticists and developmental biologists tell us that as an organism undergoes metamorphosis, it does not become something else entirely, but grows and develops into a fuller, more mature version of itself.

And so I wonder, what embryonic self dwells within you, just waiting for its chance to shine?  What clusters of cells are already in place, just waiting for the opportune moment to give you wings?

Is there within you a poet or a prophet, just waiting for the moment to speak her truth?

Is there within you an activist or an artist, a lover or a leader, scared to death but determined, too?

Is there within you a story to be told, a song to be sung?

Is there within you a sorrow so deep that it feels safer to keep it hidden away rather than let it spill out and threaten to overwhelm you with its weight?

Is there within you the strength to break the chains that bind you, if only you let it emerge?

Is there within you a wisdom that could ease another’s suffering, if only you trust yourself to share it?

Is there within you a decision just waiting to be made, a decision that feels terrifying and exciting all at the same time, a decision that just might change everything?

Is there within you a Yes that is crying out to be said… or a No?

Is there within you a dream that has been deferred for so long that it almost doesn’t feel possible anymore?

What would it mean for you to speak that truth, to tell that story, to sing that song?

What would it mean for you to share that sorrow or that strength?

What would it mean for you to make that terrifying, exciting decision, to follow that long-deferred dream?

What would you look like if you emerged as your fullest, truest, most beautiful self?

And what do you need in order to do so?


Even Jesus needed a certain set of conditions in order to be transfigured, in order to undergo his metamorphosis.  He needed to go up the mountain, away from the bustle and clamor of the crowds, away from students eager to learn, away from sufferers eager to be healed, away from authorities eager to argue.  He needed space in order to grow.  He needed quiet in order to listen.

Jesus needed the resources of his faith, the company of those who had gone before.  He needed Moses, who had led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, who had guided them through their long wilderness journey, who had led them to the very brink of the promised land.  He needed Elijah, who had spoken truth to power, who had worked miracles, who had healed the sick and raised the dead and born witness to the power of God.  Jesus needed his ancestors in faith to give him the strength it would require to live as his full, true, beautiful self—and bear the consequences.

And Jesus needed his friends.  He needed trusted companions who could bear witness to his transformation.  He needed Peter and James and John, in spite of their bumbling and stumbling and misunderstanding and constant need for guidance and correction, because they knew him, they supported him, and they loved him.


Sometimes, living a life of faith means taking a risk and allowing ourselves to be transformed, to be transfigured, to undergo our own metamorphosis and become our fullest, truest, God-so-loved selves.  Other times, living a life of faith means showing up as companions for our siblings, our friends, our neighbors, bearing witness to their transfiguration and the emergence of their most beautiful selves.

Some early Christians adopted the butterfly as a symbol of their faith.  They didn’t know about developmental biology, about insect metamorphosis.  For them, the butterfly was a symbol of resurrection—the apparent death of the caterpillar was transformed into the new life of the butterfly.  And although we now understand the life cycle differently, the symbol is no less relevant, for we are called to nothing less than transformation, metamorphosis, transfiguration—of ourselves, of our neighbors, of our communities, and of the world.

So, all you very hungry caterpillars, let’s get to it.



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