|Mark 9:2-8; 2 Corinthians 3:17-4:6
Mark 9:2-8; 2 Corinthians 3:17-4:6
The Rev. Dr. Seth E. Weeldreyer
February 19, 2012 – Transfiguration Sunday
Rain poured under threatening skies that night in Memphis Tennessee. Still people packed the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, wall to wall. Taylor Rogers, a sanitation worker, went there with his wife Bessie to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. They remember powerfully how he stopped everything in his own life to come support a strike by sanitation workers suffering bad conditions and low compensation, treated like the trash they collected. "[Preacher] was crying," Bessie said. "Tears were rolling down his cheek. I believe he kind of felt that something was going to happen to him." It was April 3, 1968, hours before King would be killed.
"Thank you very kindly, my friends," King began. "As I listened to Ralph Abernathy and his eloquent and generous introduction and then thought about myself, I wondered who he was talking about. It's always good to have your closest friend and associate to say something good about you. …I'm delighted to see each of you here tonight in spite of a storm warning. You reveal that you are determined to go on anyhow."
"Something is happening in Memphis [and] in our world," King continues. He imagines the Almighty asking in which age of history he'd like to live. King says he'd fly over Hebrews up Mt. Sinai on their Exodus to the Promised Land. But he wouldn't stop there. He'd move on to Mount Olympus in Greece and to the heights of civilization through Rome, the Renaissance, and the Reformation, through dark days of our Civil War and great Depression. He'd say to the Almighty, "'If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.' Now that's a strange statement to make," King says, "because the world is all messed up. … But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working … in a way that [people], in some strange way, are responding."
Friends, I wonder if it's hard to see the light of Christ shining among us like the star at his birth because it doesn't seem dark enough. We live in a bright world. And I don't just mean pictures of earth from space at night, though maybe that helps us get the picture. A bright world is not all bad. If the Almighty asked me, I'd sure take it over the Dark Ages! But I wonder sometimes if under these bright artificial lights it doesn’t seem dark enough for us to see the light of God's love in Christ.
All sorts of lights blaze around us. "One of the brightest human-made bulbs," writes my preacher colleague, "is the light of reason…evidence…data presumed to be more persuasive than faith. …It is not that faith [condemns] reason, but that faith often transcends reason." We rightly learn, explore, shed light on mysteries and fears. We stretch boundaries of human conception and comprehension … and then still we must be ready "to leap."
Another dazzling glow has its source in self-actualization. "Walk into any bookstore," my colleague continues, "…row upon row of self-help books…Apparently the road to contentment is paved with the right diet, the perfect mate, and a well-organized closet." Even religious leaders of great fame (and fortune) dangerously seem to suggest "our best life now" centers on us (not God). "Unfortunately, it is hard to see the glory of God when you're standing in the spotlight."
Then there are the camera flashes and sequin dresses, the entertainment glitz and fashion glamour heightened in this season of Emmys, Grammys, and Oscars to capture our attention. Or the daily shimmering, illusory idol of financial stability and success, however we really seek and define it. Or maybe it's the messages we hear like billboards aglow or expectations strung like holiday decorations that shape our perspective of what's important.
Friends, we create these rays of human effort and insight to penetrate our murky uncertainties, or chase away anxieties like monsters in our unlit closets of life. It's not that I like the dark. Still, don't we know that behind sunglasses on famous faces and even in our brightest living rooms there linger patches of darkness in our relationships, in our decisions and addictions, in our struggles to live abundantly that few others really know about. In our hearts we all have shadowed corners of insecurity and fear, places that can only truly be penetrated by the merciful and powerful light of God's love in Jesus Christ. And friends, I fear that too much brightness risks blinding us to those dark lonely, needy patches in ourselves and all the others we could serve.
A devotional reflection in a book I use epitomizes the danger of this contradiction, this deception we face in life. It is for August 6—the day an atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, Japan, and the day many Christians observe as the Feast of the Transfiguration. "Eyewitnesses spoke of a flash 'brighter than a thousand suns' [at Hiroshima]. There could be no sharper posing of the question, 'Which power do we really worship and follow? Is it the power which harnesses the forces of God's world for blind and indiscriminate destruction, in which beings are 'wasted,' reduced to shadows on the pavement? Or is it the power of the One who shines on the mountain top, the One our Celtic ancestors called 'the Sun behind all suns', in whom our humanity is glorified?"
It was full daylight when Jesus went up the mountain with his closest friends and associates. But Peter, James and John were far from full enlightenment about his identity and purpose. Jesus knew a storm was gathering. He'd just given all who gathered a warning about the cross to come. Still, he was determined to go on. The way Mark tells the story of Jesus, after all he'd said and done by this time, I expect Mark's people still wondered just who this was that he was talking about. The transfiguration marks a turning point at the middle of Mark's gospel. It echoes Jesus' baptism, literally in the voice of God and heavens torn apart. It foreshadows the dawn of Easter, Resurrection light no darkness overcomes, that reveals the full power of God only glimpsed on this mysterious height.
And you see, in the time of Jesus and the earliest Christians, Hellenistic philosophers affirmed that when we look upon a deity we're changed, conformed into that God or its image.
Now Peter feels overwhelmed by this mystery, this mountain-top moment. How does he make sense of this power and glory of Christ greater than all others? He's excited, confused, and terrified. He blabbers on about building booths to stay here, to control the experience, to feel more secure. They don't want to leave, because I suspect they'd much rather not go on living in the daily realities they face. They'd rather linger in spiritual ecstasy. But Jesus says no, that's not my way! Worship that raises your spirits to the sky, while inspiring, is not enough. We've been to the mountaintop, and now we go down again. We go back down and preach and heal and eat with outcasts and live with grace beyond all boundaries that fear and insecurity, control and self-centeredness erect in our world. We persist in powers of love and peace when selfish powers of greed, exploitation, violence, and domination resist. We go to the cross.
"We know how it's coming out," Martin Luther King, Jr. said that night in Memphis. "For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory. …It's all right to talk about 'long white robes over yonder,' in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It's all right to talk about 'streets flowing with milk and honey,' but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but [we] must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee.
"This is what we have to do. … I want to say tonight … I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. …Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!"
Surely for people present in Memphis that night it was a luminous moment of mystery that touched their sense of who they are and in that moment what they're here on this earth to do.
Paul would not get to the Promised Land with the earliest Christians in Corinth. He wrote from afar to encourage their sense of who they are and what to do. Since it is by God's mercy, that we are engaged in this ministry, do not lose heart." Now that's something for Paul, because scholars tell us there were deep conflicts in Corinth. Other leaders came to town to shed a different kind of light of faith. And Paul fears the people would be blinded to the light of Christ; that this gospel vision would be veiled from all who tried to see.
Paul urges them to set their eyes, the eyes of their hearts, upon the Spirit of the Lord revealed in Jesus Christ, the very image of God. And seeing the glory of the Lord our lives too then will be changed evermore into images that glory of human beings fully alive in love and grace. Renounce shameful things of cunning and deception, Paul pleas. Do not center on yourselves and proclaim your own value and accomplishment. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., if you hear others talking about you, maybe it's best to say: "I wonder who you're talking about." No we don't create our own light to save the world, Paul concludes. We are like mirrors for the light of God shining all around us and beaming right through us. Maybe we could think of ourselves, our faith as like an old lighthouse beacon—a combination of mirrors and lenses shaped just right to focus a ray of light upon any and all in need we turn around and around to seek. For it is God, who said, "Let light shine out of the darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
How do we see and live by the light of God's glory in Christ, the power of divine love and mercy, the presence of holy grace?
In a book called The Luminous Web, BBT picks up on contemporary observations of many scientists who see everything from quantum physics to our daily life as an inseparable interconnected relationship, through God who is above all and through all and in all. In such a relationship it is rather false and naïve to assert some sort of detached human "sovereignty over blue-green algae, toads, palm trees, and swans." Taylor suggests it's better to see a luminous pulsing net or web of light that connects movement in the most infinite vastness of space with life beating inside our breast. "And where is God?" she asks. God is everywhere – up there, down here, inside our skin and all around. God's glory is revealed in each particle of existence and in the unity of all creation, in much the same way as we might experience Jesus Christ as both a static emitter of light and the very particles and waves of light itself.
This past Wednesday night Session began our meeting here in the sanctuary. Amid chandeliers dimmed and windows dark, light emanated from candles on a table in the center of our circle up front. As each person lit a tea light, we sang: "O God is my light and salvation. In God I trust." For our devotional we considered experiences of mystery amid everyday life—sailing in a storm, and stopping at a lemonade stand, mountains, language, school bus driving, rehab work with a patient after a horrific car accident, points in space like this very spot where so many people on experiences from baptisms to funerals converge and pass through; or like driving a nuclear missile up a mountain in the Ozarks, when dawn broke forth to shine in his heart the juxtaposition of such beauty and potential for destruction in this world. Mary and I hoped to cultivate among our leaders an openness to glimpse the presence of divine mystery, not unlike the experience of Jesus transfigured on a mountain-top. Not unlike ways God's grace glimmers among us everyday. Because you see, when we open the eyes of our hearts to this beauty and goodness, then everything else begins to look a little different.
So friends, today we've been to the mountaintop! And we're looking down into the season of Lent toward the darkest moment of our faith, trusting in the power of resurrection. And now we go down again to our homes and workplaces and every street and corner of our community. We go down again to preach, heal, eat with outcasts, and live with grace beyond all boundaries that fear and insecurity, control and self-centeredness erect in our world. We persist in powers of love and peace when selfish powers of greed, exploitation, violence, and domination resist.
Like Martin Luther King, Jr., friends, we could survey times and places of history. We could consider the beauties of grace and wonders of accomplishment. We're privileged that God has allowed us to live right where we are, right now. We don't know exactly what will happen. But we know how it's coming out! By God's mercy, we are engaged in this ministry we share. Soon we'll share a potluck luncheon and our annual meeting to shed a little light on events of the past year and visions for the future.
My dear friends, I want to say to you today, the ancient Hellenistic philosophers were right: what we look upon will shape us and the way we live. What vision will we choose? What kind of light will we shine and see by? A garish, unforgiving glow that accentuates every wart on another person and every imperfection in our world? Or rays eternal of resurrection light—"the Sun behind all suns"—that radiates more powerfully than any other, even an atomic explosion?
Friends, see through the bright lights of our world that may deceive and distract from the sight of God. Focus on the glory of Jesus' compassion and passion for what is just, gracious, and life giving for all. Amid beautiful mysteries we're blessed to see every day, open our eyes to see and hold on to the Promised Land of life together in God's peace. Then peer with purpose into the darkest places of our personal lives and our whole society. Send a beacon of comfort to others we know who may be lost in a wilderness of illness, life transition, or the loss of a beloved. Send a beacon of hope to others we serve in schools, in AA, in a meal in our dining room, or anyone else who may feel as though they are being treated like trash. Pull back the veil of fear, loneliness, shame, or anything else that may keep people from seeing the circle of God's love alight and kindling a flame in our their hearts. May this congregation with a candle of love burning inside each of us commend to the world the light of God in Christ, like no other in this world.
Be Thou our vision, O Lord of our [luminous] hearts! …
Christ be our best thought by day and night …
waking or sleeping Thy presence our light.
Let us see God's great salvation …
Changed from glory into glory [evermore here on earth,]
Till in heaven we take our place …
Lost in wonder, love and praise!
Thanks be to God. Amen.