Pentecost IX – Transfiguration – August 6, 2018
2 Peter 1:13-21
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
Today, August 6, is the day on the church calendar when we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. You might be asking yourself, “don’t we hear this wild story regularly? …the story of Jesus taking Peter, James and John with him up on the mountain to pray… the story in which Jesus’ appearance suddenly changes and his clothes become dazzling white, and two men of old, Elijah and Moses, who appear to be talking to Jesus?” The answer is: we absolutely hear this story every year. We hear the story… of the frightened disciples trying to stay awake in this surreal scene… We hear it in the depth of winter, on the last Sunday of Epiphany, when the time of basking in the glow of Jesus’s birth is winding down, Christmas decorations are put away, and the last of the Christmas candy has been consumed. We hear this story as we are preparing to enter the more somber, reflective season of Lent, the 40 days in the wilderness that are the prelude to the most important season of all… Easter. Because August 6 falls on a Sunday this year, we hear lessons for Feast of the Transfiguration today, rather than hearing lessons for the ninth Sunday after Pentecost. Today we are given a fresh opportunity to ponder the life changing terror that the disciples experienced when the cloud enveloped them and as a booming voice proclaimed: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
Today, August 6, is also Hiroshima Day, a day when we sadly remember the many, many lives, numbering over 100,000, that were lost to humanity’s use of the atomic bomb. We remember, also, those who survived the initial blast but who suffered the long term effects of severe burns and radiation sickness. This is a day to remember the multifaceted technologies and devastating powers of destruction that humanity has developed… and it is a day to remember our God-given responsibility, as followers of Jesus, to work passionately for peace… not just to save our own skins… but for the sake of God’s people everywhere, and for all life on this precious planet. Our work of discipleship is to witness to God’s love and call to be in right relationship with one another… that hearts and minds will be touched and changed… ant that we will live into God’s deepest desire that the whole of humanity will be enveloped this desire and to live into God’s dream of peace on earth. The hope is that we will dare to step out of our pods of technological and geographic isolation and, with new hearts, roll up our sleeves to serve as faithful witnesses and reconcilers, and to offer ourselves as builders of relationships, seeking to grow in an ever greater sense of community in the world. Peacemaking is not optional. It is a fundamental requirement of our faith.
The word “transfiguration” means “metamorphosis.” It means complete change. It means deep transformation. If we look back at the mountain top story we are offered a description of disciples’ experience as they gazed, slack-jawed, at the scene above them. Christ is revealed in glorious divinity. The change, however, was not just in Jesus’ appearance. The knee-knocking metamorphosis happened in the disciples as well. Peter, James and John not only witnessed, but they experienced… down to their bones… the power of God’s presence with them on that mountain. In ancient cosmology, mountain tops are sacred places where heaven and earth meet, where God and humanity come close. This dazzling story lights up the imagination even as it defies intellectual understanding. As hearers of this ancient story we, too, stand in “awe.” The Transfiguration is a story that invites us into the sacred mystery that is at the very heart of our faith. The religion writer Ian Curran puts it this way:
The Christian faith in the God whose light shines from the holy mountain empowers us to confront all the forces of darkness in our midst. We do not need to choose between religious and secular fanaticism, the god of death and the death of God. We worship a God of life. And the God of life has already died and risen from the dead for the transfiguration of the whole world.
This coming week we will be welcoming our younger ones to experience “Art & Soul.” The theme this year is “Dancing with Saints: Hearts on Fire.” We chose this theme so that we could offer… to our young ones… stories of people whose lives left a lasting mark in the world, lives that illuminated the power of God’s love through caring, compassion and peacemaking. We will learn about the lives of three faithful human beings who have made a difference in their time and their place, emphasizing that we are all called to make a difference.
The stories that we will be sharing are those of St. Francis of Assisi, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In preparing for the week I have been reviewing the story of each of these saints… trying to capture and distill a message that will touch the hearts and imaginations of our young ones. All three of these “saints” had experiences of being awakened to the suffering in their midst. All of them had moments in which they were invited onto a new path, a new vocation… and they answered the call. All of them knew what it was like to experience doubt. They wrestled with their faith. All of them found strength and peaceful courage in their relationship with God. They inspired a following of people whose lives were touched and changed resulting in new commitments to serve God by offering their own lives in service to causes larger than themselves.
What was it about the saints that we can relate to? Gandhi encountered the full ugliness of racism when he travelled to South Africa for the first time. As a dark skinned person, as a native of India who was educated in England, Gandhi learned quickly what it felt like to be a direct target of racism. He witnessed the chilling effects of a society fractured by racial, emotional, physical and economic violence. Gandhi was also a trained lawyer, a man of wisdom and intellect. He was influenced by writers such as Tolstoy, and especially Tolstoy’s book The Kingdom of God is Within You. He was also influenced by the American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau who wrote Civil Disobedience in response to the American government sanctioned slave trade of his time. Gandhi’s relationship with God, known through the Hindu story of his faith, offered strength and a deep, sacred understanding of the power of nonviolent activism. He is known for quotes such as, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” and “Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind (sic).” “Non-violence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our being.”
After a time of youthful merry making followed by a time of spiritual turmoil St. Francis chose to serve God by letting go of worldly trappings of wealth and, instead, chose to live a life of radical simplicity. in imitation of Jesus. Francis found freedom, peace and joy in serving the suffering outcasts of his time, the lepers, who were astonished that any non-leper would dare come close. Francis sought to do little things to help in the world. Every step, every action was a witness to the power of God’s love and compassion. The prayer attributed to St. Francis… “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,”…was not actually written until the 20th century. It was written during WWI by an anonymous author… and yet it speaks powerfully of St. Francis’ spirit and legacy:
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;
These are important messages for us all.
In tumultuous times in India, when colonialism was in its last days, an Albanian nun and teacher received a clear message from God to serve the “poorest of the poor.” Teresa responded to this call. To her dying day Teresa worked to lift up the sick and the dying… in her midst… lifting many, literally, out of the streets. She washed and bandaged their wounds… teaching others to do the same. Teresa offered a place where the dying could know dignity and compassionate care. Her work attracted others to serve and now the Missionaries of Charity number nearly 5,000. Teresa has said, “Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.” Her work was following the words of Jesus in the 25th chapter or the gospel according to Matthew:
35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 7 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.’
Mother Teresa saw and served Christ especially in society’s unwanted and forgotten. She saw Christ in his most distressing disguise.
All three of these saints knew what it meant to struggle in their relationship with God, and with their call to serve. Their witness drew others to them, others who were touched by these illumined lives… and who were inspired to serve in the same spirit. No one here is called to be a Francis, a Gandhi, or a Teresa. We are called to be the people we were each created to be… yet all of us are called to be inspired and to grow in God’s love, seeking to serve with the gifts we have each been given.
It is important that we continue to lift up inspiring stories of faithful witness and courage… that our own lives may be a reflection of God working in and through us… that we may know abundant life by letting go into the greater light and love that is calling us to live beyond the limitations that we place on ourselves… called to be people of compassion and peace.
It is important that we return to the mountain top to be shaken and awakened
again, and again…
daring to enter into the cloud of sacred mystery
opening ourselves to the awesome power of God’s love,
and to hear, once again, words that echo through the ages:
“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”