Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Dr. Greenwell's Sermon - The Transfiguration

St. James Santee Episcopal Church, 26 Feb 2017.  Christopher Greenwell, Ph.D

 The Last Sunday after the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ

Ex 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matt 17:1-9.

 Opening Prayer:   As my mind is bent to tell of bodies changed into new forms, my God, who wrought these very changes, breathe on these my understandings, and bring down my thoughts  in unbroken strains from the world’s first beginning even unto the present time. May these be the words to say, may they be what need be heard. Amen

 Homily – The Transfiguration

      My vocation requires me to talk of Athens more often than Jerusalem, so to  speak, so such an occasion can be liberating, permitting me to speak plainly without academic neutrality. Of course, today’s readings convey the Transfiguration, a Latinized approximation of the Greek word we use in more secular circumstances: metamorphosis. Both terms apply to our Biblical readings today, but I cribbed Ovid to create the opening prayer. That may serve as a reminder that Christianity is not the only tradition to speak of a transfiguration which renders the central character radiant and visibly divine. The great Hindu epic foreshadows divine change in the form of a glistening god; Siddhartha’s face, too, shines with enlightenment and divinity. Indeed, many religious traditions possess something akin to this idea.

       Judaism may have a foundational claim. Moses would descend - twice - with the Law, glowing from standing in the proximity of a nuclear God, physically changed by the experience, a further sign of his invested power. Whatever the Biblical imagery, Moses descended from the mountain transfigured, and the sign of that metamorphosis was a physical radiance, one of objective blessing, undeniable to all who bore witness.  Whether a white-bearded Charleston Heston or Michelangelo’s Horned Moses, Western Art has sought to immortalize this visual change - to render belief secondary to the fact.

       Yet it is Christianity which has appropriated the term Transfiguration as a category, codified as a major moment in the liturgical calendar. Perhaps nowhere in the New Testament does a believer find a more direct, intentional connection with the Jewish foundations - well, maybe the dry genealogies by which some Gospels open, but few read them. In Matthew, we find Christ being identified before the three original disciples, perhaps Peter mirrors the priestly function of Moses’s Joshua. Elijah is there, too, likely because the disciples, who knew Jesus best, could not recognize Jesus as the Christ, often confusing him with the Prophet some 900 years prior. Moses’ presence in the vision establishes the foundation of the received covenantal Law of the Jews, the Torah; Elijah, in addition to underscoring that Jesus was something altogether different, represents the Prophetic tradition. Both represent the two coherent divisions of the Hebrew Bible. Origen interpreted the gathering in just such a fashion as early as the third century. In this manner, Jesus, as the unique Christ, emerges distinct, self-evident. Even Peter needed reorientation - he understood the moment of Jewish culmination in the person who had ‘fished’ him; he would not yet seem to have recognized the  Messiah- capital ‘M’. It was a revelatory moment, punctuated by a divine Voice, but an epiphany which Jesus commanded to remain secret.

      At Christ’s Baptism, we may assume the same divine Voice. “You are my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”. Jesus hears this and enters into his forty day desert  duel with Satan. That same Voice proclaims at the Transfiguration, “This is my Beloved,  listen to him”. But when Peter, James, and John can be sufficiently comforted finally to look up from hiding their faces in terror, only Jesus remains. For the Transfiguration, the mountain is shrouded in cloud. For the Baptism, the sky is torn apart. That Greek word - skizomenous - will appear once again: when Jesus dies upon the cross at the Crucifixion, the sky again will be rent. Two identities. At the Baptism, Jesus’ human identity comprehends its divinity. At the Transfiguration, it is not the Christ who is changed, but the perception of those closest to Him.

       Jesus would be the culmination of a greater tradition of God’s unveiling of Itself, the crescendo of the divine revelatory order before the designed chaos of the Crucifixion. Nativity. Baptism. Transfiguration. Crucifixion. Resurrection. Ascension. Perhaps those six stages correspond to the six days of Moses’ sojourn on Mt. Sinai before the Law was given on the seventh, enshrouded in God’s shadow; it might parallel the six days Elijah awaited the rain clouds before the horizon darkened on the seventh; Christ’s own journey towards Transfiguration culminated, too, after six days. Six days of Creation, upon the Biblical template. The magical six of so many of the ancients - the only number whose sum is identical with its product; the creative hexagon of the Star of David, two triangles superimposed, one upon another. *(explain) If six is the number of creative preparation - Nativity, Baptism, Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension - then Salvation must be the culminating seven.

      Peter - the great chosen rock, Pope #1, traitor, bodyguard, confidant, martyr -  Peter can begin to bring this theological heavy-lifting - a necessary meditation - to more pragmatic use. He reminds us that salvation is not of our doing. It is a gift bestowed. Augustine would echo the idea with his doctrine of grace alone. What can the story of Transfiguration mean for us, then, beyond affirmation of the unique divinity that is the Christ? If Jesus served as the paradigm for what humans were meant to become, where are we in our own “six day” peregrination? The Gospel of John assures us that Jesus was with God from the beginning, but the human hands which transcribed the divine stories are bound by fallibility and idiom - we are not Jesus, even as given in the semantically compromised Scriptural portrait.

     So what can it mean to be like Jesus? Should we aspire to be transfigured? A  butterfly was never anything but - except when it was a larva - and then a pupa. Is the woman you are today the girl you once were? Remember your youth, young man, when the greatest concern of the day was returning home with holes in your jeans - and the consequences that would bring. Our tradition teaches that the newborn baby is  somehow flawed, an accessory to an original sin committed in an Eden we cannot locate with GPS. Change cannot be described neutrally, matter-of-factly. Human transformation  must be  to  move not only  towards  God  but  also away from  our  own  nature. Perhaps it should be stated another way: we should gravitate towards God by moving towards our truer nature. Who is chronicling this metamorphosis?

     A rite of passage is a communal event. Some event occurs in life which  punctuates the ‘you’; a before and after moment by which we, the individual and the collective, are judged as ‘changed’. Apparently, simply knowing who you are proves insufficient, even for Jesus. What would the sacrifice of Christ be - from His condescension into human form to the atrocity of the crucifixion - without an audience informed of its significance? Might not God have forgiven Creation from afar, a benevolent, but mysterious, patron? Ostensibly, that response is ‘no’. Timing must matter. Witnesses are required. How else could justification be understood? The theology gets sticky, and the Early Church could be bogged down by such discussions: was there a time when Jesus was not the Christ? did He evolve to become the Son of God, identified only at Baptism? if fully aware of Himself and his Divine Purpose, why does the Voice address Him only to address his Disciples later during the Transfiguration?

    It is no simpler for us, today. What is becoming for a human? for a Christian  human? Had I shown up glowing today, your immediate thought may turn to ‘how do I get that app for my smartphone’ or ‘I thought he said he was from Charleston, not near the Robinson plant’. In my admittedly limited experience, glowing people are more suspect than sanctified. If we are not to be conformed to this world, how might we be transfigured in it? Tricky.

    There is no snapshot of you. From cradle to casket, you are you. Some of that portrait lies beyond your control - tall or short can be comparatively measured, but what is the metric for beauty? Think yourself clever? Someone is smarter. Do the people at Title Max car title loans know you by name? Would you trade the misfortune of your bank account for that of a street vendor in Somalia? Let’s update our Facebook status. Some of us become heavier - if you are lucky enough to reside in a nation where the Center for Disease Control cites obesity as one of the principal health concerns. We  move through the stages of our lives, growing older. Society paces the moments of relative import: your first dance, your first kiss, reach 16 and drive - 18 and vote, graduation, divorce, death of a parent, birth of a child, audit. We must earn some of our Faith’s recognition - baptism - but somethings happen without our full comprehension - christening. To move from stage to stage, measured by years or salary or marital status, is not to live. Time is a ruler, and lives ‘unexamined’, those of ‘quiet desperation’, do not meter the moments in a transformative fashion. But what defines you at any point on this timeline?

     Though the Voice first addressed Jesus directly in the Jordan, it came from Christ Himself - as if from a Sacred Ventriloquist - at the Transfiguration. What had   changed?   Can Jesus ‘grow’ into Himself? Was the boy astounding the Rabbis in the Temple not  the man standing before Pilate? It is a quandary relevant to our own existence. Do we accumulate experiences like vocabulary words from diapers… well, to diapers… hoping to hear the Voice? Would that divine Announcement be a press-release, a heavenly endorsement fortifying our self-worth as well as validating our existence to our fellow humans? Does our election become self-evident, an aura readily visible? Or perhaps Elijah’s ‘still, small Voice’ might call to us - should we be able to distinguish it in our daily passage from small screen to smaller screen to larger screen to the television screen.

     Whether you understand Life to be a culmination of well-intentioned events, guided by Peter’s outward morality, or whether you hope to strip away the superfluousness from each living moment, unveiling that potential, fully-realized  human trying to respire beneath the ‘spirit’s mask’, it is worth remembering that this is no competition. Salvation may not lie within our power, but the God that accords it has no quota. Christ’s uniqueness lies not in his Transfiguration - that has occurred before - nor does His assumption to Heaven set him apart with complete exclusivity. However, upon being Transfigured, the stuttering Moses could be wrathful with the apostates. Elijah, unmerciful to those who defied the One True God, waited in vain for a grand  sign, finally finding God modestly, without fanfare. Christ, however, upon becoming known, with the heavens sundered as he was consecrated, as he was recognized, as he was crucified, gave himself to others with empathy and forgiveness. We can attempt to emulate those outward signs.

     Perhaps being is becoming. There is no anniversary date by which we can measure the passage of our lives, nor should we passively await an epiphany that is not ours to conjure. Thomas Merton once prayed along these lines: ‘O God, let me be employed for You, or let me be set aside by You’. Our power is limited. Yet we may embrace the metamorphosis, emerging - or unveiling - in the trust and hope that the Divine Audience will vivify our persons with the brightness which is the inclusion of all known colors. We were anointed to witness, charged with the task of learning our evolving place; we may hope to mount onto the scene and into the spotlight. Until then, we shine as we might, permitting others to see the God of torn space-time and of whispered revelation in us, out of gratitude for the life we are given. Change will come, and we can but control our perception of it: that change must be a metamorphosis towards a comprehension of God… or back to It. That bestowed perspective remains ours to embrace.

 Closing Prayer:   God, grant us the audience of Transfiguration through the pages of Scripture, in the kindness of another’s face, from the awakening earth. Where there was bare ground, life emerges heavenward. The tree, skeletal and dormant yesterday, is irrepressible today. Let us not accumulate these springs as ever-increasing anniversaries, rather let us embrace this life as a countdown to a Promise when the ultimate metamorphosis be ours. Until that moment, may we be an audience pleasing to you, rehearsing our part until we hear that Voice.  Amen.