Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sermon: Transfiguration Sunday

February 22, 2009

Years ago, when our son was still a baby, Rose and I lived on the campus of Wellesley College, the women’s school near Boston. Rose was the House Mom for a residence hall on campus, and for five years we enjoyed the privilege of living on one of the most beautiful campuses in the country.

Now some of you might remember that in Boston they actually have seasons; and so it was that in the Fall, on the night before classes, as the chill of the Fall begins to descend over the campus, the women of the college have a ritual. They build for themselves an enormous bonfire on a beach, and as the sun sinks below the horizon they light it, so that as the darkness of the night spreads and deepens, the bonfire grows higher and higher, the flames reaching 30 feet in the air.

And then, when the darkness is at its deepest and the bonfire is at its brightest and the sparks are rising to the stars, the women all hold hands and sing songs and shout cheers. The voices of the women roll over the waters and echo back to shore, turning wishes into hopes into dreams.

This ritual is very important; because a few months later, in the middle of winter, the students will be in the middle of their textbooks and papers and exams; the warm excitement of the new term will be a distant memory; the long winter chill will have sunk into their bones, and it is then that they will reflect on the blazing splendor of that bonfire, and find, through the power of their memories, that that bonfire warms them still.

For every chill we have, we do well to store away a corresponding bonfire of memory.

It is with a similar earnest remembering that the disciples of the early church told and retold the story we heard this morning, of Christ’s blazing transfiguration at the mountaintop. In those early days of the church, it certainly did not seem that the cause of Christ was faring well. The disciples were being hunted down and murdered, the established synagogues and temples had driven them out as heretics, and the very identity of the church was threatened with schism. On those long, dark nights, when the followers of Christ huddled together in attics and caves, hiding from the soldiers and the informers, they told this story in whispers, about how Jesus took Peter and James and John to the top of a mountain to pray, and about how, before their eyes, Jesus became transfigured by a brilliant light, and his clothes became dazzling and his face shone like the sun, and Moses and Elijah appeared beside him. Moses, signifying the fulfillment of the law, and Elijah, signifying the fulfillment of the prophecies, both standing in blinding light with Jesus, the Messiah, who had come at last in glory to defeat the powers of darkness and death. And they would remember how a bright cloud descended, and a voice came from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to Him!”

During the dark times that were to come, the disciples told and retold that story, and by so doing, they kept the dazzling light of that hour shining in their hearts.
And so Peter, many years later, wrote to his brothers and sisters about this same event:

"We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain... You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts."

People do not tend to build bonfires during the day. Bonfires are made for the night. And so is the church – built to be a blazing light in the darkness. Without darkness, there is no need for a church. And so it is not surprising, during this era since World War II, this extended time of unprecedented prosperity and optimism, that the church has declined in membership and attendance. The church is not built for times of comfort and ease. Remember the burst of church attendance after 9/11. Recall the Great Depression, during which time donations were almost double per capita than they are now.

A few years ago, while energy prices were going through the roof and the government was looking for ways to conserve energy, the following news item was circulated:
The DOE (Department of Energy) is cracking down on [the excessive use] of energy.... Because of this, the Light at the End of the Tunnel has been turned off until further notice.
the UnNews (

For many of us, as our economy heads south, our hope in the future has been under serious threat. Politicians do not succeed with campaigns of hope during times of optimism and prosperity. What would be the point? But in the dark times, that bright message of hope burns bright; we look again for bonfires against the darkness.

Yesterday it was fitting that we celebrated the life of Mary Rose Manhard, on the eve of Transfiguration Sunday. Her adopted daughter, Jan, brought the red hat that she used to wear all the time; and together we remembered her bright spirit, even in the face of her own illness and increasing years. That bright hat said it all about her spirit; she was another light in the darkness.

We would do well to be attentive to the Light as to a lamp in the darkness.

The wisdom of the Church is this, that it is not afraid of the darkness; that in fact it encourages us to face into our darkness, confident that the light of Christ will see us through. What is your darkness? Addiction? Or illness? The fear of death? Perhaps you struggle with hopelessness and despair; loneliness or depression; poverty of spirit or poverty of the material kind. Maybe you are struggling with anxiety about the future; or you are stressed to the breaking point, juggling children and aging parents and financial insecurity.

This is the place to bring that darkness. Christians are not afraid of the dark. We have been here before; we were built for these times. Ours is the universal journey of the human spirit at its healthiest, as we turn to the light and allow ourselves to be warmed by it. We are not alone in this darkness. Blazing like a giant bonfire in our midst is the light of Christ.

The great sages and saints, from Moses and Elijah who joined Jesus on that mountaintop, to the Christian mystics, to the Buddha and Ramakrishna, have been trying to tell us about this light. They have tried to use words, only to see their words fail.

Paul knew all about that darkness and that light; riding on his horse on a mission of death, he was blinded by a light of love and forgiveness and healing. Years later, in the face of mounting persecution and confusion, that light was still burning when he wrote these words of advice to the church in Corinth:
For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of 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. (2 Cor. 4:6)

Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer, was standing at the corner of 4th and Walnut in downtown Louisville in 1958 when he found himself seized by the sudden joyful realization that he was united to every other person; that nothing separated them, one from another; and he felt overwhelmed by this magnificent love for every human being. As he wrote about this later, he said, “if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

Words go only so far. There’s a Zen saying: It is better to see the face than to hear the name. For us, that face is the face of Jesus, blazing like the sun. We don’t experience that light by talking about it; we experience that light by holding hands and stepping together into the darkness.

That’s what Lent is for.

Beginning this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we will be intentionally walking into the sweet darkness of Lent. This is not a time of self-flagellation; this is a time of honest self-reflection.

This is nothing to be afraid of. In fact, it is perfectly okay. We have been this way before. We know the way through. We follow the light, which does shine at the end of the tunnel; the uncreated light of Christ.