Year A, Transfiguration
March 2, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“And he was Transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
So there’s good news and bad news… The good news is that it is confirmed… Peter had confessed it a week before, but here, now, in the company of the chiefest of the prophets of old, Moses and Elijah, God in God’s self makes it official: Jesus is Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, the Son of God, Emmanuel, (God with us). He changes, transfigures in the sight of the apostles and the voice from the heavens sounds out again, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This is the very best of news
But the news is not all good. “When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” You see, right before this scene, the disciples had heard the full story about what would be happening in Jerusalem. They knew that it was not going to work out, this change of venue from their home territory in Galilee to the capitol, Jerusalem. Jesus had told them about the rising in glory that would come, they knew how great it was going to be, eventually, but here in this mountain top moment, it begins to sink in how deep into suffering Jesus and they, the disciples, would have to descend before that eventual rising.
That is so much of life though, isn’t it? The good, the bad and the ugly chugging through these states one right after the other if not all at once. We’re in a bit of a baby season here at Resurrection. A boy was born a couple of weeks ago and we have two more due in Lent. Fantastic! And it is a case in point: childbirth is a full experience of the heights of joy and consolation that humans can experience existing hand-in-hand with a bloody, heart-wrenching ordeal. That is the most true reality of life: life and death, joy and suffering, sacred hearts and broken hearts. You can’t have one without the other.
This is what the Transfiguration is all about. It is a glimpse of the future for Jesus’ friends. Their Lord, the Son of God will transcend this fleshy, earthly realm. Now there was no doubt. God’s plan and favor were revealed on that mountain. But to do that, Jesus would have to descend into the depths of imaginable human suffering before he ascends in glory to the right hand of God.
We are on the cusp of Lent, our great Fasting season in the Christian year. It is a penitential season; a season of mindfulness, of making do, of remembering how precious life is, and how fleeting and fragile it is, too. And one of the primary lessons we have to learn, and re-learn and re-learn is that we, we humans, are incapable of appreciating the heights to which the human spirit can soar if we cannot also appreciate the suffering that so many of our brothers and sisters, that we ourselves experience, as well. It is a bitter reality, that joy and suffering are complimentary faces of the coin of life. But learning, living, trying to live into the truths of reality, trying to be in line with the true nature of things, trying to discern and follow the will of God… that is the whole point of being together here at Church, to begin to understand the world as it really is and to begin to understand how to be and how to live in that light. Not always fun, rarely easy, but it is the work that we have been given to do.
Our Buddhist brothers and sisters are helpful in explaining this theological concept. In Buddhist cosmology, that is their formulation of the state of everything, there are countless realms, the heavenly realms above, the hell realms below, and humanity, our world, the human realm, right in the middle. The idea is predicated on the theory of reincarnation, that upon death, depending on how your life has been (as accounted for by karma), you will be reborn in one of these realms. The better your karmic load, the more favorable the realm of your rebirth. As a human, if you have a good run here, you might be reborn into a fluffy-cloud heavenly realm. If you didn’t do so well here, you might end up in the third cold hell where your flesh freezes, but doesn’t crack. (There is some pretty graphic descriptions of the various cold and hot hells and the hell beings running the place that would have deeply impressed Dante). That does not do the theology of karma justice, but there you go. In the heavenly realms, pleasure is the dominant fact of life. In the hell realms, suffering is. And this world, the human realm, it is right in the middle; a little suffering, a little pleasure, a whole lot of reality.
Who wouldn’t want to spend an eternity of rebirths in the cookie and cuddles heaven? Right? Who wouldn’t want to avoid the hell where your tongue is eternally pulled out with an elephant goad? (that is actually one of them). Of course. But the Buddha observed that that is not the way it works. Experiencing only suffering or only pleasure is not a full experience of existence.
Remember, the goal, if there is one, of Buddhism is Enlightenment, that is escaping the cycle of life, death and rebirth. You are born into a realm, you live there, die, and according to how you lived, you are reborn in another level, eternally, until you break the cycle. The genius of Buddhist cosmology is that the only realm that you can exit from, the only realm where enlightenment is possible is right here, in the human realm, poised in the existential middle of the heavens and hells. If you are in a state where you are incapable of experiencing pleasure, joy, happiness and the like, on one side, or suffering, pain, alienation and brokenness on the other, if you can’t experience the whole range of existence, you are destined to continue in the cycle until you can.
Our story, the Christian story, the story of the Life, Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ teaches us this same lesson. The crucifixion of Jesus was the worst thing that could possibly happen: God was executed. Think about really, really bad things to do… putting God to death, horribly, seems pretty high on the bad things to do list. Hard to see the bright side to that. But it is in facing reality, facing the very real and present reality of the pain, brokenness, disappointment and death, and the equally present joy, pleasure, happiness and life that we also experience in our lives, it is in facing the fullness of life that we are complete. We cannot come to God in Christ unless we are open to, or are willing to be opened to the true nature of being, the fact that light and dark, pain and pleasure, life and death and everything in between are real, need to be faced, and need to be faced together.
Very little in our culture points to this full reality. Our health care system denies death. Our liberal Protestantism denies sin. Our education system denies different ways of knowing and succeeding. Our political system denies the reality of violence, race, class, gender, and empire. Our economy denies the reality of limits.
Lent is a time in which we are invited to practice reality, a time to practice living intentionally in a world that seeks to keep us in delusion. It is a time to practice a fast. And a fast is a deprivation of some kind, an intentional practice of micro-suffering to increase one’s mindfulness of God and the story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, to His Passion, and a practice to increase our mindfulness of the suffering of others we share this world with. What are some ideas about Lenten fasts? What are some folks doing?____
We can give things up: alcohol, caffeine, TV, Facebook, chocolate, meat. Those are some common ones. We can also put practices on. This can be looked at as a fast from wasting time, or fasting from some small freedoms. Pledge to come to Morning Prayer on Fridays at 9 or contemplative prayer at 5:30, also on Fridays, don’t missing church this season, reading a religious book (like the Bible… I have other ideas, too) or come to adult ed on Wednesdays. You might try holding someone or something in prayer daily, or eating broccoli every day, or taking the time to cook if that is something that you often skip. Carry a bag of oranges or a bunch of bananas in your car and offer them to folks flying signs. I encourage you to do something, something slightly uncomfortable, something that increases your mindfulness of the world around you, something that reminds you of the power that you have to affect your world and those you share it with, that is, us.
Our Buddhist friends say that life is suffering. I do not agree. There is untold suffering in this world, untold suffering in each of our own hearts, but there is untold joy and happiness as well. What Jesus Christ teaches us, in the joy He revealed to His mother, in the loyalty He inspired in his followers, in the love he reflected from His God, and just as much in the agony of His Passion, the humiliation of the Cross and the fear, mystery and glory of His resurrection, what Jesus teaches us is that we need to be present to the full range of human experience. The good, the bad and the ugly. May we learn from the Transfiguration, and may this Lenten season bring us one step closer to that Promised Land. AMEN.