Year C, Sunday of the Transfiguration
March 3, 2019
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.”
The Epiphany season begins with the Baptism of the our Lord and ends with His transfiguration. Christ is revealed to the world, and in that revelation, the world (and us in it) are changed. That’s the church project: we are gathered together in the name of Jesus, we are transformed, changed, healed, converted even (perish the thought), and then we are sent out to serve God and neighbor. That is what we are up to here. This is not a hospice for the empire, enabling us to go along with business as usual. We must not come here for solace only, and not for strength, for pardon only, and not for renewal. We need solace and pardon, yes we do. We also need strength. We also need renewal. As St. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “…all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
Before we get into how we are transformed by our faith, we need to pause and consider veils. Well, we need to consider the supersessionist theology that can stem from the reading of this passage from 2ndCorinthians. Supersessionism is the heretical idea that Jesus, that Christianity, is the completion of the Jewish religion. Paul is pretty direct in our epistle today, “…to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” It is saying that Judaism is incomplete, that Jesus completes it and, therefore, is the only way. That is not true. Jesus is not the only way. But passages like this are a source of much of the latent Christian anti-semitism that enabled the horrors heaped upon the Jewish people in Europe for centuries, culminating in the Holocoust. We have to acknowledge that and atone for the errors of our ancestors, some of our contemporary brothers and sisters in Christ and the shadows that lurk in many of our own hearts.
Jesus is not the only way. And, Jesus is our way. What we understand about Jesus is our understanding, and that has no bearing on the beliefs of others. You follow Allah as revealed by the Prophet Mohammed? Blessings to you! That has nothing to do with our faith in Jesus Christ. You believe that the covenant with God made through Moses is still primary? Again, blessings to you! That in no way diminishes, challenges, negates, nullifies or effects my understanding of God and my relationship with the Holy (nor does mine, yours). Faith is a legitimate source of knowledge, and it is a source of knowledge that does not need to conform to enlightenment standards of single universal truth. In faith, multiple, uncontestable truths can (and do) exist at once. My full knowledge of God and my salvation in Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit can (and does) stand as true as my friend Rabbi Ruhi Sophia’s full knowledge of God as she knows God within the strictures of her faith. In matters of faith it is always “I” statements. You can’t argue about how someone else feels, and you can’t argue with what someone else believes, except of course when it comes to liturgical questions and the other person is wrong. As members of the dominant religion of the dominant culture we must account for the evil done in the name of Jesus.
And there is a veil. It’s got nothing to do with adherence to the authority of Moses, Paul was wrong about that, but he was not wrong about a veil. There is interference, static, barriers, chasms, something that gets in the way of our being transformed “into the same image (of God) from one degree of glory to another.” That’s just true. Are you in perfect union with God? In perfect right relationship with the whole creation? I’m not.
A key Pauline principle is our participation in God. He is all about we each becoming Christ-like in our own right. We are supposed to be like Jesus. And we are not, Christ-like, not all the time, not nearly enough of the time. We don’t love all of our neighbors let alone all of our enemies in the way that Jesus did, in the way that He tells us to and even expects us to. Why? What gets in the way? What is that veil? Who knows? We call it Original Sin, or human nature or the human condition. Plato talked about our being as a chariot pulled by two horses, one white, one black, always wanting to go in different directions but harnessed firmly together. Goethe said that “there is enough stuff in me to make both a gentleman and a rouge.” Martin Luther King, Jr. preached, “There is a recalcitrant South of our soul revolting against the North of our soul.” Paul wrote to the Romans, “The good that I would I do not, and the evil that I would not, that I do.” You know yourself, the good and the less so in your heart. Something is in the way of us being healed of our human condition, and changing, transforming, transfiguring into the images of God we were created to be, that we can be, that we already are if we only could see it, if the veil was lifted from our faces. Paul’s point is that Jesus Christ is the veil lifter.
We are supposed to participate in God, to be like Christ. That is what we are to aspire to. That is to goal of our worship and our practice, to be more like Jesus. And that is a huge topic, not to mention a monumental aspiration, but I want us to look at one little way, one little thing we can work on to that end. One step we can make towards becoming more Christ-like; a fitting topic for the last Sunday before our Lenten austerity sets in.
If and when we aspire to be more like Jesus, you don’t have to speculate and ask “What would Jesus do?” in a given situation, though that is a fine practice of ethical checks and balances. Rather than guess, you can just ask “What did Jesus do?” and do likewise. So, what did Jesus do? Funny you should ask. One thing Jesus did, and He did a lot of in the Gospel of Luke, is pray. At His baptism He prayed. He went to the wilderness for 40 days and prayed. The night before He chose the 12, He prayed. In our story of the Transfiguration today, He prayed. He prayed in Gethsemane, and for Simon’s faith, and for those who crucified Him. Each of these were moments of transformation, of revelatory change, and each of them, like the right wine with the right course, Jesus paired with prayer.
We’re about to enter the penitential season of Lent. I love Lent. It is, for me, the most spiritually satisfying of our seasons. I have a really good excuse to get all religious, the weight of 2000 years of Church tradition is behind my saying, “No meat for me, it’s Lent!” When I stopped drinking a few years ago, Lent made it much easier for me to try onnot drinking, to try on saying, “No thanks,” and not feeling overly conspicuous, not my will, but thine. It is a great and time-limited occasion to try on all sorts of stuff, be it some sort of fast or adding some spiritual discipline. You might try going for a walk each morning and consciously thinking about the people you love (and those you should love more); or try saying some or part of the daily office (Compline takes less then five minutes and is maybe best said lying in bed right before you turn off the light. Do check out the booklet Tina printed with some new forms of the office). Another discipline is the Helen Reed method of Common Prayer: coming to church for every service between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Or Memorize the Mass! (Windy did that a couple of years ago and she hasn’t had to fiddle with a bulletin since). All of these practices are forms of prayer! This Lent, I encourage you to be more like Jesus and pray.
What is prayer? ____ That’s a question. Thoughts? ____ Where might you go if you wanted to look up the Church’s answer? ___ The BCP. And where in that un-indexed gem of a spiritual resource might we find an answer such as this? The Catechism! The Catechism doesn’t have theanswer about anything, but it does have a lot of really good answers that I regularly consult. For instance, on page 856 is found the question, “What is prayer?” with the answer, “Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” (Another fine Lenten practice is to come to our Sunday Catechism class, 12:30. Bring lunch).
Responding to God, that’s what prayer is. It is not just talking to God. Contrary to popular assumption, it is not just asking for something (for yourself or others, no implication of selfishness intended – Jesus prayed that the cup of Crucifixion pass Him by). But petition (asking for something) and intercession (asking for something for someone else) are just the tip of the ice berg of prayer. Prayer is about responding to God, and responding to God always means change. A prayer of penitence can get our live back on track; of oblation can change the direction of your life; of thanksgiving can help you better notice the blessings of this life; of adoration can reveal the splendor of God to you. Any of these kinds of prayer, and the multitude of forms they take, all truly have the goal and potential to change a situation, to shift someone’s fortunes, to change the very world itself.
I’m good with mystery, with not understanding (or needing to understand) how God and/or the world, seen and unseen, actually works. “Great is the mystery of faith!” is a fine answer to many of life’s unanswerable questions. I am not, however, good with superstition. When people talk about the power of prayer, of prayers being answered or conversely, that God’s greatest gifts are un-answered prayers, I get suspicious. If God works that way, answering prayers for whom, the deserving? Then what about the unanswered prayers for sick children, world peace, a desperately need job or housing or safety… how can that not imply God choosing not to help? Devastatingly bad theology, and harmful.
And prayer does change the world. Pope Francis knocked it out of the park with his remark, “First we pray for the poor, then we feed them. That is how prayer works.” Like it changed Jesus, prayer changes the world by changing us.
Last week we talked about loving our enemies, and one way we can do that better is by praying for them. By holding a troublesome someone up to the Light of God in Christ like shining sunlight on a vampire isn’t going to make that someone special squirm, but holding them, and having God’s light involved, might begin to soften our hardened hearts. Holding someone we need to forgive in prayer doesn’t negate their trespass, but it can make that trespass less onerous, less harmful to us. Praying for the ice-cold, slush-wet Egan guests won’t put shoes on their feet, but it might break our hearts open enough to go to St. Vinnies or Bi-Mart and buy some boots to give to someone who needs them. Or it might get us to stop putting up with the excuse “We don’t have the resources to deal with this problem.” from public, private and not-for-profit structures and leaders.
Prayer changes the world by changing us. Our hearts. Our minds. Our constitutions. You can see it happen. I volunteered at Egan on Thursday morning as the morning behavioral lead. Helping the folks that need the most help. At one point there was a very difficult situation brewing between some deeply suffering people. I paused to say a Hail Mary and cross myself before I went over to them, and there wasn’t anything I could have done to better prepare myself. “It not just me.” was the 10-second PhD in pastoral presence I needed, all in simply saying that old, wrote prayer. An oldie, but a goodie. Prayer can give us strength, courage, resilience, motivation. What in the world can resist a strong, courageous, resilient and motivated person or group of people? Nothing. Nothing at all.
When we approach God in the posture of supplication, a posture of receptivity, a posture of prayer, oh the places we’ll go! And you won’t go or get there unchanged.
That’s why you should pray, and a smidgeon of how prayer itself works. It’s would take a three year long preaching series to cover the topic of how to pray, to which all I can say is I won’t begin that series today. Besides, the pulpit is not the place for prayer instruction. My office is. Talking to one of our experienced prayer practitioners is. (Ask me for their names). Joining us on Tuesday evening or Friday morning for centering prayer, or Friday morning for Morning Prayer after centering prayer is. The contemplative retreat we took in December, or the one we are planning for Holy Saturday are others. And there are myriad books on the topic, and videos and recorded talks. Look for Merton, Keating, Nouwen, Underhill, Rohr. Our tradition offers 2,000 years of collective wisdom on the process of being transformed by our response to God in prayer. Probably the best teacher we have, though, is that pew you are sitting on right now. Or more accurately, you being in that pew here in the midst of our common prayer, and we are praying together right now. We are adoring and praising the Holy One, offering thanksgiving, seeking forgiveness, committing ourselves to service, seeking to have our needs and the needs of others fulfilled, all collected together by the primary Mystery of the Church, participating in the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, taking Christ into ourselves, really, being changed into His blessed likeness from glory to glory.
So this Lent, I encourage, challenge, exhort you to do some praying, or if you already do, do some more. The weight of the church is behind you (not bearing down on you, but assisting), and I am here to connect you with resources, offer my encouragement and prayers for your practice, and help us keep our common prayer wheel turning. Pray. It changed Jesus. It will change you. I am glad you are here. AMEN.