When I started opening my fortune cookie this past week I realized how eager I was to find out what treasure lay within. What positive words would jump out at my life this time? Not that I take those words all too seriously. But what often piques my interest, especially in sharing with another person, was a yearning for the positive word to me. Positive + Personal + with others = more fun!
I, for one, yearn for a positive, spiritual experience. I count myself among those who seek an encounter with a living and loving God. And that could come in prayer, a holy reading of Scripture, an uplifting experience of worship.
But I know that only to be the half of it. Because when I look beyond myself and my own longings, I see something bigger, something more than my agendas for self-gratification and my self-absorbed navel-gazing.
And, for me, that starts with an honest encounter with Scripture.
When I first read the Gospel story for Transfiguration Sunday (Luke 9:28-43), I found what seemed to me an unnatural disconnect between the first part when the disciples see a vision of Jesus’ glory on the mountaintop, and second part when Jesus heals a boy from a demonic illness.
On the one hand Jesus’ mountaintop experience conveys a sense of privy religion: an ecstasy reserved for an elite few, a holy albeit exclusive event, a private affair that occurs in an ivory tower place not easily accessed — to which anyone who has climbed mountains can likely attest. Me and sweet Jesus!
On the other hand rebuking an unclean spirit sends Jesus into the dirty streets and crossroads of the harsh realities of common life. There’s an obvious rapid descent that occurs in this passage — a drastic scene change: from a select few disciples in Peter, John and James, and biblical greats in Moses and Elijah … to a great crowd that meets Jesus at the foot of the mountain; from mystical communion, wispy clouds and translucent streams of bursting heavenly light … to the putrid smells of decay and disease in the streets, mauling little boys in uncontrollable seizures and epileptic fits. It’s dramatic!
What is going on here? What are we to understand about the glory of God? What constitutes a ‘holy’ experience? I see at least three clues in the text to help us.
First, both the Gospel writers Luke and Matthew follow up the mountaintop experiences by Jesus healing someone. All three — Matthew (17:14), Mark (9:14) and Luke have Jesus encountering the “crowd” right after the transfiguration. So basically, the Gospels clearly attempt to fuse together the contemplative, mystic, holy with the ordinary, embodied and missional elements of our faith. Again — not either/or, but more both/and.
In her memoir, “Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx” (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003, p.269), Heidi Neumark reflects on this passage to tell a powerful story of transfiguration. She describes the transformation of the church she served as pastor for almost twenty years. Aptly named Transfiguration Lutheran Church, the community was struggling, barely surviving, for most of that time. Standing amid poverty and the myriad problems that can accompany such a demon — crime, drug abuse, lack of education and opportunity, lack of hope — Transfiguration Church mostly kept its doors shut tight to the world around it.
The work of Jesus rebuking the unclean spirit was example enough for Neumark. “When Peter and the others came down from the mountain,” she writes, “they found a father and a child gasping for life. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And they found transfiguration.
And so it is. When the disciples of this Bronx church unlocked the doors of their private shelter and stepped out into the neighbourhood, they did meet the distress of the community convulsed and mauled by poverty, to be sure. But they also discovered transfiguration as a congregation in connection with others.
As much as I long for those holy, exclusive encounters with God, I have to agree with commentators who suggest that the story of the transfiguration of Jesus loses its power if it does not include that moment when Jesus and the disciples come down from the mountain (Lori Brandt Hale, “Feasting on the Word” Year C Volume 1, p.456).
On Meadowlands Drive in Ottawa, we are not situated in the Bronx. Poverty may not readily stare us in the face quite like for the people of Transfiguration Church. And yet, the question may still need to be asked: Who lives outside these doors? Who are we in relationship with this community in West Ottawa? What is the role and function of our space here? Is it only for our own personal edification, our own private encounter with God in some mystical, religious experience?
Or, can those beautiful encounters with God and with one another in this holy place lead us, as a valid and necessary extension of our faith, somewhere else?
Perhaps places reserved for personal intimate communion with God are meant more as a stopping place, a rest station on the interstate of life, where we recharge our batteries. But that the real deal happens out there in the world. The holy, glorious places, serve as turnabouts in our walk on earth — leading us in, but turning us back around after re-fueling to face what we must face out there.
The second clue in our readings today, is the predominant image of “face”; let me explain: In the first reading from Exodus, Moses did not know that after his encounter with God, “the skin of his face shone” (34:29); and the Gospel writer indicates that while Jesus was praying on the mountain, “the appearance of his face changed” (9:29). Then, after Jesus heals the boy with the demon, Jesus “sets his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51) to complete his mission on earth.
What our face communicates is powerful and influential beyond measure. What do our faces convey to the world out there about the treasure we hold in our hearts? What impression do we give to the public – as Christians, as Lutherans, as members of Faith Church in West Ottawa?
A couple of weeks ago I remember in the middle of my sermon I saw a whole bunch of you burst out in radiant smiles. Your faces were shining! And yet, I hadn’t said anything particularly funny — at least I didn’t think I did. But something else, something I hadn’t noticed, was happening. And it was a holy moment.
A child had been smiling at you. And no words were spoken, even necessary. It was as if you conveyed a sense of the presence of God in your midst with an emotional response to a child’s face. The smiles and glow on all your faces were part of the meaning of God’s felt presence in the worshiping community that day. And it was a gracious, patient, forgiving presence.
It may not often be mentioned by preachers of the Gospel, but did you notice that Jesus at first reacts, rather negatively, to their request for healing the boy. Jesus kind of complains to the people about their lack of faith, insulting them: “You perverse generation!”
I think Jesus realizes that so often people are not getting the reason for his coming to earth. He sees that people really just want something for themselves. They want Jesus to help them, one of their own. Quite understandable. And yet, their self-centered egos get the better of them and is what truly motivates them to come to Jesus. Jesus just shakes his head.
Nevertheless, he still shows them compassion, shows the boy compassion, and heals him. His love and grace trump the people’s misguided motivations and selfish ambitions. Even though they don’t understand that their purpose in life – God’s purpose for them – is for the sake of others, Jesus still exercises divine patience.
How do we face the world outside these doors on a Sunday morning? Do we walk in the way of Jesus? Do people see forgiveness and patience, a radiance that conveys loving acceptance?
Dark coloured hard-wood flooring seems to be the latest thing in model homes. I’ve toured a few of these new homes in Arnprior over the last year. Indeed, the duplex we now rent – a new construction – has this dark hardwood flooring throughout. And yet, as nice and pretty as it looks, it is so unforgiving: every speckle of dust, every bread crumb, stands out. It is unforgiving, unyielding. Other, lighter woods can put up with more dirt, so to speak.
I hope we are not like this hardwood flooring to the world out there. I hope our “face” to the world radiates a patient, compassionate and forgiving stance, one that invites a loving response from those we meet.
Jesus’ face may have been determined as he began his journey to Jerusalem after the transfiguration. But it was not a hard set, impatient, unforgiving, angry face. But one that invited an open heart to respond in faith.
The glory of God is realized in the mission, boots-to-the-ground, exercise of compassion to those in need. Then, others out there will see us as we are and whose we are. The glory of God cannot be fully experienced without reflecting the treasure of love we hold in our hearts, for the world to see outside these doors.
Better than anything we can find in a fortune cookie.