Transforming vision

One of the most impressive cinematic visual effects in recent years comes from the “Transformers” film, when for the first time we see how a yellow Camaro is transformed before our very eyes into the character, Bumblebee – the mechanical, robot-like giant. Every part of the sports car shifts, rotates, elevates, turns and clicks into a new position in matter of seconds, revealing a completely different being – from car to robot.

But that’s just it: Every part of the car is necessary in the transformation. In other words, each piece of the car finds a place in the robot: the fender becomes the forehead; the headlights become the eyes; the tires become part of the joints in elbows and knees, etc. Nothing is discarded. The automobile – literally – is just changed, seen in a new light.

I suspect sometimes we resist the notion of our transformation because we anticipate or feel un-genuinely forced into becoming someone we are not. Especially in the church. On the other hand, we may resist the notion of our transformation because we are so convinced that there’s nothing good in our lives to begin with. So, what’s the point?

Because of these hang ups, we may give up. And we discard altogether the notion of ‘change’, defending the status quo of our lives even when we are not happy with the way things are. We justify philosophies that insist that human nature never changes; people will always be the same. And what is more, our nature is evil and beset forevermore with sin. If there is any good within us, it doesn’t last long and we cycle back into sinful patterns. Cynicism reigns supreme.

We can’t, however, ignore the witness of the Holy Scriptures. I don’t have to give you a complete catalogue of examples from the Gospels that shows how people around Jesus change. Whether directly the recipients of Jesus’ healing touch, which is obvious; or, the way the disciples – by the end of the journey with Jesus do exhibit moments of ‘aha’! Just read again the Easter stories such as the Emmaus walk (Luke 24:13ff), and the confident confessions of faith from the disciples – the likes of Nathanael, Peter, and Martha (Matthew 14:33;16:16; John 1:49;11:27).

It is evident from the witness of Scripture that if the disciples are not completely changed by the end of the story, they are certainly a journey that is changing their lives, forever (i.e. transformation).

But it takes time. It is a journey, after all. If the disciples are like the yellow Camaro in the film, “Transformers”, changing into Bumblebee, their transformation is more like what happens when you hit the slow motion button at that moment in the movie!

But what really changes? Are they still not the same person? After Jesus raised from the dead, the disciples went back to their day jobs – fishing by the Sea of Galilee; though they have seen and touched the risen Lord, were they not still the same people? When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, his facing shining after being in the presence of God – he was transformed, to be sure (Exodus 24:16-17;34:29); And yet he was still Moses – every part of him! When Jesus was transformed into a shining, glowing being on the Mount of Transfiguration, was he still not Jesus – every part of him (Matthew 17:1-9)?

An ex-soldier reflected with a concerned friend how war affects people in different ways: “Most soldiers get sick on the spot after killing someone for the first time; for others, it just whets their appetite for more.”

“Combat changes people,” the friend said trying to explain the traumatic effects of the battlefield on the human psyche.

“No,” the veteran replied. “Combat reveals who they truly are.”

Perhaps we have misunderstood this notion of ‘change’. In our linear, logical ways of thinking, we have perhaps overlooked a deeper dimension of our lives. Jesus changed, yes, on the mountain. But he didn’t really change. He was revealed, if but for a moment, as he truly is. Admittedly, as a mystery to us. And yet, we, with the disciples, get a glimpse of his divine nature, in this story. We don’t see a different Jesus. We just see a little more of who he really is: Someone beyond all human understanding, at very least.

This may not appear a satisfying answer for inquiring minds. Neither was it for Peter, James and John. At first, Peter belts out in pious bravado: “It is good Lord, that we are here!” (Matthew 17:4) It doesn’t take too long for Peter and his cohorts to fall trembling, flat on the ground, terrified of what they are seeing (Matthew 17:6).

How do we make sense of this incomprehensible God? What do we do when all our assumptions are shaken at their core? Who is God? Who is Jesus? What is happening, here, in my life?

I consider this story of the Transfiguration of the Lord a template, an allegory, for most experiences of our lives that we would view as ‘life-changing’ – good and bad experiences. Any event of our lives that brings us to our knees in fear and uncertainty: whenever we find ourselves wondering, “Why, Lord?” Or, on the other hand, whenever we are able to raise our hands in praise of God’s goodness, standing before a wondrous act of God.

In either case, the end of the story is more about God the Creator and Jesus, God’s Son. When the disciples are slain in fear on the ground after witnessing a most spectacular special-effect display of divine mystery and wonder, when Jesus notices the trauma of his friends ….

It’s as if, suddenly, all is quiet and all the ‘special effects’ of the Transfiguration melt into the background. Two things come into focus at the end to help the disciples gain their feet again: Jesus’ gentle words: “Do not be afraid”. And, his loving touch.

The disciples, who have just witnessed Jesus, as he truly is, are on the path of discovering who they, truly are in God’s eyes: Loved and touched by the hands of the Creator, soon to be crucified – a touch to ensure them that no matter what – even through death – they will never be alone. God is with them, “Emanuel” (Matthew 1:23), God with us.

We come into our true selves because of who Jesus is, as a reflection of the mystery of the divine. Like a tiny acorn holds the full capacity of being a giant tree, we hold the capacity of everything we yearn to become – because of Jesus. His light shines on us, warms our hearts, and causes our emergence.

It’s our relationship to Jesus, then, that defines our transformation. Listen to the words of Maryetta Anschutz who describes an artist’s creation: “An artist knows that everything he or she creates depends less on the subject matter and far more on the subject’s relationship to the light. In sculpture, photography, painting, or drawing, the artist simply depicts the reflection of light off an object or an idea.

“The still life of an apple can be flat, dull, and uninspiring, or it can evoke emotion, reaction, and transcendence. What evokes the response [the change] is not the object; it is how the artist presents it in the light …” (p.456, “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 1, eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, JKP Kentucky, 2010). We are transformed, each and every ordinary one of us, into the beauty that Christ sees in us, and that we are.

Perhaps the challenge and call upon our lives from this holy story, is first and foremost a call to exercise the vision of God. That is, we are challenged to see anew all that is – the ordinary, the common place, the routine, the unspectacular, the every day. We are called to look upon one another, one self, each other, the people on the street upon the highways and byways of our regular lives – in the light and perspective of God. Not to deny the blemishes that are ever present – the cracks, the brokenness, the sin. But to appreciate the beauty of the way things already are, in the sight and vision of God the Creator, the master Artist.

In this way, then, transformation is neither a threat nor a fright. It is permission to become, and let emerge, what is already there. Hold what is there to the light of Christ, who stands always beside us, beckoning with his loving touch and assuring us, “I am with you always, even unto the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Thanks be to God.

In here and out there

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.

Revealing glory: a funeral sermon

Your keeping vigil with your mother over the past month occurred, primarily, during the season of Epiphany. The season of Epiphany in the church calendar is all about the revelation of Jesus. And the stories that we hear during this season — the baptism of Jesus, the miracle of water to wine, and the magi bringing priceless gifts to the baby Jesus — emphasize the glory of God in the coming of Jesus into the world.

Christians have responded to the revelation of God’s glory by affirming Jesus as the divine Son of God. The season finds its climax in the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop alongside other biblical greats in Moses and Elijah. Here we witness as a foretaste of the coming glory of Easter the epitome of God’s shining glory in the blazing light of Jesus’ holy presence.

It may at first seem incongruous to talk about God’s glory on a day when we grieve the death of one beloved among us. It may at first even appear nonsense to focus on the brilliance, beauty, and blazing light of God’s presence in and around us during the darkest, coldest part of the year. As does wintertime, death may come to us as an example of God’s defeat, not God’s victory.

And yet, I do not hesitate in beginning this funeral sermon by mentioning God’s glory in Jesus. And not only because we still find ourselves in the season after Epiphany. It’s more because of whom we remember this day.

Because, for me, her life with us — even to the end — truly reflected God’s glory. In the sense that her presence conveyed dignity, respect, elegance. You told me how often she upheld values of proper etiquette and dress — especially in church! She wanted to look beautiful. God forbid you wore jeans to church!

Around New Year’s when she was very low I remember coming to the hospital to visit her. I had to wait outside in the hallway for a few minutes as a nurse attended to her. When I was finally called in to her room, I came in just as she was getting help from one of you putting her lipstick on! Even in her severely weakened, vulnerable, state, she still wanted to do what she could, to look beautiful. Glorious!

Epiphany is faith’s response to the dark, cold days of winter. Epiphany is faith’s response to the dark, difficult, painful times of our lives. Not that we deny, brush over, or try to hide that reality.

Only that we affirm, despite the loss and amidst the grief, the small nugget of hope — of beauty — within us all, as she did for herself. Your loved one was especially gifted at pointing out, recognizing and affirming that nugget in us — even when we couldn’t see it ourselves!

She truly had the gift of encouragement. And she used it! Several of you have recalled for me times when after leading a bible study or presenting music or words in worship, she would take the time to make a phone call or write a card to you afterwards. In those simple acts, she thanked you and pointed out the positive — even though you may have felt the opposite about the experience!

Earlier in her life, she exercised her gift of hospitality and invitation to newcomers to the community — inviting them over for supper or tea. Such grace goes a long way to affirm that gift of hope and faith in us so often and easily shrouded by life’s difficulties.

In doing so, your loved one was herself being transformed. Through the course of her life, in exercising her gifts of encouragement, hospitality, generosity and care, she was being transformed into the likeness of Christ’s glory. Indeed, I believe she once described to me her own life as a journey towards God.

There’s an old story (as told by Barbara Schmitz, p.35, “Changed From Glory Into Glory” in The Life of Christ and the Death of a Loved One, CSS Publishing, 1995) about a fellow who fell in love with a young woman. But he was sure that she would not be interested in him because he didn’t think he looked handsome. So with the help of a surgeon he had a special mask designed, a handsome mask that was then placed over his face. With this handsome new look, he easily won over the woman he loved and they were married.

But many years later, she discovered the trick and asked him to remove it. When he peeled off the mask, what was underneath, but a handsome face! For, after all those years, his natural face had slowly taken on the handsome contours of the mask. His face had been transformed into the likeness of the mask.

The Christian life, from baptism to death, is indeed a journey of being changed, transformed, into the likeness of Jesus Christ. And periodically, on this journey, in good times and even through difficult times, we pause to give thanks and celebrate the good, the blessing, the gift, that is there whether we always see it or not.

At this funeral service, we give thanks for the life of our loved one who now celebrates at the banquet feast of heaven. At this funeral service, we also share in a holy meal often called the Eucharist. Eucharist means “thanksgiving”. And in our thanksgiving to God for Jesus, we take one more step on that journey of being healed, being changed, being transformed, for the good.

May our lives, as did the one whom we remember today, reflect the glory of God.

In Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior.