Faith and Transfiguration
February 25, 2018
Genesis says: When the world began, God created Adam and Eve in his own image. And God declared: "Behold, it is very good!"
God took joy in his own reflection in the first humans. He liked us! He loved us. God said his creation is worthy of his love. A good thought in those moments when we feel unworthy. Right from the beginning, so goes our Bible story, the mystery and paradox of man is set before us: We are a creation destined to bear the image of the uncreated God.
But those first humans, and humans ever since, have wanted to negate the mystery of the God-image. Satan told us we could be "as God" and we believed him. We invented various designer fig-leaves, dressing ourselves up in images of power, immortality, knowledge, wealth, and invulnerability. We puffed ourselves up with missile launches and ever taller towers. We store up bit-coin and offshore treasure that's doomed to end up as ashes.
Human attempts at invulnerability and the efforts to build towers up to heaven have left us miserable, divided, alone and defeated.
The miracle of grace is that God did not forsake his lost creature. Again and again God chooses us. He chose Abraham and Sarah. He chose their descendants, the Jews. He extends his salvation to the whole creation. He chooses you and me.
God's ongoing, contemporary and eternal word is that his creation is good. God sees this when we can't see it.
- When our eyes are blinded with motes and beams, and tears;
- when we grope in fogs of war, and pollution and fear;
- when we hide our eyes and trample on the wounded and lost lying by the side of the road;
- when we deface God's image, He recreates his image.
Through Abraham and Sarah he makes us his chosen people. The stories about God's choosing us occur over and over in the Hebrew Bible and beyond.
Our response to the miracle of God's choosing us is illuminated in the wisdom of the Church Calendar:
Through the season of Lent we wait with Jesus. We live in the shadow of his impending torture and death, a terrible reality. Jesus is fully human and humans die; humans like Jesus who don't conform to the dominant order suffer and die prematurely.
The Lenten season counsels us: don't try to rush over the suffering to the resurrection. Death is your close companion.
This is very difficult for most of us. Our culture is one in which the denial of Death is strong. But with all our denial, we inevitably will meet Death.
But there is good news: Death loses. God rescues us from death and the fear of death. Resurrection is ours.
Our lectionary Psalm, 22, opens with the most heart-rending verse in the whole of Scripture, words that Christ on the Cross repeats:
"My God, My God. Why hast thou forsaken me?"
The Psalmist cries out in agony, "I am a worm and not a man" "I am sunk in the mire, the "shithole." "Your image created in me is now totally defaced.”
How amazing it is that Jesus was willing to risk losing the image of his father as he took on the sin and suffering of the world. But hear the Good News: the hope of the psalmist and the reality of the resurrection delete the abandonment. God does not hide his face or scorn those who are so downtrodden that they feel less than human; when we feel like worms, God raises us up. He listens to the psalmist's call, to Christ's call, to our call for help. He promises us that he will act in our behalf.
When hope is hopeless, God offers us resurrection.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer affirms this story in the book Discipleship which my Mission Group is studying. I'll paraphrase Bonhoeffer:
We are creatures, yet we are destined to be like the Creator. We bear his image. Sin defaces that image, yet humans long for its purity to be restored. This has turned out to be impossible in our own strength or through our inventiveness, or by assuming any number of ingenious disguises. But our salvation story shows us the way out, the way we can be delivered from our body of death.
God, in his infinite mercy, assumes the form of the man, Jesus. God sends his beloved Son. Jesus became Man, a man. He allows us to recognize him.
In the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity that is the image of God. (Thus it follows that an attack on the dignity of any person is an attack on the dignity of God.) We are delivered from the hell of self-importance and exclusion; we retrieve our solidarity with the whole race! With all others we become the chosen people.
We are called with Jesus to bear the sins and sorrows of our brothers and sisters, and we participate in their joy as well. In community we make visible the invisible reality that God is at work. Jesus is a present reality. We are empowered to do God's work which is to help make human life human - in Jubilee Housing, in Joseph's House, in Bethany, in Family Place. This is incarnation made visible.
We are not always open right away to God's action. Doubt, and hope often precede faith.
I'll read again part of our Genesis lectionary passage 17:1-7 and 15-16:
"I will make my covenant with you and give you many descendants. I will give you a son by Sarah. I will bless her and make her the mother of nations..."
Abraham's and Sarah's initial response to the promise is laughter: "Impossible. No way." And they presume to explain to God why
"Lets look at the facts, "Abraham says," I'm too old. Sarah not only is too old, she's infertile."
Then Abraham suggests a reasonable solution to God:
"How 'bout Ishmael. After all, Ishmael is my son too." (Ishmael, you remember, is Abraham's son, by Hagar, an Egyptian slave girl.)
But the covenant, God repeats, is with the as yet unconceived Isaac, child of Sarah.
Abraham's response to God's promise of a son to himself and Sarah is "Let's be reasonable. I don't expect a miracle. I'll settle for the possible. Ishmael will do and never mind that he is not Sarah's son."
We want to make God' responses favorable to us but not too much more than we can easily grasp. We want things to be small, but instead God wants to dazzle us with his large glory.
In Mark story (9: 2-9), he does dazzle us: Jesus goes up on a mountain with three of his disciples. There Jesus clothing became dazzlingly white. Moses and Elijah appeared and talked with Jesus. God spoke from a cloud: “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.”
Remember how Abraham's faith is tested. God asks him to sacrifice Isaac - to kill the child of the covenant. Imagine poor Abraham trudging up the mountain with the innocent child by his side. He must have wondered if God had forsaken him and forgotten his promise. Perhaps he prayed in desperation, only half believing, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him." As the story turns out, God blessed Abraham's faith, and Isaac lived. God is patient while we pray and we doubt.
Jesus' transfiguration gives us a glimpse of what is hidden; we usually see through the glass darkly. But the invisible glory of God becomes visible in Christ; we see the resurrected Christ. Jesus promises that the light of God's activity in the world will become visible in the community of believers. "Let your light so shine before others that they will recognize my glory."
Transfiguration is recognized in various ways: Paul on the Road to Damascus will be blinded at first by the Glory of the Lord. Jesus is recognized by his two disciples on the road to Emmaus in the breaking of bread. He is recognized by the women outside his tomb. When he cooks breakfast for his disciples, they recognize him.
As Christ's disciples up to this day we must deepen our understanding and embodiment of what Jesus told us over and over again throughout his ministry. When you give sustenance to someone who is hungry or thirsty or when you comfort a grieving person, or stand up for prisoners and against nuclear arms, and racism, and gun violence, you are standing with me. Scorned outsiders bear the image of God. You and I bear his image. This community bears his image. This is what we mean when we speak of Christ dwelling in our hearts. This deep embodiment of this message in our community is becoming more and more urgent - as it came to be in Bonhoeffer's Germany.
I want to quote our president from an article on the front page of yesterday's Washington Post:
Addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference, the president read “The Snake,” a parable about a tenderhearted woman who takes in an ailing snake and gives it milk, honey and a silk blanket, only to be killed by the revived creature’s poisonous bite.
Trump explained the metaphor: “You have to think of this in terms of immigration.”
Disturbing. We are called to resist this attitude with all our strength.
I'll close by attesting to the power of transfiguration in our own community. It's the story of Eugene and Dick.
Eugene was a core member of L'Arche for many, many years. He attended 8th Day regularly as now do our dear Michael Schaff and Mo. Before Eugene came to L'Arche, he had been confined to an institution for the mentally retarded. He was one of those from whom we hid our faces. At L'Arche, Eugene reclaimed his dignity. He was loved and honored. Eugene didn't say much, but he always smiled his welcome and acted like a man who knew his worth.
Richard Barnet also attended 8th Day although most Sundays he was at the church that worshiped in the C of S building at 2025 Mass Ave. Dick had graduated from Harvard summa cum laude. He had a presidential appointment at the State Department. He was a founder of the Institute for Policy Studies, the Transnational Institute and a national anti-nuclear organization, Sane/Freeze. He was a leader of the anti-Vietnam war movement. He wrote dozens of books. He wrote for the New Yorker magazine. He was on President Nixon's enemies list.
But in about 2000, Dick Barnet began to lose his memory. Gradually, inexorably, he lost the power to read and write, and the power to speak. He lost regular sleep and eating routines, and the ability to take care of himself. He could not be left alone even when I went to the grocery store.
I was exhausted. In 2003, 1 enrolled him in the adult day care center at Iona Services for the Elderly over on Wisconsin Ave. On Dick's first day there, I felt utterly wretched - stripped raw, sad, anxious, and guilty for deciding to leave him in the care of others.
I went with him into the big bright day room at Iona where about a dozen men and women were seated around tables doing crafts and games or doing nothing. Someone at a far table rose and beckoned to us, smiling.
It was Eugene! He motioned to the empty chair at his side and said to Dick, "Sit here." And Dick smiled back at Eugene and sat down. Eugene's welcome transfigured the moment. I saw the glory of the Lord, the image of Christ, shining in those two men who were so utterly different in worldly esteem and so much the same in the acceptance they gave each other. The image of Christ was in both of them.
This was a moment of transfiguration. In thinking about this miracle of presence and being glad for it, I came to recognize that the moment had a history: it came about as a result of God's work in the world through the community of Christ. Dick and Eugene could never have been friends to each other in a million ordinary years - Dick with all his status and accomplishments and Eugene with nothing. But L'Arche and 8th Day brought them together as equals. And Iona, an institution created by a church, maintained a space where a miracle of welcome could take place.
So, I ask this community to watch for those moments of transfiguration. You will surely see them.