Transfiguration A, 2017
Matthew 17: 1-9
A Liturgy is also available
SOURCE OF REVITALISED FAITH AND LIVING IMAGINATIVELY
Everytime Transfiguration appears in the Lectionary
some great words of the 1960s poet and song writer
Sydney Carter come to mind.
You can blame it on Adam,
you can blame it on Eve,
you can blame it on the apple,
but that I can’t believe.
Yep. It’s Transfiguration Sunday.
And yep - that I can’t believe!
I share this with you this morning
because today’s gospel story by Matthew is about one of those
‘but that I can’t believe’ incidents.
A mythical incident in the life of Jesus called the ‘transfiguration’.
And a direct pinch from the other storyteller, Mark.
As I have said many times, as a story it is very imaginative.
Jesus and some of his friends climb to the top of a mountain.
They enjoy the magnificent views.
They breathe deeply the fresh air.
They are engulfed by a cloud.
They allow the experience to recharge their flagging spirits
and resensitise their imaginations.
And they wanted the experience to last for ever.
‘Let’s build our own chapel and you, Jesus, can be our private chaplain’.
But, says the storyteller, a booming voice out of a cloud put paid to the idea.
And as another storyteller has said: The mountaintop is a refuge, but it is not home.
The mountaintop is safe, but it is removed.
We are forever changed up on the mountain,
but we are useless to the world if we do not return and share what we have experienced.
We go up the mountain so that we can come back down.
Now we can approach this story with (i) historical questions... such as
‘How did this happen?’
‘Where did it happen?’
Or we can approach this story with (ii) theological questions... such as
‘What connections can we make to this story?’
‘What is this story saying about Jesus, or even g-o-d?’
Or we can approach this story with (iii) imagination
as the poets and hymn writers have done through the ages,
using what Tom Troeger calls ‘spiritual exegesis’.
We really do have several options.
My initial inclination if pushed, is to favour option No. 2.
Dylis and I have moved many times over the past 49 years.
Personally I have moved 23 times since I left my family home in 1962.
So moving has been somewhat a regular event!
Packing one’s stuff for a move is also a good time to throw out some of one’s stuff.
And we have certainly done that over the years.
Neither of us are hoarders!
(And I can tell you, you don’t get very much for any of this stuff when you try to sell it in a Garage sale!)
But during our (second) last move, before I threw out some of my older sermons,
which I thought had already gone the way of the do-do bird,
I sat on the floor and read them again...
And it was an interesting experience!
I have to say that when I have preached on the Transfiguration
it is the theological underpinnings which
seem to have dominated my words.
(Option No2. above).
That, along with what is being suggested in this story/myth,
is something quite important about g-o-d…
That g-o-d is to be understood as a creative
transforming ‘energy’ in the lives of people.
And that we are called to come down off the mountain top and serve
in the towns and cities and the valleys below.
To reach out our hand, so to speak
and touch the One who is incognito in our neighbour.
Generally speaking, I have never really been interested in an archaeological dig.
I always reckon archaeology is no substitute for theology
even though I have appreciated the archeological work
of both Dom Crossan and (the now late) Marcus Borg.
But for me, to be a Christian at all is to be a critical biblical and theological thinker.
And to be such is to seek understanding
of what one believes and values, and to grow
in that understanding.
Now all this has shaped my preaching on the Transfiguration.
Up until a while back, that is.
During a conversation on this subject with a colleague, he said:
‘And what about the prophet’s ecstasy,
the dreamer’s vision,
the preacher’s imagination'.
He went on:
‘Our faith is about entertaining angels, every bit as much as it is about seeking to comfort the afflicted and to heal the sick. It is about seeking visions of a new heaven and a new earth, every bit as much as it is about seeking justice and resisting evil.’
But the comments went further: 're-read some of the writings of Marcus Borg, who suggests Jesus was an ‘ecstatic’.
So, as a result of my re-reading, what does Borg say on this.
Let me offer some of his comments:
“Jesus… was a Jewish mystic. …I think he was a ‘religious quester’, which seems the best explanation of his going to the wilderness to John the Baptizer. I think he had visions, though I don’t know whether we have an account of any of them. I have a hunch that he had experiences of nature mysticism… this would be consistent with his sense of the immediate presence of God… I suspect [he] had an experiential sense of the reality of God in his prayer life, which I assume included some form of meditation” (Borg 2002:132).
Option No. 3 is now looking good!
There is good news this morning in this story.
The good news is, g-o-d, however we use that word/symbol/metaphor,
is not aloof and detached and supernatural,
but rather g-o-d as Event works like an expert weaver, naturally.
Using some personalistic (and imaginative) language, g-o-d uses the fibres of our lives,
weaving them into beautiful, powerful garments of love…
empowering us for mission (as a congregation)
and our continuing theological journeys (as individuals).
And the good news is also, the presentness of g-o-d is:
in the beauty of the universe around us, and our ability to apprehend it,
in the close encounters with new life and death,
in a special way during a period of suffering,
in praying and meditation,
in church liturgies.
So listening to my colleague’s comments, may I suggest again:
Don’t ignore or throw away these imaginative and mysterious experiences.
Don’t let go of those things that you don’t understand or cannot explain.
Rather, meditate on them, delight in them, use them in all their exciting particularity…
As imaginative ‘energy’ or Creativity that vitalises your faith.
As a source of strength for living (and ministry) in the valleys below.
As we revere how things are, and find ways
to express gratitude for our existence.
Perhaps this recounting of a story from Karl Peters,
retired professor of philosophy and religion, may also offer a clue
to a new awareness and imagination.
He was sharing in a conference on ‘Prayer and Spirituality’
with a Zen Buddhist nun, called Geshin. He says:
“We were having a vigorous intellectual go at prayer and spirituality, with all their implications. In the midst of our intense discussion, Geshin raised her hand and said, ‘Do you hear the bird outside, singing?’ I realized at that point that she had included not only what we were talking about, but also the whole environment around us. She was connected ‘with the way things are in all their exciting particularity’" (Peters 2008:104).
So as a final gesture may I add:
imaginative and mysterious experiences… can allow us to balance
our personal selves with the sense we are in a context that is
larger and more important than our selves.
Humans need stories.
Stories from the sages and artists of past and present times
“which help to orient us in our lives and in the cosmos” (Goodenough 1998:174).
May it be so with all of us as well!
Borg, M. 2002. ‘Jesus: A sketch’ in R. W. Hoover (ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Carter, S. 1967. ‘Friday morning’ in J. A. T. Robinson. But That I Can’t Believe. London. Collins/Fontana.
Goodenough, U. 1998. The Sacred Depths of Nature. New York. Oxford University Press.
Peters, K. E. 2008. Spiritual Transformations. Science, Religion, and Human Becoming. Minniapolis. Fortress/FACETS Books.