This Fall at Holy Communion we held a class for newcomers to the church. I called the class “pilgrimage” partly because the title was catchy. We wanted people to sign up. I’m always hoping people will sign up for things at church. It’s part of my job. I’m hoping folks today will sign up for some of our Lenten offerings. I thought Pilgrimage was catchy, but it also captures my impression of the life of faith. When you conceive of a journey as a pilgrimage, you content yourself with not knowing quite where you are going to end up.
Peter and John and James today find themselves on a chosen but uncertain journey. Jesus takes them to a mountaintop, and they have no idea what they are about to see. The mysterious story of Jesus’ Transfiguration may cause us some surprise. Luke’s Gospel doesn’t need this as a plot device. Trying to read some historical purpose in the Transfiguration, I think, misses the boat. Jesus is not like Nicholas Cage in that terrible movie “Face-Off.” He’s not trying to escape Herod or some other figure at this point of the Gospel, and thus he needs a new face. No. It’s not that clean. The story is strange, and mystical. We have to appreciate that level of what is going on. What is happening is not part of the plot, but a revelation of who God is.
Desmond Tutu has said that the work of Christians is to “Transfigure” the world. He writes of sitting in winter in a seminary garden, during the fight against apartheid. The Prime Minister had come to meet with him and other leaders. They were tough days. No progress was being made.
It was winter: the grass was pale and dry and nobody would have believed that in a few weeks’ time it would be lush and green and beautiful again. It would be transfigured. Tutu writes:
As I sat quietly in the garden I realized the power of transfiguration–of God’s transformation–in our world. The principle of transfiguration is at work when something so unlikely as the brown grass that covers our veld in winter becomes bright green again. Or when the tree with gnarled leafless branches bursts forth with the sap flowing so that the birds sit chirping in the leafy branches…The principle of transfiguration says nothing, no one and no situation, is “untransfigurable,” that the whole of creation, nature, waits expectantly for its transfiguration, when it will be released from its bondage and share in the glorious liberty of the children of God, when it will not be just dry inert matter but will be translucent with divine glory.
I don’t know a better description of transfiguration. It took great faith for Bishop Tutu to find room for hope in the winter of apartheid. It takes great faith to see the possibility for a total transformation. Faith isn’t certainty. You can’t be exactly sure where you are going when you’re on that kind of journey. It takes a great deal of trusting God to see the signs of transfiguration.
I’m grateful that our story in today’s Gospel doesn’t stop on the mountaintop. Jesus and the disciples have to travel back down, to bring their mystical experience into the realities of our world. Incidentally, I am sorry we didn’t get these verses printed in the bulletin. The temptation to stop on the mountaintop is strong, given the option, and apparently that was true for our bulletin this week.
But Jesus and the disciples do come down the mountain where they encounter a young man who is convulsed and foaming at the mouth. Today we might see a young man who need seizure medication, but in Jesus’ day, this was a clear cut case of demonic possession.
I want to take a pause here to talk about Jesus and demon possession. Healings and miracles the most challenging stories about Jesus for the modern mind. We are a people of science and medicine, and equating Epilepsy and Demons can make the Gospels hard for us to read. Do you ever feel that way? The perspectives can make the Bible and Jesus seem so very dated.
Well, sometimes dated isn’t all bad. I’ve been caught up a bit in the latest cultural fascination with our founding fathers. The musical Hamilton on Broadway is breaking all sorts of records for ticket sales. If you haven’t heard about the show, it is a pretty faithful history of Alexander Hamilton, set to hip hop music. But the faces you would expect to play the parts of the founding fathers have changed. Save for the actor who plays King George, all of the actors are people of color.
The re-reading of history has captured the public imagination. I know a number of folks in this congregation have been listening to the soundtrack. Personally, I have been saving reading the big biography of Hamilton by Chernow until I have tickets to the show. I may have to wait awhile.
In the meantime, I picked up a biography of James Madison. I’ve been interested in the fourth president since I learned that he founded the church I worked at in Washington DC, right across from the White House. Madison and Hamilton together wrote most of the Federalist papers, and then they found themselves on opposite sides of several of our nations early debates about the power of government.
I’ve been reading the Biography on my Kindle, and so I kept forgetting the name of the author. I had read a review of “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered” in the Washington Post that said the author “might have written a book that made Madison a prop in today’s battles. She did not, which is greatly to her credit.” As I said, I kept forgetting the name of the author, until I went to check it last night. The writer is Lynne Cheney, wife of the former vice-president. I have to admit, I might not have wanted to carry around a big book with the name “Cheney” on it, lest someone thought I had a particular political agenda, but I agree with the Post.
In her biography Cheney does make an argument about Madison, but it doesn’t fit our modern GOP. Her thesis centers around Madison’s lifelong struggle with a disease resembling epilepsy. Madison often found himself debilitated by a seizure condition. This was extremely inconvenient for a public politician. He had to stay in bed at times when he would much rather be arguing for the Constitution he had helped to author.
But in Madison’s time, seizures had more than just a medical meaning. Many thought that epilepsy was a sign of sinful living, even demonic possession. Madison had to hide his illness from the public view, lest he be discredited.
The question that Cheney asks, is whether Madison’s illness, and the religious perceptions of such a disorder, contributed to his political views on religion. Madison was the chief architect of America’s “separation between church and State.” It is plausible to think that part of the religious freedom he wanted, was a freedom to make up his own mind about whether God was punishing him. Madison didn’t believe he was possessed. He believed his problem to be medical, which was pretty groundbreaking even for his time. He still had to cover up his illness, but he worked to make sure that others were free to make up their own theological minds about such topics, and the man who separated church and state also founded an Episcopal parish just across from the White House, so we know he had to be doing something right.
Part of what is so remarkable about the stories of demonic possession in the Gospels, is that the ending is generally the same. Someone who has been cast out of a village, marginalized by society, is made whole. They are re-incorporated into the life of a community. In the stories of healing, and especially of exorcism, it is almost as if Jesus is lifting a veil, helping a community to see again their son, their daughter, their neighbor and friend.
We’ve learned a great deal about medicine since the time of Madison, and certainly since the time of Jesus, but I wonder how much both of these stories help us to hear again the words of Bishop Tutu: no one and no situation, is “untransfigurable.” All of creation waits for us to lift the veil, to see the world as God sees the world. To see one another as God sees us, that is indeed a journey.
The life of faith is, in many ways, a pilgrimage. When we choose to follow Jesus, he often leads us to places we can’t imagine. We may find ourselves witnesses to events we could never have hoped to see. Some of the life of faith is pretty mystical. Meaning may seem shrouded in a cloud. But, in the end, while we do not know quite where we will end up on this journey, we can trust that God is always working to create our world anew. God is always working to transfigure our world into a community of justice, hope, and love, for All God’s creatures. We are invited to join in that pilgrimage.