No Situation is Un-transfigurable

I take the title of my sermon from the writing of one of my favorite theologians, someone this congregation knows I quote a great deal. Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “No situation is un-transfigurable.”

The story of the Transfiguration, for many years, was one of my least favorite stories in the Gospels. It seems a bit strange. Jesus climbs up a mountain. His appearance changes. Matthew tells us his face “shone like the sun.” I once heard Mark’s version while visiting an Episcopal Church that shall remain nameless. This church, in the colonial style, is very white. The pews are white. The walls are white. The pulpit is white. The robes, the gloves the acolytes wear to carry the cross and torches, the linens, all bright dazzling white. Even the parishioners were all…you get the idea.

Mark’s version of the transfiguration includes the line: “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” I thought, whoever wrote that scripture, never set foot in this particular Episcopal Church. They never met this altar guild. I often poke fun at the scripture I have a difficult time understanding. In this case, Luke has the disciples walk away from the experience unable to speak as well.

Maybe for you, like for me over much of my life, this story just didn’t connect. Maybe you have strong hesitations about Jesus’ face glowing white being a sign of God’s blessing. Many in this congregation have been judged for the pigmentation of their skin. Some of that judgement has come from those who share their racial and ethnic background. I am going to try to avoid the “light” and “dark” metaphors in this story, because they are problematic in our discussion of race and skin color. And still, I think this story can bring us Good News.

The Transfiguration, like much of the Bible, comes with baggage. For a long time this meant I didn’t hear the good news in this strange story. But there is good news. In order to hear the good news, we have to acknowledge the baggage. We have to organize the issues, and then continue to listen for the Word of God (capital W) written among the words (lower case w) of the Bible. In this sermon, I hope to share the Good News I have found in this odd story.

It helps to know the setting.

In Luke’s Gospel, the story of the Transfiguration comes almost immediately after Peter confesses he knows Jesus’ true identity. Peter has just called Jesus, “The Messiah of God.” Jesus orders the disciples not to tell anyone. Fast forward. Almost immediately after the disciples come down off the mountain of the Transfiguration Jesus foretells his death, and he wants the disciples to understand: “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” The glorious reign they imagine for Jesus won’t come to pass. Jesus tries to get them to hear. The disciples argue over who is going to serve as Secretary of State and Secretary of the Interior when Jesus rules from Jerusalem.

The disciples do not want to hear that Jesus is going to die. Today, we also avoid language about death and dying. We don’t even print the word in obituaries anymore. Have you noticed? The obituaries talk about how people have “passed away.” I really dislike that euphemism. I find “passed away” to be incredibly imprecise language. Why don’t we just say, “she died?”

I think we try to avoid suffering. Somehow we think this avoidance will spare us the pain. Now, I told you this was a sermon about Good News, but in order to really hear the Good News, I believe we have to stop the avoiding. We have to face our mortality. Modern medicine can prolong life. At times modern treatments can even guarantee a high quality of life for those facing dreadful disease. But the miracle of medicine has not yet undone the human condition. As our prayer book reminds us, “all of us go down to the dust.”

Yet. Yet. The prayer book continues:

“even at the grave we make our song Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

The transfiguration belongs to this mysterious teaching of Christianity, even at the grave we sing Alleluia. Even in the deepest loss we know God’s action can dazzle us. The setting matters to the story. The mountaintop is not the height of Christ’s glory, but the revelation of mysterious truth before suffering. In some way the disciples are unable to fully understand or articulate, the transfiguration is an assurance of the depth, beauty, and power of God’s love, an assurance they will need for the painful road ahead. The beauty they see on that mountaintop will sustain their hope.

As I told you at the get go,

I take the title of this sermon from the words of Desmond Tutu.

Tutu’s ministry is hard to imagine for many of us. The bishop preached and organized to bring hope to those suffering under the most complete racist legal framework since the Antebellum South. His friend Nelson Mandela spent 18 years imprisoned in a tiny cell on Robben Island. Hope was hard work in Apartheid South Africa. Tutu writes:

Of course, there were times when you had to whistle in the dark to keep your morale up, and you wanted to whisper in God’s ear: “God, we know You are in charge, but can’t You make it a little more obvious?”

Bishop Tutu writes about a time that God did make it more obvious to him. He and some of his colleagues were meeting with the Prime Minister of South Africa at a closed seminary, a seminary closed by the racist policies. And the meetings were frustrating, and so Tutu took a break in the seminary garden. He says:

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…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.

For Tutu Christians are a people of transfiguration, finding reason to hope in the most difficult hour. Bringing transfiguration, bringing God’s transformation, to our world, this is the Christian vocation. This is true on the macro-scale. Tutu and his colleagues made huge changes in their country.

Transfiguration can also happen on a smaller scale.

I’ve been watching a smaller transfiguration take place over the past few months, right here on our campus. When I came to Holy Communion for my final in person interview, I got my first tour of the house we own, right behind the parish hall. I knew Holy Communion had a house because our friend Jon Stratton, the rector of Trinity in the Central West End, had been saying, “it’s a great little house. You and Eli could live there.”

Eli is my husband. (He also goes by the name “Ellis”) He wasn’t in the interview, where the vestry assured me they were not planning for the rector’s family to live in the house. Eli did join us for the tour. We walked through the dark little halls. We saw the mold forming in the corners of the wall. We tripped a bit on the deteriorating carpets. We saw a kitchen that had last been updated in about 1958. As I said, Ellis didn’t hear that the vestry didn’t want the rector to live in the place. After the tour, we found ourselves with a moment alone on the porch. He turned to me and say, “Ah heck no.” (Except he didn’t say heck). I told him not to worry.

Over the last months, this dark little house has been undergoing transfiguration. Kara Cummins, Susan Norris (your Junior warden), Andy Ludwig, Earl Bonds the whole building committee, and too many volunteers to mention by name have torn out that kitchen. We’ve peeled wallpaper, scrubbed, hauled, and painted. I’ll never forget the day Kara sent me a picture of the beautiful hardwood floors that were hiding under that worn out carpet.

No situation is un-transfigurable. In just a few months, that house will be a home. We are hopefully just about to sign an agreement with a non-profit that will house someone in need of housing. And I will be proud of the space we are offering. As Susan has said many times, the rule of thumb for decisions and work at the house has been, “would I want to live here?” The home will be beautiful, and comfortable, and a gift to the person who lives there.

Now, Kara and Susan and the building committee will rest easier if I say: our little transfiguration still has work ahead. If you’d like to be a part of the transfiguration, come on down. We have detail painting, cabinet hanging, and other tasks ahead. The building committee would be happy to sign you up to help. It will be good for your soul.

Our house has become an icon for me, of God’s power to transfigure a dark and difficult place. When you begin to hold this strange story this way, you begin to see the possibility for the principle of Transfiguration at work in our world. Today’s odd story has a deep truth to teach us: “No situation is un-transfigurable.” God brings hope, and beauty, and love to the most painful times. God invites us to be a people of transfiguration, to bring healing, and hope, and love to the most unlikely people, the most unlikely situations. This story, it is Good News. Amen.

 

 

Surely God is in this Place: Jacob’s Ladder and Unlikely Spiritual Geography

Jacob’s story today is a claim of unlikely sacred geography. Jacob finds himself on the run. He’s tricked Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing, his birthright. Essau, as we heard last week, isn’t someone to be messed with. So Jacob, the trickster is on the run. Away from home, away from the lands of his grandfather Abraham, he has a dream and declares. “Surely God is in this place.” The claim is surprising. God is in the “place,” the “holy place,” of people of Haran. What, we might ask, is God doing THERE?

Jacob’s dream becomes one of the most lasting and captivating images of the connection between heaven and earth. Jacob’s ladder has been painted, carved into stone, and set in stained glass. We sing old of the ladder in old spirituals, and have you ever been in a guitar store and not heard someone learning Led Zeppelin’s stairway to heaven? Jacob’s Ladder is even a popular wooden toy. How many Bible passages have their own toy?

We are fascinated by this image of Jacob’s dream, Jacob’s ladder, this sense of God’s connection to earth, that in some places, the infinite and the finite touch. “Thin places” the Irish call them. Some of us have experienced the thinness. Do you have a sacred spot? A place you return to? I have a few. There’s a certain sage field at a camp I worked at in my early twenties in Colorado. I made it through a lot of angst spending quiet time in that field. There are places in our lives, old-worn paths that lead us to God.

But don’t miss what Jacob says when he wakes up. Surely God is in this place and I, I did not realize it. Our English translation misses a point of emphasis in the original. For you language nerds out there, we have an unnecessary pronoun: “I, I did not realize” Jacob says. The grammar of the Hebrew points to his realization that he, he has missed something. He has missed the presence of God. The responsibility for not noticing God in this territory belongs to Jacob.

Which leads me to ask: “How often do I, I not realize?” How often do we, we miss God? One of the biggest blunders in the spiritual life, and one I commit with great regularity, is assuming I know where to find God. God however, keeps ignoring my maps, showing up where I least expect. Jacob’s ladder touches down in unfamiliar territory.

Many of you know that I spent a year after college living in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. As a freshly minted Bachelor of Liberal Arts, I was convinced that I could make a difference. I came to Honduras fully expecting to find God, and I did, eventually, but not where I was looking.

You see, I believed fully that I would find God in my work. I was convinced that I had a great deal to teach, a great deal to offer. I was giving a year, I thought, maybe even more, to serve God in “the least of these.” I was sure to find God.

I arrived to El Hogar de Amor y Esperanza, the Orphanage that would be my home to discover that the job I had come to fill did not exist. I thought I would be teaching English and helping to orient short term volunteer groups who came to visit from the states. I arrived to discover El Hogar had an excellent English teacher, and no volunteer groups were scheduled to arrive in the next six months.

To complicate matters, my Spanish was not nearly fluent enough to manage over 100 boys between ages six and 15. I had been reading Thomas Merton, the famous 20th century monk and mystic who described with such poetry his encounter with God’s presence. I had not found God in my work. I spent most of the first six months in Honduras feeling frustrated, bored: useless.

I said as much in an email home to a priest in San Diego, the rector who had sponsored me for the volunteer program. I told him that I had applied for some jobs that would take me home early. His response came like as a wake up call. He said, in three sentences: “Thomas Merton had a lot to say about usefulness. None of it was positive. Stay in Honduras.” I did.

And somehow I let go of my crippling need to find God in “meaningful work” at El Hogar. I discovered that, for the sake of trying to find God in serving others, I had missed God in the laughter of the kids around me, in games of soccer, in shared meals, in simple conversations, and hugs. Surely God was in that place and I, I did not realize it. Until I let go of my expectations, my assumptions about where God was to be found.

Sometimes we don’t make the best judges of God’s presence. I think there is wisdom in Jesus’ parable about the weeds and the wheat today. I think he may be trying to tell his disciples not to go weeding before they learn the distinction between the wheat and the weeds. I could have easily uprooted myself too early from Honduras, and if I’d done so God’s presence to me in that place would never have blossomed.

Sometimes we can be so sure where we are to find God, so expectant about how God is supposed to act, that we miss where God is present. Wearing blinders that we’ve constructed, we pass through life looking for the God we can’t see, until we trip over the rungs of a ladder connecting heaven and earth.

I have a secret to share with you. Don’t tell anyone I said this, but I don’t think God is just an Episcopalian. Years ago, because of some crazy friends at seminary I had a profound sense of encounter with God while whirling with dervishes in a Sufi muslim mosque. Over the last months and years, I’ve prayed with Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Presbyterians as we work for justice in our region. I think God has been getting around. I think this story of Jacob encountering God in the pagan temple of a strange people has something to say to those of us who live in a religiously plural world.

If you’ve tried meditation with the Buddhists, read some of Rumi’s poetry, been to a yoga class, or experienced a seder dinner with Jewish friends, you may also have a sense of this. Episcopalians, even Christians may not have a monopoly on the divine. God can be found in the most surprising places, the upstairs room of a bar, or even in a laundromat.

As Jacob, that trickster, discovered, sometimes the best adventures occur when we venture into unmarked terrain. When we find ourselves out of our comfort zones, when we try the unexpected. Sometimes what makes a “thin place” thin is the loss of our sense of security and surety. If you find yourself somewhere unexpected, keep your eyes out. Pay attention to your dreams. Surely God is in this place.

Is there room for conservatism in America? (Questions for America Part 2)

This week I am preaching the second sermon in a short series. These Sundays around the fourth of July,  I continue asking questions for America. Today I have just one final question, and it may come as a bit of a shock to you. Steel yourselves. Here it is:

Is there still room for conservatism in America?

I know that many of you think of me as a reliable liberal. Well, I have a confession to make to you. My father used to describe me as a “born Republican.” When I was a toddler, one of my first multi-syllabic words, thanks to a buddy of my uncle’s, was “Reaganomics.” I come from a long line of Western libertarian Republicans, the kind of folks who often say these days: “I didn’t leave the Republican party, the Republican party left me.” I’ll be honest. Preaching about conservatism makes me a little nervous, but these are my roots.

And so I ask: Is there room for conservatism in America these days?

Let’s take a look at Scripture shall we? In Genesis chapter 24, Isaac meets Rebecca, with the help of his father’s servant/matchmaker. After last week’s terrifying account of Isaac’s near-sacrifice by his father, this story feels relaxed. It’s a bit odd, by today’s standards, but the result is good. Rebekah consents.

As we were preparing for this week’s service, our Music Director Mary stopped me and asked, “What’s going on with the ring in her nose?” I teased Mary about being such a conservative. I guess it is surprising to learn that nose piercings have Biblical support. But here you go, any teenagers that are trying to win mom or grandma’s support to get your nosed pierced. One of the examples of Biblical womanhood received a nose ring as part of God’s plan.

I also feel it is incumbent to say: “A nose ring is also almost always, more than a nose ring.” You want to know what statement you’re making before you get a piercing. Jewelry signifies. A hunk of gold in your nose has meaning. In this case, the jewelry is a part of a series of gifts that includes those camels and other livestock. Abraham’s servant is assuring Laban, and Rebekah, that she will be provided for, she will have wealth. The nose ring is gold for a reason.

Now, that might raise your eyebrows. Is Rebekah being purchased? As I said above, the answer is no. Rebekah consents. But the waters are a bit muddy here. Your feminist meters should be ticking. You may think it is odd that in the same sermon I’m asking for room for Conservatism, and talking about feminism. But should feminism and conservatism be opposites? If conservatives are all about values. If they are “values voters,” isn’t one of our deepest values equality? Shouldn’t conservatives be concerned about whether women have an equal say in their marriage, or in the workplace for that matter. We’re in the 21st century. Can’t equality for women be a conservative value as well?

Today we are rankled at the idea that a woman might be bought and paid for in marriage. I hope that is true across the political aisle. But a hundred years ago, dowries were still very common. A hundred years ago, no one would have batted an eye at this story from Genesis. In our grandparents’ America it might well seem to an outside observer like wives were bought and paid for. I wonder, what do we buy and sell today that will shock our descendants?

I wonder whether the generations that follow will be shocked that we thought we could buy and sell natural resources so freely. We’re not factoring the true cost of burning so much fuel, and destroying species with pollution. I find it a little shocking that those who call themselves conservatives today have such little concern for conservation. Where are the conservative conservationists?

I’ve known at least one. Russell Train, a life-long Episcopalian and a federal judge was also one of the founding directors of the World Wildlife Fund. He served as the second director of the Environmental Protection Agency, The EPA. Russell Train was a Republican, a Republican’s Republican, he was a Nixon appointee. He called his political memoir “Politics, Pollution, and Pandas.” In it he wrote:

To my mind, to oppose environmental protection is not to be truly conservative. To put short-term financial gain ahead of the long-term health of the environment is a fundamentally radical policy, as well as being unethical.

Train points out that it was Teddy Roosevelt (Republican) who began the system of national forests and wildlife refuges. He spoke softly, carried a big stick, and designated National Parks left and right. Consider these words about America from one of our most admired Republican presidents:

We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.

Is there room for this kind of conservatism in America today?

If conservatism means moving slowly, particularly in areas that will effect the economy and the well-being of the population generations down the line, where are those conservatives? Where are the conservatives who will say, “slow down, we don’t really want to kick 22 million people off of healthcare, do we?” Where are the conservatives who will say, “wait, you want to make a quick buck now and then stick the American people of the future with a huge environmental cleanup bill, I don’t think so.” Where are those conservatives? Is there room in America for conservatism today?

Now, I know that some of you are squirming every time I say the word “Conservative.” I see you. But we’re going to have to, all of us, Democrats and Republicans, Episcopalians and Catholics, all of us, are going to have to learn how to build bridges again if we’re going to do something the environment, or healthcare, or gun violence, immigration reform, you name it. We have gone beyond politicization. We have demonized the “other side.” As long as “conservative” or “liberal” remain dirty words, we’re stuck with a politics that amounts to hostage taking.

The politics of today has a lot of us feeling weary.

I’m not sure this is exactly what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” I’m not sure, but I think the invitation still stands. Notice, Jesus doesn’t say “come to me some of you.” He doesn’t say, “Come to me democrats” or “come to me republicans.” Jesus says “All.” He goes on, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The church used to call this verse “the comfortable words.” They are a comfort.

Those words make a little more sense if you know that in Jesus’ time, a rabbi’s teaching was called a “yoke.” Jesus calls his teaching “easy and light.”

Jesus was different sort of teacher. Compared to the rabbis of his day, Jesus probably laughed a great deal more. Make no mistake, Jesus engaged in the politics of his day. He questioned the power of both the Roman Authorities, and their Jewish client-rulers. He also stood up to the religious nut-jobs of his own time. Much of the Gospels involve scenes where Jesus is being questioned by rabbis or lawyers. Yes, sometimes he loses his temper, calls them vipers, but more often than not he comes up with a clever response. He finds a way to laugh, to lighten the load, and to point people beyond their polarities toward love and justice. You get a sense that this Jesus fellow was pretty grounded.

Taking up this yoke, following this way of Jesus requires, in a particular way, some personal conservatism. Jesus wants his followers to be religiously observant. In order to practice faith, you have to be a bit conservative, at least with your time. You have to say “no” to some invitations. The families with young kids who are here in our pews know this well. These days coming to church often means skipping a soccer game or a play rehearsal. But it’s true for those of us beyond the extracurriculars as well. More and more our Sunday mornings, our evenings, our early hours are quickly filled. There is less time for practicing faith.

To practice your faith means that you’ve got to sign off your email regularly. Practicing faith means making time in a rushed world. If you’re feeling weary and heavy laden, maybe try being a little more conservative with your time. I think the conservatives have something valuable to teach us about intentionally making time for family and for faith.

Honestly, it shouldn’t be too surprising that a priest identifies as somewhat conservative. We say prayers here each week that are thousands of years old. Tradition has value. I believe that slow, thoughtful, measured progress can be good, but I am also one who can be swayed by the argument: “We’ve always done it that way.” I’m an Episcopalian, I’ve made that argument. I believe wisdom accrues over generations. I believe there is a great deal worth conserving in our nation, and in our world.

There’s a basic teaching in Christianity that is inherently conservative. The teaching is simple: you can’t save yourself. You can’t. Paul gets at this teaching today in that difficult passage from Romans. “Oh wretched man that I am, who will rescue me?” This bit of Paul is tough to read, but I’d venture that many of us know what Paul is talking about. Most of us have come, at one point or another, to the end of our rope. And most of us have come their of our own volition. We know what Paul is talking about when he says, “I don’t understand my own action, for I do what I hate.” Paul knows. You can’t save yourself. As human beings, we need a savior. We need a teacher. We need to lay down our burdens, we need to come to Jesus. And we will hear those comforting words: “I will give you rest for your souls.”

I know it may come as a surprise for some of you, to hear me ask: “Is there room for conservatism in America?” But on personal levels, national levels, and global levels we could learn to slow down, to consider the ramifications of our actions. We could be less sure of our own capabilities and lean more on tradition, and more on God. If we can’t make room for that kind of conservatism, well then God help us.