Heart and Minds, Unveiled (Transfiguration)

Image: The transfiguration of Jesus – David Wojkowicz

There is text -an unchanging communication across time. Then there is context – the unpredictable – everchanging space in which the unchanging text with its timeless message is heard. Text and context. In Biblical interpretation, it’s context which carries the greater weight in fashioning meaning.

Our journey through the liturgical year brings us once again to the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. For Mark, Matthew, and Luke the Transfiguration is the narrative midpoint in the transition between Jesus’ Galilean ministry and taking the road to Jerusalem and the cross. It’s interesting that we are offered a glimpse – midway so to speak – of the end of the story. For the Transfiguration is a foretaste of the resurrection.

For most preachers, the trouble with events like the Transfiguration is that we’ve preached on it so many times before – can there be anything new to say about it? I often ask myself what’s wrong with repeating previous messages? Don’t we preachers do it all the time. In fact, some preachers will have their Transfiguration sermon. They will wheel it out year after year in the sure and certain knowledge that congregations hardly ever remember what they said last week, let alone a year ago. But we all know that things are different at St Martin’s.

The thing is though, even though the text is unchanging, it sounds differently in 2022 which is not 2021, or 2012, or 2002.

This year we hear the readings for the last Sunday before Lent sounding within the unique context of the present time – through which – if we are observant – new aspects – previously unnoticed -will speak to us.

We can’t ignore the fact that today we revisit the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain in the context of profound shock. We are sick at heart – hearts aching in solidarity with the Ukrainian people.  We are all devastated by the actuality of a Russian invasion of Ukraine – the ultimate action of a megalomanic mind.

It’s not just the horror of the event but the terror in realizing that such a thing is possible in 21st-century Europe. Our distress is amplified by our seeming helplessness to do anything about it. Sanctions, esp. the ones with the greatest effect will also exact a price from us. Our willingness to make sacrifices in support of principles of peace and democracy – will be the true indication of our moral courage.

The significance of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is huge and its game changing implications will reshape us all for years to come. It strikes at our shared assumptions forged from lessons learned amidst the ruins of two world wars.

As I wrote in E-News two weeks ago, the tensions between Russia and the North Atlantic Alliance resulting from Putin’s grievances over Ukraine evoke painful memories of 1938 and the Munich Conference.  Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier, the respective prime ministers of Britain and France, aware that neither nation had any appetite for another conflict with Germany so soon after the last Great War, allowed the veil called peace at any price to fall across their minds and shroud their hearts. Longing for peace, but unwilling to defend it – they agreed to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in a hope of assuaging Hitler’s unassuageable sense of national historical grievance. We remember the chain of events that this appeasement of tyranny ultimately set in motion.

When faced with an autocrat’s ruthless narcissism- the lesson we keep having to relearn is that appeasement never works. We know this at the interpersonal level. As a nation we are daily reminded as sections of the most narcissistic generation (boomers) remain enthralled to a ruthless narcissistic former leader. So it is also at the level of relations between nations. Appeasement never works. You can only delay but not avoid the inevitability of conflict when faced with a ruthless narcissistic personality for whom enough is never enough.

Putin’s annexation of the Crimea and the Donbas amply demonstrate the point. Now, having failed to halt his advance at the gates of Kiev, we may yet find ourselves having to eventually do so at the gates of Vilnius, Riga, and Warsaw.

In 2022, the the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain sounds into a rapidly shifting context – for our future is reshaping as I write-speak.

Changing context opens us to hear different emphases in familiar stories. In previous years my attention in this story has always gravitated towards the mystical and psychological aspects of transcendent experience – that which Abraham Maslow referred to as peak experience in his hierarchy of needs. In the light of the Ukrainian Crisis the veil with which Moses hid the illumination of the divine energy from the people becomes the aspect of the story, that holds my attention.

Veils cloud vision!

It’s no surprise that the Transfiguration narrative draws a straight line to the Exodus story of Moses receiving the tablets of the law on the mountain top. We are intended to notice the similarity in the two stories. Luke is not alone in placing both Moses and Elijah on the mountain with Jesus, although it’s only in Luke that Jesus converses with them.

Within the story the veil functions at different levels.

  • There is the physical veil used by Moses to hide the glory of the Lord still present on his face from being seen by the people. After his face-to-face encounter infusing him with divine energy, Moses must place a veil over his face to dim its otherwise blinding brightness – until that is – the divine voltage dissipates in him.
  • But it’s Paul writing of the spiritual veil in his second letter to the Corinthians that speaks so loudly to me this year. Paul notes how the veil across Moses’ face continues to obscure direct human experience of the divine energy revealed in Christ. The spiritual veil allows us to use spirituality to hide from the reality of God’s reign of justice and peace – something I suggest influenced Chamberlain and Daladier at Munich in 1938.

In 2 Cor.  3:12-4:2 Paul is highly critical of the conventional Jewish reading of the Exodus story. He expresses the pain he feels – as a fellow Jew – at his nation’s rejection of Jesus as the fulfilment of God’s dream for Israel. He likens their rejection to their minds obscured by the same veil which Moses used to obscure the divine brightness from them. Paul is clearly also remembering how this same veil once clouded his mind leading him to persecute the Jewish followers of Jesus. This memory is intense and personal – remembering how on the Damascus Road, this veil was torn from his eyes leaving him temporarily blinded by his encounter with the divine energy.

At St Martin’s we omitted verses 14-16. Some might suggest my motive here is to protect Paul from the accusation of anti-semitism. Reading anti-semitism into N. T. texts remains something of a controversial issue among biblical commentators – but that debate is for another time. We are omitting these verses not because they imply Paul’s anti-semitism but because they risk validating ours. Whatever Paul’s intention, we can only hear him through the lens of our context – one shaped by the subsequent centuries of Christian antisemitism. Whether we are personally conscious of it or not – culturally, antisemitism remains a veil – concealing from us the very experience Paul longs for the followers of Jesus to have – which is he writes:

All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.

This is the freedom of those whose minds are no longer clouded by the veil that obscures from them the realization that our differences are not abolished but become reconciled in Christ.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, historically the two most venerable Primates in the Anglican Communion, have written a prayer for Ukraine which we will use as our Eucharistic intention. In the name of the Prince of Peace they ask us to pray for the people of Ukraine, for peace and the laying down of weapons, along with prayer for all whose lives will be changed or destroyed in this avoidable conflict.  But what their prayer does not address and maybe it cannot address is that while peace remains the hope of the holy, what are we to do when peace comes under attack?

On this Transfiguration Sunday, the Sunday before we begin Lent’s penitential season, it is the spiritual veil that insulates us from an encounter with the searing energy of the holy that should focus our attention as we reflect upon the meaning of Jesus’ transfiguration.

Jesus is the Prince of Peace, but the reign of peace – while a holy hope is not the default of this world. God’s peace comes only when we, as God’s agents in this world -with unveiled faces behold the glory of the Lord reflected in the world about us – are willing to stand firm in the cause of peace and when called upon -to pay the price of its defense.

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

Image courtesy of Daniel W. Erlander, http://www.danielerlander.com

Quite often, at least for me, the way the Lectionary compiles the Sunday selection of biblical readings seem so arbitrary. Not always, but quite often. It’s like each week being presented with a conundrum made from the fragments of a larger puzzle, which as the preacher I’m tasked to try to piece together – in order for our community to hear the conversation that God is inviting us to consider.

It seems to me that in the arrangement of texts, it’s the relationship between the O.T and the Gospel readings that alerts us to the nature of God’s timely invitation. The psalm and the N.T. readings appear, at least to me, as side commentaries – often angling outwards at a tangent.

At first sight the Lectionary’s O.T. choice of the story of Joseph’s reunification with his brothers seems to wing into our awareness towards the end of the story cycle. Of course, we know the story of Joseph – you know the possessor of the coat of many colors sold by his jealous brothers into slavery in Egypt where he rises to become Pharaoh’s prime minister. Why does the Lectionary choose this point in the story?

The book of Genesis is a book about origins. The Patriarch story cycles that form the last part of the book construct a history from Abraham, through Jacob, in preparation for the Exodus event and Moses. The story of Isaac is a link story providing the continuity through the fiction of father, son, and grandson, that links Abraham and Jacob. The Joseph cycle does the same between Jacob and the Exodus- Moses cycles.

These are independent memory fragments of older Hebrew oral traditions, woven together by later authors into a discourse that speaks much more about the issues facing the authors some 500 years after the time in which the stories are dramatically positioned. These stories are set in around the 13-12th centuries BCE. But the Bible’s purpose for telling them in this way – relates more to the politics and ideologies of the 6-5th centuries during which these ancient independent memories and traditions from different communities of Hebrews are woven together into a contiguous story of a multigenerational family to speak about race and community.

Genesis ends with the death of Joseph.  But before he dies, he compels his brothers under oath to promise to return with his bones to the land God promised to Abraham and his descendants. The book of Exodus opens with establishing Joseph’s brothers, the sons of Jacob as the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel.

But it seems Joseph’s brothers don’t leave Egypt. They stay and prosper rather too well causing the Egyptians to begin to fear them. Exodus 1:8 opens with the ominous sentence: Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. The scene is now set for the enslavement of Joseph’s descendants as the preface for the rise of Moses and the Exodus event.

Today we drop in – as it were – on Joseph revealing his true identity to his brothers – leading to a tearful reunion and reconciliation. Why this piece of a bigger story? Why now?

It’s clearly chosen to fit with Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ teaching love your enemies – opening up the complex dynamics of the Golden Rule – do unto others not as they have done to you, but as you would have them do to you. Joseph becomes an exemplar of the power of love to triumph over fear and resentment – paving the way for reconciliation of those who might more easily have remained estranged. As the truth comes out -Joseph has every reason to hate his brothers for what they did to him. His brothers have every reason to fear the revenge of their kid brother whom they had so grievously wronged. But this is not what happens.

The choice of this fragment from the Joseph cycle illustrates Luke’s Jesus’ teaching. It is only love your enemies that offers a cure capable of breaking the age-old cycles of repetitive violence.

A timely message for us living in a society where personal relationships have become poisoned by fear of one another. Once upon a time our fear of otherness focused on external actors – others not-like-us. Today we fear our neighbors next door as the ones who are now not-like-us. Even family members have now come to fear one another -estrangements inflamed by conspiracy theories peddled by social media influencers. We are becoming a society in which the members increasingly no longer recognize each other. Contested truth – contested realities –poison our perceptions – paving the way for new cycles of repetitive violence.

Gil Bailie in commenting on the gospel passage says:

In other words, don’t do to others as they do to you, but as you would have them do to you. Doing unto others as they do to you is the old world of reciprocity. Jesus asks us to do as you would have them do. Love your enemies. Why? Because they’re really nice people after all? Not necessarily. This is the most radical thing in the gospel.

There is nothing sentimental in the teaching of Jesus.

His is a hard teaching – hard in the sense that it’s difficult to put into practice and hard in its stark lack of sentimental warm fuzziness.

James Breech in The Silence of Jesus, says:

Jesus is the most loving and least sentimental man one could imagine. ‘Love your enemies’ is not sentimentality. This is something that goes right to the heart of it. Jesus says, ‘…do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.’ And watch what happens. This is a recipe for destroying the little bundle of lies about myself and my society that came into existence the moment my tribe and I found somebody to hate. Following this injunction is not just a nice thing to do. It’s a matter of destroying the whole system of mystification which has been the womb in which [we’ve] lived and moved and had [our] social existence. It’s the recipe for deconstructing the whole business. We have to recognize the profundity of that.

Do unto others as you would have them do to you is the only antidote for combatting the lies fueled by fear – the lies our fear tells us about ourselves and our neighbors.

Following Jesus teaching is not just a nice thing to do. It’s the only way to expose the fear hiding in plain sight. The cycles of repetitive violence stem from the way we mask and mystify the extent of the fear that lurks at the center of our hearts.

Love you enemies, do good to those who hate you is not the nice – ‘Christian’ thing to do. It’s the only thing to do. This is a hard teaching – hard as in difficult to practice and hard as in the opposite of the pious masochism that sentimentizes turn the other cheek and enjoy being beaten up. The first step has nothing to do with love as we normally understand the word. The first step is to simply to refuse any longer to be afraid – to waste our hearts on fear no more (John O’Donoghue).

In the practice of loving our enemies – treating others as we would wish to be treated by them – the 20th century Benedictine monk and poet Sebastian Moore says something like, Jesus …. lures us, arouses our desire for him. We are caught up in being fascinated by each other, and he steps in to catch our fascination. He came in; he can get out. And we can follow him out. Out – that is – from entrapment within repetitive cycles of reciprocal violence.

In the Year of the Lord’s Favor

We continue in Luke’s 4th chapter with an accounting of the beginnings of Jesus’ active ministry. Two weeks ago, in the dramatic scenes Luke described Jesus attending sabbath worship in the Nazareth synagogue. Having taken his place, Jesus indicated his desire to read, and Luke tells us he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Taking the scroll, Jesus unrolled it to a specific place and began to read:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me,

Because the LORD has anointed Me

To preach good tidings to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives,

And the opening of the prison to those who are bound …

To proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.


Handing back the scroll to the attendant Jesus sits down to begin his further interpretation of the text. Luke reports that all eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him as Jesus began with a momentous statement:

today, these words are fulfilled in your hearing.

Now we know that Nazareth was Jesus’ hometown – the place where he had grown up. Luke reports that at first the congregation were amazed – awestruck at Jesus eloquence.

All spoke well of him, and asked is not this Joseph’s son?

Of course, everyone knew him. They knew his mother Mary and his father Joseph, the village carpenter. They knew his brothers and sisters – they were his friends and neighbors. Because of this they were all the more amazed and perhaps stirred with pride in their hometown boy.

Luke hints that report of Jesus teaching at Capernaum had already preceded his arrival in Nazareth, so the congregation may well have greeted him with already raised expectations. They begged him:

Do here also in your hometown the things that we have head you did at Capernaum.

But Jesus replies:

Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s own hometown.

Oh! You can feel the bewildered deflation.

Luke tells us that at this point the mood in the synagogue dramatically shifts from universal praise to sheer rage – a rage so powerful that in a few minutes it transforms a congregation hanging on his every word into a lynch mob intent on throwing him off the brow of the village cliff face. How come?

We sense Jesus’ unease in response to their acclamation. So he quotes to them the saying that no prophet was ever accepted in his hometown. Often interpreted as an explanation for the crowd’s turning on him, if we focus only on these words we miss the point of what’s really going on here. In effect, Jesus is saying a prophet is accepted only if he privileges his hearers relationship to his message in some way – confirming their expectations and affirming their prejudices.

Isaiah’s words were regarded by Jesus’ Jewish hearers as a manifesto for their liberation as God’s chosen people. They are roused to murderous rage at his suggestion that others also – even members of other despised and hated communities – are included in the dispensation of God’s favor.

There’s a whole lot of historical baggage of hatred and animosity between these northern Jews of the Galilee and their Phoenician and Syrian neighbors. Therefore, it’s intolerable for them to hear Jesus including them within Isaiah’s prophecy of liberation. Jesus is referencing God’s favor extending to those who are not like us. It’s one thing to quote with approval from Isaiah – it’s quite another to tell his Jewish hearers that God of Israel’s favor is not exclusive to them. 

Here is Jesus’ first practical teaching on love your enemies – because it’s not up to us to confine the boundaries of God’s favor – which he is at pains to point out – is given without discrimination.

Last week’s weather cancelled both in person and livestream worship. In the sermon I had prepared for then I drew a line of connection between the response of Jesus’ Nazareth friends and neighbors and our current experience of the resurgence of white supremacist nationalism. You can read the text and hear the audio podcast as usual on the worship webpage for last week. The connection I drew out then is this. To be told that God’s favor extends indiscriminately to not only those we consider not like us but to those we historically and culturally consider not only outside the dispensation of God’s favor but the recipients of God’s disfavor -is a terrifying prospect. For Jesus’ Galilean hearers as well as today’s white supremacists, their restriction of the boundaries of God’s favor exclusively to themselves must now be defended and enforced with violence.

Today’s gospel passage from Luke moves us into the next phase at the start of Jesus ministry – the call of his first disciples. The Old & New Testament lessons for today both take up the theme of vocatio – vocation rendered variously as calling, invitation, even summons. Unlike Jesus’ Nazareth family, friends, and neighbors; unlike white nationalists and evangelical white supremacists – we are the recipients of God’s favor not through birth or membership of an exclusive group of racial privilege – not through simply being Jewish or being white skinned.  We enter the dispensation of God’s favor through conscious response. We choose to be among those who receive God’s favor when we respond to the invitation – maybe even for some of us, the urgent summons of the call to follow Jesus.

Isaiah and Paul were both persons who experienced their personal identities collapse, their view of self and world transform in the face of the forceful and mystical urgency of God’s summons to serve. For Peter the response to being called by Jesus began with the experience of being shamed and humbled in the face of an overwhelming experience of God’s generous abundance (the huge haul of fish). All three heard God’s summons – a call to serve in realizing God’s dream for the world. All three accepted God’s invitation. For each the circumstances differed – yet something of a common blueprint for acceptance of God’s call was established in each instance – namely a process that begins with a reordering of self and worldview through a spontaneous act of repentance.

Where’s our experience of repentance without which we will remain blind to the urgency of God’s call to become more fit for the purposes we’re being summoned to? It’s this lack of repentance -the necessary precondition for the reordering of our comfortable lives and our easy and complacent relationship to the world as those who believe themselves to be included within God’s favor without any effort on our part. For aren’t we also good people just doing what good people do?

Today, these words are fulfilled in your hearing.

What is our relationship to the year of the Lord’s favor – are we within or without? Our readiness for an attitude of repentance might be our best guide to the answer.

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