Sermon August 9, 2020
A couple of years ago, there was a preacher whose car gave out on him, and who found it necessary to look for a new car. He went to a nearby dealership, and picked out one that he thought was attractive and apparently would serve him well. He asked the salesman the price, and the man told him the car would cost fifteen thousand dollars. The preacher said, “My goodness! fifteen thousand dollars! I cannot afford that much. I am just a poor preacher.” “I know you are,” the salesman replied; “I have been to your church and heard you preach.”You and I are not always heard and seen the way we intend to be heard and seen. How do you see yourself? How do you imagine that others see you? Do you sometimes want to say to people, “Oh, that is not what I meant at all! You do not understand what I am saying.” A situation similar to that, I believe, is recorded for us in St. Luke’s Gospel. Last Thursday, the Church observed on its liturgical calendar the Feast of the Transfiguration as it does every August 6th, which this year, by the way, also marked the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. If you are fortunate enough to be in a parish on that day where the eucharist is celebrated, you would hear the wonderful gospel account of that event. Otherwise, the only other time you hear it is on the Sunday before Lent begins every year. The Transfiguration also has a special place in my heart, since this is The Church of the Transfiguration, which I have called home for the last few years with the exception of a sojourn of two and one-half years as Vicar of St. Michael’s Church in Coolidge.But to recount the story. Jesus takes three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John, with him up to the top of a high mountain, and there, while He is praying, He is transformed. We are told that His countenance is changed, and his clothing becomes dazzling white. Moses, representing the Law of the Jews, and Elijah, representing the prophets, appear alongside of Him, and together they converse about the future. Luke describes the whole thing as a vision. The disciples are confronted with this vision, this transfiguration and, in time, they, too, are transformed. Peter, in his anxiety, in his awe, in his usual headstrong, reactive way, says, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter attempts to trap the experience, to reduce it to something he can understand or do. But before he is able to, the vision is completed, a cloud overshadows them, and the disciples feel within themselves the very voice of God saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” If Jesus could have said something here, it might have been, “Peter, you do not understand. You have missed the point of what I am trying to say to you in this experience.” So briefly, then, this morning, I would like to reflect with you, in the context of the story of the Transfiguration, upon how we see ourselves, upon how we see others, and upon how we are transformed by God.Those of you who remember your Greek mythology will recall the story of the handsome youth Narcissus. The goddess Nemesis, who measured out happiness and misery to mortals, one day decided to cause Narcissus to see his own image reflected in a fountain. He became so enamored of it, that eventually nothing else in life mattered to him, or had any value. A woodland nymph by the name of Echo fell in love with Narcissus, but he was unable to return her love, so taken was he with himself. Eventually Echo pined away in grief, until there was nothing left of her except her voice. One of the great dangers of this mortal existence of ours is that we, too, face the possibility of garnering all the resources at our disposal for no greater purpose than the adornment of our own image. We are easy prey to the narcissistic trap of reducing every relationship in life to nothing more than an echo – a voice that resounds by our own doing, our own wanting, our own image, our own ideas.Best-selling author and rabbi, Harold Kushner, whom I have quoted on a number of occasions, says that one of the first things we need to do in our search to discover God is to deal with the necessity for humility in our lives. By that he means not letting ourselves be overcome by our own achievements, imagined or real, but rather recognizing our limitations. All too often, people think that worshiping idols means setting up statues and bowing down before them. But in reality, worshiping idols is when we become enamored with our accomplishments in life. We, however, are called to a condition of humility.Sigmund Freud believed that over the years science has helped us to eliminate some of our narcissistic tendencies. He cites three examples. The first is Galileo, who deprived us of the luxury of believing that we are the physical center of all God’s creation, of everything. The second is Charles Darwin, who helped us to see that, despite the majesty of our capabilities, we are still a part of the unfolding process, the evolution, if you will, of God’s creation. And finally, Freud saw himself as enabling us to look upon life and to say that there is something more to life than that which we can see, or which we may refer to as consciousness. With the help of breakthroughs in these three areas of science, then, namely, the cosmological, the biological, and the psychological, Freud believed that our narcissistic tendencies had been diminished. But, was that enough?I am reminded of a wonderful story about an instance when our Sixth Fleet was maneuvering in the Atlantic Ocean, on its way to assuming its duties in the Mediterranean. On the Destroyer Danforth, the Captain, in the midst of those maneuvers, was surrounded by his junior officers. At the conclusion of the maneuvers, there was a message sent from the Flagship to the Danforth. The flagman on duty took the message and brought it to the bridge. He said to the Captain, “Sir, we have a message from the Flag.” The Captain asked him to read it. He said, “Sir, perhaps you would like to read it by yourself in the chart room.” With impatience, the Captain turned and said, “Young man, read the message.” The message said, “From Flag to Destroyer Danforth. Your maneuvering in these last exercises was absolutely deplorable. It ill-befits any vessel of the United States Navy to be so commanded. It looked very much as if your vessel was commanded by a boatman’s mate third class.” The Captain turned to the flagman and said, “Very well, young man, take it below and have it decoded.” It is extremely difficult for each and every one of us to accept our failures and other agonizing experiences, and not to defend ourselves unduly. But this is precisely what Rabbi Kushner was talking about. It is only when you and I are able to recognize our limitations in life, and live out of a condition of humility, that we can, with reverence, welcome the Spirit of God into our lives.St. Luke tells us in his account of the Transfiguration that on top of the mountain, Jesus was transfigured in the sight of his disciples. “The appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” He became translucent, we might say. He had an aura about him. The disciples saw him in a new and totally different light. They had a religious experience as they gazed upon him, one which in fact lifted them up, in and through His transfiguration. They could look back to Moses and the prophets, and they could look forward to eternity. How do we look at other people? With what eyes do we see them? What do we see in and through them?Quite a few years ago, when our son Andrew was about five years old, I spent what seemed like an eternity building and putting together a small HO scale model railroad layout in our basement. It was really one of those birthday or Christmas gifts that you give to your kids knowing that you will get as much, if not more, enjoyment out of it than they will. The project involved a lot of sawing, stapling, gluing, drilling, wiring, and assembling, and the end result was fairly functional. Andrew was fascinated by the whole ordeal, and when it was completed he remarked, “You’re a Dad who can fix anything.” Oh, how I wished that statement of his were true all the time. But it was just one way in which a little five-year old looked through his eyes at his Dad.A little while ago in the New York Times, there appeared an article about a woman who did something that was rather courageous and commendable, given her position in city government. It was not unique, because it had been tried by other people in other times and places. But for 23 days, Barbara Sabol, the head of New York City’s Human Resources Administration, posed as a welfare recipient to experience firsthand the huge bureaucracy that she administered. She wanted to look at the system, which serves more than one million poor New Yorkers, through the eyes of one of its recipients, to see how it could be made more effective, more humane, less degrading. How did Mrs. Sabol see others who sought to help her? By her own account, she suffered numerous indignities. She had personal documents lost by a caseworker; several times she was sent to the wrong office; she waited in long and often fruitless lines. She sat in seedy waiting rooms with broken chairs, cockroaches, and telephones that didn’t work. She was yelled at, scolded, but worst of all, Mrs. Sabol was made to feel, as she put it, “depersonalized.” “Instead of asking for my name,” she said, “they asked, ‘What is your Zip Code?’”When you and I see other people, we, like the disciples, are called to see them in a certain kind of light. We gather together in this place, week after week, in the conviction that God’s presence, His power, His love, His healing, is something we experience in the company of one another. We see, or rather we ought to see, other people in our lives, not as men and women to lean upon, not as men and women to control, but as equal partners in this human enterprise in which we are all engaged. We experience and come to know God in the company of other people. We recall the words of the Lord’s Christ, when he said, “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” As we meet our brothers and sisters in their joy, in their opulence, in their pain, in their privation, in their difficulty, we know that in and through them we find the living Christ.Peter, James, and John, on the mountain top, in the company of one another, and in the presence of the transfigured Christ, were transformed. They were given a new way of looking at things, a new reason for living.They looked at Jesus and they saw all the history of the Jews, Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets, past, present, future. From the finite they were lifted to the infinite. They were given hope. You and I are also transformed, when, like the disciples, we are lifted from the finite to the infinite, when we are given hope for the future. One thinks of the great 17th century composer, George Fredeic Handel who, upon completing his masterful oratorio Messiah, in the record space of 23 days, is said to have exclaimed, “I did think I did see all of Heaven before me, and the great God himself.” We can all recall those moments in our lives, flashes in a millisecond, in which, confronted with the infinite, confronted with the immortal, we soar. These are moments of transformation for us.While the disciples are still on their knees with their faces to the ground, overcome with fear, Jesus comes and touches them and in effect says, “Get up and do not be afraid. You now must live in hope. You have seen the vision. Your lives are forever changed.”Norman Cousins, in his book, Head First: The Biology of Hope, tells the story of a California physician who wrote to him and described the emotional devastation experienced by his 17-year old son following surgery for cancer. The day after the operation, the surgeon came into the recovery room and in the presence of the patient, told the boy’s father that he should expect his son’s death in a matter of days, perhaps a week. The father was outraged. He wrote: “I followed the surgeon out of the room and, as a fellow physician, berated him for his reprehensible conduct. He defended himself by saying that doctors had to be honest and that patients should not be deceived.” The father continued, “I went back into the room and told my son that I had just chewed out the surgeon, and that I had known too many patients who had made surprising comebacks to justify the kind of verdict the surgeon had delivered. I told my son to disregard what the surgeon had said, and that we would work together in proving him wrong. My son believed me. He sailed through the first week after the surgery and has been in remission ever since. That was 4 years ago, and my son has been living a normal life in every way since then.” When we are given a new reason for living, when we are given hope for the future, we are transformed. Once we have seen the vision, our lives are forever changed. The God who transforms us, is the God of hope.So, as we recall once again the story of our Lord’s Transfiguration, let us remember that in our search to discover the Christ in our lives we must first come to terms with our own limitations, and see ourselves as living within the boundaries of an honest humility. We must learn to see others as the means whereby God is made known to us in and through our communion with them. And finally, our transformation is achieved when those very people are able to lift us from the finite to the infinite, and to give us hope for the future in victorious and faithful living. Then, the Lord’s Christ will say to us, “Get up and do not be afraid any more. You have seen the vision. Your lives are forever changed.” Amen.The Rev. Philip W. Stowell
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