Transfiguration Sunday 2015
February 15, 2015
This is a transition Sunday from the celebration of our world understanding more completely the love of God, the care of God, the movement of God through this man called Jesus of Nazareth. We transition to Lent and just in case you don?t know, here is the end of the story. Perhaps you already know it. Jesus is going to be killed by the Roman authorities with the assistance of the Roman appointed Jewish Temple leaders. He will be killed, not because God wants him dead, but really, truly, he will be killed because he was perceived as a threat to the Roman forces occupying Israel.
He was a popular grass roots leader of Jewish origin. He was like the townies in the movie, Hoosiers. He was local, worked hard, and believed in his family and his people. He had a lot of followers and he talked openly that his aim with his life, and the movement that followed him, was the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth as it was in heaven. He was setting up something that the Romans considered competition. For that alone he was killed. Nothing else, really.
His movement, his faith, the essence of Jesus was not about eternal life, life after death, pearly gates and the assurance of a home in heaven when we all die. No. He had an easily discernable goal and that was the reality of God?s preferences being made actual in everyday life. It was the lion and lamb lying down together and the lamb not being anxious about the situation and the lion not drooling.
I?ve often wondered how much in despair Jesus was as he was dying on the cross? The organized church of Jesus Christ has oftentimes been painfully embarrassed over the words that Jesus is said to have uttered from the cross. Most people know them by heart. ?My God, my God, why have even you forsaken me??
The words are a quotation actually from Psalm 22. If you take the time to read Psalm 22, which sort of hides behind its famous relative Psalm 23, ?Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Death, I shall fear no evil,? you will discover in Psalm 22 an understanding of how that Psalm fits neatly with how the early followers of Jesus came to understand Jesus? death scene.
It is interesting to note that those words, ?My God, My God?,? are one of only two places in the Christian Scriptures where we have the words in Aramaic, the common language that Jesus would have spoken. Were the words so powerfully embedded in the consciousness of the early followers of Jesus that they remembered him saying them in his native tongue rather than in Greek?
Many good biblical scholars suggest that Jesus was expecting to be saved from death. There is little doubt that a major theme of Jesus? teaching was that if he and his followers were faithful enough, God would decisively act and bring about God?s new realm immediately. Perhaps, just maybe, that was reason that even from the cross Jesus was still searching out what his life meant in the grand scheme of God?s desires.
What we are given this morning in our Transfiguration story is a picture of what the early followers of Jesus came to believe really happened. Seriously, those friends of Jesus had a tough go when Jesus died. Most of them had literally left everything to follow Jesus. Everything. They had suffered both scorn and alienation at home for abandoning their husbands and wives, families, and jobs, and they were now wanted, internationally, for treason for daring to suggest that someone other than Caesar was God?s son and for wanting to set up an opposition Kingdom. That?s treason.
Every generation has losses that cause us to wonder how life can go on in the face of what has happened. I was a child, ages 6 to 16, in the 1960?s that saw the sudden deaths, the public murders, of President John Kennedy, his brother Robert, Martin Luther King, Jr. and then I had the natural death of my dearest grandfather, Noah. The public executions of people in whom we have invested so much hope, in their lives and in their work, are just devastating. My grandfather was a central figure in my personal life and in our community and I could not at the time even fathom why we would want to continue living without him. You know those feelings, as well.
But, most of us go on, don?t we?! Not everyone goes on. Real life is scattered with the tragic deaths of those who cannot live in the midst of such losses. In the news even now we have Whitney Houston?s daughter lingering in a coma after seemingly copying her mother?s death scene. We all know stories of those who have locked themselves away from living fully after the death of someone they have dearly loved.
The image that we collectively call the Transfiguration of Jesus?which we use to conclude the season of Epiphany and begin the walk toward his death in Jerusalem, toward the Season we call Lent?this image of Jesus standing with Elijah and Moses, along with Peter, James, and John, is perhaps best understood metaphorically as a romanticized Christian portrait of what Jesus? followers came to believe, rather than an actual occurrence.
Early followers of Jesus were crushed by Jesus? death. They took off running for their lives back home to Galilee?most of them before Jesus was even dead. The oldest resurrection stories take place later, up in Galilee, which took many days to travel to. Even the resurrection of Jesus took time to evolve, although we run through the stories as if it were a three-day scheduled conference. Every Gospel speaks of the resurrection, but includes the caveats that not every one of the early disciples believed in it. Our faith history is not as neat as we were too often taught about in Sunday School. It took time, years, to create anything that looked like and resembled early Christianity.
Someone this week on a Social Media outlet asked in an article if progressive Christians and the earliest followers of Jesus would enjoy meeting each other and finding similarities with what we believe to be most true. The answer is undoubtedly, ?No!? Beneath traditional Christianity?s general veneer is the fact that even in the beginning of Christianity there were many different Christianities. From the earliest days there existed a plethora of faith expressions of what it means to believe in Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, and these expression have grown organically and multiplied, evolved if you will, ever since. Jesus was not ever a Christian. He was born a Jew and died one. Christianity is a response to the life of this man who was Jewish and for the longest time the religious responses to Jesus? life on earth looked very Jewish, and in fact were Jewish.
As I was pondering this Transfiguration day and the meaning for us in 2015, three Muslim young adults were killed in North Carolina on Tuesday. By Thursday or Friday morning someone had spray painted on the IU campus, the bridge near the Neal Marshal Black Culture Center that ?anti-racism equals anti-white.? Interestingly, on Monday afternoon several of us from First United were at the Marshal Center for a conversation about Muslims, Politics and the Media and the lead speaker was well-known commentator, Arsalan Iftikhar. The talk brought to awareness many issues regarding Islam and the rise of Islamophobia in our country, and how acceptable it has become to propagate Islamophobia openly and with disdain?especially by Fox News and many fundamentalist and evangelical Christian organizations. President Obama is now considered to be Muslim by 29% of our country and what that means, Iftikhar said, is an acceptable way for people to say that Obama is black and that he and all brown-toned people are suspect and anti-American and anti-Christian.
I hope we all carry with us an awareness that Muslims?whatever the tone of their skin?are scared, very scared of being targeted by fundamentalist Christians and just regular angry white men in general, and they do not assume general protection from the rest of us. They don?t think that Christians are going to go out of our way to save them from some jacked-up Islamophobe. So, we have now added to our awareness this year that Muslims are targeted, as well as black men who are either killed or incarcerated at extremely high rates in comparison to whites.
In general, even we at First United Church of Bloomington, as a group of people, are experienced as scary. In the world in general, we who are Christian and predominately Caucasian, are lumped together and considered unsafe to approach by many; some even see us as terrorists?shooting first and asking questions (maybe), later.
The alleged shooter in North Carolina was by his own admission an atheist. He was very anti-religious but he didn?t shoot two Protestants and a Catholic. Islamophobia is as deeply engrained in culture as is racial discrimination toward blacks. The alleged shooter took out three, not one, but three of the nicest people in the world because they stood their ground in the face of his constant anger over parking spots. Three persons who were easily identified as Muslims.
I noticed the other morning from a social media contact I have with friends in Turkey that the alleged shooter was assumed to be Christian. He was actively begging people not to make stereotypes that all Christians hate Muslims. He knew that to even attempt to argue that the angry white man was an atheist was going to be a lost conversation.
I didn?t tell anyone this, not even my wife, but as I was sitting the other day in the Marshal Center, I was afraid for my safety and the safety of others. That is not a normal thing for me. I was not scared of anyone in the room. I think Muslims are amongst the most peaceful people in the world. I was worried, truly upset, and watching carefully over being in a room with that many dark-skinned Muslims, knowing that people who look just like me might try to do something stupid and hurt those of us in the room.
I wondered as I watched out the window behind the speaker?s table, out onto Jordan Avenue, if IU security was adequately working the outside perimeter, to say nothing of watching the doors carefully. I saw no security except Pam Potter and she?s tough. I wanted police presence because I know, as you do, or should, that we live in a State and a nation that fears people of any dark skin and any religion that is not Christian.
Where is the intersection for us of Transfiguration Sunday and the very real events and times of our lives? Gone are the days when having Jesus in our hearts was good enough, sufficient to assure our personal salvation. God loves us no matter who we have in our hearts. God?s love is full of mercy, kindness and forgiveness.
And the love of God for us gives us present and eternal worth, as well as luring us, beckoning us to be and become more. The Greek root of the word transfiguration is one we are all very familiar with and it is suggestive of what faith development means for us. The word signifies metamorphosis, a change of form. This Transfiguration Sunday we are being called upon by the presence of the all-merciful, loving God pulsating in our lives to alter ourselves, to transform, to convert to being active players in living the reality of the Realm of God, the Ways of God, in our everyday living, while investing, teaching, driving, politicking, and parenting.
After the events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere, which have served to spotlight the deadly reality that black men face every moment of every day, we find yet again, the very light of God illuminating the reality that while we may fear radical terrorists like those of the 9/11/2001 event, there are those who experience us as terrorists as well.
President Obama tried to speak to these issues at the National Prayer Breakfast a few weeks back when he sought to give voice to the reality that in the name of Christianity so much of the world has known oppression and brutality. In the name of Christ the Crusades were launched over and over again in the Middle East. In the name of Christ, South, Central, and North America?s native populations were conquered and slaughtered and their homes and land taken. In the name of Christ colonization and domination has occurred the world over.
You and I have not done those things. But, when political and religious commentators talk about the sordid history of Islam it takes genuine blindness not to see that politicized Christianity has been even worse. If Christianity in today?s world is to find respect and adherents, then we must return to the images of the Reality of God, the Kingdom of God that Jesus was seeking to live into our living at every level and for every person.
When I meet with persons of other faith systems, I am very quick to let them know and to confess the failings of Christianity and to ask for their forgiveness. I also assure them that I do not believe that Christianity is the only way, the only truth, but simply and humbly one faith system that is seeking to express the oneness of God that I assume is in all major and minor faith expressions.
We must be the change?in ourselves, in our families, in our organizations, in our commerce, in our politics and certainly in our faith?that we hope to see occur the world around. Many of us have seen and been involved with so many worldwide and local disasters and wars and killings and losses in our lifetimes and those we?ve learned about. This is not the time to grow weak, weary and anemic.
No. The time has never been more fully ready for a transfiguration in the Church that follows well the Ways of Jesus, our Light. Now is the time with humble strength in service to those most in need?and I?m not just talking about the economically destitute but also ours is to be a robust and substantial voice to those who are weak in the knowledge of historical truth and sub-standard in being committed to the well-being of the whole of the planet.
We are surrounded even now with the brightness of the Christ event, it is flashing even on this cold bitter February morning, beckoning us to be the light of the divine for those in the shadows. God, the divine, the essence of truth, is illuminating a path for each one of us. Rejoice in the presence of the light, and then let us be faithful to walk out of it and ignite a path for others with our lives lived sharing mercy, justice, and humility. It is the Way of God.