Three years ago, the Strange History of Transfiguration Sunday inspired this sermon. I offer it here because the words of Desmond Tutu speak volumes as I work on this year’s Transfiguration sermon.
When our images of God are tied to the idol of a supernatural sky-dweller who has the power to solve all our problems, despair is sure to follow as our super-hero fails time after time to impress us.
When I was a very little girl, I was absolutely convinced that I had the power to change the mind of God! Confident that I held such power, I never missed an opportunity to exercise it. Now, I’ll grant you that like most children, I was also convinced that the universe itself actually revolved around me, so believing that I was powerful enough to change God’s mind, wasn’t exactly much of a stretch. In fact, when I was a child, it wasn’t all that difficult to change God’s mind. For instance, I could stop God from breaking my mother’s back simply by leaping over a crack in the pavement. “Don’t step on a crack and break your mothers back.” Now, in my young mind the only one powerful enough to crush my mother’s powerful spine, must be God. I also knew that God wasn’t particularly fond of ladders, and that if I refrained from walking under them, God would smile upon me.
I had no idea why black cats, or spilling salt, or breaking mirrors, or opening umbrellas inside, or leaving hats on the bed, or putting new shoes on the table, would annoy God, but I knew enough to avoid doing such things. I was absolutely sure that God would respond positively if I managed to pull a turkey’s wishbone apart in just the right way so that I was left holding a piece larger than the piece my brother was left with. God also responded well if I knocked on wood, or caught sight of a falling star, or if I crossed my fingers and hoped to die.
I didn’t need to understand why my activities worked to influence the heart and mind of God, I simply knew that they did and would continue to do so just as long as I continued to avoid the necessary evils and indulge in an apple a day, and managed to blow out all the candles on my birthday cakes.
The universe that revolved around me might have been full of all sorts of rules, but it would continue to revolve exactly the way I wanted it to if I managed to placate the old guy up in the sky who was pulling every body else’s strings. I never once considered that that old God in the sky was pulling my strings because I was absolutely confident in my ability to do what was necessary to pull God’s strings.
But as I grew up, I began to learn that despite my best intentions, the universe did not revolve around me. Little by little I learned that I didn’t have what it takes to influence all of the things that were having an impact upon my life. And just as surely as my powers waned, so too did the powers of God.
I can still remember sitting in the back seat of the car and wondering why God despite the fact that I always lifted my feet up each and every time my father drove over a railroad track, my parents simply couldn’t find the money we needed to buy our happiness. Surely God must know that I was doing my part to do what was necessary to make God shine his smile upon my family.
So each and every time God failed to do exactly what I wanted God to do, God’s power was diminished in my eyes. As I grew, I gave up trying to influence God and I took off after God’s son. After all Jesus was far more fun to be around than his old doddering Father. For starters Jesus actually liked children. And Jesus had way better party tricks than his Dad. Jesus could turn water into wine, make the blind see, and the lame walk. And if the cupboard was bare, no need to worry, cause Jesus was even better than my Mom at turning nothing into something. Where Mom could make a meal out of almost nothing, Jesus could make enough to feed 5000. And there was always that trick to beat all tricks, cause in all my young life, I never heard tell of anyone else who ever came back from the dead and brought tons of chocolate with him. I mean that old doddering guy in the sky simply didn’t stand a chance against Jesus. Santa Claus was about the only one who could come close, and everybody knew that Santa would be nothing without Jesus.
So, somewhere along the way, that I had no need to worry about stepping on a cracks, or spilling salt, or dropping forks, because these things were nothing more than superstitions. Besides, who needs to worry about superstitions when you’ve got Jesus for as your friend? My buddy Jesus was all I needed to keep my world on an even keel. So, I walked with him and I talked with him and we were so happy together, until stuff started to happen that made me begin to doubt Jesus ability to change the world.
A few weeks before my eleventh birthday, Sirhan Sirhan shot Bobby Kennedy and for the second time in my life, I saw my father cry. I was only six-years old when the shooting of Bobby’s older brother made the adults in my life cry. Their tears changed something in me. I listened more intently to what was going on in the world around me. I needed to know what was happening so that I could do something to change it. A year after Bobby Kennedy was shot, I went to my first protest march. I was just twelve years old, but I knew that Vietnam was wrong and had to be stopped. I believed that my presence together with the presence of hundreds of thousands, could make a difference.
I left my buddy Jesus playing in the garden. I began to listen to the radical Jesus who spoke truth to power and called us to follow him so that we could change the world. As a teenager I knew that we had to end the war in Vietnam and even though the sixties were drawing to a close, and the flower children would soon be trading in their incense and beads so that the could find jobs and climb the corporate ladder, we marched. And when in 1975, the Vietnam war ended in defeat, I actually naively believed that public opinion had caused the powers that be to change their minds.
So, I continued to work for peace, only this time it was nuclear proliferation that we needed to stop. It was somewhere during the Regan years that I gave up the notion of changing the world by marching in the streets. Iran Contra put an end to my naiveté. Jesus and I retreated. Literally. I mean we literally retreated. A few friends and I worked together on a retreat center. Seabright Farm was a Christian retreat centre designed to nourish people who were trying to live their lives in the world. Jesus was our guide. We wanted to live in this complicated world of ours, the way that Jesus might live. So we dedicated ourselves to learning. Learning all we could about Jesus, Christianity, the church, theology, living responsibly, ethically. Our attempts to change the world took on a more modest approach. We set out to change the world, by changing ourselves.
Eventually, my work at Seabright Farm, brought me into seminary, where I suppose I thought I could change the world by changing the church. Along the way, I must confess that over the years I’ve become more than a little jaded and cynical. There are days when I don’t really believe that anything will ever really change. But there are moments, moments when I actually believe that it’s possible not only to change the world, but to actually change God.
Transfiguration Sunday is a strange festival in the Church calendar. The story of the Transfiguration is the story of Jesus climbing a mountain with his closest friends. On the mountaintop Jesus has a profound experience. There is a dazzling light, a cloud that overshadowed them, and the cloud terrified them. That same cloud appeared generations earlier and overshadowed one of the fathers of the Jewish people. That same cloud appeared generations later and overshadowed the father of the people of Islam.
As we read of that cloud today, we should do so with the same fear and trembling of our sisters and brothers who over the generations have encountered that cloud. For Transfiguration Sunday may be a festival of the church, but it’s history is steeped in the political and religious intolerance of the world. Before the fifteenth century, only a few Christian communities kept the feast of the Transfiguration. The festival hadn’t caught on like other festivals.
In all of Christendom only a handful of congregations marked the day and we would not be celebrating it today if it weren’t for a terrible battle. On the sixth of August 1456 news was announced in Rome that John Hunyady had defeated the Turks near Belgrade and the bells of churches rang out in celebration of the slaughter of some 50,000 Muslims. Overjoyed, Pope Callistus ordered the whole church to commemorate the victory against the infidels by celebrating the feast of the Transfiguration.
For generations the church commemorated the battle by celebrating Transfiguration Sunday on August the sixth. Some church’s still celebrate Transfiguration on the sixth of August. However, shortly after the end of World War II protestant churches discretely decided to move the festival of Transfiguration to the last day of Epiphany. They did so, because of the infamy of August 6. In 1945 a slaughter of a different sort was inflicted on a different people.
On August 6th 1945, someone climbed not a holy mountain, but into the cockpit of a plane—a machine of war. There had been a lull of a week in the fighting between the Allies and Japan. The Allies had a new secret weapon and they wanted to us it with the maximum psychological effect. They had prepared three atomic bombs. On the 16th of July, the first bomb was tested in New Mexico.
As a terrifying cloud rose up from the earth, the father of the atomic bomb J. Robert Oppenheim quoted from the Hindu Scriptures a line from the Bhagavad-Gita, “Now, I am become death the destroyer of worlds.” On August 6 the second bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and three days later the third one was dropped on Nagasaki. 150,000 people lay dead. Thousands more died later from the effect of atomic radiation. 75,000 buildings were destroyed. Two cities were devastated. The world will never be the same. The date for the festival of Transfiguration was moved.
The shape of that awful cloud hangs now forever in our sky. If you close your eyes you will see that cloud; rising up from the earth; a mushroom more poisonous than anything created by God. It is the new tree of knowledge of good and evil. We have eaten of its fruit and we shall never be the same.
We live in fear of everything that emanates from that terrible cloud. Is it any wonder that the vision of that cloud was invoked by the leaders of our neighbours to the south as they tried to convince the world to go to war against the people of Iraq. Weapons of mass destruction! Yesterday, the memory of the cloud hung over Iraq. Today, the memory of that cloud is being used to isolate Iran and Korea.
Has the memory of that poisonous cloud obliterated from our minds the memory of another cloud? Do we no longer remember the story of another climb, another light, another voice, another cloud? A story woven by the early followers of Jesus to point their sisters and brothers toward the life and death of Jesus as the new Moses sent as a revelation of God. In this story, Jesus speaks of his departure, that will come soon in Jerusalem. The gospel-writer has Jesus was speak of his death, his destruction by another tree. Do we not meet on Transfiguration Sunday today under the shadow of that tree, to break bread and to proclaim the victory of Christ’s death over every evil, even the total annihilation by human evil?
Friends, I trust that we will be led out of this morass of fear and hatred by a pillar of cloud; a cloud that transformed Moses and a band of refugees in the desert into a people; a cloud that rested upon Jesus declaring Jesus to be the embodiment of all that God had tried to say for generations; the same cloud that carried on Mohammad into the heavens, leaving behind a people who would take on the name Islam, which itself means peace.
Memories of clouds… Sorry, but I’ve looked at cloud’s from both sides know and like the song says I really don’t know clouds at all. I’m still wondering if its possible to be the people God created us to be? I’d given up wondering whether or not it’s realistic to hope, but rather whether it’s even possible to hope that the world can be changed. The poor will always be with us. Wars will keep breaking out just as surely as the sun rises in the east. Bad things will continue to happen to good people. And just when I think that hope is pointless…that the powerful will always abuse the powerless…just when I’m about ready to join the ranks of those who say live for today and forget about tomorrow…some people half a world away, begin to turn the whole world upside down…and dictators begin to loose their grip…and I begin to wonder, what if? And I feel the hope begin to stir in me.
In his book, God Has A Dream: A Vision of Home for Our Time, Desmond Tutu tells about a transfiguration experience that he will never forget. It occurred when apartheid was still in full swing. Tutu and other church leaders were preparing for a meeting with the prime minister of South Africa to discuss the troubles that were destroying their nation. They met at a theological college that had closed down because of the white government’s racist policies. During a break from the proceedings, Tutu walked into the college’s garden for some quiet time. In the midst of the garden was a huge wooden cross. As Tutu looked at the barren cross, he realized that it was winter, a time when the grass was pale and dry, a time when almost no one could imagine that in a few short weeks it would be lush, green, and beautiful again. In a few short weeks, the grass and all the surrounding world would be transfigured. As the archbishop sat there and pondered that, he obtained a new insight into the power of transfiguration, of God’s ability to transform our world. Tutu concluded that transfiguration means that no one and no situation is “untransfigurable.” The time will eventually come when the whole world will be released from its current bondage and brought to share in the glorious liberty that God intends.
Just over a week ago, many of you followed Jesus out of your comfort zone and down to the Inn From the Cold. You worked very heard to prepare over 200 meals to feed the hungry. But you did so much more than just feeding your neighbours. I believe that you actually achieved a transfiguration of sorts. Shortly before that evening, some of us watched Desmond Tutu talk about the need to change our image of God. I’d like to read back to you the words that Tutu said: The images that we have of God are odd because God—this omnipotent one—is actually weak. As a parent I understand this. You watch your child going wrong and there’s not very much you can do to stop them. You have tried to teach them what is right, but now it is their life and they are mucking it up. There are many moments when you cry for your child, and that’s exactly what happens with God. All of us are God’s children.
I frequently say, I’m so glad I’m not God! Can you imagine having to say, “Bin Laden is my child. Saddam Hussein is my child. George Bush is my child.” Oh! All of them, including me. Can you imagine what God must have felt watching the Holocaust? Watching Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Watching Rwanda? Can you imagine God watching Darfur? Imagine God watching Iraq and saying, “These are my children here, and they are killing my other children. And I can’t do anything because I have said to them, ‘I give you the space to be you and that space enables you to make choices. And I can’t stop you when you make the wrong choices. All I can do is sit here and cry.’” And God cries until God sees beautiful people who care, even if they may not do earth-shattering things.
There is a fantastic story of a so-called colored woman who was driven from her home and ostracized by her family because she had HIV/AIDS. She came to live in a home for people who suffered from the disease, and there were white men there who would help her because she couldn’t do anything herself. She was all skin and bones. They would carry her like a baby and wash her, bathe her, feed her. Then they would put her in front of a television set and hold her. And this was during the apartheid years. I visited this home and said, “What an incredible lesson in loving and compassion and caring.”
It was transfiguring something ugly, letting something beautiful come from a death-making disease. When God sees that, a smile breaks forth on God’s face and God smiles through the tears. It’s like when the sun shines through the rain. The world may never know about these little transfigurations, but these little acts of love are potent.
They are moving our universe so that it will become the kind of place God wants it to be. And so, yes, you wipe the tears from God’s eyes. And God smiles.” You people have transfigured the face of God on more than a few occasions. By following Jesus out into the world, to reach out to your sisters and brothers, you have transfigured the face of God.” (see the video below for the full context of this quote)
So, on this Transfiguration Sunday, let me remind you of God’s ability to Transform the world precisely because God dwells in with and through you! Do not give up hope: no one and no situation is “untransfigurable.” The time will eventually come when the whole world will be released from its current bondage and brought to share in the glorious liberty that God intends. Continue to give hope to the hopeless, reach out and love the world that God loves, and always remember that you have the power to transfigure the face of God!
A Benediction: Always remember that you have the power
to transfigure the face of God!
You can wipe the tears from God’s eyes.
You can make God smile.
Reach out with love.
Be the compassionate people God created you to be!
Receive the blessing of God whose love knows no boundaries,
Christ whose peace you embody,
And the Holy Spirit, whose power breathes
in with and through you,
To transfigure the world with love!