Transfiguration sunday and the foolishness of the cross...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for this coming Sunday, February 15 the Feast of the Transfiguration.

I LOVE Transfiguration Sunday:  I love the poetry and possibilities implied in our texts; I love
the mystical meeting on the mountain between Moses, Elijah and Jesus; I love the all too human reaction of the disciples who just want to hang on to their spiritual happiness a little bit longer.  I love the way the voice of the Lord once again booms out of the heavens like it did at Christ’s baptism telling us one more time that Jesus is the Lord’s Beloved – so isn’t it is about time to start listening to him! And, I love that we are asked to enter this story on this day for it brings to a close the journey of Epiphany and gets us ready for Lent.

+ Lent is serious business – for us personally and for the whole community of faith – that’s why the brothers of the ecumenical monastery in Taize, France call it a spiritual retreat for the whole Church. Left to ourselves, you see, we are likely to remain confused and unaware of what God is telling us during Lent. 

+ Like Paul said: we are speaking about God’s wisdom – a way of seeing and living that is obscured and often hidden from our view – for God’s wisdom is that which the eye has not seen, nor the ear heard but what the human heart knows to be true. God’s wisdom has been conceived deep within us through the love of God prepared for us since before the beginning of time.

It took St. Paul at least three years of solitude, study and searching his heart to begin to trust the wisdom of God’s love. One of the fascinating factoids in the biblical account of Paul’s ministry is that after his life-changing encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Syria – an event that knocked him down with humility and filled him with grace so that he turned everything in his life upside down – he writes in Galatians that he had to go away to Arabia for a while before returning to Damascus and Jerusalem to begin his new ministry.

+ Why Arabia? New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, tells us that “Arabia” was an imprecise term in Paul’s day – a way of speaking of the vast, empty desert to the south and east of Palestine – that also included Mt. Sinai.  And why is Mt. Sinai important to Paul – and to his growth as a servant of grace?

+ Mt. Sinai is where God’s servant Moses received the Torah – the 10 Commandments – the law.  It is also where Israel’s prophets went to pray, to listen for God’s will and to argue with the Lord.

The prophet Elijah also went to Mt. Sinai when he was most perplexed. His story tells us that when Elijah was hounded by adversaries on every side, when he was spiritually exhausted and emotionally spent, when the corrupt King Ahab and Queen Jezebel sent assassins to murder him and he didn’t know what else to do: Elijah ran away to the solitude of the Lord’s mountain where he intended to resign from his commission as prophet. He crawled into a cave and wanted to die but God was not in his feelings. He waited in the darkness and “was met by earth quake, wind and fire, but the Lord God was in none of them.”

Finally, in what the Scriptures call “the still small voice of God.” he heard the Lord asking why he was hiding in the darkness?  Elijah replied: I am all alone and my adversaries seek my life. To which the Holy One replied: the time has come for you to return through the wilderness of Arabia back to Damascus where you will find allies – and a partner in ministry Elisha – together my way will be made strong through you.

+ Paul, it would seem, was acting much like Elijah the prophet – or Moses the law giver – by going back to Mt. Sinai in Arabia. He was on the mountain to argue with the Lord.  He was on retreat to listen for his true calling. He took time off to be in the wilderness to discern that the still small voice of God would give direction and clarity to his ministry. He was there, if you will, to prepare for the journey God wanted for him rather than simply follow the way he thought life was supposed to unfold.

+ And so we, like Paul and Elijah and Moses, need our season to discern and trust God’s wisdom. We need Lent in order to spend time in communion with Christ in the desert – taking 40 days to strip down to the bare essentials of an embodied faith – practices that include acts of compassion, moments of prayer and time given over to contemplation rather than consumption. 

As you know, Lent leads us into the agony of the Passion but it is also the portal through which we pass on our way to the blessings of Easter. From the point of view of God’s upside-down kingdom, it seems that we need to get ourselves ready for both the suffering and the joy that is to come because they are bound inextricably one with the other. There is no Easter without the Cross of Good Friday. There is no prophetic ministry of justice and compassion without self-doubt and fear. And there is no hope in the Lord without an awareness of our own inadequacy.

Lent documents that there is no true humility or gratitude for grace without a season of wandering through the wilderness of our own delusions of grandeur. Over time, those wiser than ourselves have learned that we need the harsh clarity of Lent in order to see that within the darkness there still shines that small light of the Lord that the darkness cannot overcome. This is why Paul speaks to us of the foolishness of the Cross. And before pushing on, let me see if you’re still with me here for there are two insights that are crucial:

The first has to do with the symbolic, mystical meaning of Elijah and Moses – representatives of God’s prophets and holy law – joining together with Jesus in prayer.  Not only is the whole tradition being summarized here, but their stories are being linked to Christ’s and our own. We are going to wrestle with doubts and fears these characters tell us. We are going to be tested and tempted, too. What’s more, like each of these spiritual giants, our direction in life is going to be called into question and even turned on its head: So fear not, all of this is part of the journey. That’s one truth I want to claim, so is that part of the story clear?

The second is that we all need to prepare for this journey:  we can’t expect to head out to Mt. Sinai and survive without the right tools. We can’t expect to discern the still small voice of the Lord’s love without making time.  And we cannot grasp the obscure wisdom of God without nourishing the essence of grace in our own hearts. In Lent we’re asked to do this by using three specific practices for they are the time-tested tools necessary for going to the desert or the mountain: 1) acts of compassion; 2) moments of prayer; 3) time given over to contemplation rather than consumption. Do you have any thoughts, questions or concerns about what I’ve shared here?

What’s going on, I hope you see, is the way the tradition links all of these spiritual giants – including Jesus – to an encounter with humility. It is only when these great souls find themselves confronted with their fears and failings that they are open to God’s healing grace and transforming power.  It is NOT when they are full of themselves. It is not when they are young hot shots who think they have the world by the tail. It is not when they rely upon the authority of their tradition or the logic of the academy or the market place.

No, God’s wisdom is revealed and encountered in a transformative way when they realize they are confused – afraid – perplexed, tired and even angry about their own mortality. It is when they have fallen on their faces – or bottoms – that God shows them a love greater than self.
Paul puts it like this: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and demolish the discernment of the discerning… so that we might trust that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Now let me be very clear: nobody accepts Paul’s pronouncement at face value. Nobody. We all believe that we are the exception to the rule.  “Sure, that Bible stuff is probably true for those losers over there,” we think. “They are such morons.  But me… I’m ok – I don’t need to be humiliated or fail to get what God is saying. I can take care of things just fine because I get it.” There are hundreds of examples of this fallacy presented to us every waking moment:

+ There are world leaders who think they can solve problems that have been defying the best minds in creation for centuries; so time and again, in the East and the West, they arrogantly plow into the chaos – spending billions of tax dollars that could better be used for infrastructure and education – leaving behind thousands of innocent dead they conveniently call collateral damage without fixing one freakin’ thing.

+ What about those who refuse to have their children immunized and threaten our social contract by jeopardizing the public’s health primarily because they are certain they are the exception to the rule?

Perhaps the most poignant example of St. Paul’s hard won insight comes, how-ever, from the writer Anne Lamott in her reflection on the mess NBC news anchor, Brian Williams, has gotten himself into by lying about what happened on a helicopter in Iraq.  Do you know the controversy? It is all over the press and everyone wants a piece of this guy. Not because he’s the only person in power who ever lied about Iraq:  George Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld are just a few of those who come to mind having a whole lot more to atone for than Brian Williams.  But, as Lamott writes:  “Brian Williams is our new Old Testament scapegoat… It's hard to turn away (from his fall from grace) and a part of me, the dark part of me with bad self esteem, is cheered. The handsomest, richest, most perfect guy turned out to have truthiness issues… so now he’s our sin offering… and each worsening detail is like a self-esteem ATM.”

I am going to give you an extended does of Lamott’s theological rant because it is both so well constructed and oh, so true for each of us if we’re at all honest. She continues: I'm watching talking heads on the biggest news stations come down on Brian Williams and I know some of these most famous men to have been unfaithful, and worse--way worse, with children…  

The sweeter part of me, the child, the girl in her little blue kilt, the mom, the nana, the
black-belt co-dependent, wants to shake her fist at the bullies: Who here doesn't lie, embellish, exaggerate? (I'm reminded of the old joke about Jesus telling the crowd who is stoning the adulteress, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Suddenly a woman throws a rock at the adulteress. Jesus looks up and says, "Oh for Pete's sake, Mother.") No one, not one single person, has stood up for him. I would, but I'm a lying liar, too--well, maybe not as egregious as Brian Williams. I don't tell people "I looked down the tube of an RPG". Well, maybe that one time I did. But that was just so people would like me more. I would stand with Mr. Williams, because he's family. But my solidarity wouldn't mean all that much. My son rolls his eyes sometimes at family gatherings, because the story I've just told has changed from its last telling. But then again, so has his.

The sober people I know began sobriety by minimizing how bad their drinking and drug use was; by the end of the first year, they're copping to the most graphic, disgusting behavior you can imagine. This was definitely my case; I started out mentioning that maybe I had a few too many a couple times a week, to the truth, which was that I was insane, trying to buy opiates, guys, the random RPG. Of course, Brian Williams did not do nearly as socially repellant things as my addict brothers and sisters did. In our defense, though, we rarely said we had been struck by RPG's. So it's sort of a wash. The truth eventually set me free. It's the "eventually" that gets ya. But it did. I hurt a lot of people, mostly other women, but with a lot of help and solidarity, I told my truth, and there was great healing, for them and me; and what I did still sucked. Some times, they still do.

Take, for instance, the words for which I am probably most semi-famous, besides that my bad thoughts make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish. The words were not even mine: it was my wild Jesuit friend Tom Weston's word who actually said that you can tell you've created God in your own image when He hates the same people you do. Father Tom said it in a lecture 23 years ago at a small gathering. The first few times I quoted it -probably at Salon and possibly in my book Bird by Bird – I attributed it to him. Then the next few times, I didn't. I just shoe-horned it into conversation as if I'd just thought of it that minute; brilliant daring me. And not exactly in a "conversation." More like, "While being interviewed."

Then, it got picked up, and it was everywhere and I started trying to correct the lie at a big public level. In print and on Kurt Andersen's gigantic show, Studio 360 on WNYC, New York City's NPR. It was the childhood dream of going to school naked. But I did it. The line is frequently quoted, as mine. It's a great line; it says it all. But now I'm sick of cringing and saying I borrowed it. Okay: I stole it. Fine. Me and one of our greatest historians, Doris Kearns Goodwin, right? Do we say, as people are saying now about Mr. Williams, "Well, we wouldn't be able to trust Goodwin after she plagiarized?" No. We absolutely trust her. We decided to. She earned our trust back.

The point is we are gigantically flawed. Oh, my God, such screw-ups. We can be such total morons. And if you're in the public eye, like Brian Williams, or in the public baby toe, like me, it goes viral. We do the best we can. Sigh. Some days go better than others. We get to start our new 24 hours every time we remember. I'm also remembering the old wisdom story about the elder who tells a young girl that inside him, inside all humans, are two dogs, a good dog and an aggressive dog. They're always at war. The girl asks him which dog usually wins. He thinks about it, and says, "The one I feed the most." So today I am going to feed my kinder side, forgive and trust Brian Williams, me, and, sight unseen, you. His story will play out however it does, almost entirely based on NBC's financial considerations. In the meantime, we can wish him and his family well.

In another place St. Paul says:  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All. Not just me. Not just you. All of us because there are NO exceptions to the rule.  And if you are open to trusting the obscure, often hidden, mysterious and totally upside down wisdom of God, that is good news. Because it means that ALL of us – not just the smart or wealthy or talented or good looking – but all of us can experience the embrace of God’s grace.

Lent is a choice to practice falling on our face BEFORE it happens. It is GOING to happen – there are NO exceptions – so why not get ready? Why not learn what humility is all about? Why not open yourself to the upside down blessing and get in on the goodness before it really hurts? There are three practices we’re asked to make our own during Lent – three ways of practicing falling on our face so that we can do so with vigor – sharing compassion – making time to pray to the Lord – and resting in contemplation rather than consuming.


Compassion means that we know we’re not at the center of the universe. Prayer means that we know we’re not God. And contemplation means that we can be in the world and accept it as it is without trying to control or devour it.  Such is the foolishness of the Cross, a stumbling block to some and a scandal to others. But to those who are being made whole it is our way into the wisdom of God.

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