When I was in seminary, one of my fellow students – my good friend Chuck – was youth pastor at Harvey Brown Presbyterian Church; one of Louisville’s most affluent, high-steeple churches. And Diane and I would often attend there on Sunday morning. Well, one Sunday we all learned an unexpected lesson that I’ll never forget.
That Sunday morning’s 11 o’clock worship service started out as per usual; prelude, choral introit, welcome and announcements, opening prayer, call to worship, etc. And then, about halfway through the first hymn, a woman comes into the church, off the street, and makes her way toward a back pew. She seems kind of elderly, but it’s rather difficult to discern through the layers of soil on her face; she is disheveled, unkempt, dressed in ragged attire, and carrying two or three grocery-store-type plastic bags, which presumably contained all of her worldly possessions.
In today’s vernacular, I think you would likely call her a `bag-lady’
She seemed to take forever, at least two verses of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” to find a pew upon which to squat. And when she did, it was with a noisy clatter, as if several bottles and cans were hitting the hard wood. And as she sat down, the overpowering aroma of Old Spice spread out to greet those of us sitting nearby. Once in her pew, the bag-lady then started to pray; aloud; by herself.
Of course, this unfolding scene had not gone unnoticed; a hushed wave of whispers echoed through the back half of the sanctuary. Nor had the ushers been asleep on the job. Indeed, after apparently having formed a brief ad hoc committee about this untenable situation, they decided to call the police.
While they waited for the police to arrive, two ushers went, as quietly and inconspicuously as possible, to where the bag-lady was sitting, took her by either arm, lifted her out of her pew, and escorted her—against muffled protests—toward the back door.
Now, here’s where it really gets interesting. While sorting things out in the narthex . . . between the ushers, the police and the bag-lady it was discovered that the ‘bag-lady’ was not a bag-lady at all, but rather one of the associate pastors of Harvey Brown who was in costume to present a creative minute for mission regarding a homeless shelter which the church had recently taken on as a mission. Here endeth the lesson.
There has long been a debate concerning the Transfiguration, as is true with most of the miraculous events recorded about Jesus’ life.
Some scholars simply take this narrative at face value: that Jesus really did physically transform before the very eyes of the disciples. That, on that mountaintop that night, he suddenly began to shine as bright as the sun, so that if the people below, in villages at the foot of the mountain were to look up through their windows, the top of that mountain would look as if it were ablaze; as a flaming beacon for all the world to see.
Others, however, believe that the actual, radical transformation was not in Jesus’ appearance, but rather in the hearts and minds of those disciples with him. They suggest that God peeled away the worldly calluses on the eyes of the disciples causing them to see Jesus, truly for the first time. Not just as their friend, a great teacher, the leader of their little band; but to see Jesus for who he really was: the Christ; the Son of the Living God; the Messiah; and God revealing to them all the glory that went along with that designation.
As with many debates on such theological issues, I tend to suspect that the truth lies somewhere in between. Or maybe, the truth of the matter is found, not in either/or, but rather in both/and.
I do believe that Jesus, as Son of the Living God, was the beneficiary of divine bestowment. Anointed and attended to by the supernatural power of God.
But, of course, not everyone believes as I do.
One of my undergraduate courses at Wichita State was a comparative study in world religions. And the professor was a truly brilliant man, knew more about religion than I will probably ever know. Certainly, knew more about Christianity that I did at that point.
And yet, for all his knowledge, his vast expertise of religion was an empty vessel. He had surveyed the great faiths of the world, scrutinized their sacred texts (the Bible included) and came away from that scholarly discipline an atheist; choosing to place trust in his own powers of rationale and reason, rather than in the `grand futility of faith’ as he saw it.
“None are so blind,” Helen Keller once said, “as those who have eyes but are unable to see.”
The great theologian George Buttrick pointed out: “Faith must never be counter to reason; yet it must always go beyond reason, for the nature of man is more than rationalism. Faith is emotion as well as reason.”
And judging by the disciple’s reaction to Jesus’ transfiguration, faith often overwhelms both rationale and emotion. For those who like to remain in full control of their faculties that can sometimes pose a dilemma.
Through all those years of academic endeavor, my esteemed college professor failed – tragically so, I believe – to learn the most important lesson of all. That there is something deeply buried within the human being, which longs to rise to the surface and catch a glimpse of its Creator.
My esteemed professor had `personally never seen any evidence of God’, he said; though he had read the Bible cover to cover; and been as privy to the glories of the universe as any one else.
Yet for those with just a mustard seed of faith, God’s truth can shine through a single sentence of scripture with such luminosity that everything about life can be transformed forever.
“It’s as strange a scene as there is in the Gospels,” says Fred Buechner. “Even without the voice from the cloud to explain it, they had no doubt what they were witnessing. It was Jesus of Nazareth all right, the man they’d trampled many a dusty mile with, whose mother and brothers they knew, the one they’d seen as hungry, tired, footsore as the rest of them. But it was also the Messiah, the Christ, in his glory. It was the holiness of the man shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it they were almost blinded. Even with us something like that happens once in a while,” Buechner goes on. “The face of a man walking his child in the park, of a woman picking peas in the garden, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing.”
Jesus was transfigured, to be sure; but the real story is what happened to the disciples. For at the same time, God was peeling away the cataracts of cynicism and fear and ambition and despair that had been thus far clouding their vision of the reality of Christ. Renting open stony hearts and weary minds to allow God’s incredible truth to shine in.
The late William Sloane Coffin put it this way: “Jesus is both a mirror to our humanity and a window to divinity, a window revealing as much of God as is given mortal eyes to see. When Christians see Christ empowering the weak, scorning the powerful, healing the wounded, and judging their tormentors, we are seeing transparently the power of God at work. What is finally important is not that Christ is Godlike, but that God is Christ-like. God is like Christ. That’s what we need to know, isn’t it? Then we know how to pray—“through Jesus Christ, our Lord,” who gives us the right and confidence to pray the way we do.” (Credo, 2004)
God’s incomparable glory did not shine through Jesus so that he might be somehow changed. But rather so that we, his disciples, might experience transformation. A transformation of vision; that we might be able to see Christ for who he truly is; and see the world the way God sees it.
In his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey gives testimony of a transformative moment in his life. He was riding home on a subway, one day, in New York City. And seated next to him was a young father, with three little kids in tow. And these children were just out of control.
They were yelling at each other, fighting in the aisle, stumbling over the briefcases and feet of the other passengers. And Steven Covey sat there just doing a slow burn. Because this young father seemed not to be at all concerned about his children. In fact, didn’t even to notice their outrageous behavior.
Finally, after a good deal of time went by, Steven Covey decided to be `proactive’ in this situation, and be the one to speak up on behalf of himself and the other passengers. “Excuse me, sir. Can’t you exercise a bit more control over your children. You don’t seem to care about the fact that they are being completely disruptive to the other passengers.”
The young father slowly looked up, as if being drawn out of some deep place, to focus in on Covey, and then look around at his children.
“Oh, I am sorry,” he responded. “We’ve just spent all night at the hospital. Their mother died a few hours ago. And I was just trying to figure out how I was going to tell them.”
How do we see the people we ride with on the bus? Or sit next to at the diner? Or stand behind in line at the grocery store? Or walk past on the street? How do we view those young parents moving in down the block with all the noisy kids?
Can we see Christ shining through the dirty faces? Can we see Jesus Christ in the faces of those of different races? Can we see his holiness in the sullen demeanor of the stranger and the orphan? Can we hear God’s voice calling out in other voices, others dialects, other languages?
If we truly believe that God has come to shine upon all human kind the magnificent radiance of his merciful love through Jesus Christ—and so listen and so follow—then we, too, shall be transformed by his countenance, his presence, his glory, and his mission wherever we look. Amen.