passage for our reflection this morning is Paul's second letter to the
Corinthians, the fourth chapter, verses 1-6:
1Therefore, since it is
by Godís mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose
heart. 2We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we
refuse to practice cunning or to falsify Godís word; but by the open
statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of
everyone in the sight of God.
3And even if our
gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4In their
case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers,
to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of
Christ, who is the image of God.
5For we do not proclaim
ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your
slaves for Jesusí sake. 6For
it is the God who said, ĎLet light shine out of darknessí, who has
shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of
God in the face of Jesus Christ..
An astronomer and a
theologian found themselves sitting next to each other in an airplane,
and upon learning of each other's profession, the astronomer said to the
theologian: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells
me so. That's my theology". The theologian replied to
the astronomer: "Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder
what you are. J
That's my astronomy".
True story that could
have happened to any of us, and probably has happened to most, but this
one happened to William Willimon, the Chaplain at Duke University in
North Carolina. He was at an airport, waiting for a plane, when
his neighbor for the moment, upon learning his profession (that he was a
minister) said to him: "Well, I don't go to church, but I do
try to do the right thing, and to live a good life. After all,
isn't that what the Christian faith is all about?" What Dr.
Willimon wanted to say, what he wished he had said had circumstances
been different, was: "No, you poor simple secular soul.
That is not what the Christian faith is all about. The Christian
faith is about more. So much more than our little deeds.
It's about worship. It's about awe. It's about
ecstasy. Ultimately, it's not about what we do at all. It's
about what God does".
Or, as Marcus Borg in
his book The Heart of Christianity writes: "Being a Christian
is not about meeting requirements for a future reward in an afterlife,
and not very much about believing. Rather, the Christian life is
about a relationship with God that transforms life in the present.
Living a path that transforms us at the deepest level of our
being". So much more
than just what we do.
Well, this is the
last Sunday of epiphany, and we begin the Lent season next week when we
focus on the journey of Christ to Jerusalem. Epiphany, though, is
about the star of Christ that leads us from the darkness of winter into
the new dawn of God's light. And the season concludes on the
liturgical calendars with the transfiguration. A story that was
painted by Raphael, and this is just the upper-half of that painting:
I have a whole other
sermon on just the painting itself but I'm not going to get into that
today. But that story, as you know, occurs in the gospels right
before Jesus embarks on that journey to Jerusalem. And in that
story, Peter, James, and John go with Jesus to the mountain where they
see him in dazzling white while Moses and Elijah are there with
him. And a voice from the heavens says "This is my son,
listen to him". And the disciples cower in fear.
Now it's not a story
that can be rationally, easily told. You know, if we had a camera,
is this what we would see if we were to take a picture? People
have tried to explain it, and there just aren't any good ways of
explaining it. One is that Jesus was standing up on a mountain,
the sun was setting and got into the disciples eyes, blinded them, two
old shepherds happened by and they mistook them for Moses and
Elijah! I mean, how would they know? Were those guys wearing
name tags? Or maybe, perhaps, Moses was carrying the two tablets
of stone, as Raphael portrayed him here. These are guys that have
been dead for centuries, how would they know who they were?
And then there's that
voice that comes out of the heavens, which interestingly enough is
almost identical to the statement made at the baptism of Jesus. In
fact, in some manuscripts of the gospels, it is the same as what God
says at the baptism. Only two times that God speaks in the entire
New Testament, save maybe for Revelation and the birth of Jesus, and God
says the same thing. You'd think that God would think up something
new to say in this second opportunity. But that's not the case.
is just one of those stories of our faith for which there are no logical
explanations. It's a lot like love. You can't explain
it. But when you experience it for yourself, ah, then you
understand. This is what it's about.
So hear carefully
what I am saying. The transfiguration is something that we too can
experience and only then will we understand it.
Now even though Paul
is not discussing the transfiguration per se in this letter to the
Corinthians (we don't even know if Paul even knew that story -- he
doesn't talk about it in his letters, the gospels had not yet been
written during his lifetime), Paul describes the essence of the
transfiguration here that comes out of his own experience, when he says:
it is the God who said 'Let light shine out of darkness' who has shown in
our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the
face of Jesus Christ".
What does Paul mean
'the glory of God in the face of Jesus'? Is it this kind of image
(painting shown above), of light shining forth from Christ, or that which we see in the windows
around us? Now, we have to keep in mind that Paul never saw
Jesus. Never saw him. Even if you take the account in the
9th chapter of Acts of his conversion on the road to Damascus as a
literal/factual event, even that story does not say that Paul saw
Jesus. He heard a voice. He was blinded by a light.
But he did not see Jesus. So Paul has no idea what the face of
Jesus looks like.
My favorite image of
Christ is this one, painted by Rembrandt:
He used a young
Jewish man as his model and hence it has a very Semitic look to
it. But clearly Paul is not talking about a physical presence of
Jesus. So what is he talking about? And more importantly,
why should we care?
So let me back up
just a little bit, about 1,200 years to be precise. There's an odd
little story in Exodus about Moses. Whenever he went to speak with
God, when he came down from the mountain his face shone with such
brilliance he had to wear a veil over his head to protect the
people. And so Paul draws on that story in the previous chapter,
right before this one, in his letter to the Corinthians and he uses that
image of the glory of God shining in the face of Moses as a
metaphor. As an image, to describe that presence of God
visibly evident in Jesus. So just as God's overpowering presence
was tangibly present in Moses, so too then in Jesus. The light
shining in the darkness that can be seen from miles and miles away.
But here's the
kicker. At the conclusion of chapter 3, just before this selection
in chapter 4 that I read, Paul says this: "All
of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though
reflected in a mirror. All of us are being transformed into
the same image from one degree of glory to another".
This my point, why it
matters: if this odd little story about Jesus going up on a
mountain to chat with his buddies Moses and Elijah in dazzling white is
merely to show how super-human he is, well goody for Jesus. Do you
have any cards up your sleeve, that you could do some card tricks for
us? But you see, the insight of Paul, coming out of his own
experience, is that it's not just about Jesus, it's about us. It's
about the way our encounter with the divine changes us. How the
sacred transforms us, from one degree of glory to another. This is
the light of the knowledge of the glory of God that we see in the face
of Jesus. When we stand in that presence, like the two on the edge
of Raphael's painting beholding this glory, it changes us.
I want to share with
you this morning one of the ways in which that presence has changed
me. What it means for me to follow a crucified Lord, and how that
presence has touched my life. Last
week I shared with you photos that Paul Jeffery (photo-journalist,
member at First United Methodist Church who travels around the world
working for the church), took of the Darfur, of the refugees there in
the Sudan. And I want to just share one picture of his this
morning, of a young boy in a refugee camp:
Photo by Paul
We really don't know
anything about him. He's carrying here a bucket full of
water. I don't know his age, what would you guess -- 13, 14, maybe
15? We don't know about his family, we don't know who has survived
in his family and who has not. We don't know what terrible things
he has witnessed. We just know he is one of literally millions of
people (about 2 million) living in refugee camps, trying to escape the
genocide that has been ongoing in Darfur. Some of you may recall
that Paul Jeffery was in Sri-Lanka when the tsunami hit. He came
last year and shared with us some of the pictures he took in the
immediate aftermath of that enormous tragedy. And he tells the
story of going to one of those areas amidst all of that devastation in
Southeast Asia, and talking to a man sitting amidst the rubble of his
tragic life, and the man said to him "Where is your God
And Paul didn't have
an adequate response. He said it wasn't until later that it
occurred to him that God is there underneath the rubble. God has
been washed out to sea.
Chuck Stearns, before
I went to Washington D.C., shared with me a story that Judy Siebert
(another congregation member) had given to him. A refugee camp in
which God appears as a woman, in Darfur, and God has been wounded.
And she dies of those wounds, but not before she happens to encounter
then Secretary of State Colin Powell, who throws out all diplomatic
niceties (in some rather strong language I won't repeat here) in a
largely futile effort to try and save this woman and other
refugees. And it's a very troubling story.
As you know, I went
to Washington D.C. two weeks ago in my own hopefully not so futile
effort as part of a much larger campaign of nearly 150 religious and
humanitarian groups to stop the genocide in Darfur. And I shared
with you a story out of my visit to the Holocaust Museum there in D.C.
at the end of that trip. And I want to share with you another
In the museum there
are a number of quotes from Elie Wiesel, perhaps one of the most famous
holocaust survivors. And brought back for me memories of my first
encounter with the writings of Wiesel, that happened to be in Auschwitz
in the spring of 1980. I was there, spent a week there with about
60 German youth, dealing with all of that. Towards the end of that
week, our leader read the story that Wiesel tells of his experience in
that camp when 4 people were caught trying to escape and the Nazi's
wanted to make an example of them. Hung them from gallows, and had
everyone march by to see what happens when you try to escape.
Three of the four were adults, the weight of their bodies broke their
necks when they fell, they died quite quickly. But the fourth was
a young boy, and his weight was not sufficient to break his neck.
He hung there struggling, gasping for breath as he slowly strangled to
death. A very agonizing death. And somewhere in the crowd a
voice cried out 'God, O God, where are you?' And a voice inside of
Wiesel responded: "God is there, hanging from the
Well when I walked
into that museum and immediately recognized the architecture, German
train stations and Auschwitz, it was like a bucket of cold water thrown
into my face as all of those memories came back for me. I ended
up, mistakenly, at the end of the exhibit where there is an eternal
flame. Around this circular room, where hundreds, perhaps
thousands, of candles that people could light in memory of a loved
one. And about half of those candles were lit and burning, and
there were a couple of children there who had come through the exhibit
with their family, and they were lighting a candle or two.
Realizing my mistake that I was at the end of the exhibit I found my way
to the beginning to work through the first half where they tell the
story of Nazi Germany in the 1930s prior to the beginning of the final
I came to this gate, an iron archway with 3 words: ARBEIT MACHT
FREI. A very familiar gate for me, it's a gate that I walked
through every day when I was in Auschwitz. The slogan says:
Work Makes Free. And I understood the irony of that slogan because
for those prisoners who were not immediately sent to the gas chambers,
the only freedom they had any hope of experiencing was by being
literally worked to death.
And I spent the next
two hours going through the exhibit and reliving the story, much of it
familiar, most of in painful, all of it sacred. And I came to the
end, with the eternal flame in a bright, light-filled room that stood in
stark contrast to the dark and somber exhibit. This time I found
myself alone. Standing before the flame and reading the words in
large letters taken out of the 4th chapter of Genesis above the flame
care and watch your heart closely. So as neither to forget the
things that your eyes have seen, nor to let them slip from your mind
all the days of your life. Make them known to your children, and
your children's children"
And as I turned to
leave, suddenly I realized, that ALL of the candles were lit. That
while I was going through the museum and witnessing the millions of
lives exterminated in the holocaust, those children were going through
and lighting every single candle.
For it is indeed the
God who said, let light shine out of darkness, who shines in our
hearts. To share that light, the light of the glory of God.
To know that light is to see the face of Christ: