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Close Encounters of the Jesus Kind

Sermon - 3/06/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 17:1-8

Next Sunday is our "Cornerstone Sunday" (more details here), and as it happens, that's also the first Sunday of Lent. That makes today "Transfiguration Sunday", traditionally the story of the Transfiguration is read (it's been a few years since I've used it for a sermon).

It's found in 3 of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and I'm going to use Matthew's version, from the 17th chapter:

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.


This story of the transfiguration is one of those peculiar stories that's a bit challenging from our modern point of view. I mean, what do we do with these supernatural kinds of occurrences? Of Moses and Elijah appearing and disappearing, Jesus' face shining like a nuclear reaction (as bright as the sun, his clothes dazzling white), always calls to my mind the image of Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy when he comes back from the depths of. . . whatever, Sheol.

But as I read this text again this week and began reflecting on it, the image that came to me was another movie, a great epic -- Steve Spielberg's movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind". Released in 1977 -- I always like to bring in modern, relevant, current events into my sermon illustrations :) This one just took me awhile to make the connection.

In that move, many of you will recall, Richard Dreyfus has an encounter with extra-terrestrial beings, a great scene, at a railroad stop, suddenly this light from above shines and everything goes crazy in his pickup truck. And ever since that moment, he is filled with this obsession -- he doesn't understand what it is, or why, but he has this vision of this place. And that eventually leads him to the place where extra-terrestrials do in fact land, and that's the clip I want to show you from the end of the movie, in which he is chosen by these beings.

As you watch this, take note especially of the religious interpretation that Spielberg gives to this event [Dan played a clip similar to the one below, starting at about the 8:00 min mark, to the end]:


Now, if that's not a modern interpretation of the transfiguration, I'll eat my Bible :) I mean, there are Peter, James, and John, right there. The awe. The bright lights, dazzling. It's all there -- it could be taken right out of the gospel of Matthew.

Now, I'm not suggesting that Spielberg seriously is retelling the story of the transfiguration, or even has it in mind, he's just trying to make an entertaining movie. But he's onto something here. Something about those mysterious encounters in life that give us glimpses to that which is beyond us. Insights into the divine mystery, moments when we are touched by the glory of the heavens.

So, let me take you back to an earlier scene in the movie, that gives a hint to the larger picture, the larger purpose in life (if not in the movie), when Dreyfus is sitting down to dinner with his family, and he is suddenly overcome with this image that he doesn't understand. And see the family reaction as he begins re-creating this place in his dinner plate:



This means something.  This is important, he says.

This story of Jesus, the story of the transfiguration, means something.  This is important.

It's not just some odd tale of a bizarre event beyond our comprehension. One of the images I have used before, to get at that meaning behind the story, is Raphael's famous painting of the transfiguration:

In fact, I've given a whole sermon on it, so far back I had to use a slide projector to project the images (that's how long ago it was). But I had never actually seen the painting itself until I took my sabbatical in 2008 and had a chance to visit the Vatican (where it is), and was able to see it there, displayed between two other companion pieces:

And when you see that famous painting up close, one of the things you are struck by is the scene of turmoil and chaos. A depiction of the story of the epileptic boy, brought to Jesus immediately as they descend from the mountain. And so Raphael has brilliantly combined the two into one image. There's a disciple there on the left side who is pointing up to Jesus as the solution to this scene of chaos and turmoil.

It kind of looks like something out of a Steven Spielberg movie - Close Encounters of the Jesus Kind. It was Raphael's last painting, he died just after he completed it, in the year 1520. And here's the interesting detail I had previously missed when I used this painting for the illustration, though it's described in Cynthia Pearl Moss' excellent book "Christ in the Fine Arts" that was first published in 1938 (so it's nothing new): after his death, this painting was carried in the funeral processional to his final resting place, which is the Pantheon, in Rome:

Now, some of you may recall from my sermon in December (I know some of you may not remember my sermon from last week :), you may remember this image that I used in that sermon, from my visit there.

The Pantheon is Christianity's oldest church, built around the year 125, built as a home for 12 Roman Gods, converted to a church in the beginning of the 7th century, still functions as a church to this day, and inside there are 3 royal tombs, including the founder of modern-day Italy, and Raphael's tomb:

And it wasn't until I visited that I made the connection, I saw the painting, and then there at the Pantheon saw his final resting place. And on the crypt, Pope Gregory the 16th had inscribed this:

"Here lies Raphael, by whom nature feared to be out-done while he lived, and when he died, feared that she herself would die".

Now, I ask you: what is the significance of buying an artists (not Kings and Popes), but an artist, in Christianity's oldest church?

Is it because he was such a good painter? Was it because he had good political connections? Both undoubtedly true. Or, was it because he helped make that connection, to transcend the chaos and the turmoil of this world, to connect to that greater reality beyond, beneath, and above all else that is?

Cynthia Pearl Moss quotes a commentary on the painting by a Dr. Albert Bailey, who says: "Raphael's masterpiece is an expression of the deepest truth of life. And what is that truth? That humanity needs a savior. And that to save us, God in his love has given us Christ, a realization of a transfigured and redeemed humanity".

And that takes me back to that statement of Dreyfus' character at the dinner table, sculpting his potatoes. This means something. This is important. Even if he doesn't know what it is.

And that is the essential question before us -- not 'did this really happen?' the way Matthew describes it, or the way Raphael paints it, but 'what does it mean?'.

And Matthew gives us a number of clues in the way he tells the story, that this is more than, not less than, a factual account. The allusion to the story of Moses, when his face shone like the sun after his encounter with the holy. This sudden appearance of Moses and Elijah, the representation in scripture of the law and the prophets. Did you ever wonder -- how did they know it was Moses and Elijah? Did Jesus introduce them, you know, shake hands? Did they say, 'Oh, I've seen their picture'? How did they know?

But, you see, that's not the point. The repetition of the proclamation at the baptism of Jesus (none of the Disciples were there at the baptism), but we hear that voice again, we know where it came from, we recognize it: "This is my beloved son, listen to him". The touch of the 3 Disciples by Jesus (I love that little detail).

And finally, the conclusion: when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. Exclamation point (!), double-underline, bold print.

You see, these are more than rhetorical flourishes to a good story. They are signs pointing to a reality larger than life, and events beyond history. It's Matthew's way of saying to us: Listen, this isn't about something fantastic, out of this world, that happens to Jesus and witnessed by the Disciples, its something fantastic that happens to all of us. This means something. This is important.

This past year, I've been a participant in a series of retreats for spiritual direction called "Courage to Lead", funded with a Lilly grant, and thanks to a gift from a member of the congregation that allowed me to attend. It's led by 2 teachers, trained by Parker Palmer, who is one of the nation's leading spiritual directors today.

Tuesday was the last of our retreats. The leaders introduced us to a story that is 2,500 years old. We spent an hour or two working with this story (I'm going to just take a few moments), from one of the great Tao masters, and what's interesting is that it's been translated into English from Thomas Merton, one of the great Christian mystics of the 20th century. So obviously Merton found significance and meaning in this story.

It's called the Wood Carver, and it's a story of a transfiguration of a different sort.

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand of precious wood. When it was finished, all who saw it were astounded. They said it must be the work of spirits.

The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:  “What is your secret?”

Khing replied: “I am only a workman.  I have no secret. There is only this:

“When I began to think about the work you commanded,
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it On trifles that were not to the point.  I fasted in order to set  My heart at rest.
After three days fasting, I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days I had forgotten praise or criticism. After seven days I had forgotten my body with all its limbs.

“By this time all thought of your Highness and of the court had faded away.  All that might distract me from the work had vanished. I was collected in the single thought Of the bell stand.

“Then I went to the forest To see the trees in their own natural state.  When the right tree appeared before my eyes, the bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt. All I had to do was to put forth my hand and begin.

“If I had not met this particular tree there would have been no bell stand at all.

“What happened?  My own collected thought encountered the hidden potential in the wood; From this live encounter came the work which you ascribe to the spirits.”


From this live encounter came the work which you ascribe to the spirits.

Parker Palmer writes about this story in his book "A Hidden Wholeness": "Live encounters are partnerships in which the full powers of two or more beings are at play. The wood-carver and the tree, the teacher and the student, the leader and the led. Helping more of these partnerships happen in our lives is what the wood-carver is about for me".

Palmer compares these live encounters to what he calls 'inert collisions', in which we treat each other as objects to be manipulated, always bumping into each other, pushing and pulling to get our will done, and we wonder why we never get anywhere. Live encounters, on the other hand, he says: "Though unpredictable, challenging, and risky, offer something inert collisions lack -- they are full of vitality that makes life worth living, and they enhance our odds of doing worthy work".

This is the meaning I find, the importance, of this transfiguration story. Jesus is like that wood carver, uncovering, or releasing, the hidden potential of God in us. All I had to do was to put forth my hand, the wood carver says. That's why Jesus touches the Disciples. As if to say 'Get up, go now, there's work to be done in the world'.

The transfiguration is about those live encounters of the Jesus kind. When we behold that glory. When we are touched by that presence. When that power of God's light and love shines in and through us.

As Dr. Bailey noted some 70 years ago: "Ultimately it's not about Jesus, but a transfigured and redeemed humanity". Jesus is but the one who shows us the way. This is my beloved son, listen to him.

We are called to be 'in Christ', as the Apostle Paul says, to live that way of a transfigured life, full of such live encounters that bring out that hidden potential of God in all things, in all of us. That the chaos, the turmoil of this world will be transformed by that reality into a new reality.

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of that reality from the perspective of the mount of transfiguration, when on the last night of his life, he said to that crowd in Memphis:

"I've been to the mountaintop.  I don't mind, like anybody I'd like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place, but I'm not concerned about it now.  I just want to do God's will, and he's allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land.  I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.  And I'm happy tonight, I'm not worried about anything, I'm not fearing any man, mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord'.

That is the glory. The glory of the transfiguration, the glory of live encounters of the Jesus kind we are called to live.


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