Some weeks seem heavier than others. This week felt heavy, with the exception of a beautiful day on my birthday.
But there was word in the news of the death of Kayla Murray, the 26 year-old aid worker killed in the custody of ISIS, who wanted to serve and to alleviate the suffering of others. There was the tragic killing of 3 Muslim students in Chapel Hill, NC–Deah Shaddy Baraket, Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammed Abu-Salha; and the excruciating re-playing of Yusor’s conversation on StoryCorps with her 3rd grade teacher. How blessed she was to be able to grow up in the United States, she had said. The news business itself had shadows looming over it, not only as Brian Williams confessed to inflating the truth and Jon Stewart, understandably, announced his leaving from the Daily Show; but also the sad deaths of reporter Bob Simon and journalist David Carr. The snow and bitter cold didn’t help either, not only as travel plans were upset but as the homeless struggle for shelter and warmth.
And those were just some of the more public sorrows and heartbreaks. I daresay we might be able to gather up just as long a list of sorrows and disappointments known personally by us or by our friends and acquaintances. Wednesday I turned the age my brother Bob was when he died, just 8 months after he retired from the ministry. I’ve been thinking about him this week. What about you?
So here we are on the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday, we sometimes call it, after the story in our gospel lesson today. “Six days later,” Mark begins his transfiguration story, 6 days after Jesus had told his disciples for the first time that he would be betrayed, rejected, would suffer, be killed, and 3 days later, raised. This mountaintop experience would change the way the disciples saw Jesus, and this epiphany of who he really was– radiant, beloved of God, not bound by death but able to keep company with those who had died–this epiphany would need to sustain them through the heartbreak of those terrible events that he predicted truly would come.
Metamorphothe is the Greek word Mark uses to describe what happened to Jesus. Transfigured, it usually gets translated here and in the other story Mark tells about this mountaintop experience, but in the only 2 other times it’s used in the New Testament, it’s translated, transformed. In Romans 12:2, Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world; but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” And in 2Corinthians 3:18, he writes, “…and all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of God as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” It’s not just something that happens to Jesus. It can happen to any of us. In fact, one commentator notes that “we need transfiguration,” (Karoline Lewis, workingpreacher.org, 2/15/15) and we long for our own sense of glory, not in the narcissistic sense, but in that deep recognition that that radiance [which is what glory is] is in us as well.
This is a story about change and how we struggle with it, resist it–thus Peter’s blurting out, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Let’s just stay here. This is a story about changing the way we see the world, one another, ourselves, and so transfiguration means exposure, vulnerability. Jesus is utterly lit up. Think of the light over an examining table in your doctor or dentist’s office. Exposed. Vulnerable.
But, as sociologist Brene Brown discovered in her research on shame and vulnerability, vulnerability is “absolutely essential for wholehearted living.” Vulnerability is not weakness, she says, but rather is the most accurate measurement of courage, the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change. Connection is why we’re here, she says, and out of thousands of stories of heartbreak and disconnection, what emerged in her research was that a willingness to be vulnerable was the essential factor for wholehearted living and reconnection. “If we’re going to get back to each other,” Brown says, “vulnerability is the only way.” (TEDx Houston)
Transfiguration, transformation, vulnerability, as opposed to certainty and security, “seem absolutely essential for life and thus for a life of faith,” one Biblical commentator writes. (Lewis, op cit.) “Transfiguration means a new way of seeing the world. And replacing the lenses of our lives is a lot more complicated than picking out new fashionable frames. Because at the heart of the matter is that transfiguration not only signals change, but alters life’s direction.”
Ever since the beginning of January, we’ve been sharing “Epiphany moments” with each other–glimpses of God’s radiance or realm showing forth in the midst of our lives. We’ve heard about the surprising presence of loved ones who have died and yet are still very much present, even guiding us. We’ve heard stories of dreams, stories of connections with co-workers after listening to their grief, stories of seeing our children’s faces in new, fresh ways; and lots of stories of birds and experiences out in nature.
The poet Mary Oliver has spent her life finding epiphanies in nature. “I don’t like buildings,” she told Krista Tippett in a rare interview. “The world [though, meaning, the natural world] is: fun, and familiar, and healthful, and unbelievably refreshing, and lovely. And it is the theater of the spiritual; it is multiform utterly obedient to a mystery.” (Onbeing.org, 2/8/15) What do you pay attention to? Oliver asks us. Good question. Paying attention to the possibility of God’s showing forth in the ordinary, everyday events and places of our lives takes the focus off ourselves and puts it on God.
“I go down to the shore in the morning [Oliver writes in the poem of that name] and depending on the hour the waves are rolling in or moving out, and I say, oh, I am miserable, what shall– what should I do? And the sea says in its lovely voice: Excuse me, I have work to do.”
“Attention without feeling is only a report,” Oliver says. “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
Another pastor gave her congregation the Lenten assignment of looking for parables, which, as it turns out, are quite a bit like Epiphany moments. “Parable literally means “thrown alongside,” Anna Carter Florence says. As in, boom, now you don’t see it, now you do. One minute you’re just humming along, everything’s normal, and then, without warning, you just collide with some flash of insight, and you know for sure that the kingdom of God has come near and you just saw a piece of it. You don’t know why. You don’t know how. You’re just glad you happened to be paying attention in the moment it broke.” [Journal for Preachers, Lent 2015, p. 3] She goes on to tell her congregation, “When you see something, say something. [That’s the sign that’s all over public transportation stations in big cities.] That’s what being a disciple is about–when you see something, say something.” [Carter, op cit., p. 8] Homeland Security wants us to pay attention to potential danger. The Gospel calls us to pay attention to God, which can also be potentially dangerous!
So maybe this practice of looking for Epiphany moments, or looking for parables, should become one of our Lenten practices as well. Keep looking for signs, for glimpses, that the kingdom of God has come near, is coming near, because if you don’t pay attention to that, it’s so easy to become overwhelmed by all the heartache and heartbreak in the world, all the signs that the worst in human beings and random evil have won the day, that the cold grip of this arctic air mass is a metaphor for the icy hold that fear, insanity, cruelty, and greed have over us. “The only remedy for love,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, the only for love’s inevitable heartache and heartbreak, “is to love more.”
As we move from the season of Epiphany on this Valentine’s Day weekend and move into the season for Lent, let us keep our eyes and ears and hearts and minds open, to glimpses of grace, to signs of God’s kindom drawn near, to the presence of more Love which is the only remedy for heartbreak. And for that heartbreak, here, too, is a blessing–
Jan Richardson, whose images and blessings have been a blessing to me, wrote of finding all the cards and notes she had written to him in her husband’s things, as she gradually, painfully, goes through them after his death last year. After finding a handmade card with a heart on it, she recalls–“Looking at the card now, I think of the nurse’s words just after Gary died. I had placed my hand on his chest and remarked on how strange it was to feel a heartbeat and know it was only my own pulse. ‘His heart beats in you now,’ she said to me.” [http://paintedprayerbook.com/2014/02/10] “If you’re living with a broken heart right now, [Jan writes] or know someone who is, this blessing is for you. In the midst of the breaking, may our hearts never cease to open.
“A Blessing for the Brokenhearted( There is no remedy for love but to love more. – Henry David Thorea)
Let us agree for now that we will not say the breaking makes us stronger or that it is better to have this pain than to have done without this love. Let us promise we will not tell ourselves time will heal the wound when every day our waking opens it anew. Perhaps for now it can be enough to simply marvel at the mystery of how a heart so broken can go on beating, as if it were made for precisely this— as if it knows the only cure for love is more of it as if it sees the heart’s sole remedy for breaking is to love still as if it trusts that its own stubborn and persistent pulse is the rhythm of a blessing we cannot begin to fathom but will save us nonetheless.” – Jan Richardson [op cit.]
May it be so. Amen. Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark