Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Exposed to Blinding Light

Scripture for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany includes Exodus 24:12-18; II Peter 1:16-21; and Matthew 17:1-9

Poets have the opening words in this sermon today. First, Wendell Berry, who now lives in a milder climate than ours but, as you’ll see, knows the lay of our land:

Through the weeks of deep snow
we walked above the ground
on fallen sky, as though we did
not come of root and leaf, as though
we had only air and weather
for our difficult home.
But now
as March warms, and the rivulets
run like birdsong on the slopes,
and the branches of light sing in the hills,
slowly we return to earth.

“We walked above the ground on fallen sky…” That makes me think of an elderly person I visited, who couldn’t seem to retrieve the word “snow” and kept speaking about “the white, the white…”

Emily Dickinson is the second poet I bring with me today:

A Light exists in Spring
Not present in the Year
At any other period—
When March is scarcely here

A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels.
It waits upon the Lawn,
It shows upon the furthest Tree
Upon the furthest Slope you know
It almost speaks to you.

Then as Horizons step
Or Noons report away
Without the Formula of sound
It passes and we stay—

A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.

You will have understood already that it is the dazzling white light, and the suddenly bright cloud in Matthew’s story of the Transfiguration that deserve to be approached by verse.

But if I were to write a poem about light while it is still winter, I would write about something that might surprise you, and that is the danger of being suddenly blinded by glare on winter-wet roads. That happened to me on Cole Avenue one day in early February. I’d just turned in from North Hoosac Road, and as I ascended the rise of the bridge I saw it start, as if a massive paintball had exploded onto the pavement, radiating in all directions. As I came down the decline, brilliant impenetrable blinding light washed everything everywhere and for about four or five seconds I was traveling witless, unable to see if the road was clear for me to proceed, equally clueless if it was safe to pull over. All I could do was keep moving, slow down, and trust. Then, as if all that radiance had been sucked down a drain, it disappeared, like the Wicked Witch of the West.

This gives me a new way to appreciate the experience of Peter, James, and John. I now believe they were terrified, helpless, then relieved. And I can imagine how that felt.

My few moments of winter danger draw me into this Gospel in a fresh way. When I hear that Moses and Elijah appeared to them, iconic representatives of the Jewish law and the Hebrew prophets, what I hear now isn’t the stock commentary, that these two old-timers summed up all that Jesus would fulfill. Rather, I hear Moses and Elijah summing up the risks, the dangers, inherent in leading people and representing the future.

Elie Wiesel helps us appreciate Moses. Having gotten all those Hebrew slaves out from under Pharoah’s tyranny, having led them out of Egypt into Canaan, having witnessed at every turn one hair-raising miracle after another, each uplift gave way to letdown, as Wiesel puts it: “This people he had chosen never gave him anything but worries. There was no pleasing, no satisfying them. Forever complaining, grumbling, protesting, missing the stability—however precarious, even miserable—of the past… Moses’ chosen people showed no faith, no joy in being partic ipants in the making of history… Poor Moses, who had dreamed of inspiring them, elevating them, transforming slaves into leaders, fashioning a community of free and sovereign men and women. Here was his dream—broken, shattered. His people, unchanged, were still absorbed in their sordid intrigues and in-fighting. They had seen God at work and had learned nothing. They had witnessed events of cosmic importance and had remained unaffected. They were already doubting God’s presence in their midst. They were already doubting their purpose, their very memory.

“And when God said to Moses, ‘Your people have sinned’—Moses replied with a sudden display of humor: ‘When they observe Your Law, they are Your children, but when they violate it, they are mine?’

“In spite of his disappointments, in spite of his ordeals and the lack of gratitude he encountered, Moses never lost his faith in his people.” But it sure can be a risky thing, downright dangerous, to lead people and to represent the future.

Elijah knows it, too. Do you remember the time when he alone faced 450 prophets of Baal who were in the employ of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel? A blinding light figures in that story, too: in a life-or-death contest, lightning came down from heaven to consume the offering Elijah laid on his altar, while the altar prepared by the prophets of Baal was a non-starter. Then Elijah is said to have single-handedly slaughtered every one of those 450 false prophets. No wonder he became a fugitive, wanted dead or alive. He is remembered for appearing in a flash and disappearing just as fast. It is a risky and dangerous thing to lead people and to represent the future.

What kind of conversation is going on within this trinity of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah? Are the old-timers witnessing to Jesus, encouraging him by reminders of the divine energy that made them able to endure? Are they coaching him as he faces the certain dangers before him, hazards that will mark his Lenten journey to Jerusalem, and Gethsemane, and Golgotha, and the garden tomb?

And is Jesus getting in some pointed questions of his own, such as, “Moses, you led God’s people to a land of milk and honey which they took by the edge of the sword, colonizing Canaan in the name of Israel’s God. Violence begets violence, and here we are with the sharp blade of Rome’s emperor at our throats. How am I to build God’s kingdom that is not of this world?”

Though neither of these ancient worthies had much to teach him about the beating of swords into ploughshares, they must have talked long into that night of the steady faithfulness of God shining brighter than the sun, the moon, the stars. They must have made that night glow retelling the ancient truth that God empowers whomever God calls, God’s ample grace exceeding all the risks, all the dangers.

The content of this conversation is the new creation God is building, reordering, in this world by the life and death of Jesus and the resulting transfiguration even of death. Imagine the letdown when Peter, James, and John finally find their tongues…

A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.

“Lord, it’s so good to be here!” So dazed, he has no idea where “here” is…

“We’ll make three shrines to capture this moment, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah…” What do men do when they’re overwhelmed, but retreat to their workbenches and build something?

Their true place, their honest task, will be found in just a moment, right after a bright cloud has overshadowed them and from that cloud a voice has been heard, “This is my Son, marked by my love, bright with my delight. Listen to him.” They fall to the ground, or, in Berry’s language, return to earth. There they feel the touch of Jesus and hear him say, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

Let this Gospel shape your resolve to keep a holy Lent. You who come from root and leaf, not just air and weather, understand the touch of ashes crossing your forehead as your being marked by God’s love. Look for light in the gift of these Lenten days and nights, to find your true place, your honest task—to listen to the Christ who is worthy to be trusted, whose touch and word we need, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

Wendell Berry's and Emily Dickinson's poems appear in "Earth Prayers from Around the World", HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. Elie Wiesel's characterization of Moses is found in his "Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends", Summit Books, 1976.