What You See Is What You Give
Transfiguration Sunday February 11, 2018
Lansing Central United Methodist Church, Michigan Area
Bishop David Alan Bard
Texts: II Kings 2:1-12; Mark 9:2-9
Thank you for inviting me here today. I appreciate the opportunity to be with you here in worship, and I appreciate you being here.
In the church calendar, this is the final Sunday before the beginning of the season of Lent – the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany. The traditional Gospel reading for this Sunday is the story of the Transfiguration, which we read from the Gospel According to Mark. I must admit that as someone who tended to preach using the lectionary readings, that three-year cycle of readings shared by many Christian churches, I found preaching using the transfiguration story every year challenging. But here we are! So I am going to change the focus for a bit – poetry!
I think we have a rather ambivalent relationship to poetry. Most book stores have poetry sections, so it must sell some, but the space devoted to poetry is rather small compared to say science fiction or mystery stories. Most of us learned about poetry in school, but not many continue an interest in it. I had a member of the last congregation where I was the pastor tell me he appreciated my preaching, but was not much for the poetry I sometimes used. I am thinking about him this morning.
Even poets recognize that there is an ambivalence about their art. The poet Marianne Moore begins her poem, “Poetry”: “I, too, dislike it.” She goes on to write that one might discover in it “a place for the genuine.” The poet William Carlos Williams in one of his poems writes: “It is difficult/to get the news from poems.” He goes on: “yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” (“Asphodel, The Greeny Flower”) More recently The New Yorker published a review essay on books about poetry, books with titles like Equipment for Living, Why Poetry? And The Hatred of Poetry. The subtitle of the essay was “Can a poem change your life?”
You may be wondering if rather than a sermon I’ve prepared notes for a Lit 101 class. I have not forgotten the transfiguration story or the Elijah and Elisha story, but one more poet and poem. Poets and writers about poetry wonder about it, what its usefulness might be, whether it can make a difference. The German poet Rilke (1875-1926) wrote a poem about a statue of the god Apollo, one of those ancient statues with the head missing. Nevertheless, the statue was “suffused with brilliance from the inside,/like a lamp.” Something in the statue “burst like a star.” Rilke ends his poem, “You must change your life.” For Rilke, looking at a statue leads to an experience that impacts his entire life. In writing the poem, Rilke would like the reader to get to the place where they feel “you must change your life.” (“Archaic Torso of Apollo”)
Peter, James and John accompany Jesus up a high mountain. While there, they have a visionary experience in which Jesus becomes transfigured. His clothes become dazzling white. Elijah and Moses appear with him. The story reminds me of the Rilke poem, in which the poet, staring at the statue sees it suffused with brilliance from the inside, like a lamp, sees it burst like a star. Peter manages a few words in his amazement. “It is good for us to be here.” It might have been particularly good because just before this, Jesus was talking about suffering and death. Then there is a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” The vision ends abruptly.
We are left with Peter, James and John with Jesus on the mountain. I cannot help but think that this visionary experience left the three disciples at the same place the poet Rilke was left after examining the statue of Apollo – that is, the disciples are left with that feeling, “You must change your life.”
You must change your life. But how? Peter wants to stay in this place where everything is safe, where everything is light, where everything is clear. He sees differently. He understands something more about Jesus, as would James and John. They understand more deeply that God is up to something wonderful and beautiful in Jesus. Yet they cannot simply stay in that place. They must come down from the mountain and live in a way that stays true to their visionary experience.
Where have we had such moments in our lives, moments of clarity, moments where we know deep in our bones that we must change? Perhaps sometimes that moment of deep clarity says to us: “you can change” or “change is possible” or “you are loved even as you change.” Such moments of deep spiritual clarity matter. Feeling remarkably close to God through Jesus is transformative. Knowing one is surrounded by God’s love, held in God’s love, makes a difference. Yet we cannot simply bask in those moments of spiritual intensity. We, too, have to come down from the mountain, but we do so taking light and love into the ordinary and every day, the muddled and muddy reality of life, the ambiguity in which we live. We come down from the mountain, but we carry with us what we saw, heard, experienced in that moment. What we see is what we give.
Elisha has been a disciple of Elijah (I Kings 19:19-21). Elijah is being taken away, and asks Elisha what he might do for him. “Please let me share a double portion of your spirit.” Elijah tells Elisha, “if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted.” Elijah is swept away by a chariot and horse of fire while Elisha watches. Having seen Elijah’s work, and now seeing his departure – an indication that God had been up to something in Elijah, Elisha begins his own ministry. What he sees is what he gives.
What we see is what we give. How we see our lives and the world shapes how we live in the world. We need moments of new vision in our lives, in our organizations, and in our world. Rabbi Edwin Friedman is known to many of us who have concerned ourselves with organizational change. Friedman is a familiar figure in applying family systems theory to congregational dynamics. He has taught us that it is often underlying emotional and relational dynamics that keep individuals or groups stuck, even more than disagreements about particular issues. One way Friedman has talked about being stuck is imaginative gridlock. He says that an imaginatively gridlocked relationship system is one in which we are on a treadmill of trying harder and harder, is one in which we focus more on finding answers than reframing questions, and one in which our thinking becomes polarized into false dichotomies. I don’t know about you, but that kind of emotional gridlock describes some people I know, some churches I know, and often what I see in our country. I have experienced some of that emotional gridlock in my own life.
What’s the antidote? Seeing differently. Cultivating a spirit of adventure that is comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, asks questions, is open to serendipity, and is willing to imagine in new ways. (Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, chapter 1). It is hearing the voice of the Spirit saying, “you must change,” “you can change”, “change is possible”, “you are loved in the midst of changing”. It is hearing again that God is up to something wonderful and beautiful in Jesus, and that something has to do with making our lives different and making the world different – different in the direction of love and forgiveness, beauty and justice, peace and reconciliation, caring and creativity, different in breaking down barriers whether those barriers be between people or barriers of imaginative gridlock we set up inside our own minds. When we see the world differently, we live in the world differently. What we see is what we give. One way to view prayer and worship are as moments where we allow our vision to be enlarged again, our imaginations to be set free again. They are poetry for the soul reminding us that we can be different, that life can be different.
When we see the world as a place where God remains active, where God’s light and love and life still radiate, even as we also see the world’s ugliness and brutality, we live with hopefulness and let our hopefulness lead us to action. We trust change is possible. Doesn’t our world need more hopeful people? We even live with a measure of joy. What we see is what we give.
When we see others as beloved by God, as created in God’s image, we live more lovingly, we live more openly, we fight against the fear of the other that seems so deeply ingrained in our biology. Can’t we do better as a human community in seeing each other as human beings and not as categories or as stereotypes? What we see is what we give.
When we see God as a God who is up to new things, who indeed, makes change possible, we live our own lives differently. We need not be mired in despair about past choices. We can live in new ways. What we see is what we give.
When we see God as loving us, even us, we need not shrink from life, nor rush about madly for affirmation wherever and however we can get it. Knowing our own belovedness is powerful. What we see is what we give.
Rilke looking at a headless statue sees radiance and light bursting forth like a star and is convinced that he must change his life. He writes poetry that he hopes might serve as catalyst for others to experience life-changing epiphanies. Elisha sees Elijah swept away in a chariot of fire. God was up to something in Elijah, and now God will be up to something in Elisha. Peter, James and John see Jesus transfigured. They know deep in their souls that God is up to something wonderful and beautiful in Jesus. Though the temptation is there simply to bask in the spiritual glow, they know that they have to take this down the mountain, take the vision into the world, let the work of Jesus – the work of love and forgiveness, beauty and justice, peace and reconciliation, caring and creativity, of breaking down barriers and overcoming imaginative gridlock – let the work of Jesus become their work, even when the world is muddy and muddled and the ecstasy of the vision feels faded.
Where and when have you felt the power of God’s Spirit, the embrace of God’s love? When have you embraced the Spirit of Adventure that is the Spirit of God moving us beyond imaginative gridlock? Know it again. See the world anew as a place where God embraces us in love and where God continues God’s work in Jesus. Recommit yourselves to this work in acts of love and kindness, acts of justice and generosity, in acts of wild imaging. May it be so by the grace and love of God and by the power of God’s Spirit. Amen.