Saturday, March 5, 2011

From Glory to Glory

RCL Transfiguration A
6 March 2011

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus text:  Matthew 17.1-9

1)  “Yes, Father Richard”

         My family returned to the United States in the early fall of 1963 after a three-year tour of duty overseas in Germany.  We quickly settled back into the life of what had been our home town before our overseas tour of duty, Colorado Springs.

         Before leaving for Germany we had worshipped at the Church of the Holy Spirit on what was then the eastern edge of our small city.  But rather than return to our former parish, we started attending the parish of Saint Michael the Archangel, a new parish in the northern outskirts of the city, closer to our home in the northwest corner of town.  Saint Michael’s was, in many ways, an Air Force parish, drawing many of its members from the faculty and staff of the Air Force Academy, a fifteen-minute drive to the north of the parish.

         Soon after we arrived, our whole family was adopted by Jon and Elma Nottingham.  Jon was a retired Army colonel and Elma his wife of many years.  It wasn’t very long before my sister and I came to see Jon and Elma as our surrogate grandparents, our own being far away in New York and England.

         Fifteen years after our return from Germany I entered seminary, sponsored by Saint Michael’s and supported by many people, especially Grandpa Jon and Grandma Elma.  If I didn’t check in with them on my trips home, there was trouble for sure.

         Shortly after my ordination in 1981 I was having lunch with Jon and Elma in their home.  Every time Grandma Elma addressed me, she addressed me as ‘Father’ Richard, the custom in the Diocese of Colorado.  After an hour or so, I said to her, “Grandma Elma, you’ve known me since I was ten years old.  You can call me ‘Richard’.”  “I know that,” she replied, “but would you like something more to eat, Father Richard.”

         I recognized the tone in her voice.  She needed no permission from me to call me by my first name alone.  She had made a decision and, for the most part, it was a decision she followed almost to the day of her death. 

         For Grandma Elma my ordination had not changed me.  The boy whose quirks and foibles she knew well was still present before her in the young man to whose education and formation she had contributed in many ways.  She had affirmed my knowledge, skills and character as the foundation for the new role that I had assumed as an ordained deacon and, later, priest.

         What had changed was our relationship.  The ten-year-old boy was now a young man who had been ordained to exercise a specific role of liturgical leadership, teaching and pastoral care in the midst of the Christian community she loved.  She could not help but see me in a new light, a light cast by the action of the church in my ordination.  I was and I was not the boy she first knew.  Ordination had transfigured me.

2)  Transfiguration rather than transformation

         In all three of the so-called ‘synoptic’ gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, the story of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain is told.  This particular story takes place as Jesus is journeying towards Jerusalem for the events that will lead to his passion, death and resurrection.  It is for this reason that the three-year lectionary sets this story on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the Sunday before we begin our annual pilgrimage towards the cross and empty tomb.  We become Peter, James and John who have this experience of the transfigured Jesus.

         You see what happens on the mountain is a transfiguration not a transformation.  In a transformation some thing or some one becomes some thing or some one else; there is a change that remains after the event.

         In a transfiguration some thing or some one is revealed to be what it really is or who they really are; it is a glimpse into the reality that lies at the heart of what this thing is or who this person is.  On the mountain the three disciples see Jesus in his glory, a glory he shares with our God, the Holy One of Israel.  Before they ascend the mountain, he is the Beloved of God, the one upon whom God’s favour rests.  On the mountain top the disciples are given a glimpse of the glory of God’s love embodied in Jesus.  Even as they descend and Jesus tells them to keep this story to themselves, he is still the Beloved of God, the one upon whom God’s favour rests.

         What has changed is the relationship between the disciples and Jesus.  They have already seen miracles and heard his teaching.  They have already travelled with him far and wide.  But now they see him as he truly is and such a vision cannot help but change how they relate to him.  All that follows is forever coloured by that experience on the mountain and I have little doubt that the three privileged disciples were unable to keep it a secret.

3)  Baptism and Eucharist as Transfiguration

         In the Prayer Book tradition of baptism the opening address of the priest to the gathered assembly includes the following words:  “I beseech you to call upon God the Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that he will grant to this Child that which by nature he cannot have”.  While I am hesitant to dispute this venerable tradition, let me offer an interpretation of these words.

         All of us are created in the image and likeness of God, but we live in a world where it is impossible for any of us to escape the consequences of human sin.  The most powerful consequence is the ability of human sin to bury the image and likeness of God in each one of us under layers of self-delusions, illusions of power and self-will. The world into which we are born will not lead us to discover our true selves, but the Holy Spirit, working in and through the Christian community, can give us the tools to strip away the layers that encrust our true selves.  It is a life-long task with moments of success punctuated by periods of failure.

         But it is a life-long task of transfiguration not transformation.  It is not about becoming some one we are not, but rather about becoming who we really are.  Doing justice, loving abiding loyalty and walking humbly with God are not beyond our grasp if we wash away the dirt from our eyes and hands.  Every time we renew our baptismal covenant we ask God to continue that work of transfiguration in us.

         Another means of stripping away those layers is participation in the eucharistic life of the Christian community.  In a world in which many go hungry, whether physically, spiritually and emotionally, simple bread and simple wine are transfigured, showing them to be the very life of God, the very life-giving food of eternal life.  If simple bread and simple wine can be revealed to be symbols of eternal life, imagine what abundant human hospitality and generosity can do in the world.  This belief in the transfiguring power of the sacraments as means by which God empowers us to be our true selves is re-affirmed every time we say together, “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.  Glory to God from generation to generation, in the Church and in Christ Jesus, for ever and ever.  Amen.”

4)  The Journey up the Mountain of Transfiguration

         This week we shall begin the journey up the mountain of transfiguration, the journey we call “the pilgrim way of Lent . . . moved by (God’s) love and toward (God’s) presence bent:  far off yet here --- the goal of all desire.” (Common Praise #174)  No doubt many if not all of us will undertake various ways to re-shape our lives after the pattern of Christ.  For some of us this re-shaping will take the form of fasting in one way or another.  For others Lent will be a time to re-prioritize, shedding those attitudes or practices that are not life-giving and adopting some we hope will be life-giving.  With perseverance we will arrive at the Easter feast having cleared away one or two layers, freeing us to become more truly ourselves as God knows us.

         As a parish we are also travelling the path of the diocesan Ministry Assessment Process.  There are many ways to view this process, but I want to share with you how I understand it.  This process is an opportunity for our corporate transfiguration.  We are seeking to become more truly ourselves as the Christian Community of Saint Faith in the western portion of South Granville.  This is already a generous community of faith, but there are yet to be discovered ways we can grow in stewardship.  This is already a welcoming community of faith, but there are yet to be discovered ways we can reach out to our neighbours.  This is already a self-giving community of faith, but there are yet to be discovered ways we can share the love of Christ we have experienced here.  This is already a community of faith committed to diocesan life, but there are yet to be discovered ways we can be partners in ministry with other Anglicans.

         Transfiguration is never easy.  It always creates new relationships with new obligations but also new possibilities.  So, with our sisters and brothers from an earlier generation, let this be our song as we walk this pilgrim path:

From glory to glory, we praise thee, O Lord;
thy name with the Father and Spirit be ever adored.
From strength unto strength we go forward on Zion’s highway,
to appear before God in the city of infinite day.  (Common Praise #339)



Gayle said...

I love how clear you make the difference between transfiguration and transformation.

Annemarie MacIntosh said...

Ditto to what Gayle said. Also, I've had the same experience with some who've known me as a child and now as a pastor, even though not their pastor.

Anyway, Richard, I'm happy to have discovered your blog. I always enjoyed your fine way of articulating just about anything. Wishing you many blessings.