Transfiguration Sunday – Year A
How do you think God looks at you?
I mean, we have two stories that use some powerful visual elements to portray how we might look at, or perceive, God’s presence. But I wonder if there isn’t something about this imagery that makes room for a complementary way in which God may see us.
So, come closer. Let us see what we shall see…
In the passage from Exodus, a sign of God’s glory is what shines from Moses’ face. It’s a splendor that is thrust upon Moses in his role as bearer of God’s word, commissioned as he is in this scripture snapshot, to be deliverer of the Ten Commandments to God’s people. God’s people. Who respond with fear and trembling. How they looked at God…
So, God shines.
Perhaps, somehow, Moses’ reflection of God’s glory is like that glory of the Lord that shone around the Bethlehem shepherds – the glory that left them terrified too.
And it certainly seems we’re meant to link the shining glory of Moses’ face with that other mountaintop experience in today’s gospel – the shining of the Divine Presence that terrifies onlookers once again. Terror. Or, maybe better, awe.
Yes, these scripture references strongly suggest that God’s glory does shine in an awe-inspiring way. And not only that, its beauty disconcerts us. Better yet, arrests us. There is an arresting quality to God’s more pronounced moments of presence. When we become more aware of God’s glory, something happens. Whatever that chattering internal dialogue of religiosity is – or even our existential angst – all that is silenced, and we are rendered blinking and confused in its light.
Maybe this is what holy ground feels like. It is, by its very nature, off-putting – meant, perhaps to put us off balance to some extent. Awe as what may be a necessary first step toward transformation.
Some scholars I consulted on this matter offer that, far from begin an abstraction, this glory of God in scripture appears to be something of a threat. I find that language a trifle too…. Calvinist for my taste. But I’d almost agree that it’s a kind of a dare. Dare as invitation, though.
So, the question becomes: After the awe, how do we respond to God’s dare to us?
When I was in seminary, I learned to think of God as vulnerable. When you study the prophets, you learn through them how God feels when Israel turns away. There’s a real tenderness in the perception that, somehow, God’s feelings have been hurt.
Hold that in tension with the first commandment – I am your God, you shall not have other gods – and with Jesus’ reiteration of the Sh’ma – Love God with all your being – and it’s clear that God is saying, “Love ME first!” and there’s a kind of vulnerability present. But the more I think about it, the more I realize it’s hard for me to imagine it’s a vulnerability borne of fear. God is love, right? And while human beings tend to move through the world animated by one of two generating impulses – one being love and the other being fear – God’s vulnerability begins and ends in love. And this paradox is something to ponder.
So, we have this incredibly rich, vibrant and loving knowledge – well, uncertainty, really – about God being vulnerable to us and yet being all loving. That might rest in our hearts right next to ‘holy ground as arresting’, as we take a look at what I think may be one of the most interesting points in our stories of Moses and Jesus today.
The imagery in these two passages is very effective at creating a moment of suspension. When we regard not just the words, but bring our hearts into this suspended place, we have the opportunity of finding that ineffable moment where we are regarding God who has come into fuller view. It’s a place where we’re both – God and us – suspended together in mutual regard, and it can be an entirely mystical experience, bursting with potential.
The potential for what? We may gain some insight as we look at how our scripture stories progress.
We find that, the Israelites in the wilderness – you see, God’s glory shining from Moses’ face occurs as the Israelites are wandering in the desert for 40 years – the Israelites have just received the Ten Commandments from Moses. They’ve not only been exposed to the amazingly compelling optic of God’s nearer presence, they’ve also been given a set of guidelines that, when they’re followed in the spirit in which they’ve been given, bear the potential to help the chosen people to live in mutuality and love – with one another. One might think that could have been the end of the story right there. All problems solved. God’s brilliant presence coupled with great advice – for what more could a chosen people ask?
We find also that, more than a thousand years later, Jesus’ disciples, being recipients of the even greater and more consistently present bonus of God’s presence in their lives – in the form of Jesus – AND the optics of dazzling raiment (not to mention the figures of Moses and Elijah, the Israelites’ imagined form of what the coming Messiah might resemble) – this combination might well have been God’s final stroke, after which God might well have brushed hands together and sat back satisfied that “My work is done here”.
But no. The Israelites, according to Psalm 78, “did not stop their craving, though the food was still in their mouths” (v.30) – “they turned away and were disloyal like their fathers; they were undependable, like a warped bow” (v.57).
And the disciples, too, were unable to interpret God’s glory – even as they were witnessing it – in ways that move them toward peaceful, joyfully humble and complete reliance upon God’s unending presence. They remain unable to behave as God’s agents in the world – remain disappointing and doubt-filled – fearful and reactionary.
And even though God gets annoyed – just five verses after our gospel passage today Jesus says, “You faithless and perverse generation! How much longer must I be with you and bear you?” Even though God gets annoyed, we are not abandoned.
And while that doesn’t make sense, neither does the glory – the dazzling raiment – the shining reflection of God in the countenance of the deeply flawed, recalcitrant and stiff-necked people.
Allow me, if you will, to point to a real-life moment that may hold a charm – a charm that might unlock the door to a slightly deeper understanding of God in that suspended place of mutuality. I apologize if you’ve heard this story before. I tried not to use it, but it wouldn’t go away.
You see, I lost my parents when I was in my late teens. When my mom died, some eighteen months after my dad, my older sister was pregnant with her first child. Less than a year later the rawness of fresh grief had begun to soften, ever so occasionally and almost imperceptibly. Certain things brought back some enjoyment of life and some relief. One such incident occurred the following spring, when my new nephew was brought to my grandmother’s house for a visit. A new life, after wrenchingly tragic death. I don’t think any of us realized the significance at the time.
Baby Jason was placed on a blanket on the floor in Nanny’s living room and his parents, my other siblings, and even my aunt and uncle – a nun and a priest – were all gathered around oo-ing and ah-ing at every single little sound and movement this little miracle made for us. Each of us did our best to say something clever or affirming, until that inevitable moment when everything had been said and the comments ceased for a while. We continued to sit and stare, wrapt in enchantment. Suspended in what seemed a sphere of iridescence. We were spellbound.
And then my aunt broke the spell by casting another as she said, “This is how God looks at us.”
I believe that the disciples must have known this. And even the Israelites. Because even though they, like us, were saddled with the great gift and curse that is our free will – which seems inevitably and stubbornly to direct us away from God’s presence – they kept returning. They kept coming back to try over and over – again and again – to get to that place of mutuality in the presence of the Divine – that place of peacefulness, joyful humility and complete reliance upon God’s unending presence.
I’d planned to roll out another thinly veiled indictment of the fear-mongering and hate speaking culture this nation has embraced in so many troubling ways. But I’m arrested by today‘s readings. Moved to focus on being arrested – stopping and reflecting – or not reflecting, and just stopping long enough to maybe allow God’s loving and tenderly vulnerable nature to creep into my heart the way that music creeps into my ears (to borrow from Shakespeare).
Knowing that God is always in that glowing, suspended and charmed place – and always views us from that place – may help us to avoid being drawn into the surprisingly seductive darkness that wants to drag us down – down and away from being loving in the world.
Yes, knowing God is less like knowing and more like being unsure. But it may just take a brief stop in that place of suspended brightness to make all the difference we need to go on – to go in peace to love and serve the Lord!
The Rev. Edwin Chinery
August 6, 2017