Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, March 3, 2019
Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Amherst, MA

Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36

Transfiguration and a radiant Earth


We couldn’t ask for more powerful readings than the ones we were given for today, the last and climactic Sunday of the Epiphany season. Today we are summoned to the mountaintop to celebrate the transforming power of God. In our first reading, Moses is coming down from Mount Sinai, carrying the Ten Commandments that establish the covenant between God and God’s people. He has been praying on the mountain, listening to God with the love and attentiveness with which one listens to a friend (Ex. 33:11), and the skin of his face is shining (Ex. 34:29). He is radiant with God’s glory.


Today’s Gospel passage from Luke is also set on a mountain. Soon after Jesus tells his disciples that he will die and rise again, he takes with him Peter, John, and James and goes up on the mountain to pray. In the solitude of that holy mountain, with its long, sweeping vistas and its cold, clean air, Jesus’ prayer grows into an intense religious experience that recalls the experience of Moses. “While (Jesus) was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Luke 9:29). To describe this change, Greek manuscripts use the word “metamorphosis” (metemorphothe); Latin manuscripts use the word “transfiguration” (transfiguratus est). Whatever you call it, it’s the same thing: at the top of the mountain, Jesus is swept up by the love that sustains the universe. What Dante calls “the love that moves the sun and other stars”1 so completely embraces Jesus that who he really is, who he has always been, is briefly revealed. A dazzling brightness emanates from his face, his body, even his clothes. The sacred radiance at the center of reality is shining through him, bursting through his seams, streaming from his pores, and even the three sleepy disciples can see it.

Mountains at sunset


What just happened? The holy presence that secretly abides within every person and every part of the created world has suddenly, briefly become visible to the human eye. The vivid image of Jesus lit up from within aligns with the experience of mystics from every religion who speak of a vibrant, shimmering energy or light that flows through everything, although usually we don’t see it. In Asia, the cosmic life force is called chi in Chinese and prana in Sanskrit, and in many Eastern traditions, enlightenment is associated with a flow of energy throughout the body.2 Christian mystics speak of the Holy Spirit as a Presence or energy that moves through the body, and the body of Creation. For Christians, there is something deeply personal in this energy: it is the dynamic, creative Presence of the Holy Spirit. When we sense its presence in ourselves or in the outside world, God seems to light up the edges of things or to shine out from within them. We see the hidden depth behind the surface of ordinary reality. The eternal makes itself known to us, and we may experience it as light, although it is beyond the reach of ordinary sight. That’s where the language of paradox and poetry comes in, where mystics speak of a “dazzling darkness” or a “dark radiance,” just as in this passage Luke uses the language of paradox when he describes Jesus’ experience in terms of both a dazzling light and an overshadowing cloud (Luke 9:29, 34). Something about perceiving that radiant darkness awakens our love.

We may not consider ourselves mystics, but anyone who has ever been overcome by the beauty of the world – anyone who, in contemplating the world, has ever experienced a wave of wonder and gratefulness and awe – anyone who has ever spent time looking into the eyes of a baby or studying the details of a leaf – anyone who has ever gazed for a while at a mountain range or watched the sparkling waters of a river as it rushes downstream knows what it’s like to see the hidden radiance of Christ, whose living presence fills the whole Creation. Whenever we look at the world – whenever we look at each other – with eyes of love, we see the hidden radiance, the light that is shining within each person and each thing, although they may know nothing about it. Seeing the world with eyes of love is to see the world shining – to see its suffering, yes; to see its brokenness and imperfection, yes; but also to see it as cherished by God, as precious in God’s sight, as shining with God’s light. To see the world with eyes of love is to see it with God’s eyes.

So as we gaze at Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop, shining with the radiance of God, we see what Moses saw, what Jesus saw, and what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins saw: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

Rev. Randy Wilburn (Intentional Interim Pastor, Immanuel Lutheran Church, Amherst) and Rev. Margaret, after the service


I think this is one of the great gifts that people of faith can offer the world in this perilous time: the perception of Creation as a sacred, living whole, lit up with the glory of God. Let’s be clear: we were born into a society that does not see the Earth like that. Most of us were not taught to see the natural world as sacred and lit up with God’s glory. It’s as if a veil was placed over our minds, just as Moses placed a veil over his face (Ex. 34:33). When our minds are veiled, we no longer see God’s glory. We see the natural world as nothing more than the backdrop to what really matters: the human drama. Nature becomes something to be ignored, used up, exploited at will, dominated and assaulted without a second thought. We experience ourselves and other human beings as basically separate from the rest of Creation, entitled to do anything we want to it, with no regard for its integrity or value or needs or rights.

By now we know where that perception of the world has taken us: scientists are reporting with increasing concern that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes and that human civilization is at risk of collapse. Gazing at Jesus shining on the mountain is like medicine for our troubled spirits. It removes the veil from our eyes and restores our inward sight. For we are gazing on the one who loved us into being, the one who tells us that life and not death will have the last word, the one in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:17), the one whose presence fills (Eph. 4:10) the whole Creation.

So when we see God’s Creation being desecrated and destroyed – when we see God’s good Earth being poisoned by toxins and pollutants, and laid waste by corporate greed – when we learn from scientists that a mass extinction event is now underway, a “biological annihilation”– when we recognize that burning coal, gas, and oil is pushing the planet to break new records for heat, causing droughts, floods, and monster hurricanes, drowning cities, and accelerating wildfires – when we understand that the people hurt first and hardest by the effects of a changing climate are the poor – when we realize that, unless we change course fast, we will not leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world – then we are moved to take action. For we want to bear witness to the love of Jesus that is shining on the mountain and shining in our hearts. We want to honor the glory of God’s Creation and to protect it from further harm.

When it comes to tackling climate change, there is so much that we as individuals can do. Maybe we can plant a tree. Save a tree. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, eat organic, eat less meat and move to a plant-based diet. Maybe we can support local farms and land trusts. We can fly less – and, if we must fly, we can buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. If we have financial investments, we can divest from fossil fuels; if we’re college graduates, we can push our alma mater to divest, as well.

Immanuel Lutheran Church, Amherst, MA


Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we also need systemic change. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made clear, we need to transform our society and economy at a rate and scope that are historically unprecedented. To do that, we need to use our voices and our votes, and to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. So some of us join Citizens Climate Lobby, a bipartisan organization that is pushing for a price on carbon and supporting the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. Some of us join Climate Action Now, our fine, local, grassroots, climate action group that meets every month in Amherst or Northampton. Many of us will be looking with great interest at what happens to the Green New Deal, which is the first big push in years to treat the climate crisis with anything like the seriousness that it deserves. Those of us who are white and privileged listen to the voices of racial minorities, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive.

Today we stand on the mountain, soaking up the light of Christ and letting ourselves be filled with his love. Even now, the glory that shone through Jesus Christ is shining in our hearts, longing to blaze up like fire and to melt away everything in us that is less than love. On Wednesday we will follow him down the mountain and into the 40 days of Lent, that precious season that invites us to re-orient our lives to the love of God. Day by day we intend to watch for the light and listen to the love, until the day comes when we “see Jesus in every aspect of existence”3 and perceive at last that even the ashes of Lent – even the dust itself – is shining.

 

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1. William Johnston, “Arise, My Love…”: Mysticism for a New Era, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, 115.

2. Johnston, “Arise,” 115.

3. “The paths we travel on our sacred journey will lead us to the awareness that the whole point of our lives is the healing of the heart’s eye through which we are able to see Jesus in every aspect of our existence.” (St. Augustine)