Sermon for the Ordination and Consecration of the Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld as the Tenth Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire , August 4, 2012. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Capitol Center for the Arts, Concord, New Hampshire.
|2 Peter 1:13-21
Radiance on the Mountain
I can’t imagine a more appropriate context in which to ordain and consecrate Rob Hirschfeld as a bishop than the Feast Day of the Transfiguration. We’re on the mountaintop today, gathered to celebrate the transforming power of the Spirit of God. As we heard in the passage from the Gospel of Luke, about a week after Jesus foretells his death and resurrection, 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. “While he 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.
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 accords with the experience of mystics from every world religion who speak of a vibrant, shimmering energy or light that flows through everything, although usually we don’t 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 likewise 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 within 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 veneer 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.
I like it that God’s transfiguring radiance is at the center of this celebration, because I’ve heard some people say that Rob is a safe choice for the next bishop of New Hampshire after all, he’s white, he’s a man, and he’s straight. You might expect someone like that to be bland and timid, maybe to do what the disciple Peter did on the mountain. Peter was so overcome by the vision of divine glory that not knowing what he was saying (Luke 9:33) — he started chattering about building three tents or dwelling-places right there on the mountainside. It is easy to identify with Peter, because when God shows up and we are confronted by the disruptive and untameable reality of holy mystery, our first instinct may be to try to regain control and to build some tidy, little boxes that we hope will contain the unruly energy of God somehow box it in. When we’re in that frightened-Peter mind-set, we want to play it safe.
Bishop Gene Robinson and the Diocese of New Hampshire have been courageous in bearing witness to the liberating love of God over the past nine years, and I am sure that when Gene announced his plan to retire, some people were hoping that in its next election of a bishop, the diocese would choose someone safe. Well, I’ve known and worked with Rob for a good long while, and I have to say that he is not safe no, really, he’s not. By which I mean that Rob’s fundamental intention is to liberate the love and creativity of the Holy Spirit. Rob is a person of prayer, and anyone who returns day after day to the holy mountain of prayer and lets God’s creative life pour into him or her is going to be less and less satisfied with the status quo, less and less willing to settle for doing things the same old way, the way we’ve always done them. Some of the ways that we’ve been doing things aren’t working, so it’s time to let the river of God pour forth into new channels of prayer and action.
I want to suggest two ways that we often misunderstand transfiguration. One is to think that transfiguration is only for someone else for Jesus, maybe, or for Moses. Or maybe transfiguration is only for mystics or the really pious, or, heaven forbid, only for bishops. I invite you to pull out your service leaflet and to take a look at the image on the front cover. Please notice that this classic icon is not a picture of Rob being consecrated bishop. It is a picture of Jesus Christ transfigured on the mountain. But you know what? It is also a picture of you, of your own true self when you allow God’s light to light you up! The transfiguration that Jesus experienced on the mountain is available not only to him, and not only to the few, the elect, or the elite. It is available to everyone. As Irish poet John O’Donohue puts it, “there is a secret immensity in every life.”3. The glory that shone through Jesus Christ is already shining in our hearts, longing to blaze up like fire and to melt away everything in us that is less than love. Divinisation the process of participating more and more consciously, more and more fully in the life of God begins with our baptism, when our soul is united with Christ. The incarnate Christ is our mediator, our doorway to the divine, the one who says, “Everything I have is yours; I give you my joy; I give you my glory” (c.f. John 14-17). Each of us has a chance to discover what that means in our very particular life, to become intentional about our spiritual journey as we seek day by day to grow in love and to make ourselves more available to God, more vulnerable and more open to God’s intimate presence. Transfiguration is the flowering of our belovedness and our baptism, the fullest expression of who we were born to become a people lit up with God.
But if we accept that holy transfiguration is in fact intended for us, then along comes a second misunderstanding the temptation to make it a project of the ego, to claim credit, to strut, to parade ourselves, to make a show. If the ego catches your soul preparing to ascend the mountain of God if the ego sees you packing your water bottle, your compass, your map, and a change of socks the ego is going to take notice. “Hey,” says the ego, “If you’re heading up the mountain, I’m coming, too. I want to polish myself up and look all gleaming and shiny, to stand above everyone and be important. I’ll just hop in your backpack and inflate it a bit.” So ego jumps in!
Rob tells me that soon after he was elected bishop, a friend said to him, with some excitement, “Hey, Rob, now you can climb up Mount Washington and look out at everything you see and say, ‘All this is mine.’”
Of course that’s what the ego wants to do. Jesus faced down that temptation, and empowered us to face it down, when he stood with the devil on a high mountain during those forty days in the wildernes and refused to worship anything less than God (Matthew 4:8-10).
What’s odd and paradoxical about transfiguration is that we can reach the top of the mountain only when we’re willing to go down. The path up the mountain is also the path that leads down, for it’s humbling to discover the ego in our backpack. It’s humbling to notice how many parts of ourselves are not loving and not filled with light. The higher we climb up the mountain and the more the soul is illumined by God, the more clearly we see our weakness and limits, our blindness and confusion, our self-centeredness and hardness of heart. So the path up to holiness also leads downward into repentance and humility, into a more complete dependence on the mercy of God. The more we open ourselves to divine light, the more we learn to gaze on ourselves and other people with compassion, for all of us are a work in progress, and soul-work takes time.
The path down the mountain also propels us to seek God in our ordinary lives not just in spectacular experiences, but also in the daily round of family life and committee meetings, in the apparently humdrum routine of what we do every day. How is God shining through this moment, as I wait in line, as I drive my daughter to a lacrosse game, as I plan a meeting, as I wash the dishes? Can I breathe in God’s light right here, right now? For God’s brilliance is always just below the surface of things, visible to eyes that have learned to look at the world with kindness and compassion.
Sometimes we begin to shine, and the people around us feel the blessing and catch the fire. You notice that when Jesus was filled with light, his disciples shared in the experience, too: they saw his radiant face and clothes; they were overshadowed by the same cloud that overshadowed him; they heard the same divine voice that rang in his ears. There is something about religious experience that is not for ourselves alone: when one person lights up with the presence of God, other people light up, too. It’s infectious. It’s catching. And so other people are inspired to take up their own spiritual journey and to learn how they, too, can become who God intends them to be. They, too, will be impelled to engage in the great work of our time to tackle climate change and poverty, discrimination and war.
In a few moments Rob will be examined by the Presiding Bishop and will make a series of promises. The bishops will lay their hands on his head and pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
In becoming a bishop, Rob is committing himself to his own path to transfiguration, not just for his own sake and for the salvation of his soul, but also in service to the light that shines in you.
In becoming a bishop, Rob is committing himself to shepherd the secret immensity of each person he meets, to help you see and know that God is shining out from within you and that everyone has a place in God’s heart.
In becoming a bishop, Rob is committing himself to tend the hidden radiance of this diocese, to bring to light your creative possibilities and to encourage and share in your ongoing quest to be transfigured into love itself.
Rob, we thank you for your willingness to do this. I urge you to keep doing what you’re doing: to carry the pure light that shines in you, and to hold fast to the practices that make you available to God. Set aside regular time for solitude and silent prayer, for rowing, painting, and writing poetry, for taking long walks to nowhere with Rocky.
You know that bishops are like an oak tree they stand in a high place and, like a lightning rod, attract a great deal of energy, both positive and negative. So I urge you to stay grounded, to sink your roots deep into the love of God, so that you don’t get knocked over. Keep listening to the inner voice that always whispers in your ear, as it whispers in every ear: “You are my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Welcome your inevitable failures and lapses, for they are part of the journey, too. Thanks be to God, it’s the path down the mountain that teaches us humility and forgiveness. Our failures can be the gateway to compassion for ourselves and other people.
And I hope that you will savor the ordinary, the challenges and tasks of family life, the routine business of the Church for a secret divinity is hidden within each moment. Beneath the humdrum of the ordinary, we can hear the drumbeat of the Spirit.
There are plenty of challenges ahead no question about that. So let’s look to the light, to the glory, and take this journey together.
1. William Johnston, “Arise, My Love ”: Mysticism for a New Era, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 115.
3. John O’Donohue, “The Priestliness of the Human Heart.”