Sermon for Sunday, February 14, 2021 || Last Epiphany B || Mark 9:2-9
Christianity has many symbols, the cross being chief among them – a device of death and domination that Jesus transformed into a symbol of life and reconciliation. There are plenty of other symbols too, and many of them are animals: the lamb, the fish, the dove. And, perhaps most beautifully, the butterfly. Like the cross, the butterfly is also a symbol of transformation. The butterfly undergoes metamorphosis as it changes from the caterpillar, through the chrysalis, and emerges in its luminous form with wings like an artist’s palette.
The word metamorphosis pops up in the Gospel reading we just listened to. You didn’t hear it because Julia read the lesson in English, but I swear it’s there. “Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them.” And he was metamorphosed before them. In its humblest connotation, this word simply means “change.” And he was changed before them. But the intent is that the change is a revelation of who Jesus truly is. The metamorphosis that Jesus undergoes on the mountaintop reveals the dazzling, luminous person that God sees when God gazes upon God’s son.
I’ve always wondered: if Peter, James, and John had been able to tear their eyes away from Jesus and had looked at each other, would they have seen their fellow disciples transfigured too? Would Peter, James, and John have shared in the dazzling raiment and luminous visage? I think they would have. I think they would have because they, too, are God’s children. They, too, live under the caring eye of God’s loving gaze. As the old song says,
I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free,
For his eye is on the sparrow,
And I know he watches me.
Many of us, sadly, are traumatized by the idea of God watching us. We’ve internalized an image of a vindictive, condemning God, who is tallying our missteps in some sort of cosmic ledger. This image of God is a twisted cross between Santa Claus’s naughty list and the Eye of Sauron from The Lord of the Rings. If we don’t toe the line, we’ll incur God’s wrath and be smited. Smote? Smitten?
For much of Christian history, the Church promoted this Eye of Sauron version of God in order to maintain moral control over its subjects. The sad irony here is that the Church used immoral means – threats, intimidation, coercion, even torture – to maintain what it thought of as moral control. The Church justified its methods by reasoning that a little earthly torture was preferable to eternal torment in a physical hell. The problem with this (well, one of the many problems with this) is that the Church created the doctrine of hell as a way to scare people into succumbing to the Church’s authority. (That’s a much bigger topic than this sermon can cover, but if you want to talk with me about it, I’d be happy to chat.)
Did you notice what happened as I was just talking? I moved from speaking about God to speaking about the Church. That sleight of hand happens when the Church sets itself up as the sole and ultimate mediator of the relationship between God and God’s children. If you have to go through the Church to commune with God, then it’s a very simple step for the Church to replace God with the Church’s own power and authority. And when that happens, we find ourselves at that Eye of Sauron understanding of God. We find ourselves afraid of God, or at least of the Church’s presentation of who God is. At that point, one of two things occurs. We either leave the Church or succumb to its threats.
But what if we reimagined our way into God’s watchfulness? What if we believed God’s gaze to be loving instead of vengeful? What if we set ourselves on that mountain top with Jesus, Peter, James, and John, and we saw each other and saw ourselves as God sees Jesus – as luminous beings whose brilliance is the visual presentation of God’s staggering love?
How would that change us? What kind of transformation, what kind of metamorphosis would we undergo? First, we would be able to let go of the traumatic understanding of God as angry and vindictive. We would consign that understanding to the trash heap of history where every tendency the Church has had towards domination belongs. Freed from the moral strictures of the Church, does this mean we get to do whatever we want? No. It means that our desire to do the right thing would spring, not from fear of condemnation, but from the love of God steering our motivations.
The love of God then continues our metamorphosis with a further letting go. Now that our image of God is no longer based in angry domination, we can then let go of our derivative need to condemn and dominate. We open our eyes anew, and our eyes are transfigured to see others as God sees them – as beings made luminous by God’s loving gaze. And when we see others in this way, we can no longer go along with the oppressive systems of the world that tread upon people’s inherent dignity.
This transformation does not happen all at once. Like the butterfly, we enter the chrysalis before we emerge with those painted wings. Unlike the butterfly, we may enter the chrysalis again and again as God keeps working God’s transformational love upon us, changing us into the luminous shape of God’s beloved children.
If you pray your way into the watchful gaze of God and do not find that gaze to be loving, don’t panic. Remind yourself that you are still in the midst of your metamorphosis. Remind yourself that you lived most of your life with an unloving view of God imposed by the Church, and that picture is still draining itself from you. And then prayerfully imagine yourself onto the mountain top with Jesus. Bask in the awesome truth of God’s staggering love in sending God’s only Son to become like us so that we could become more like him.
And then sit with me at the feet of Dame Julian of Norwich, who claimed the image of the loving God in the 14th century, a time when the Church was imposing the opposite. In her Revelations of Divine Love, she says this:
Also in this [God] shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: it is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for little[ness]. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall [last] for that God loveth it. And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God.