2 March 2014
Carolyn L Roberts
When I was a freshman in high school, one of my Mormon classmates invited a small group of us to visit the stake house that was just across the street from our home. The building was empty except for the four or five of us. We toured several parts of the facility, and then, as youngish high school students occasionally are wont to do, some of our members let go of any inhibitions, and ran down the hallways. We talked and laughed loudly. Until Sheila stopped us. She reminded us that we were in sacred space. And she asked forgiveness for any profanity of spirit, any failure on our part to recognize that the place we occupied at that very moment was dedicated to God and to God’s service.
I was steeped in church. I grew up in church. But until that moment, I don’t know that I had seriously considered the whole church facility a sacred space...with the exception of a Christmas program when I was about three or four, but that’s another story. Sheila’s faith and witness changed that lack of perception for me, and that became a moment of transcendence.
I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, but I believe that every one of us here has had some experience of transcendence, some experience of the holy, the sacred, breaking into our midst. For many people, that experience is connected in some way with nature–a shaft of sunlight filtering through amber-hued leaves of a fall tree; an eagle soaring in the skies above city housing. For others, it is connected with people–the first sight and sounds of a newborn; an unexpected kindness. For still others, that transcendence is experienced through art, through acts of justice, through acts of courage, through moments of worship.
Transcendence is the experience of something that breaks in to our normal lives in a way that gives us a glimpse of more than the very best life offers; it gives us a glimpse of the sacred, of God’s radiance shining through into our personal lives. That’s a portion of what today’s admittedly unusual story reminds us of: the gift of God’s holy presence. Part of the beauty of this story is that it has roots in other stories of God’s holy presence made known to the faith community. Each of our synoptic gospels–Matthew, Mark, and Luke–tell the story of Jesus’ transfiguration in ways that draw deeply from the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai. In each story, God is present in the form of a cloud that surrounds the top of the mountain. In each story, God’s voice is heard, telling those present that this is a moment of revelation. And in each story, Moses, leader of the exodus, bearer of the law, is present. In our story today, so is Elijah, one of the great prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, and so are Peter, James, and John, each of whom become significant leaders of the early church. Together, they remind us of the fulness of the biblical witness–at least from the male perspective. On many occasions, we have spent time looking at the shape of that witness, especially in its prophetic, justice-related dimensions.
Today I want to focus on another element of today’s scripture, something that is also essential to our witness: the holy. Biblical scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann offers the insight that “conventional Christian interpretation of the Old Testament is likely to favor the justice tradition at the expense of the holiness tradition,”1,193-4 and he acknowledges that he is basically sympathetic to that perspective. But he also argues that we should not be quick to throw out the baby with the bath water.
Most critical for those of us in the UCC, I believe, is Brueggemann’s concern that when the justice commands receive exclusive focus, they can “move in the direction of a purely political program.”1,194 This is largely because they become removed from the context in which these commands are given, and most importantly, removed from the community’s relationship with Yahweh God. It is the tradition of holiness that reminds us that we are not the center of the universe, that we are not the one to whom all knees should bow. On the other hand, if the traditions of holiness are divorced from the commands of justice, the community can become isolated and “excessively preoccupied with the quality of its own life.”1,194 When holiness and justice work in creative tension as opposite sides of the same coin, they provide identity on the one hand, and the capacity to transform on the other.
Unfortunately, we know this is not always the case. Boundaries of holiness traditions and justice commands do collide, as we may be witnessing at the present time. As brutal as it is, both at home and abroad, this collision between holiness traditions and justice commands may be a crucial element in the virulence of the fundamentalism finding expression today in Christian, Muslim, and Jewish traditions. From the roles of women, to issues of the relationship between science and religion, to issues of earth care, abortion and same sex marriage–to name only a few!–we find alienation among large groups of people for whom commands of justice feel like a political agenda. It may the most painful contemporary outcome of our awkward and uneven growth into a global village.
Brueggemann speculates that “after human efforts at righting wrongs and making reparations have been done as fully as possible, an unsettled ‘residue of ache’ remains that requires another kind of action, action in a priestly domain.”1,195 He notes that the priestly function of officiating within the sacrificial system of ancient Israel helped people make the connection between God and God’s otherness, God’s holiness, on the one hand and God’s intimate availability–the 23rd Psalm kind of availability–on the other.
Brueggemann may be on to something here. When we look at the context of Jesus’ transfiguration, Matthew places it immediately after he foretells Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection. Then the transfiguration, a scene of holiness made accessible...and mysterious...and completely beyond human control. Which immediately raises the question, What on earth do we do with this Gordian’s knot of holiness and sacrifice and justice commands? And before we write off the connection between holiness and sacrifice, no less a figure than Mahatma Gandhi tells us that one of the seven deadly social sins is worship without sacrifice.
Karen Georgia Thompson observes that “Peter offers an idea. He attempts to create permanence around the experience on the mountaintop....The moment is good for Peter and the disciples. They are witness to a profound event.... The best that Peter can offer is to keep what he encounters for himself. Things are good here in this place, let us keep them as they are;...let us stay where we are. The possibilities beyond the mountaintop are not evident to Peter.”2
Nor are they evident to us. Responses that move only from concerns of justice do not get to the heart of the holiness tradition.1,195 But this does not mean the two cannot be bridged. I believe we have a model in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is no coincidence that King’s moral leadership drew from the well of faith and holiness and his own experience of mystery. In King, we have the combination of deep reverence for the holy and deep resonance with the call to justice. The two together spoke to both traditions; it gave guidance to an entire nation and global village and allowed us to move forward however haltingly. I believe it is only in holding these traditions together that we can move forward.
As we approach the communion table this morning, let us remember the possibilities of the mountaintop. Let us honor the heart of holiness that dwells at the core of our faith as the profound and necessary complement to the commands of justice.
1Brueggemann, Walter, Theology of the Old Testament, Fortress Press, © 1997.
2Karen Georgia Thompson http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/march-2-2014.html