Published on 05 Aug 2012
A Sermon by the Rev. Canon Douglas E. Williams
Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, BC
Sunday, August 5, 2012
Feast of the Transfiguration, anticipated
Click Here to Listen to an audio version of this sermon online.
A few weeks ago, I had the dubious pleasure of being a guest in Vancouver General Hospital for five days. (Not dubious because of the quality of care; that was fine.) But if you have ever had a similar period of enforced leisure, you will know that one of the major challenges is finding something to pass the time away. You can’t do much. Even if you’re a reader, you can’t read much, certainly not anything heavy. So, as many do, I turned to that great destroyer of the mind—television.
Mercifully, the programs themselves haven’t cluttered up my memory much. But the commercials!! After you have seen the same commercial six or seven times in half an hour, it becomes easy to hate. And the commercials come to take up an increasing amount of air time. But for me, the real horror of the commercials is that they reminded me once again that we are a society almost completely dominated by buying and selling.
Over the long span of human history, we have seen societies dominated and defined by different classes of people. Some have been dominated and defined by priests. Most ancient societies were of this sort. Some have been dominated and defined by warriors. In the European Middle Ages, war was the profession of almost the entire ruling class. Ours is a society dominated and defined by the merchant. In our globalized modern world, the word most commonly used to describe human beings is not “person”, or even “citizen”, but “consumer”.
Now in spite of a certain nostalgia on my part for priestly domination, I grudgingly admit that such societies didn’t, and don’t, have a terribly good track record. And the constant attempts of a noisy minority south of the border to impose a theocratic perspective on American politics tends to dampen even my enthusiasm for priestly domination.
I am certainly glad not to live in a society in which every member of the ruling class is in the military. Powerful societies can hardly resist the temptation to go to war, even when they are governed by civilians. In warrior-dominated societies this is not a temptation, but a way of life.
So we have sidelined the priests and made the warriors at least come up with excuses—however flimsy—for going to war. But now we have unleashed the merchant. Everything, it would seem, has a price and is for sale. So we move from one disfunctionality to another. For make no mistake. If religious dominance and military dominance are disfunctionalities, dominance by business and economics is no less so.
Please do not mistake my meaning. Business and economics are essential in human life. We need good businessmen and financial experts. Efficient business and commerce have lifted uncountable millions out of the poverty that was the norm for most human beings in most of human history.
My concern here is that in our increasingly globalized human community, precisely because of that success, business and economics are coming to be seen as defining what human life is for. Buying and selling, it would seem, is now considered the highest form of human behavior. We have even come to a time in which a candidate for the presidency of the United States can conclude his observations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by pointing out that the gross domestic product per person in Israel “is about $21,000” and that “across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority … [it] is more like $10,000”.
He seems to believe that he has thereby given a succinct evaluation of the relative merits of the Israeli and Palestinian cultures.
But business and economics are infrastructure, along with education, medical care, legal codes, and transportation systems. Business and economics are probably the primary element of infrastructure, for they make the rest of it possible. But they are nonetheless only infrastructure. When they are seen to define the purpose of human life, we have lost our way.
We have become a community of people with wallets, surrounded by those who would empty those wallets, bombarding us with advertising and commercials and brand names, encouraging us to buy something—anything—even if it means going mindlessly into debt to do so. And the not-so-subtle message in all this is that this is what we—the “consumer”— are for.
“Wretched man that I am!” said St. Paul in another context. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
And in that anguished cry, whether we realize it or not, we are looking for Transfiguration.
We were reminded of the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration in the reading for this morning’s Gospel: Jesus, after several years of teaching and healing, and of growing confrontation with the authorities, stops for a moment in the mountains, with Peter and James and John, his closest companions. From there he will go up to Jerusalem for the final confrontation. And on that mountain, it is suddenly made clear to his friends what is really going on and who Jesus really is. Paradoxically, it is made so clear that Jesus’ companions remain overwhelmed for the moment. “They kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.”
Jesus’ Transfiguration is the crucial one, and it bears much pondering. His Transfiguration was essential to enabling Jesus’ followers to cope with, and eventually to comprehend, the events of that last week in Jerusalem, and the execution, and then the resurrection of Jesus. That Transfiguration liberated them from the dungeon of grief and confusion in which they would otherwise have remained trapped. But there are other transfigurations, just as there are other dungeons. And so we must seek, and be open to, the transfigurations which can free us from the dungeons in which we so often live.
Transfiguration here does not have the same meaning that it has in the curriculum of the Hogwarts School, where the term “transfiguration” is taken in its literal etymological sense, as meaning a “changing of shape.” A thing is changed into a different form. In the kind of transfiguration of which I am speaking, nothing becomes a different thing. In transfiguration, everything remains what it is. But everything is seen in a new light.
The dungeons that we live in are made up of the meanings and explanations to which we have become so accustomed that we take them as simple descriptions of reality. Such is the world I pointed to earlier, in which—whether we believe it or not intellectually—we behave as though buying and selling is the whole purpose of human life. Another is the religious dungeon, in which an abusive God demands unthinking obedience, and spends most of his time consigning the unelect and unconforming to eternal damnation. And there are many other dungeons.
By ourselves, we cannot break out of them, for they shape us and invade our souls. Our only hope is in transfiguration, in which we see the world in a new and different light, in which we see perhaps a little more nearly what it really is, and what we really are. You cannot make transfigurations occur. They must happen to you. But you can look for them and strive to be open to them. That is what we here at Christ Church Cathedral try to do. We strive to be a community of people, and a place, in which transfiguration can happen. We cannot make transfigurations happen. We live in the same dungeons as everyone else. But we recognize that life is not meant to be a dungeon. We seek to be a place of liberation and welcome to those who feel trapped by society’s various dungeons.
Of the three baptized here this morning, the two very young do not yet need transfiguration. But all three, and all the rest of us who have been baptized into the Body of Christ, have been made members of a community which rejects dungeons and which values transfiguration. Many who are here may already have experienced transfiguration; perhaps that is why you are here now. But more awaits. Transfiguration does not come “one to a customer”. Transfigurations come to unlock the gates of all the dungeons in which we find ourselves imprisoned.
We have already welcomed the newly baptized into the community. But you also, who perhaps have never been here before and have come only because of the baptism, please know that you are most welcome here, and we hope that in some small way, we may have a part in your finding that transfiguration which will free you and bring to you that peace and joy which God intends for you.
One final note—about the ultimate transfiguration. When I was in seminary, the Vice Principal, John Brooks, told of one of the ways he whiled away the time while recovering from an illness. Like me, he couldn’t do anything even mentally heavy. But instead of defaulting to television, he read an old book, which some of you may know, called The Wind in the Willows. It is the adventures of the Water Rat, of Mole, and of a host of other forest-folk . Fr. John reminded us that in the beginning of the story, Mole has been doing his spring cleaning. At long last, he chucks his broom and bursts out of his hole in the ground, to discover a lovely Spring day, a meadow, and a river, which he had never seen before. Rattie comes along on the river in his rowboat and invites Mole to join him. Mole hops in and, after he is settled, finds his feet on a wicker basket.
And then Fr. John read from the story: “’What’s inside it?’ asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity. ‘There’s cold chicken inside it,’ replied the Rat briefly; ‘cold tongue, cold ham, cold beef, pickled gherkin, salad, french rolls, cress sandwiches, potted meat, ginger beer, lemonade, soda water — –’ ‘O stop, stop,’ cried the Mole in ecstacies: ‘This is too much!’”
“The Rat brought the boat alongside the bank, made her fast, helped the still awkward Mole safely ashore, and swung out the luncheon-basket. The Mole begged as a favour to be allowed to unpack it all by himself; and the Rat was very pleased to indulge him, and to sprawl at full length on the grass and rest, while his excited friend shook out the table-cloth and spread it, took out all the mysterious packets one by one and arranged their contents in due order, still gasping, ‘O my! O my!’ at each fresh revelation.”
“I cannot help but think,” said Fr. John, closing the book, “that when we get to heaven, with all that crowd of angels and archangels, saints and martyrs, peasants and kings, there—in the back row—will be Mole, gazing around wide-eyed, and still gasping ‘Oh my! O my!’”
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