Our Humanity & Transfiguration

2 Kings 2:1-12 | 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 | Mark 9:2-9 | Psalm 50:1-6

You may have read in this week’s newsletter that this weekend is The Clergy Letter Project’s Evolution Weekend, the 13th year of pulling together clergy of all traditions to advocate for a relationship between science and religion rather than putting them at odds with each other. Our Bishop Benfield signed onto the Letter, as did I. As responsible citizens and faithful Christians, we have a responsibility to know how our actions impact our environment, how science enhances our understanding of the world around us. Our growing understanding of the world around us does not negate the existence of God. If anything, this understanding enforces the magnitude of the beauty and mystery of Creation, in what we know and the growing expanse of what we don’t know.

This year the theme of Evolution Weekend is “Our Shared Humanity.” Because of the divisiveness in our societies worldwide, emphasis is placed on our shared humanity, our commonalities even and especially at our genetic level. Often, divisiveness is based on “race,” which is itself a human construct, a designation based on geography or melatonin levels. We’ve used race and ethnicity to sort people throughout history, so much so that we’ve shown a tendency to reduce a person to their race or ethnicity, losing sight of their humanity: that’s how we end up de-humanizing people and finding ourselves in the midst of discrimination and oppression to outright racism and genocide. This seems particularly appropriate during February, Black History Month. So neglected from our American narrative, the black story needs at least a month a year to get recognition as an affirmed part of our collective narrative. We need incentive to pay attention to what often gets the attention and recognition, let alone how we use language and imagery. Think how often we associate darkness with what is bad and light with what is good. We need to think. We need to be aware. We need to wake up more often to our shared humanity.

This Epiphany season we’ve been focusing on how we manifest the Light of Christ in our humanity. We’ve been highlighting wonderful organizations and efforts to serve our neighbors, especially those who are suffering. We recognize the brokenness in our humanity that enables the perpetuation of this suffering, and we realize the desperate need we have for Jesus Christ to be in our midst, the wholly human and divine one that opened our way to reconciliation and redemption.

The transfiguration story we have in the Gospel of Mark highlights the contrast between the humanity of the apostles and the divinity of Jesus, while still holding on to Jesus’ humanity, too. Jesus needed these witnesses, even if he didn’t want them to share anything just yet. There was a hill to climb, a revelation to be had, and a moment to be savored.

There’s so much meaning in the details. Note that when something significant happens, it’s often someplace hard to get to, set apart, or up high. On this high, set apart mountain, Jesus, radiant in glory is accompanied by two who were thought to be ascended directly to heaven (Moses, whose burial site is unknown, though the was buried, and Elijah taken by chariots in the whirlwind): this moment is a revelation of God. In Greek tradition, a transfiguration or transformation occurred when the gods walked the earth in human form and then manifested their divine glory or radiance. Peter’s response to make three dwellings was completely in line with the Greek tradition to build a shrine on the site of an epiphany of a deity, as was their response to be in awe and fear of the divine manifestation.


But what of Jesus’ response of silence, of not knowing what to say? That might seem odd to us–thankfully we have the voice of God speak up–but Mark doesn’t have a problem showing Jesus’ humanity. His divinity has words, but the human doesn’t. We so often don’t have words for the most intense moments of fear, grief, sadness, joy, or love. We just have our witness to those moments. I have no doubt that Jesus brought a full-bodied awareness to the moment with the apostles, with all their fear and awe and wondering. The wisest people have a way with silence, and it’s not always what they don’t know that calls for silence. Think of all that Jesus didn’t say during his wandering in the desert, in his times of prayer, and during his trial and crucifixion. When Jesus does speak, he tells them to hang on until after Easter, which the guys didn’t understand yet because they hadn’t experienced the resurrection yet.

But we have.

And we’re neither Greek nor Jew, nor East nor West, nor male nor female . . . but we are humans, created in the image of God, gifted with the saving grace of Jesus Christ, whose glory we believe in because it shines in our hearts (as Paul says). But because there’s still suffering in the world and God’s glory hasn’t been fully realized in me (and maybe not in you, either), there is need for transfiguration, for transformation. There is need, and there’s a way: through Christ’s reconciliation and redemption.

We start with ourselves. We climb the climb of whatever struggle we’re facing and do it again and again until we’ve seen and tasted the image of God long enough to bring it back into our daily lives, until we’ve heard the Word of God and take it with us, working through our fear/resistance/oppression until we trust in the power of the resurrection to see us through death and even hell itself. We do this because Jesus showed us the power of eternal life. We do this because Jesus Christ is alive, pulsing with every beat of our hearts.

We nurture this pulse of Christ with our prayer, worship, and fellowship. I read an article that addressed the trend of churches giving up time-consuming worship to emphasize sharing a meal and doing deeds. That hits close to home because I find great value in meals shared and service in the community. But like the article emphasizes, the time we share and the service we do outside of our worship times and prayer practices are an extension of our gratitude for all God has given us, our way of sharing in God’s glory, our way of manifesting the Christ Light into the world around us that others might recognize it for themselves. That’s what I think of when I think of ministry. It’s not about doing good to make people feel good about themselves or make them think that our church is “the” place to be. I apologize if I haven’t made that clear.

What we do is an extension of our praise and thanksgiving to God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We’ve been saved from death, we’ve died to sin in our baptism. We’ve been redeemed by Jesus Christ. We’ve been given the greatest gift, for which we don’t have the capacity ever to repay. But we’re told to love one another. And our loving one another with thanks and praise to God–genuine worship and gratitude–manifests the Light of Christ in our communities. It shows in the fellowship we share, in the works we do, and we have room to grow and improve in this area, for we have so much to be thankful for. I’m going to continue doing my best to make sure we have beautiful, meaningful, prayerful worship together as a first priority. And I’m going to continue to encourage living out that meaningful faith in acts of service to our neighbors.

When I went to the Q Commons event, Sister Lisa from Mercy shared her 8th Street Motel feeding ministry. The motel was a site for sex trafficking, abuse, drugs, and violence. Since they began the feeding ministry, which occurs once  a week, reports of violence reduced drastically. Relationships built over time also helped former motel residents establish more stable lives. My ears perked up when she said she was starting the same program in Bentonville at a motel that showed great need for positive influence, a place that often houses those who are homeless, addicted, impoverished, and otherwise marginalized. I can imagine a so-called transfiguration story of those who are in the midst of battles making it to a bounteous buffet, receiving the love and hospitality of willing volunteers, and going back to their friends to share the good news of a free meal. That story seems kind of flat. More meaningful is the story of people being fed, listening to one another, encouraging each other, empowering the weak and afraid, and showing up month after month to check in and share where they’ve seen points of hope in their lives, where they’ve sensed grace and experienced faith. More transformational still is the story of those who thought they were easily dropping off a portion of a meal but who stayed with people who might otherwise challenge them–even frighten them–and stayed with them long enough, built relationship with them deep enough, to recognize their shared humanity and develop a common bond, not for their sake alone but because they loved God so much they wanted to share it with others. 

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Room for Improvement

A Sermon preached by Sara Milford at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on July 22nd, 2012.

The Scripture Texts for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11, Year B are:

2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:20-37; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56


Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.


There’s a blog my husband saw a few years ago, which has since gained in popularity, thanks in large part to wonderful little lists, guides, how-to’s, and incredible dedication on the part of the author.  A former journalist and a father of six, Leo Babatua writes about simplifying life and living well.  Striving to live fully into his blog’s name, Zen Habits, he chronicles his journey into right living through the creation of healthy habits.

One of his posts, right between “The Best Procrastination Tip Ever” and “Toss Productivity Out,” is “Improve Every Moment.”  The problem statement, essentially, is what if you can’t slow down?  What if you can’t escape the busy-ness of your life?

His tiny guide:

  • Be more present, so life doesn’t rush past you without you noticing.
  • Enjoy every activity you do more, so life is better all the time.
  • Feel more relaxed, so every day is as good as a vacation.
  • Be ready to handle anything that comes your way.

He elaborates a bit more, saying basically that, like children, we need to live more in relaxed mode.  In relaxed mode, we sense and feel more and get out of our thinking heads to remind our brain what it’s like to feel.  Maybe one by one we can release those muscles that are so used to being constricted.  Soften the jaw.  Roll back and drop the shoulders.  Breathe to our bellies.  Smile.

For practice Leo suggests being aware of our physical body, the present environment, at any given moment and doing so as often as we can.  Most of us are blessed, after all, with five senses.  We can feel the temperature of the air and feel the support of the pew; smell the old wood of this place; hear the creak of the floor or the breath on the exhale.  Hopefully, we see the light showing through the beautiful stained glass.  Perhaps you can taste your morning coffee on your tongue.

But how easily we get distracted from life as it is and get caught up in that whirlwind of busy-ness.  We find a groove and stick with it, maybe a comfortable routine, something that doesn’t rock the boat too much but fills every moment of our days and nights.  We will work ourselves to the bone.  It may even be with good, worthwhile work, or work that we have to do, but we forget our whole person.  Eventually, no matter what we’re doing (or not doing), we find that our system isn’t sustainable.  What seemed to work isn’t working any longer.  Something’s wrong.  Something needs to change.

Jesus knew all this.  I don’t recall anyone ever telling Jesus how to improve every moment, that he needed to be present, enjoy the moment, relax, and be prepared to handle anything that crossed his path.  No one had to tell Jesus to embody mindfulness and compassion — that’s just who he was, who he is.

From today’s Gospel, I imagine the disciples, like young children after being rounded up, greedy for attention and approval from the teacher they most adore, recounting to Jesus all the good work they’ve been doing.  Imagine the thrill of their work, the endorphins that were coursing through their bodies as it is with any of us who are in the zone, doing what we love.  They have been fueled by their passion, living into the miracles brought about by their faith.  They’re on a roll and ready for more.  I imagine Jesus smiling knowingly, patiently (for wouldn’t he already know all they’ve done?), admiring his chosen.  They have done good work.  But they have more to learn.

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Following their great teacher, they go along to this deserted place that may likely have been a vacant place between two settlements, someplace not terribly accessible, particularly by foot, so they go by boat.  But there were many who saw them and recognized them and rushed to get to where they were going first – by land, on foot.  The crowd is willing to risk the journey to get even a glimpse of this teacher, to get a chance to be taught.  I wonder if the disciples saw the crowd, too.  I wonder if the disciples tried to persuade Jesus to change destinations, saying something more along the lines of, “Jesus, they know who we are.  They know You.  We’re not going to get any rest.  Let’s go somewhere else.”  The excited children from before now realize their lack of sleep and their hunger.  Settling into their bodies, pulling the focus inward, they now have their sight set on rest, food, and time alone, with Jesus, of course.

When they get to shore, Jesus has compassion on the people, these lost sheep.  Without missing a beat, he teaches them, taking them into his fold.  They were hungry for the nourishment He provided.  Now, I don’t know about the disciples, but I do know how my children behave when they are tired, when they’re hungry and just done.  If I say we’re going somewhere to do something, that had better be what we do.  If I stop to visit with someone, there is no end of exasperated sighs and eye-rolling.  You’d think I was torturing them intentionally.

But that’s not it.  As a mother, I want to set an example for my children to stop and to pause when needed.  Every moment we have a choice to make, I’m always telling them. We can indeed improve every moment.  More often than we realize, we’re given a choice to make a difference in someone’s lives, including our own.

I figure Jesus exemplifies love in action.  He sees a crowd in need, sheep in need of a shepherd.  Jesus’ innate goodness may make it seem like he had no other choice than to teach to those willing to hear, but Jesus was man.  Jesus chose to speak to those with open ears and open hearts.  They listened.  They were fed.  All were fully present.

Except maybe the disciples, who were there, likely sighing deeply with their growling stomachs, muttering to one another.  I picture the teens rolling their eyes and groaning under obviously dire circumstances, thinking of themselves, spiraling into diverse tangents that took them out of the moment, away from the full-bodied mystery before them.  Not in the present.  Not enjoying the moment.  Not relaxed, and definitely not prepared for what’s to come.  (But that story’s saved for later.)

We get in today’s reading the bookends of the miracle of a great feeding.  We hear that after Jesus teaches a crowd, they cross over to meet yet another crowd.  The crowds kept coming.  Wherever Jesus went, they followed, hoping that they might, like the hemorrhaging woman, “touch even the fringe of his cloak.”  It says that “all who touched it were healed.”  We remember that Jesus felt the power drain from him when the one woman touched his garment.  But this multitude of people keep coming and coming, and Jesus keeps healing.

Where does Jesus rest?

It strikes me that this story isn’t about Jesus resting.  We don’t get the bit today about Jesus going to the mountain to pray.  He told the disciples to come away and rest awhile; he didn’t say he would.  Maybe the disciples had it in their head that if they were going to rest, surely Jesus would be taking time off, too, but when does the Son of God clock in and clock out?  He was just telling the disciples to rest.  Maybe it would have prevented their grumblings if he had more explicitly said, “Y’all just sit back and let me do the work now,” like any mother who’s ready to take over in the kitchen from the inefficient children trying to help.

We just don’t have the stamina to do all the work alone.  Even the disciples in God’s presence, though they were empowered to perform miracles, could not use compassion alone as fuel.  They were probably a little too much of this world, a little too much tied down in their own minds.

What if,  instead of being so preoccupied in our busy lives and daily struggles, we were aware enough not only to feel the physical environment but also sense and perceive the needs around us?  Feeling this, relaxed, we could have awareness and presence.  We may very well find joy and great energy in such moments, maybe even a bit of fun.  If we are living into the Good News of Christ, we know the right thing to do in the moment because we love one another — above all else.

When we can’t escape the busy-ness, we are shown that we can have mindfulness and compassion.  And when we can’t do that — because we will fail — we are to know that God can.   Jesus didn’t try to escape the crowds that sought him out.  For the disciples, and for us, Jesus is showing the way.  When it’s time to work, we will work – and hopefully with awareness.  When it’s time to rest, there will be rest.  When there are those who are in need, they will be cared for.  All this through the Love of God.

Amen.    

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