About a year or so after the Gulf War I was in California, and I had
a chance encounter with one of its veterans outside a church. He was a
burdened man and underemployed, who never looked into my face, but he
told me this story.
This man was a Marine helicopter pilot during the war and spent a
good deal of time behind what they call enemy lines, supporting ground
troops, over countless miles of desert. One day, flying quite low, he
was searching an area abandoned by its combatants: looking for
stragglers, rescuing those in need. And in his flight over an area
strewn with the refuse of battle, at the top of a sand hill, suddenly
he saw a young boy, frozen in place and waving vigorously for his
attention. He looked to be nine or perhaps as much as twelve years old
by his size and shape. He was miles from nowhere, yet near abandoned
tanks, jeeps, and guns. And probably near land mines, too, which could
explain why he didn't step very far.
The pilot was trained to watch for traps, and the boy's gestures to
come closer could have been just that, so he kept his distance to
observe the situation. But the boy was frantic, jumping and waving and
calling for the helicopter to land. Still the pilot paused. Then the
boy did something. He took a stick and began to write in the sand -- to
send a message. Maybe to say who he was. And in letters large enough to
be seen from the air, he drew an enormous "U," followed by a
gentle "S." Third he carved the two peaked pillars of a
capital "A," and the veteran said that as he drew his small
stick to cross his vowel it struck his feared menace, and from three
hundred feet away the pilot watched the explosion of the land mine,
watched the dismemberment of the child, watched the symbol of liberty
become the agent of death. And the watcher himself was destroyed, or so
it seemed from my brief encounter with this man outside a church, years
It's a horrible story. It's unbelievable. It's a story of
disfiguration. Which is all too present lately.
I have been at a number of meetings in the last month or so where
people have been very anxious about our condition. And the descriptive
litany is getting rather long. And I've shared parts of it before. We
are in terrorism code orange or yellow. While millions around the globe
demonstrate for peace we are preparing for war. Our economy is still in
a tumble, or is it a freefall - that depends when you are retiring -
and even real estate is not immune. All over America it is cold. Space
shuttles fall from the sky. Night clubs are death traps. And governors
and presidents say that the only public debate or opinion that they
need is that which got them elected, sounding a little more Roman than
American. Here in our parish a house burns; a surgery goes awry;
everybody has a cold. One man at a meeting I attended this week said
that he is waking up in the middle of the night without reason and
having bad dreams when he sleeps. Maybe it is the several time zones
that I've inhabited in the last week, but I feel the same.
war, said Jesus, anxiety, said Jesus, can devastate us. Why,
last week even Newsweek said the same, so maybe He was right!
Another man at a meeting I attended, a former missionary, said that
it used to be that when he traveled abroad to certain parts of the
world he knew he had to be cautious and was often unsafe. But when he
returned home he could relax because he was safe here. Since 9/11, he
said, that is no longer true. There is a danger at home, a fear and
caution at home, that is unfamiliar ground. And for far too many people
it is tearing us apart, disfiguring us spiritually and even physically
as we struggle to live as Americans. And it is going to take more than
duct tape to repair what is being torn. More than vigilance to address
this moment of violence. It is going to take strenuous work for unity,
community, and coherence in the essentials of our culture.
Listen to this: the solution to disfiguration is transfiguration.
Indeed the call of Christians is not destruction but transformation,
honest about a broken world but absolutely expecting that there is a
God who helps us in healing. Yet transformation will not take place if
we sit back and wait. It will happen only if we strive for it.
I have preached on the story of the transfiguration two dozen times.
It has many meanings. Once, it helped to establish Jesus as equal to
Moses and Elijah, or the new covenant as equal to the law and the
prophets. Sometimes it carries us to a mountaintop and a view of
fertile fields and promised pastures where lion and lamb will dwell in
harmony and milk and honey will flow like music. Sometimes it is a
story marker, indicating that God keeps showing up in Jesus' saga, even
the part right before the passion. Today it is a story of frightened
folks who can't figure out what to do with their situation and how to
worship and serve amidst the mix of a transcendent healing God and a
dangerous broken society. But in all of those ways it is model and a
message of the power of Jesus that we liberal intellectuals still
measure cautiously and the vision of something better that everyone on
earth I know could value.
Let me dramatically and unfairly distill this to one sentence, the
way that so often I do. Anxious disciples encounter God and wonder how
to live, and God says I give you my beloved and his teaching is divine.
We say we're afraid. God says, "Listen to my child." So what
does that mean, especially in context?
Well, it means a lot of things. In context this story takes place
just before Jesus goes to Jerusalem, and you know what happens there.
In context, Mark was writing for cautious disciples who were wary with
their faith. In context, all of Mark has an urgency about its
moment in history, even while it has a reality about the dangers of the
world we all inhabit. So it means that even realistic, cautious,
anxious, honest, flawed people can encounter a vision of transformation
and see that it has validity and even power in a world of
disfiguration. And that powerful vision is probably going to deliver a
message of peace and even love, the way Jesus does.
I was reading a lot about violence and war and peace this week, and
several things that I encountered have inspired my thinking. Susan
Thistlethwaite, a UCC Seminary President, writes, "We're all angry
lately," and sometimes she feels we should just attack Iraq to
resolve our anxiety. But she doesn't support acting on that feeling.
Simone Weil once wrote about "the contagious, intoxicating
quality" of settling disputes, even violently, and she was
following Nietzsche who wrote of "the powerful voluptuousness…
the spicy potion" of acting with great strength around tragedy or
revenge. And I understand those words. I'm fascinated by complex war
machines, aircraft, video guidance systems, and team survival training.
It's all impressive. But it is all dedicated to disfiguring action, at
least as I understand it
Here is my point and my exit strategy. This is a hard time. We are
yearning to find resolution. And God offers us an alternative
resolution from the obvious. But it's a hard one. Yet here goes:
First, believe that transfiguration is possible, even as an ideal.
In 1932, between two wars, Richard Niebuhr wrote that "The society
of love is an impossible human ideal, as the fellowship of the organism
is an impossible ideal to the cell." Yet it is a potential.
Organisms do exist. And God's creative process is there for our future,
maybe sooner than we know. I believe this.
Second, keep praying for transformation. Keep working for it. Write,
talk, support, encourage, debate, consider, hope, and help efforts to
listen to Jesus' wisdom, like love your neighbor, your enemy, yourself.
Consider his suspicion of those who live by the sword. Know that he
displayed a strength that armies could not restrain. We can too.
Third, know that this work, and God I hate to say this, involves
service, suffering, and failure. It is long-term work, maybe building
for a time beyond our vision. And I hate to suffer, and I hate to wait.
What can I say? That's the way it is. This work is hard.
Coming from many traditions, and even confused by lots of bad
theology that enters our contemplations, we are about to repeat a
ritual (communion) that makes several central claims, as well as
presenting several expectations. It claims that God is helping us here.
It claims that we can and should remember what we learned from
Jesus. It claims that the body of Christ is more than an archeological
artifact, but something present, here, now. It claims that what we are
doing can change us, renew us, and inspire us as we are nourished with
Spirit. It expects some simple things, such as that we pass plates not
so that people can stay where they are and not get up, but so that we
can serve each other, not just take for ourselves. It expects that we
will wait to eat until everyone is served, wait to act so we can act
together. It expects that somehow we will give thanks for this
There is much more to it than that, but a helpful God, a service to
each other and a new understanding of ourselves as part of Christ's
body are radical, powerful, wonderful things. They are enough to move
us from acceptance of destruction and inspire us to work for
transformation. And maybe even lead us to a time when in our story we
do not just see an anxious agent reconciling a healing God with a
breaking world but move again to the hilltop where lion and lamb, wolf
and kid pause, where milk and honey flow, where God's garden is our dwelling
place, all of our dwelling place, and we repeat Jesus' word of love in
peace. I long to be on that mountaintop and will work, sacrifice, so
that we can be there. Amen.
Copyright © 2003 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by