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Based on the Lectionary readings for Transfiguration Sunday (Last Sunday after Epiphany )
Mark 9: 2-9

2003 March 2
Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

 Transforming Destruction

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 ago.

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.Back to top Rumors of 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

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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.

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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 celebration.

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 permission.

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