Matthew 17 .1– 9
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC
February 26, 2017
The season of Epiphany opens with light: the magi seeing the brilliant star in the dark night sky that leads them to Jesus. And today it ends with light, as well, as Jesus is robed in radiance.
We follow the star throughout the season of Epiphany, and if you think about the hymns we often sing during this season, many have something to do with light: “Arise, Your Light Is Come,” “Jesus, the Light of the World,” “Many Are the Light Beams,” “O Radiant Christ, Incarnate Word.”
Perhaps, it’s because of the short days and long winter nights in the northern hemisphere at this time of year, but there seems to be a cycle of lightness and darkness in the seasons of the church year. As the days get longer in the spring, we enter the season of Lent, which culminates with the Office of Tenebrae (or shadows) on Maundy Thursday. And after the crucifixion on Good Friday, the risen Christ emerges again in the brightness of Easter Sunday.
We go through cycles in our own culture as well: seasons of light and seasons of shadow. It is what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last week called the great pendulum of American political culture, which swings back when it veers too far in either direction. But I diverge from the metaphor of light…
There are other ways in which we identify light as the image of divine presence or of divine favor. The halo that we often see in artistic representations of holy people are clearly a representation of the light that emanates within them. If your someone who believes in auras, the halo can be a visible reality.
Because I’m a visual learner, and I know some of you are, too, I’ve prepared a few slides of artistic representations of the Transfiguration…described in today’s text as Jesus’ face shining like the sun and “his clothes became dazzling white. So, I’d invite you just to look at these images and try to be observant of the light in these different paintings. [LIGHTS OFF]
The first three images are Orthodox icons from Russia and Greece and Byzantium from the 13th through 16th centuries. One of the things you’ll notice in icons is the use of gold leaf to project light, and you can see Jesus surrounded by a circle of light, as well as the prominent halos of all three figures: Moses, Jesus, and Elijah:
The second image shows the circle of light and actual beams projecting out from the center, and there almost seem to be spotlights illuminating Jesus. And if we could see the gilding on this icon, it would seem even more radiant.
You’ll notice in several of these images from the medieval period that Jesus is surrounded by an almond-shape frame called a mandorla (Italian for almond).
Duccio was a 14th century artist born in Siena, and was the most influential Italian artist of his day. This painting has the feel of an Orthodox icon with its extensive use of light, halos, and even the positioning of Jesus’ right hand with two fingers extended in the position of teaching.
This fresco by Fra Angelico, who was both a Dominican and a brilliant painter, adorns one of the monastic cells at the monastery of San Marco in Florence. Look at how Moses and Elijah seem to be peeking in at Jesus from some other dimension. And there is also a mandorla, which seems like the source of light.
You may know this painting by Raphael, which is in the Vatican, and if you look at where the light is, again, it comes from the cloud of divinity behind Jesus and it’s blinding the disciples, who are there on the mountaintop. It’s strange, though, because this one seems to blend the transfiguration with the ascension of Jesus…or the antigravity field stopped working, because Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are airborne.
This is an altar painting in Venice by Titian, who was known for painting with light and there is radiance all over Jesus and behind him. Look at the contrasting darkness in this painting.
Images of the Transfiguration didn’t stop in the Renaissance. This one is by the 19th c. French painter, James Tissot Look at where the light is in this image. Jesus is wearing dazzling white, but the great source of light is no longer behind Jesus…it IS Jesus.
In this modern representation of the Transfiguration from Cameroon, there is a swirling cloud of divine light surrounding Jesus. And it’s interesting that Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are all portrayed as Africans. So, the hue of our skin has nothing to do with the way light is identified as divinity.
This transfiguration by Cornelius Monsma is almost abstract, and maybe that is one of the fundamental ways we experience Christ…as an abstraction.
So, those are the visual identifications with light. Some of the most amazing passages of scripture also have to do with light. The Psalms have great images: “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” (Psalm 27) And Isaiah’s prophecy: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” And in the gospels, Luke and John tend to use the most light imagery.
John’s prologue tells us that “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” And the gospel writer tells us that John the baptizer “was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light which enlightens everyone.” And John’s portrayal of Jesus includes the great statement, “I am the light of the world.”
So, why am I telling you this? Why does it matter if light is used frequently to portray the presence of God?
For me, God is less anthropomorphic and more like a source of energy. One of my favorite metaphors for God is The Force. (In fact, you saw an image from the end of The Return of the Jedi, there is a scene in which three Jedi masters, Anakin Skywalker, Obi-wan Kenobi, and Yoda, all appear in spirit form, bathed in light. Sounds like the Transfiguration to me.)
That may sounds kind of strange to you, but light is energy.
Photons are elementary particles and the basic unit of light.
And it’s the sense of the mystery of God that we get in this image that makes it so rich. Perhaps for you, different images – more concrete images – of God work well. But there may be some among us who don’t relate as well to Mother or Father, who need a sense of God as being more elemental, more pervasive, and less describable or identifiable with an anthropomorphic image.
Too often we put God in a box…a box that we define. Even the name “God” over-defines the reality of the divine.
So, where do we connect with this fairly abstract notion of God? How do we have a relationship with light or energy or the Force? There are times in our lives when we seek mystery and other seasons of our lives when we find a need for more intimate human connection with the divine – the times when Mother or Father or she or he are more congruent with our experience of the sacred than “it.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our language had a special pronoun for the divine that could embody both the immanent relationship of parent and the transcendent mystery of light?
Sister Joan Chittister, one of the wisest voices of Roman Catholicism today, says that “Our role in life is to bring the light of our own souls to the dim places around us.” And if we see that we
are created in God’s image, we have the flicker of divine light within us.
“There two ways of spreading light,” wrote Edith Wharton, “To be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” And when we, as the church, are at our best, we illumine the way for each other and we reflect the light of God, holding a mirror to shine the light in the shadowy corners of each other’s lives.
So, how does this play out in your experience? Are there times in your life when you have been the recipient of light from another person? Are there moments when your light has brightened the life of another? In these days when our society is in the depths of political anxiety, how might we be a beacon for one another?
And on a larger scale, how can Plymouth be a beacon of hope for the community?
May we, all of us, use the light we’ve been given to illumine the path for each other and for all God’s people. To close, let me share with you a prayer I learned from Marcus Borg more than a few years ago…it’s one of the prayers I say every morning: Lord Jesus Christ, You are the light of the world, fill our minds with your peace, and our hearts with your love.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 and Matthew 5:43-48
February 19, 2017; 7th Sunday in Epiphany
Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-1819:1 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:
19:2 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them:
You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.
19:9 When you reap the harvest of your land,
you shall not reap to the very edges of your field,
or gather the gleanings of your harvest.
19:10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare,
or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard;
you shall leave them for the poor and the alien:
I am the LORD your God.
19:11 You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely;
and you shall not lie to one another.
19:12 And you shall not swear falsely by my name,
profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD.
19:13 You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal;
and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.
19:14 You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind;
you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.
19:15 You shall not render an unjust judgment;
you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great:
with justice you shall judge your neighbor.
19:16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people,
and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.
19:17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin;
you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.
19:18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people,
but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
Matthew 5:43-485:43 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'
5:44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
5:45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven;
for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good,
and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
5:46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?
Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
5:47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,
what more are you doing than others?
Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
5:48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
I am reading The (Un)Common Good; How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided by Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners community in Washington DC, a Christian community dedicated to living out the gospel together in social justice. Wallis tells the story of Mary Glover. Mary was a cook in a day-care center in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of DC where Sojourners was located in their early days. Only twenty blocks from the White House, Columbia Heights was at that time one of the poorest and most violent areas of DC filled with people considered pejoratively by society to be the “least of these.” But we know how Jesus considered the marginalized, those who are poor, hungry, without shelter, sick, in prison. They were his beloveds and part of his family.
Mary Glover, who was poor herself, was one of the consistent volunteers in Sojourners grocery give away every Saturday morning to help poor families make it through weekend. She was the designated pray-er, because given her Pentecostal roots, she was the best pray-er in the group.
Every Saturday before Sojourners opened their doors to the 200 families that lined up at the door and around the block to receive the free groceries, Mary prayed. Wallis confesses that he got up almost every Sat just to hear Mary pray. “We would hold hands, and Mary would thank the Lord for waking us up that morning and that we were all still alive: “Thank you Lord for another day! That the walls of our rooms were not the walls of our graves! And our beds were not our coolin’ boards!” Then Mary always ended her prayer by saying, “Lord, we know you’ll be coming through this line today; so help us to treat you well.”
For me Mary Glover in this story is an embodiment of the instructions we hear in our texts from Leviticus and Matthew today. Instructions to be “holy” and “perfect” as God is “holy” and “perfect":
“You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. “
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
How many of you think of yourself as holy or perfect? Go ahead, raise your hand! Yea....me too. Not many of us would say we are perfect. Though we may drive ourselves and our loved ones nuts trying to be perfect...without fault...without mistake or blemish. And that word “holy” has real difficulties for us....because we associate it with arrogance...”holier than thou.”
The Hebrew word used in Leviticus for holy, qadosh, does not primarily mean pure or sanctified. It means “set apart.” God says to the people of Israel, “You are set apart as my people for my work.” And in being set apart, God invited them, and invites us today, into a very intimate relationship of holiness. “Be holy, as I am holy.” The people of Israel knew from Genesis that they were made in God’s image. They knew that God had delivered them from slavery and oppression. They knew they were God’s people created to love the God with all their hearts, minds, strength and souls. “Be holy, as I am holy.” This is a relationship of trust and accountability. As God’s people they were and we are accountable for:
And if these sound a bit similar to the Ten Commandments....that is the writer of Leviticus’ intention!
Jesus was steeped in the knowledge of the people of God that we discover in Leviticus. Remember the Torah, the prophets and the psalms were his Bible. He knows the deeper meaning of qadosh, fo being God’s holy people set apart for God’s work. Throughout collection of teaching we call the Sermon on the Mount, he tells the crowds on the mountainside that they are God’s people. They are in an intimate relationship of trust with God. This is not entirely new information to them. Yet Jesus is reinterpreting the law of the Torah in light of the times they were living in, times of oppression of the people of Israel by the Romans. He tells them as God’s people here is how you are accountable to God in this intimate relationship. “Love even your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” In New Testament Greek the word translated as “perfect”, teleios, does not mean “without fault or mistakes”. It means be “healthy, whole, mature, complete.” Jesus gives his commandments to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors in the context of an intimate, growing, healthy, maturing relationship of wholeness with God.
I am privileged, humbled and challenged to be serving a community such as Plymouth who already strives to be holy and perfect. We strive to take seriously our intimate relationship with God that propels us to be holy and perfect in relationship to God and to one another, and to the strangers, and the “least of these” that Jesus loves. John Wimberly, the consultant with us last week, described our congregation as one of the healthiest that he has work with as a community in relationship to one another and to God. He observed that it is in Plymouth’s DNA as a community to do hands on work for God’s kingdom. And I would add to accept the challenges of our texts today.
Taking the Leviticus text and its list....Let us continue to ask ourselves how do we use only what we truly need from the work of our hands and apportion some of the harvest for those less fortunate? Can people glean in our fields? How do we deal justly with all people no matter their economic status? How do we love your neighbor as yourselves through our actions and through extravagant welcome? Let us continue to ask ourselves, where can we reach out in genuine love to our enemies?” Do we have “enemies” as individuals, as a community? Here’s the thing about enemies, we may still not like them....but we have to ask how we find a way to love them as our neighbors, as we love ourselves? What does that love look like?
Respect? No slander? Honesty? Can we pray for those that we vehemently disagree with? Not that they change their minds to think like us! But pray for their highest and best as children of God. And leave them as much without judgment as we can in God’s hands for God to guide their hearts and minds.
We will never to do any of this without mistakes. We will forget at times in the frustrating details and logistics of our life together and our work for God’s realm that God has calls us into intimate relationship and think we have to do everything by ourselves. But that’s the thing about God...the thing about God we know in Jesus the Christ....God keeps coming back over and over offering us God’s love and justice, mercy, grace and presence.
The words of scripture today are words to live by in our troubled times. Yet they boil down to more than following a list of commandments. Being holy, set apart for God’s work, loving our neighbor as our self, and striving to be perfect, to live into wholeness and maturity because we belong to God boils down to the prayer of Mary Glover. “Lord, we know you’ll be coming through this line today; so help us to treat you well.”
Look around you this week. Look for God’s “least of these.” Look for those who may seem to be your enemy. Look in all the lines your encounter as Mary did in free groceries line. Look for the stranger, the marginalized, the ones who seem so different from you in values and lifestyle that you think you could never be in relationship with them. “Lord, we know you’ll be coming through the lines of our lives this week; keep us accountable to you in holiness and wholeness; help us to treat you well.” Amen.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
Sermon podcasts (no text)