Lectionary blog for Feb. 10, 2013
Transfiguration of Our Lord
Texts: Exodus 34:29-35, Luke 9:28-36
I was reading Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright’s book on Jesus this week and in it Borg made reference to the relationship between history remembered and history metaphorized. Borg’s point was that there are actual things that happened that were remembered and turned into stories like Moses going off on the mountain to see God and returning with a shining face and Jesus being “transfigured” on the mountain.
For Borg, obsessing about what exactly happened or denying it could have happened or arguing “Oh yes, it could happen, God can do anything,” is a waste of time and energy.
Our efforts are better spent looking at how the folk who remembered the story made use of it to teach religious and spiritual truth; i.e., the metaphor they made out of remembered history.
It was a distinction that made sense to me. History turned into metaphor, or more correctly, personal story turned into a metaphor, is my sermonic stock in trade.
Just because you teach spiritual truth through the use of a story doesn’t mean the story isn’t factual. It just means that sometimes the facts are beside the point.
So I’m assuming there is an actual, historical, real and remembered moment underneath the Moses story. I also assume that figuring out the actual “facticity” of that moment is nigh onto impossible and would yield very little of value if it were possible.
What we have is remembered history metaphorized and the questions for us today are: “Why does this story about Moses have such staying power within Judaism and what significance does it have for Christianity?”
The same idea applies to the Transfiguration. Something happened, nobody made it up. But what really happened, the exact facts, “history remembered,” is unavailable to us. There are all sorts of “reasonable” (or not so reasonable) speculations, but no way of knowing for sure.
So why these stories? What are the metaphorical truths contained within what “really” happened? What do these stories tell us about God and what do they tell us about ourselves and our lives of faith?
Well, they tell us that there are peak experiences in the spiritual life; they do happen, and, we can never predict them, create them, nor repeat them. We don’t know when they might happen, we can’t do anything to make them happen, and we can’t do everything the same as we did last time and make them happen again.
They happen when God wants them to happen. They happen when God’s grace descends on us as it wills.
Our liturgical and homiletical contrivances may be able to stimulate a similar experience, but such a thing will always be counterfeit to the real experience.
They also tell us that spiritual highs come and go, but the real spiritual life is lived in the ordinary day-to-day. In chapters four through eight of Luke, Jesus goes off alone to pray five times. The first was the temptations in the wilderness, not exactly a “high.” Four other times in the first eight chapters, Jesus goes off to pray, and each time nothing happens. Well, sort of nothing. He gets interrupted a lot. “Hey, Jesus, people are looking for you.”
But in none of the “go off alone and pray” episodes did Jesus change form or hear heavenly voices. He just prayed and that’s the point. The first eight chapters of Luke tell the story of Jesus going about his business of preaching and teaching and healing, with times of synagogue worship and private prayer. This was his life — long periods of ordinariness with only an occasional moment of luminosity.
Bachman S. Brown was pastor of Lutheran Chapel in China Grove, N.C., from 1945 to 1960. I was pastor there from 1984-1985. I found one of his old, hand-written sermons in the archives. It was about his first car, which he got in 1920 while pastoring near Johnson City, Tenn., deep in the Smokey Mountains.
He talks about going on a trip to Knoxville. Often times he had to drive along in creek beds because there was no road, backing up hills because his Model-T had a gravity-feed fuel system, etc. Occasionally, he would top a mountain and he could see the lights of Knoxville off in the distance, but most of the time was spent in the valleys in the darkness. Bachman compared this to our lives of faith. We catch occasional glimpses of the holy, but it’s mostly plodding through the dark and shadowed valleys.
God is constantly present in our lives. Our awareness of that presence of God is mostly a matter of perception, of trusting that God is indeed with us, not only in the moments of high feeling and intense spirit, but also through the yawning and lonely valleys of life.
It is a matter of paying attention to God in the ordinary things we do, of looking for God’s hand in the simplest of circumstances.
Amen and amen.
- Can you think of a moment in time that has become a metaphor in your personal history?
- Describe a time when God was with you through the lonely valleys of life.
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.