Sermon by the Rev. Robert W. Lee, IV, Preacher and Author, Adjunct Faculty, Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service.
To Professor Walton and the clergy of Harvard’s Memorial Church: I am blessed because this is a dream come true. Thank you for your hospitality and invitation.
Won’t you pray with me?
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight for you and you alone are our strong rock and our redeemer. Amen.
This past week, my little brother Scott, a senior at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, a conservatory in my home state performed an opera from a story we have all heard before. However, in this particular instance I saw the story with new eyes because of Scott. The AJ Fletcher Opera Institute performed Rossini’s Cinderella. The old, old story of a woman transfigured from ashes to the beauty and splendor of the kingdom. This story came alive for me in new ways because my younger brother offered to us a deep and abiding wisdom in the play. In Rossini’s version, Cinderella has a grandiose stepfather instead of a stepmother. A great teacher and philosopher intervenes on her behalf instead of a fairy godmother. Scott, my younger brother plays the philosopher and wise sage who brings healing. By the end of the opera he is dressed in dazzling white and made to be the King’s wise counsel. He offered Cinderella a transfiguring experience by offering her a new way of life.
I must confess that I still see my younger brother as if we were children. I breathe deeply every time he opens his mouth to sing because I don’t want him to fail. I watch the newspapers for reviews of his operatic performance, making sure the reviews are kind and fair. I make sure that he is protected and happy every way I can because I love him deeply, he is the person whom makes me proud to be a Lee, because of his courage, grit, and determination. For me, my brother is someone I look up to because to me, he is infinite in his ability to make me laugh, to show me love, and to be the person of ethical hard work that I aspire to be. But it took him reaching his senior year for other colleagues at the school to realize his full potential. By the beginning of the end of his undergraduate career, he has arrived. It’s also interesting because Scott was this big football player in high school, he hurt his shoulder his senior year and needed an activity to participate in. So he started singing and his velvety bass baritone captured the conservatory that accepted only a handful of students that year, Scott being one of them after only 6 months of practice.
I tell you this story because we hear a lesson in Mark’s Gospel that is a story of transformation from a first century Rabbi to a Messiah. Jesus has turned his face toward Jerusalem and takes Peter, James, and John with him up a high mountain. And there he was transfigured. He was transformed like Scott was in Cinderella into a Christological vision with Moses and Elijah.
Now the easy homiletical move in this text is to blame Peter. I know many of you find fault in Peter for wanting to build a dwelling place but perhaps we don’t give Peter enough credit in Mark’s lesson for us today. For in that moment, infinity touched the finite. Or as the theologian and Toy Story character Buzz Lightyear might say, Peter, James, and John were taken to infinity, and beyond.
What would you do if heaven touched earth as it did in this account? What might you do if suddenly the prophets of our time showed up with Jesus and had a message for us? I believe the lesson in today’s Gospel text is that when heaven bends down to touch earth, you best be ready for the beauty of God’s infinity. Deeper than that this is a lesson in touch. Humanity was touched by Christ. I can use my scriptural imagination to see a very ordinary Jesus transformed by the work of the Father bending down and touching Peter on his shoulder and saying, “Peter, don’t you see?” For Mark’s Gospel is a lesson in not seeing, a bunch of babbling wannabe apostles not getting the message that Jesus is trying to convey until it is long after the fact.
So we too as wannabe followers of the way of Jesus fail and forget and forage for answers when the answers to our finite existence are right here in Mark’s Gospel. This is made most apparent in today’s world because we fail to see the infinity in Jesus, so we settle for finite realities. Evangelicals get in bed with the Trump administration instead of remembering or recollecting that the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jesus because he came to give good news to the poor, not tax cuts to the rich, he came to bring recovery of sight to the blind, not the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, and to let the captive go free, which means closing Guantanamo Bay Prison and reforming our prison industrial complex. In the year of the Lord’s favor just a few chapters back we see that the way we are acting now is an affront to the way Jesus intended. For Jesus came as did Elijah and Moses for the sake of the widow and the orphan, the enslaved and the downtrodden, the migrant worker and the Dreamer. Jesus came as a first century resident of Palestine to offer us a new way, a different way, a way that says all are welcome in the Kingdom of God.
You see Jesus’ transfiguration gives us permission as Christians for a transformation. The issues we face are easily solved in the light of his glory and grace, but it is obvious that the principalities and powers of this world do not see that as a means of solving problems. We are polarized in this nation and we are a broken empire. But Jesus did not come to save Caesar or the Roman Empire, Jesus entered time as an engendered human being on the outskirts of the Empire for the sake of transfiguration.
One of my preaching professors at Duke, Chuck Campbell said that is far past time for Christians to call out our leaders, but in-so doing we must call out the principalities and powers that make those leaders possible. We must call out the wicked stepfather and step sisters as in Rossini’s Cinderella. And I feel that you people here at Memorial Church under the leadership of your fine clergy, can do just that. You can allow Christ’s transfiguration today to lead to a transformation of how you respond to the powerful, the wealthy, and those who wish to dismantle everything that we hold dear.
Simply and directly you must offer to those who claim the finite that you know infinity. You know a God that has made plain the way of the world is not the way of Christ. You know a God who cares more for the dreamers than those who wish to crush dreams. You know a God who has named racism and xenophobia as sinful. You know a God who sees monuments as idolatrous. So in that infinite reality we must name it as part of our finite nature.
With all that said it can still be difficult. The Church is not what she used to be, in fact, many sanctuaries across our country find their pews are empty. As Tennyson said, “Though much is taken, much abides. We are not now the strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are.” We may not have the numbers or finances or sheer force we used to have as an institution, but we have infinity and transfiguration on our side. We have Christ our Lord who offers to us a new and different way of seeing the world. A transfigured way of seeing reality. This way, this hope, this reality is what will see the church and our country make a way where there is no way.
We must never, ever give up on the possibility of transformation. On this Transfiguration Sunday may you be resolved to find hope in the reality that we are not the end of the sentence, the paragraph, or the page. We do not write the end of the story, for our God already has. So we must work to bring about that ending in such a way that when all is said and done we are brought to that table of infinity and of grace.
Some may call me an optimist after hearing these words, some may call me crazy after hearing these words. But let me take you back at least 20 years. I was on a beach with my brother, and my brother got caught under the waves. He told this story at my wedding and he said that I grabbed him by his shoulders and pulled him back to reality. I asked Scott about that and he said it was scary for him but he knew I was there and he felt safe knowing that we stuck together. That even in his fear he knew he had a big brother looking after him and watching out for him. That story for me is an assurance that though the world seems oft so wrong, God is the ruler yet. Scott is now the man I hope that I one day will be, and he’s younger than me. He transformed from the young guy under the waves to a strong man who is a star in the North Carolina opera scene. The hope of the resurrection, the certainty of infinity is that transfiguration and transformation happens not only in first century Palestine but in 21st Century Statesville, North Carolina and can happen in 21st century Cambridge, Massachusetts.
My mom is one of the wisest teachers of Scripture I know and she joins us here today in this wonderful place. She was the one who first taught my brother and I to love scripture and to hear the song in the heart of God. I remember one day years ago hearing her tell a group of young people that Jesus could have stayed on the mountain like Peter wanted to, but instead he chose to enter back into the world he had come to love to show us the love that made us and makes us one. That is ultimately the message that I wish to share with you today. It would have been easy for Scott to have given up after his football injury and not sing. People whispered that he was a wimp for not going back to the field. For us too, it would be easy for us to silo ourselves off in progressive ivory towers and not engage in the hard work of transformation and transfiguration. But for the sake of the redemption and reconciliation of the world, for the sake of infinity, we must work for a better tomorrow in spite of and in opposition of the powers that wish to see our downfall.
In the end, Jesus did go down the mountain. In the end, I realized that my brother is no longer the kid beneath the waves but a gifted performer and opera singer. I know that in each of these instances and in every instance of grace God’s face is transfigured and made bright in the darkness. For the light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it. We go down from this mountain to Ash Wednesday, we go from that day into Lent and into Easter. We have a strong resilient hope in the transfigured Christ and the future he offers. Or as Buzz Lightyear would say, “To infinity, and beyond.”
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.