I must be getting older
because these stories don’t freak me out any more.
Or at least, not as much.
Fantastical stories like Elijah
being carried up to heaven, by-passing death
in a cloud of sparkled smoke and a hearty Hi-O Silver,
used to embarrass me.
For most of my thirty-eight years as a preacher,
I wanted to pull my hair out – or rub
my bald to a shine –
when I heard Christians talking about these stories
as if they were historical events.
At Trinity Buffalo, on the chancel wall,
there was a huge panel of stained glass
like this one up here.
It included an artistically significant John LaFarge window
with the image of the Transfiguration –
Jesus hang-gliding on a cloud with Moses and Elijah.
It cast a shadow on the back of my neck every week
as I preached from the pulpit.
It is worth noting for Christians,
that Jesus is also a central figure in the Quran and Islam.
In the Quran, Jesus, like Elijah in the Hebrew text,
was taken up to heaven without dying.
Because Jesus is a great prophet in Islam too,
and because it is inconceivable in Islam
that Allah would kill his own prophet.
So unlike the traditional Christian interpretation
of the Passion, the Quran
indicates that Allah saved Jesus from the cross.
Up he went, by-passing death,
and he will appear again at the appointed moment.
Muslims believe that when Jesus returns,
he will kill the anti-Christ and bring a reign
of peace and justice.
Then, at the end of his forty year reign, Jesus will finally die –
because all humans must die.
In fact, there is an empty burial site waiting for Jesus
right alongside the place where Mohammad
and the first two Sunni caliphs of Islam, are also buried.
Just one more nod to the fantastic
before moving along to the point of this sermon.
There is a great Tibetan Buddhist saint of the tenth century,
Besides being able to run faster than a horse,
levitating so that his feet never touched the ground,
his death at age eighty-four has a familiar description to it.
It is said that goddesses cremated his body
and carried away all remaining material substance of his life.
The only things left as they disappeared,
was one small piece of his robe, a lump of sugar,
and a little knife.
Looking at this kind of thing from a slightly different angle,
apparently the U.S. military disposed of Osama Bin Laden’s body
by dumping it somewhere in the ocean
so there would be no grave to memorialize.
That is a strategy used by empires across human history
to limit the potential of pesky martyrdom cults.
But truly significant prophets and martyrs
seem to have a buoyancy
that defies even the most efficient of empires.
One element of Roman crucifixion
we do not hear much about in the Christian narrative,
was that the Romans did not allow their victims’ bodies
to be buried. Instead,
they were cut down and disposed of slowly
by vultures, hyenas, wild dogs, and insects.
Anonymous bones at the base of a cross
simply added to the terror, and the prospect
of not being buried made the punishment
all the more horrifying.
We know for a fact, that there were thousands
of crucifixions in Judah during the first century.
Yet, of all those crucifixions, so far
only two archeological remains have ever been found.
Oppressive rulers, empires – even our own –
do all they can to ensure that the memory of enemies
either disappear into nothingness or live on only in infamy.
Even so, some live on in the myths and legends
that elevate their lives above the victor’s historians
and the natural dust of history.
There is official memory
and there is folk memory.
The only way that folk memory survives official memory,
is if it has something seeded in it
that resonates as truer than official truth.
The histories of the Roman Emperors remain,
even those of many Egyptian Pharaohs,
but I dare say, the stories of Elijah and Jesus
have been shared more broadly
and been far more influential on subsequent history
than any emperor or pharaoh.
It is hard to know
what corrosive effects secular, post-modern culture
will have on our ancient stories,
or even our more modern ones, like the legends
surrounding Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King, Jr.
I cannot imagine there will be new
and fantastic supernatural events
attributed to any modern historical figures.
The fantastic is an element that seems to have disappeared
from our common cultural capacity.
How folk memory will be carried forward from here
is a mystery.
So here we are, on the Sunday every year
we read the Transfiguration story,
and through it, also remember the supernatural Elijah story.
What are we to do with them?
First, I think we acknowledge openly,
that these stories were told to imbue
the prophets with credibility.
They are stories that said to those who heard them,
this is no ordinary person –
this is someone with God in his or her DNA.
How God got in there
would become topics of other stories,
and different for each prophet and martyr.
But clearly, if the story is to be believed,
it was evidence of immense and intense holiness.
We also have to acknowledge,
that for a majority of people living in our culture,
it is just the opposite: these stories are a source of disbelief.
You or I may not feel that way,
but I suspect even most of us here,
do not read these stories as proof of anything –
as if they are factual, verbatim, historical accounts.
But whether you do or don’t,
acknowledging that while the stories remain the same,
the historical and cultural context
in which such stories are now told,
makes a huge difference.
We could go the Fred Buechner route,
which I think is both true and charming.
But the distance between “barefoot in the sand”
or a “Saturday baseball game in July,”
and a golden chariot in the sky
or Moses and Elijah on a cloud with Jesus,
makes for a pale comparison.
But that is the central challenge for faith
in the 21st century: the pale comparison
between Biblical narrative,
and the still small voice
or brushed by a butterfly evidence of God
we have in our own lives.
While some of us ordinary Christians have visions,
dreams, assurances, and moments of being held in peace,
they are private memories that fade
rather than the spectacular supernatural events
narrated in the Bible and depicted
with cheesy detail by Hollywood.
And so in times of crisis,
or even in dry spells when there is nothing
but the rote prayers and rituals we walk through,
the contrast between Biblical prose
and ordinary experience
can grate like fingernails on a chalkboard.
This Epiphany, the gospel readings
and these sermons,
have been focusing on our baptismal ministry –
the ordinary practice of Christian spirituality in our world.
Dealing with the distance
between our hopes and desires
and our actual routine experience,
is a crucial aspect of our spiritual practice.
To put our arms around it,
we need to think of our primary human relationship.
Managing expectations is a fundamental aspect
of healthy human relationships.
If our expectations are either too high or too low,
or in any way inappropriate to the person
or the relationship,
it leads to tension, conflict, and
if left unaddressed, alienation.
Clear, honest, and routine conversations with one another
about what we can and cannot expect,
is a healthy practice.
Here is a very homely example.
Katy commutes 45 minutes, one way, every day to her job.
She leaves early and gets back late.
I have two jobs, but both of them
allow for tremendous flexibility.
There was a time in our lives, when she
was a stay-at-home mom with
primary parenting responsibility,
and I had a job that routinely demanded
seventy or more hours a week.
If we did not re-negotiate our expectations of one another,
and who is responsible for what in our household now,
it would be disastrous.
Another example, all of us can relate to
from one side of the relationship or the other –
and some of us both sides –
is the parent and child relationship.
As our children age,
we as parents need to constantly re-negotiate
our roles with them, and theirs with us.
Children, adolescents, and young adults
go through rapid changes
that they may not even be aware of at the time.
So parents – having been there and done that –
ought to be highly aware of how the dance with our children
requires us to move back,
or to the side,
and even away, from time to time.
We lead the dance, in other words.
But then, we the parents, age
and our children move into slower, more stable
decades of development.
As we get older, we may lose some self-awareness
of our situation and capabilities,
while our children are able to see those changes
taking place on our bodies and in our minds.
So then, they need to be aware of leading the dance,
where and how to manage the relationship
so that we have independence and dignity
yet still an appropriate level of care and security.
It is a back and forth dance,
and if we never talk about our expectations for one another,
it can be very clumsy and even become hostile.
Talking out loud and thinking about our expectations,
what is fair and appropriate given the circumstances
of our lives, our relationships, and our capacities,
can make all the difference in the world
with how healthy and vibrant our relationships are.
Obviously, I cannot navigate that relationship for you,
nor tell you what is appropriate given your experiences.
But I can tell you that for me, personally,
I try to manage my expectations for God very carefully
Another homely example.
I have vivid memories of praying at night,
sitting on my children’s beds as they slept.
It was a routine of mine to check on each one,
and to sit down on the bed of whichever was the youngest,
and pray for each of them.
My prayer was always something about protection.
But here is the thing about those prayers.
I did not expect that God would actually protect my child
in some way that other children the world-over
were not also protected.
But I did know that I was powerless to protect them.
Sitting on their bed in the buttery light of a doorway ajar,
I knew that the next day they would leave the house
and I would no longer be able to protect them.
I knew that in the house even, that very night,
there were events and illnesses
well beyond my power to defend.
What else could I do, powerless as I was,
but to ask a power greater than myself, to protect them.
Such prayers did not take away my anxiety
because they did not take away knowledge and awareness
of my powerlessness.
But somehow, standing at the abyss with God,
was better than standing there without God.
I did not and do not expect supernatural interventions,
but I do fully expect God to be with me
in the midst of my powerlessness.
For me, being clear about that expectation
has strengthened my spirituality over time.
I do in fact, perceive and experience
wild and mysterious things happening
in a cosmos that we demand should be orderly and scientific.
But I do not expect the fantastic.
I look, I notice, I wonder,
and I embrace the sacred in our midst,
but I try never to expect it.
That is how I navigate the distance
between the fantastical Biblical narrative
and the ordinary routine of holiness in my life.
Managing our expectations for God,
so they are appropriate to our actual experience,
is a central element of a vibrant spiritual practice.
Next week, Lent,
and that is a whole different thing.