Transfiguration and tradition

Text: Luke 9: 28-36 (Jesus is transfigured) * why Transfiguration today? See below

Last Sunday, Kim and I attended an Anglican service in Puerto Vallarta. It might seem odd that we spent time in worship while enjoying a week at a delightful all-inclusive resort in Mexico, but I appreciated the experience.

Part of it was getting there. This involved a 20-minute walk down the busy street that ran in front of our resort and which took us past a luxury retail mall, an amusement park, and other resorts. The walk led us to a charming commercial plaza that contained a circular structure built by Puerto Vallarta’s Anglicans, most of whom are Canadian expatriates. The walk after the service was even nicer. Near to the church, we found a riverside path to the beach and then spent 30 minutes walking back to our resort on the sand.

The service was filled with about 60 worshippers, most of whom were elderly Canadians and Americans. I had learned from an ad in an English-language weekly newspaper that this congregation, “Christ Church by the Sea,” had suffered a split in which members who oppose homosexuality had set up a rival congregation. So, I was confident we had chosen an OK church at which to gather last week.

I enjoyed the sermon, which was delivered by a Lutheran minister from Oakville Ontario who came out as gay when he acknowledged the presence of his husband – although given that he was preaching on a passage in which Jesus says “Blessed are you when people hate and exclude you on account of the Son of Man” and given that we were in Mexico just two days after the U.S. President had declared a National Emergency in order to build a Wall between Mexico and the U.S., I wondered why he didn’t mention this particular act of exclusion and hatred. I also liked the presiding Anglican priest, who had retired from Winnipeg to lead this congregation.

But I was struck by how traditional a service it was. Like almost all Anglican services, it included numerous prayers lifted from a denominational prayer book. All four Bible readings suggested by the Revised Common Lectionary for February 17 were read. The Nicene Creed from the year 325 was recited. Communion was celebrated. Fancy vestments, eighteenth and nineteenth century hymns, and bowing before the Bible were all present and accounted for. I imagine the nature of the service might have been a comfort to many in the congregation. But I would not enjoy fitting into this liturgical strait-jacket every week.

Church is a place for tradition and continuity as evidenced by phrases like “faith of our fathers.” But it is also a place for innovation and new beginnings as evidenced by the gospel stories about Jesus.

To illustrate the latter, I now turn to today’s reading from Luke about the Transfiguration. In this story, Jesus is transformed into a glorious vision of light and is joined by two heroes of the Hebrew people, Moses and Elijah.

Many theologians say that the appearance of Moses and Elijah in this story illustrates continuity between Jesus and the Law of Moses and the Prophets of Israel; but nothing compels this interpretation. Peter wants to set up tents for these national heroes, but Jesus says no. The original version of this story, found in Mark 9, does not recount what is said between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, although Luke adds that they speak about Jesus’ impending death; and given that 1300 years separate Moses from Jesus and 900 years separate him from Elijah, it is doubtful they could understand one another even if they tried to speak.

But if they did manage to communicate, I imagine Jesus might have rebuked Moses and Elijah for their nationalist violence. In such an interpretation, the Transfiguration illustrates a break between Jesus on the one hand and Moses and Elijah on the other and not continuity.

The Exodus story of Moses includes YHWH’s murder of thousands of Egyptians when the Pharaoh refuses to let the Hebrew slaves go and his murder of thousands of the freed slaves when they worship a Golden Calf in the desert. Exodus is followed by a genocide in Canaan as Moses’ successor Joshua conquers The Promised Land.

The career of Elijah is also one of violence. Elijah not only bests the prophets of the Canaanite god Baal in various feats of magic, he also murders 400 of them at YHWH’s command. I realize there are many spiritually-edifying ways that Jews, Christians and Muslims have tried to read these blood-drenched stories over the centuries. But taken at face value, I don’t appreciate them.

When I was on vacation last week, I read one of the books that underpins the series of three Monday evening discussions led by Joyce Madsen and Clair Woodbury and the last of which occurs here tomorrow evening. Katharine Ozment’s “Grace Without God” describes how she tries to help her children become loving and ethical people without the trappings of her own Christian upbringing or of the Jewish upbringing of her husband.

At one point, Ozment buys an illustrated children’s Bible to read to her seven-year old daughter. But when they come to the story of the Ark in which God drowns everyone on earth except for Noah and his family, the daughter objects. She doesn’t want to hear any more stories about God because God is too mean. So, her mother abandons this attempt to introduce her daughter to Bible stories.

God’s meanness is also present in the stories of the Hebrew Exodus out of Egypt and in Elijah’s encounters with the priests of Baal.

In contrast, the gospels contain no stories of God or Jesus killing anyone. If they did, I don’t imagine I would have returned to church 18 years ago.

The Jesus movement arises out of Judaism even as it represents a radical change. The path of Jesus is not just for one tribe, but for all humanity. The gospels stories are not about an angry God who murders people. They are about non-violent resistance to the Roman Empire.

For centuries, the church has said that preferring the Gospels over the Hebrew Scriptures is heretical. But for centuries the church has been the handmaiden of empire as much as it has been a place for celebration, mourning and healing. So, I don’t pay too much attention to the church’s ideas about heresy.

This winter, I am enjoying learning about Seven Sacred Indigenous Teachings from Elder Evelyn Day during our Sunday gatherings. In the process, I have been struck by the thought that the radical freedom found in the stories of Jesus was co-opted by the Roman Empire in the Fourth Century and used as a weapon against nations like Canada’s Indigenous people when France and Britain conquered North America. The role of the church in this history seems both ironic and tragic.

Jesus was a Jewish Wisdom teacher who stood up to the imperial occupiers of Palestine in the First Century. The fact that churches founded in his name were used to suppress the Sacred Teachings of First Nations is a crime at odds with the gospel message itself.

Today, as we try to rise above the violent history of the church, we should feel free to abandon many of the church’s old traditions and to embrace practices and teachings that are as radical today as were the teachings of Jesus 2,000 years ago.

One thing most United Churches have already abandoned is the Nicene Creed. It was authorized by the Roman Emperor in 325 and was then used by the army to stamp out any Christian or non-Christian community that dared to be different. Given this history, I do not appreciate the use of this Creed in worship. It may still work for elderly people who gather in Anglican churches in Puerto Vallarta, Edmonton, or London. But I can’t see the practice of reciting this Creed continuing much longer into the 21st Century.

The same is true for the Catholic tradition that the priesthood be restricted to straight and celibate men. If the Pope and the Bishops who are meeting in Rome this weekend to deal with the crisis of clerical sexual abuse are unable to abandon these patriarchal rules even in this horrifying and humbling moment, then I believe there is no hope for their denomination. That may sound harsh, but if not now, when? If not them, who?

Jesus was nothing if not a rebel. So as his followers, we should feel encouraged to innovate and experiment without fear. We should feel free to shed old traditions that don’t fit with a modern expression of faith, hope and love. We should also feel free to learn from spiritual paths that the church once suppressed.

I am confident that the violent tribalism evident in the stories of Moses and Elijah does not survive Transfiguration. What does survive is the selfless love and infinite hope of Jesus as he turns from Galilee to his fate – and ours – in Jerusalem.


From the preamble to today’s Worship service — Ian

Today our gathering celebrates Transfiguration, that point on the church calendar when the Season of Epiphany is almost over and the Season of Lent is almost here.

On Transfiguration Sunday, the church directs us to read a Gospel story in which Jesus is transfigured into a vision of light and where he meets with the two most important prophets of the Hebrew people: Moses and Elijah. The church sets this Sunday just before the 40 days of Lent because after the Transfiguration, Jesus and his friends leave Galilee to begin their fateful journey to Jerusalem.

But there is one problem with celebrating Transfiguration today. Today is not the official date of Transfiguration Sunday 2019. This year, that date falls next week on March 3.

The date of Transfiguration depends on the date of Easter, and as you are probably aware, Easter leaps about on the calendar. Depending on when the first full moon appears after the spring equinox, Easter can be as early as March 22 and as late as April 25. This year, Easter comes relatively late, on April 21, to the delight of ministers and priests everywhere.

But I didn’t feel bold when I decided a few weeks ago to organize this Sunday around Transfiguration one week “early” because my hunch is that most of us don’t think much about Transfiguration. I bet most of us would be OK if we didn’t celebrate it all; and that we would also feel OK to hear the story of the Transfiguration on any Sunday and not just on the “official” one. Please feel free to let me know if I am right about this after the service.

Now, if I were to celebrate Easter on a date other than the official one, this might not go over as well. Personally, I would be happy if we always celebrated Easter on the third Sunday in April regardless of the date of the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. But I don’t have the courage to suggest this. And so, just like Cadbury with its Easter Creme Eggs and New Orleans with its Mardi Gras organizers, each year at Mill Woods United we start Lent six weeks before Easter regardless of whether this is on February 4, March 10, or one of the days between those two.

This year will be no exception. We will celebrate the final day of Epiphany on its official 2019 date of March 5 with a Pancake Supper, and I look forward to this Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, or Shrove Tuesday celebration.

But I chose to mark Transfiguration one week “early” when Evelyn Day, who has been leading a seven week series on Sacred Indigenous Teachings, told me that she had been called to Toronto this weekend for a church consultation with Indigenous leaders. This means that we will mark the sixth of those seven Sundays next week on March 3. And Evelyn and I will finish the series on the second Sunday in Lent, which this year is March 17.

Switching things up this way fits with my intention to reflect today on our attitudes to ancient traditions like the seasons of the church and on our desire to be a vibrant, relevant, and expansive spiritual community.

I pray that today’s time of singing, praying, and sharing will deepen our appreciation of the epiphanies of winter and our commitment to our sacred values of love and justice.

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