February 10, 2013

The Light That Shines Through Us


Text: Luke 9:32: “Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory...”

For a long time, the peculiar tradition of the church calendar has been that we end our season of light, our season of Epiphany, by retelling this story about light, dazzling light, light that somehow reveals to Peter, James and John something more about who Jesus really is.

Like a lot of stories it is a fanciful story. From our perspective it seems to beggar belief; it is a story about the supernatural. Or perhaps it is a story about hallucinations. It does not seem to us likely that Moses and Elijah, the great ancestors of the Hebrew people, really suddenly showed up on the mountain with Jesus.

So we explain it in other ways; we speak of it as a metaphor, or as hagiography, a kind of story made up after the fact to strengthen the case for a kind of regard for the hero of the story, Jesus.

I am not interested in coming down on one side or another of that conversation. For one thing, I don’t thing those sorts of debates are every really very fruitful.

But something about this story always strikes me, more each passing year.

And it’s the simplest of simple ideas, I suppose. But it is one that starts with a little architectural reminder.

Every Sunday morning, when someone stands up in this pulpit to preach, it is sometime in the mid-morning. And it is at exactly that time that the windows directly behind me, the three windows right behind where the choir sits, are most brilliantly illuminated.

Mr. Vaughan, the architect of this church, could not have known that some fifty years and more after he finished his work here the parish would decide to fill those spaces with three stained-glass windows. But he did make those three windows some of the largest in the place. The only ones bigger are the ones at the north and south ends of the church.

And here’s the thing you may forget, especially if your habit is to sit on the Gospel side of the church. Whenever someone is preaching here, the window right behind the preacher is filled with light. And that window is telling this story—the story of the transfiguration.

The window itself makes the point I’m trying to make in a thousand words or so. It’s simply this: The story of the Transfiguration, as it is given to us by the artisans of the window, makes sense not because the light shines on it, but becuase the light shines through it. Jesus is tranfigured by light, the pure light that is the source of all light, because it shines through him.

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We live in an age in which the contrast between these ideas is profound; in some ways, you could argue, it lies at the very heart of the changes our culture is undergoing. It seems as though the single most important goal in our moment, the thing we most strive for, is to get the light to shine on us.

We want the most Twitter followers. We want our YouTube video to have the most views. We want our web page to be the most visited. We want influence, and in our day it seems increasingly the case that the way to get influence is to get attention.

It’s not just that we want this to for ourselves; perhaps the single most significant sign of the shift going on in our culture is that we admire it in others. In the very earliest stage of our existence, we admired people for their sheer size. Then we admired people for their power. In the industrial age we admired people for their inventiveness. In the middle of the last century we even admired people for their civic investment—their participation in community organizations.

But more and more it seems that one of the ways we deal with our anxieties at being overlooked or neglected or unimportant or forgotten is that we really admire people who seem to have the knack of being paid attention to. We admire celebrities for the simple fact that they are celebrities.

And we want to see our institutions have celebrities attached to them. I work at a university that seems always to be chasing the latest academic rock star. We even hosted a huge event about a year ago for—I am not kidding—Lady Gaga.

And the church is no different. We want to compete in the social domain by having celebrities of our own. When we find them, we flock to them; they give us a sort of associated glory or something.

But celebrities are skilled at getting the light to shine on them. That is a very different thing from what happens with Jesus in the story today, and what happens in the window every day the sun rises.

Jesus reveals God not because God’s light shines on him, but because it shines through him. Jesus neither wants nor seeks a life in the spotlight; Instead, Jesus is the lens through which god’s light is directed and focused into the darkness of this world.

The difference is simple, but profound. One approach is essentially self-directed; the other is essentially other—directed. One seeks glory; the other shares it.

The story of the Transfiguration may be a way for us to understand just why it is the people around Jesus were so strongly persuaded that there was something fundamentally different about this man, something that got them to see in him the very presence of God in the midst of their lives.

It wasn’t because Jesus was powerful, or rich, or even popular; it was because something about Jesus seemed almost transparent to the presence of God in his life. The activity of God that is present in all of us, the presence of the divine in each of us, was in him somehow more obvious, completely undeniable, because he so perfectly aligned his will with the will of God.

At the close of another season of light, this may also be a way for us to understand more deeply what it means for us to be not just followers but bearers of that light. That it is the discipline of discipleship to work toward removing all the things in us, and about us, that hide or obscure the light that God has set in us—so that others can see it.

I will tell you that this is one of the reasons why I have always thought the ministry was a very dangerous thing for the health of your soul. A great many of the people I have met along my own path to ordained ministry, and a good share of the seminarians I have tried to help prepare for the work of ministry, seem to be called to this work out of a need, sometimes a deep need, to be the focus of attention.

We are social creatures, and of course when we belong to a group called “the parish” we want someone to be the identified leader. But that can quickly slide in to a different kind of worship, the wrong kind of worship. At the low end it’s the danger of something called “clericalism”; at the high end it’s what we call a cult of personality.

We are disciples of a message that proclaims the radical equality of all people. In the same way that we see economic disparities as opposed to our notions of social justice, we should see disparities in attention, disparities in respect, disparities in regard as equally opposed to our notions of the social order God calls us to build. We are meant to be shedding God’s light on each other, and on those who live in darkness—not trying to gather it for ourselves.