Sermon from February 23, 2020

From the Perfection of Beauty, You Shine Forth
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
February 23, 2020
Seventh and Last Sunday after Epiphany,
Transfiguration Sunday
Verses from Psalms 36, 50, 104 & 139 and II Corinthians 4
Matthew 17:1-9

“From Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth,” the Psalm says, but God also shines through a man in oppressed, occupied Palestine, a man who is exhausted from teaching and healing and confronting injustice, a man caked in sweat and dust from a long road and a mountain path, a man who openly acknowledges he will end up on a cross and whose discouraged disciples desperately need to see a glimpse of God’s beauty in order to keep going.

Epiphanies and transfigurations are beautiful, but they are lights that shine in a context of a dangerous or confounding darkness to save those who are lost.  Epiphanies and transfigurations are beautiful words, but they speak into an aching, yearning silence to transform and redirect lives.

The more lost we are, the more amazing the grace when we are found.  Epiphanies and transfigurations are most beautiful to those who need them most.

Some of us here today may feel that need in our personal lives.  All of us desperately need them as part of the human race on this beautiful, fragile, sacred earth with all its miraculous gifts that we are rapidly destroying.  As Greta Thunberg says, our house is on fire.  We are engulfed in flames and billions of lives are already being lost, and we have no idea yet how we are going to escape that fire and build a society that will keep the earth safe from future holocausts.

We need epiphanies, we need transfigurations.  So how can we find them?

Several years ago a New Yorker article told the story of Wag Dodge.  Wag Dodge was a forest fire fighter back in the 1940s.  One day he led a team of fifteen men who parachuted into a remote canyon in Montana to put out what was supposed to be a small fire.  They found it burning out of control.  Dodge moved the men so that the wind was at their backs and led them down into the canyon.

They were far in when suddenly the wind shifted, and a fifty-foot high wall of flame came howling toward them on a fierce updraft.  Dodge screamed for them to run, but the flames were moving at seven hundred yards a minute.  He looked over his shoulder as he ran and saw the fire only fifty yards away.  He knew he had only seconds to live, and he thought there was nothing he could do.

He stopped running, and in a flash of insight, he saw exactly what to do—something no one had ever thought of before.  He lit a fire ahead of him even as the flames came up behind.  The fire ahead of him quickly made a large buffer zone of burned grass with no fuel left for the wall of flame.  He threw himself into the smoldering embers, covered his mouth with a wet handkerchief and a few minutes later arose shaken but unharmed.  The fire had jumped over him.

The New Yorker article was about how the brain comes up with completely new insights—epiphanies that solve problems instantly that all our study or anxious thinking had never figured out.

Scientists can identify the truly amazing way the brain works in such moments, and they are learning what can help open us to intuition and insights, to epiphanies and transfigurations.

The article talks about a contemplative master who had spent years practicing mindfulness and meditation.  He was part of a large scientific study where people were given a set of word problems to solve.  At first he was terrible at it as he strained to think.  Then he used his well-developed contemplative skill to let go of his thoughts and quiet his brain and open to the spirit, and suddenly he started solving problem after problem, better than anyone else in the study had been able to do.

Like Wag Dodge, he hit an impasse and realized his way of thinking was not working.  He stopped, let go and opened, and insight came.

Contemplative prayer is based on the belief that the Spirit that created us and created the universe is living and flowing within us.  It is the Spirit of life, it is what gives microbial cells and Darwin’s Finches and human consciousness the epiphanies they need in order to know how to evolve.  It is the Tao, the sacred way, and through spiritual practice we can learn to live by its guidance and power and find the epiphanies and see the transfigurations we need to guide us.

Richard Rohr is a Franciscan friar and ecumenical spiritual teacher who directs the Center for Action and Contemplation.  He founded it after working with people in the peace, social justice, environmental and indigenous rights movements who were burning out and despairing.  He saw that they needed contemplative training in order to have a spiritual source of both calm and creative inspiration at the core of their activism.

He had the epiphany that not only do activists need contemplation, but contemplatives need to be active.  The gifts of contemplation are not for ourselves alone.  They lead to epiphanies and transfigurations that human consciousness needs in order to evolve.  They lead to unconditional love and a sense of oneness that humanity needs in order to survive.

The Center for Action and Contemplation sends out daily meditations by email.  Here is some of what Richard Rohr wrote on Friday.

“The first principle of great spiritual teachers is rather constant: only Love can be entrusted with Wisdom or Big Truth. All other attitudes will murder, mangle, and manipulate truth for their own ego purposes….

“The second principle is that truth is on some level always beautiful—and healing—to those who honestly want it…. We need to experience very particular, soul-evoking goodness in order to be shaken into… ‘realization.’ It is often a momentary shock where we know we have been moved to a different plane of awareness.

“This is precisely how transformation differs from simply acquiring facts and information. Whereas information will often inflate the ego, transformation utterly humbles us. In that moment, we know how much we have not known up to now, and still surely do not know! Such humility is a good and probably necessary starting place and, I would say, the very seat of Wisdom.”

To find epiphanies and see transfigurations we need to come from a place of love.  We will know them by their beauty, goodness and truth, and by the new perspective, the new consciousness, the new insights they bring.  Often they will come with a shock, and for good reason.  We are being touched by a spiritual power-source.  The encounter with that higher power will be humbling.  We will be aware of receiving a gift of pure grace.

Epiphanies and transfigurations remind us that the Spirit that created and evolved life is on our side.  We can turn to it with trust that it will guide and empower us now in earth’s time of desperate need.

It would be fair to ask, though, if that Spirit is real, then why is the world in such terrible shape?

Paul Hawken wrote in his book, “Blessed Unrest,” “It has been said that we cannot save our planet unless humankind undergoes a widespread spiritual and religious awakening…. What if there is already in place a large-scale spiritual awakening and we are simply not recognizing it?”  His book is based on an epiphany he had, a transfiguration that gradually appeared before his amazed eyes, shining where it had been all along, hidden in plain sight.

Hawken is a veteran of the Civil Rights movement who became an environmental entrepreneur, author and popular public speaker. Some years he gave as many as one hundred talks around the world.

After every talk people would crowd around him and inevitably hand him their business cards.  Back home he would lay them out and look at all the different peace, justice, environmental and indigenous rights organizations, almost all small, local and unfamiliar to him, all motivated by love and a sense of the sacredness of life, and he would be heartened.  Then he would shove the cards in a drawer.  Then they overflowed the drawer and started filling a giant shopping bag.

It dawned on Hawken that he was seeing something that most other people could not see.  No one knew how many different groups there were.  He wrote in Blessed Unrest, “After spending years researching this phenomenon including creating with my colleagues a global database of its constituent organizations, I have come to these conclusions: this is the largest social movement in all of human history.  No one knows its scope, and how it functions is more mysterious than what meets the eye.  What does meet the eye is compelling: coherent, organic, self-organized congregations involving tens of millions of people dedicated to change…. What I see are ordinary and some not-so-ordinary individuals willing to confront despair, power and incalculable odds in an attempt to restore some semblance of grace, justice and beauty to this world.”

Hawken believes he is seeing a kind of immune system at work.  The earth as a whole is a unified living body, as astronauts who go to the moon see so clearly.  The spirit of life in the earth and in our collective consciousness is rising to confront and cure the disease of humanity’s abuses.  It is working to restore the conditions needed for the survival of all life.  Those who are part of this social movement on behalf of grace, justice and beauty are the T-cells and B-cells.  We are the immune response of earth’s body, of God’s creation.

This is the beautiful vision of Transfiguration that we need today, because we are like those tired, sweat and dust caked disciples dragging their feet up the mountain behind the leader who calls them to lay down their lives for the cause of compassion and love.  We are small, our resources limited, many of us are worn out, and the forces we are struggling against seem far more powerful.

There are over 1000 hate groups in the United States today, and we hear hate spewed by leaders in Washington, DC who want us to feel small, weak and alone, but look: we are not small, or weak, or alone!  See the brilliant light shining from a million different groups like us all over the world—far more love groups than hate groups—tens of millions of people—and let that vision encourage and refresh you.  Together we are an immune system that could save humanity and all living species and heal the earth.

Our task is each to find within us whatever light we can shine.  The Spirit that created the universe and evolved humanity to this point has given us each gifts of light to share.  The voice of the Spirit in our hearts will tell us what to do now with those gifts.  Let us rise and join this greatest movement and do our small but essential part.

Let us pray in silence, seeking that vision and voice …

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