Feast of the Transfiguration
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a – Luke 9:28-36
Transfiguration Part II: Hiroshima
I wish I did not have to preach this sermon. But as Jeremiah says, it is like a fire shut up in my bones. Webster’s Dictionary tells us transfiguration means:
n. 1.Radical transformation of figure or appearance: metamorphosis. 2. The sudden emanation of radiance from Jesus’ person that occurred on the mountain.
August 6 – The Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ – The Anniversary of our United States dropping an Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima. Both events, curiously, revolve around images of blinding white light, clouds, and feelings of dread and fear - two events evoking radical transformation.
From our perspective, looking back 61 years it is possible for us to recognize the various ways in which such radical transformation took place in Japan: an entire modern city was reduced to dust and ash in the blink of an eye; people who populated that city were instantly incinerated, or dramatically and radically changed in appearance; the spirit of the human community was radically transformed; the nature of modern warfare was restructured; whole generations of people lived under a new specter of fear, fear of a mushroom shaped cloud.
On the positive side, a devastating World War was brought to an end; out of a deep human desire for world peace the United Nations was born; many people abandoned a view of security based in military might for a view of security based in peaceful co-existence; and the Right Reverend Bennett Sims, recently deceased Bishop of Atlanta and former rector of Church of the Redeemer, Baltimore, developed a theology of Servanthood. This theology might be summed up by saying that our future depends on how we take care of the Earth and how we take care of one another – all others.
You see, Bishop Sims visited Nagasaki eleven weeks after our military instantly incinerated 39,000 civilian non-combatants, a death toll that eventually reached 64,000 in Nagasaki alone, 250,000 altogether in both cities - what we sometimes refer to as “collateral damage.” We might compare this quarter of a million civilian non-combatant deaths with the only two civilian casualties wrought from the carnage at Gettysburg. After viewing the nuclear wasteland, Bishop Sims was returning to his naval destroyer by way of coal-fired steam train across Japan. A young man of fifteen was the conductor, cheerfully roaming the aisle, punching tickets in his badly worn and patched conductors jacket and cap. He sat down opposite Bennett and in sign language asked for a cigarette. Bennett offered up one of his Old Golds. Then the lad gestured for a light. Writes Sims,
“The act of lighting another’s cigarette, with wind blowing through the open windows of a moving train, brings people’s faces very close. His eyes and mine met only scant inches apart. Unbidden in that moment tears welled up, for both of us. Until a few minutes before we were total strangers. Until a few weeks before, we were sworn enemies, separated by war, propaganda, language differences, and distant geography. But in one swift removal of all barriers, two human beings drew close in a meeting of souls. On August 14th of that fateful year the war ended.
Better still, on October 25th peace came to two of us.” Servanthood (Cowley Publications, Cambridge, MA:1997), p.170.
From this experience, Bennett Sims drew several conclusions that would shape his life and ministry until his death two weeks ago: 1) humanity is created to be a community of kinship in peace, 2) the best things in life come by surprise, 3) the planet will support the human enterprise only as the human enterprise supports the planet, and 4) new life arises from the death of the old. “The human odyssey cannot continue without a quantum advance in consciousness that will build new structures of care for the earth and for one another across all boundaries.” Ibid, p.168
Bishop Sims’ life was a life of prophetic ministry, grounded in such Biblical characters as Elijah, Isaiah, John the Baptist, and of course in our scripture today, Nathan. Nathan confronting David with the tragic truth of his transgression with Bathsheba, and writing the order taking her husband Uriah to his death on the field of battle, gives us a glimpse of the very origins of the crucial idea of separation of church and state. God’s independent prophet, heeded by the monarch of temporal power and authority, sets a pattern for the delicate balance between earthly and heavenly powers that has challenged and bedeviled nations for all of the 3,000 years that have passed since Nathan says, “You are the man!”
David has attempted to cover-up his sinful behavior with a military diversion and solution. It has been suggested that Israel’s demand for a monarchy came in part to provide leadership for national security against a Philistine threat. It has been further suggested that this was really a cover for those who had monopolized wealth and who wanted a strong central government in order to protect and legitimate their considerable economic and political advantage and privilege, so that the Philistine threat was really offered as an external cover story to pursue this internal consolidation of power. Even a casual reading of history reveals that this is not the last time the “Philistine threat” has been used to warrant internal political manipulation. Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament (Fortress, Philadelphia:1997) p.601.
How that may or may not relate to current events at home and abroad is for others to decide. It is interesting for us to note, however, that God feels it is necessary to provide checks and balances on the monarchy/temporal authority through the person of Nathan and others like Nathan who are called upon to reveal and speak Truth to Power in every generation. We might also note how Nathan cleverly appeals to David’s best qualities leading David to convict himself. And we might finally note that David accepts public responsibility for the wrong he has done, so utterly unlike any single similar situation in recent U.S. and World history.
One might strain to identify who the Nathans are in any given generation, but we can rely upon the truth and promise of such narratives that God does provide us with one Nathan after another. It is our job to hear them, listen to them and act accordingly. Their voices may come from the church, the synagogue or the mosque. Their voices may be found on opinion and editorial pages. Their voices may be on the front page quoting “unnamed sources”: how else would we ever know of what goes on in places like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and elsewhere. And since most of the Biblical prophets wrote in Hebrew poetry, modern day Nathans often come in the form of poets and song writers like these:
It fed our kids and it paid our bills
But they turned us out and they closed the doors
We can't make it here anymore
Some have maxed out all their credit cards
Some are working two jobs and living in cars
Minimum wage won't pay for a roof, won't pay for a drink
If you gotta have proof just try it yourself Mr. CEO
See how far 5.15 an hour will go
Take a part time job at one of your stores
Bet you can't make it here anymore…Music and lyrics © 2004 by James McMurtry
Men of anger, men of war
My heart is filled with love
Tell me what you are fighting for
My heart is filled with love
The death I see won’t make me numb
My heart is filled with love
Every boy a mother’s son
My heart is filled with love
Raise your voices, spread the news…
Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jew…
They all teach the golden rule…
Do unto others as you’d have them do….(Joyce Anderson, Joyscream Music ASCAP)
God knows that without Nathans in every generation we would be blind to the machinations of the David’s in this world. Yet, it is safe to assume that in that moment of realization as David utters the words, “I have sinned against the Lord,” that he too is radically transformed or transfigured, and thereby utterly different from most of his successors. His life from that moment is changed and influenced by such transfiguration. Just as Bennett Sims and the young Japanese man on the train were transformed and transfigured in the blink of an eye. Just as Peter, James and John were transfigured before Jesus on the mountain top, their lives changed forever.
On the Feast of our Lord’s Transfiguration I believe we are meant to stop everything we are doing and reflect on such questions as: What will it take to transfigure our church? Our nation? The World? Do we as a people have the courage to utter the words, “I am the man,”? “We are the nation,”? Where do the cycles of violence end? In what can National Security truly be based? Are we open to listening to the Nathans speaking Truth to Power?
On another mountain top, on another day, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.” Bennett Sims concludes that the Transfiguration of Christ and the World is based in a kind of servanthood in which “great power functions as an exchange of power, never as coercion by superior forces. The universe is built this way. As the revealer of the Power that blew the cosmos into being and keeps it evolving, Jesus never coerces. Instead, it is his concise insistence by word and deed that greatness lies in giving – that superiority is embodied in serving. Persuasion is the posture of God.” Ibid, p. 173
The history of the past few generations on Earth has given us ample images of Transfiguration, both tragic and good. Jesus stands up on the mountain issuing the invitation to be transfigured for the good of the world into his servant people – to care for our planet and one another across all boundaries. To recall the last verse of one still sadly relevant song, “When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn….” (Where have all the flowers gone?,Pete Seeger, Joe Hickerson – Fall River Music, Inc.) Amen.