Martin Luther King’s own favorite sermon, “The Dimensions of a Complete Life”, as Gary Dorrien reminds us (157, The Making of American Liberal Theology), was itself based on a sermon from Boston’s own Phillips Brooks. King preached the sermon in 1954, to candidate at Dexter Avenue, and again at Perdue in 1958 before a national UCC convention, and again in 1964 in Westminster Abbey to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. As you learn, preaching on a circuit, what is good the first time, can often be better preached three times or more. The opposite also may be true. King, following Brooks, compared life to a cube, possessing the three dimensions of length, breadth and height. The good life flourishes when all three interact in something like a great triangle. “At one angle stands the individual person, at the other angle stand other persons, and at the top stands the Supreme Infinite Person, God”. Length means achieving personal goals, breadth comprises the concern for the well being of others, and height signifies the desire for an upward moving longing for God.
Today’s text is about the third dimension, about height, and personally asks you whether your life exhibits this, King’s third dimension. Height. Hast Thou Height? Granted your personal achievements. Given your communal engagements. Have you a known, or been known by, ‘a mountain view’? In Boston, during this winter of 2007, in the speaking and hearing of Luke 9: 28, there could hardly be a more personal, pertinent question. On it hang hope and health, yours and mine. A mountain view is one of the gifts which the religious communities may offer to support our common hope across the globe.
The work of a sermon is in the hearing, and the astute hearer regular asks A: what is this about? And B: what difference does it make?
A. What Is It About?
Today we hear Luke’s later version of the Transfiguration. Originally a resurrection appearance account, this legend eventually was placed, by Mark, in the year 70ce, back into the life of Jesus, as a confirmation of his Messiahship, a portent of Easter, and an affirmation of Peter’s earlier confession. Our lectionary places this passage, given symbolical and other similarities, adjacent to Exodus 24. But the truth is that there are as many reasons to disjoin as to conjoin the two texts, and it is generally better to avoid more than the inherited usurpation by the Newer Testament of the Older, if at all possible. Rather, the passage as it washes up from Mark on the shoreline of Luke’s persecuted Roman congregation, near the turn of the century, is an ill fit to our current lectionary assembly.
Mark has brought the trumpets of universals to the occasion. All life longs for height! Hear the resurrection gospel! Light. Shining. Cloud. God. Tradition. Prayer. Silence. Presence. White…white as snow…white as no fuller on earth could bleach…white as light…dazzling white. What arrives to Luke is a Mountain View, an announcement of God. This is my beloved…listen…
Today’s Gospel is about Luke’s editorial and authorial changes to the Transfiguration. There is movement and harmony here, a four part, SATB choral interpretation at work in the Gospel. Notice with me a dozen changes Luke makes, working on what he inherits from Mark. Marsh’s pulpit today interprets Luke yesterday, who interprets Mark the day before, who accounts for the Transfiguration.
First, Luke adds two days to the number of days in the distance from the earlier text, perhaps a more regular 8 day week, than the more resurrectional 6 day account in Mark. Luke’s is a more ordinary account of what a week is. Your week: sleep, work, travel, talk, sleep. Sermon. Sleep, work, travel…
Second, Luke demotes James to the third position, after not before John, perhaps a move to distance himself and his church from the Jewish Christianity which James led. Luke represents more a Roman, regular human, than a Jerusalem, brother of the Lord, religious sentiment.
Third, Luke depicts all present in prayer. We can identify with prayer. It is something, however weakly, we practice. It is a human word to God, not the other way around.
Fourth, Luke makes the white ‘dazzling’, to stand out in our human experience.
Fifth, Luke fills in the detail of the conversation, the tertulia, held among the Law and the Prophets and the Lord. They speak of exodus, of glory, of what is to come. Mark kept them mute, Luke gives them voice, human language.
Sixth, to be clear, Luke has called these figures ‘men’. Mark gives their names, Luke their genus and species. They are to be seen and heard as men, real men, not ghosts
Seventh, Luke puts the disciples to sleep, a magical sleep, so well known in all our folk tales, from the Brothers Grimm to Frank Baum. Sleep, sleep…nary a more human activity than slumber.
Eighth, Luke reveals Peter as even more human than thou, not only not knowing what to say, as in Mark, but not knowing what he had said. My dear friend and colleague was accused of publishing every thought he ever had, to which he deftly replied, “Oh no, I published much more than that”. Our self-criticism can reveal our ownmost selves.
Ninth, Luke declares explicitly, what you know best in your nightmares, that the disciples are afraid. You fear, I fear, we fear. Fear in handful of dust. After 9/11, we are people drenched in and numbed by fear.
Tenth, Luke radically changes God’s statement about Jesus. Mark has “this is my beloved Son”, a repetition of Jesus’ baptism. Luke uses a strange word, a perfect passive participle, for Jesus whose perfection, passive reception and earthly participation, Luke names this way: “This is my Son, my Chosen”. Actually, the word means, “picked out from”. Love is great but vague. We are known in our choices, we choosing humans. Thank you for love. Now, what choices does that imply?
Eleventh, Luke implicates the disciples in the keeping of silence. Mark has Jesus keep the secret, Luke the disciples. Secrets, open or otherwise, are the stuff of human community, and tragedy. A family or institutional system is dysfunctional at the point of its secrets, and its fingerprints are in its secrets. What is not said is what is loudest.
Twelfth, Luke emphasizes the prophetic dimension of this tale, as the Apocalypse of Peter will do later in the century (Apoc. Pet. 6). Prophecy is what keeps biblical narrative human.
What is all this about? Just this. At twelve points, Luke has not so subtly re-written an inherited account of epiphany, of a mountain view, at every point to make it more human. Granted a mountain view, Luke smashes home his sermon: this holy event is human, accessible to human beings, grounded in human experience, open to all the human frailties and weaknesses we so painfully know, human, human, human, human! Homo sum: humani nil a mi alienum puto. I am human, nothing human is foreign to me.
In the main, the Transfiguration ill suits Luke’s general gospel purpose, to present the human face of God in Jesus, or so it would seem. But look! Luke has brought you something profoundly hopeful and healthy. Good life has height, as well as length and breadth. Good life has height that is a part of human experience. For Luke, unlike for Mark, the Transfiguration is not about divine but about human experience, not about a divine voice but about human ears. Luke’s passage is about heightened human experience.
B.What Difference Does it Make?
So, what difference does this make? If any?
On Sunday we may ask this of the text of the day: what is it about and what difference does it make?
In another year, or on another day, we might need to preach the Markan Transfiguration, which Matthew more dutiful repeats, as a simply positive declaration of divine authority. Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans, in 1919 hit the church and the academy like a bombshell landing on a playground. In chaos, one longs for certainty. After ten years of disquietude, 1997—2007, we can understand why appeals to authority work. Monica, Y2K, hanging chads, election by fiat, the rubble falling onto Wall Street at 9/11, run up to war, false information in the run up to war, war engaged four years ago, mission accomplished, mission not so accomplished, another dicey election, the crumbling of the mission, the fraying of parts of the Bill of Rights: a decade past of fear upon fear. Who would not appreciate the clarity of positive authority, in such uncertainty?
Positive authority: Bible, Pope, Me. Ah, the joy of saying, “one of us is wrong and it is you!” Clarity. Certainty. Very satisfactory. Mount Sinai. Mount Olympus. The Transfiguration, in the other gospels. A mountain view, to be sure…but not Luke’s, not one accessible to human experience.
It is striking that Luke, facing similar fright as do we, during the terror of Domitian, wrote otherwise, here. (May his courage, and the courage of the other biblical writers, ever infect us.) As if to say, there is more than one witness, the persecution of Christians under Domitian, he heightens human experience, making even transfiguration fully human. As if to say to us, there is more than one witness, the horror of 9/11, making even our life open to height.
At least ask yourself, as this sermon comes around third base to head on home, whether your life has height? Human height? Has it?
The tradition of responsible Christian liberalism, advocated at Marsh Chapel, understands and honors Luke 9:28. Now those of us who initially studied theology thirty years ago, heard very little of this. We heard Neo-Orthodoxy, on the one hand. We heard Liberation, on the other. Both the liberationists and the Barthians are correctives to the larger liberal tradition, needed at times and good at times, but both espousing not only a responsible authority, but also a kind of authoritarianism, and both imbued with a lasting anger, whether that of Hauerwas or that of Cone, which Luke’s Transfiguration does not justify, as appealing as both are to the 9/11 nighttime all around us. How we have missed the fuller voices of Deotis Roberts and James Forbes, of George Lindbeck and Paul Tillich, now that the cultural night has set in!
Luke 9: 28 offers another message. Your life, in its struggle up the mountain, may open up, at points, to a humanly accessible mountain view!
In fact, if life does not retain a height dimension, life becomes a kind of death. Without the mountain presence, the absence of the valley becomes the valley of death. Luke has smashed home his sermon, already, so in like fashion we may want to ask ourselves, I may ask you, a question. Does your life have height? Is the spiritual ceiling in your weekly house of sufficient stature? How high is heaven, day to day? Is there any place for a cloud, for brilliance, for presence, for the numinous? Is there a room with a view? Is there a place for special experience, even ‘special revelation’?
Sometimes, as Karl Jaspers taught us, the third dimension of life, its height, may be opened to us in liminal moments: change, loss, death, birth, relocation, illness, healing. Let us remember Jaspers this Lent.
Sometimes, as John Wesley taught us, the third dimension of life, its height, may be provided for us by means of grace: a regular mealtime prayer (do you know one?), a memorized set of verses (do you have them?), a favorite hymn or two (do you hum one?), a pattern of worship (do you claim one?), a church family to love and a church home to enjoy (do you attend one?). Personal goals, life’s length, do not come without effort. Communal changes, life’s breadth, to not come from wishes. Why should we think that a mountain view, a certain height, will come our way without attentive effort? Let us remember Wesley this Lent.
Sometimes, as Ralph Harper taught us some years ago, we need the height
of presence: “When I am moved by a painting or by music, by clouds
passing in a clear nigh sky, by the soughing of pines in the early spring, I
feel the distance between me and art and nature dissolve to some degree,
and I feel at ease. I feel that what I know makes me more myself than I
knew before. This is how the saints felt about God, and I see in my own
experience elements that I share with the saints and prophets, the
philosophers and priests.” (On Presence, 6) Let us remember presence this
Sometimes, as Tony Campbell taught, we need to remember that you cannot cook on a cold stove. What bakes bread is not only yeast but heat! Let me hear you whistle! Let me feel your body in the pew! Let me notice you humming a hymn! Let me eat at your table and see your photographs! Let me know your name! Then there may come the chance for a certain height. Let us remember Campbell this Lent.
In my junior year, spent abroad in Segovia, I had the good fortune to meet and friend. We climbed the mountains of Castile together, but I never saw her in church. Then the week before Lent in 1975, the last year of Franco’s reign, we in the plaza. My friend was carrying, in good Castilian fashion, the Ejercicios Espirituales of Ignatius of Loyola. Surprised, I inquired about this reading for Lent, and participation in the visionary exercise of Loyola. “Siempre se saca algo bueno de estas cosas” said the confirmed agnostic: “ah, one always gets something good from these things” said the passionate climber of mountains. Another kind of mountain view…
Hear the gospel: height, a mountain view, awaits you, too.