6 March 2011
Thinking about this in a season of “foolish hope” has led me to three ideas I want to explore this morning:
- The Gospel lesson for this week offers us a big Epiphany and some ideas about how to respond: fear not, but keep praying.
- Most epiphanies are small enough to overlook or treat like problems to be solved rather than mysteries to be loved.
- Receiving an epiphany may take some time, and Lent is a fine time to start.
What IS an “epiphany” anyway? My old American Heritage Dictionary says an epiphany is “A revelatory manifestation of a divine being; a spiritual event in which the essence of a given object of manifestation appears to the subject, as in a sudden flash of recognition.” It’s a holy “Aha!” moment, one of those times when the scales fall from your eyes, and you see what’s been hidden in plain sight.
In our Gospel lesson for this week Jesus takes his inner circle to the mountain, where they encounter him in a new way – as the beloved son of God. They’d been to the mountain with Jesus before, so it probably wasn’t the place that made the day so special. No, I suspect what made that one-day retreat an “epiphany” was the vision they shared, the way they were given a sudden insight into the nature of Jesus: the beloved child of the Creator. And though they probably had heard that before, this time the transfiguration made a deep, deep impression on them.
They wanted to memorialize the moment, to raise three altars, one for Moses, and one for Elijah, and one for Jesus, so future generations wouldn’t forget what happened there that day. But before Jesus could answer their polite request, the mystery got bigger: this bright cloud came down and covered them, and they heard that voice: “This is my beloved!” Now they really had something to build a memorial for – and brag about when they got home!
But Jesus, who I’m sure knew what was coming, told them to hold off telling the wider community about their amazing day until something much bigger had been experienced by many more people: “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” No monument, please.
From what I read, the reactions of the disciples seem easy to understand. First they fell down in fear. Then, when they realized that they hadn’t been struck deaf, or dumb – or dead – they felt an immediate, deep desire to memorialize the event, and then tell the world what they’d just been through. It’s a pretty familiar pattern. These days when folks survive an amazing experience like this, we expect to see the story spread across the front page and filling up the news and talk shows as the survivors milk it for every moment in the spotlight they can get. In fact, isn’t this pattern of surprise leading to fear, memorialized and widely broadcast, the core thread of “reality TV?”
But Jesus’ guidance to the disciples doesn’t fit this “made for reality TV” model. No, he tells them to skip the memorials, keep the story to themselves and get ready for something bigger.
When we find ourselves in a totally unexpected situation like the disciples found themselves in on that bright day, when we’re given a big “epiphany,” we tend to react a lot like the disciples. Might Jesus’ teaching be a lesson for us in a different way to deal with unexpected surprises?
NOT ALL EPIPHANIES ARE AS BIG AS THE TRANSFIGURATION
From what I’ve seen, most epiphanies are small enough to overlook or treat like problems to be solved rather than mysteries to be learned from and loved.
I’m reminded of one of those minor events that’s still vivid for me almost a decade after it happened. It was July 2002. We were on the first Guatemala pilgrimage. That year we took a day off from working on the school to visit a ministry in Guatemala City. The Potter’s House there works to meet the needs of people who have come to the city dump to scavenge for recyclable materials – plastic, copper wire, even shoulder pads from women’s dresses. There are buyers who will pay them by the kilo for what they dig out of the dump. Its dirty, dangerous, unsanitary work, but someone with a strong back (and a strong stomach) can make better than the minimum wage. That day we took loaves of fresh bread into the dump to offer them to the scavengers with a smile and the reassurance that “Jesus te amo.” (Jesus loves you.) It wasn’t easy to be there in the midst of the rotting garbage, but being there did give me an unforgettable sense of how those folks survive.
Here’s what I wrote a week after we got back about one small experience that afternoon:
DOWN IN THE DUMP
It was the way he wore his cap – bill off to the side and down over his ear. This guy had attitude. I noticed him for the first time as he walked toward us through the scarlet-painted mud, a small man in old work clothes and cast-off shoes. There was a little group of us from Faith At Work, in the middle of the huge Guatemala City dump, handing out plastic bags with two loaves of fresh bread in each one, a bit of clean food in the middle of a mountain of garbage. He took a bag of bread, and headed for the rusted hulk of an ancient black sedan, its windows gone, a bald tire casing tied to the trunk lid in back. He threw the fresh bread through the window into the back seat as I turned back to the growing line of grimy scavengers waiting for their bread. I figured that car was home, and I’d just given him a meal he didn’t have to scavenge for.
Scavenging is hard work. The trucks dump tons of garbage over the edge of the mountain of trash every day, and you have to be strong, agile and quick to pull your kind of trash from the slowly rotting cascade – aluminum cans for her, foam shoulder pads for him, plastic bags for those kids, and steel for that strong guy heading up the muddy hill with bedsprings on his head. The buyers pay cash by the kilo, but your load needs to be well sorted and picked pretty clean. They don’t want to waste much time cleaning the plastic forks and spoons before they sell them to the food vendors on the street. After a long, hot day of this there’s not a lot of energy left for keeping house in your one-room tin-roofed shack at the top of the hill.
It’s good that the Potter’s House offers a place for some of the kids to go in the afternoon after school. Lots of the staff at he Potter’s House used to work in the dump, so they know what it’s like (and they’ve found a way out, which is a big sign of hope.) There are small groups there for women and men, too. The men seem to forget their aches once a soccer ball hits the ground in their midst. And the word is out that there will soon be a micro-enterprise loan program at the Potter’s House so some of those in the scavenger community can get help starting some other kind of business, something other than salvaging aluminum cans or plastic bags.
We were running out of bread, and the crowd was thinning. Once the clean, free food is gone, there’s no time to waste. I was almost to the bottom of the box when I saw the guy with attitude headed my way. I figured he was coming back for another handout, which seemed OK since there weren’t many others still in line. Then he looked me in the eye with a wry grin, and handed me a package of clean crackers: “Here,” He said, “This is for you.” I had come to the dump to give, and was not ready to receive, so my “Gracias” was pretty weak. But he heard, and smiled at what we’d done, then headed back to the rusty car and drove away with his scavenged tire on the back deck and fresh bread in the back seat.
I shared the crackers with Marjory, and watched the rusty car climb out of the dump, headed for the gate, and thought about how much more blessed it is to give than to receive.
As I said, most epiphanies are small enough to overlook or treat like problems to be solved rather than mysteries to be loved. But with a little prayer and reflection, I was given a fresh understanding of “Jesus te amo.”
There are times when I can see that I’m assuming that all those problems out there in the world are my fault and that its up to me to solve them all. Often in those moments I catch sight of that sturdy scavenger with the twinkle in his eye as he hands me a package of crackers with the reminder, “Jesus loves you.”
RECEIVING AN EPIPHANY MAY TAKE A WHILE
An epiphany is more challenging when the whole thing is a surprise, when lots of things aren’t working out as planned. When we get “off-plan” most of us try to get back on track, we deny the possibility of failure, correct course and invest more of ourselves, keeping the established goal clearly in mind and working harder to be successful.
But there are times when this gets insane. You know that definition of “insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. (Albert Einstein)
We’re taught to “hold onto what is good…” but what IS good? In the school of Christian Living this term about a dozen of us are meeting with David Hilfiker to consider the implications of global climate change as described by James Speth in his book “The Bridge at the End of the World.”
The book points out quite clearly how if we continue to use natural resources in the ways we have been using natural resources and other members of the human race begin to use natural resources as we have been using natural resources, we will foul the water and the atmosphere to the point that they will no longer be able to support human life. If we are to survive, Speth argues, we must stop living as we have been living and find ways to encourage those who are aspiring to live as we do to turn back to the ways they have been living – and help us join them there. That sounds pretty harsh, doesn’t it?!
As I was reading the first chapter of Speth’s book, I felt like I’d been struck down by fear. The image that crawled up out of the gloom and doom was that about the only thing I could do to stem the flow of carbon into the atmosphere was to lay down my life – literally. I haven’t stayed there, but I’m still in the dark about what I can do next.
There are tough choices. As a species we seem more and more to be doing the same things again and again and expecting different results. Albert Einstein, who is credited with that definition of insanity I just mentioned had another observation that seems to fit well here:
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. (Albert Einstein)
So, what might this different thinking look like? There are lots of possibilities. I might start with a new goal and find steps that lead in that direction. That makes good sense, unless I don’t really understand, or I’m too afraid. In times like that, maybe the best thing I can do is to reflect and talk about this with people I trust, and pray for insight.
Another approach to different thinking might be to start with some steps that lead in a desired direction and look for a new goal. Here again it helps to take time to reflect on what’s being revealed along the way and share the journey with those you trust.
It’s hard to admit, but there are times when I’m proud of how much work I do to help others. Every time I remember the guy in the dump who gave ME bread and the blessing “Jesus te amo” I’m reminded that we are both caught in this time and place, and his life of reclaiming trash for reuse is at least as blessed as my life of doing whatever I’m doing to cut down on adding trash to some other landfill.
It may sound like foolish hope, but when I face a huge challenge like global climate change, I have to hold onto the idea that there’s still a lot to learn. One of the hopeful dimensions of the Speth book is his encouragement to recover a concept of happiness or well-being that is more focused on community than individuality. That recalls for me Jacqi’s sermon from last week about nurturing community-based ways to support people so they (we) can stay in our homes as we grow old. Receiving an epiphany may take a while.
If we can find ways to do what our Epiphany benediction has called us to, I believe the Holy Spirit will lead us to the kind of Epiphanies that will change the way we see the world, and although it may take a bit longer, to change the world as well.
Think of it, if we –
Go out into the world and take up the work of Jesus:
find the lost, heal the broken,
feed the hungry, release the prisoner,
rebuild the nations,
bring peace among the people.
Make music in the heart, no matter how crazy that seems,
we’ll probably be open to an epiphany!
It will take an epiphany about like the one that terrorized Jesus’ inner circle that bright day when he was transfigured on the mountain to get us out of our ruts. But it might start with something as small as praying for those who are invisible in the electoral process, as Richard did in lighting the peace and justice candle this morning.
And when that big epiphany comes, after we’ve tried our best to deny the changes it commands, we’ll probably want to build a monument to our new understanding. But my foolish hope is that, when that bright day comes we’ll hear the wisdom to keep working until the reign of God is clearly here at hand.
Fear not … and keep praying!