If you were expecting Kathy, or Gary….. remember – it is Transfiguration Sunday….
When Kathy asked me if I would do the sermon this week, she reminded me it was Transfiguration Sunday — like I’m supposed to know what that means. My Catholic husband, well-trained in catechism did, but I was raised in a Congregational UCC where the focus of sermons and worship was not so much on Jesus’s life as on his teachings. I was raised on the parables. So, if the text had been a parable, I would have been set. This was a challenge. Exploring it took me on fun wild ride – a journey of serendipitous moments – and I want to share some of that with you.
I began with the word, “transfiguration,” meaning to change form, metamorphosis. The first thing that came to my mind was dragonflies. One of the most amazing witnessings of transfiguration in my life was that of dragonflies. I was 12 years old. It was our first summer at our cabin, which was covered with fragile, crusty exoskeletons of some creature. I didn’t know what they were, but was soon to find out. On the summer solstice, I watched the miracle of transfiguration as dozens of these nymphs crawled out of the water onto the dock. As they dried—first heads would pop out, then the slow arch of their tails as over many minutes they pulled them out of their significantly shorter nymph bodies. They sat on the dock for the next hour or two, as their wings, that had been tucked next to their bodies, slowly spread and dried. And then they rose into the sky – literally transfigured from dark, rather ugly water creatures to brilliant green and blue sky creatures with iridescent wings.
There’s so much rich imagery and metaphor in that, that the dragonfly would have been enough. But, I thought I should look up the text. The text was familiar. I just hadn’t associated it with the word or event of “transfiguration,” even though that’s the heading in my Bible. It’s often presented as the story of a “mountaintop experience”—rare encounters with the divine, moments of rare insight
I read the text in the early dawn. It’s my favorite time of day — watching the sunrise – and has been ever since I was a little girl. The best part of my house is the view of the sunrise. This particular morning the sunrise was extraordinary — a marvel, a wonder. So I wondered, what made it extraordinary? Ah, the clouds with their colors and shifting shapes. Without the clouds, the sunrise would have been rather bland.
As I sat there watching the sunrise, the words of the text, “suddenly, a bright cloud covered them,” came to me. The voice declaring Jesus a child of the divine emanates not from the mountain, but from the cloud. So I started thinking about the meaning and significance of clouds.
A day or two before, I had been at a conference where one of the presenters held up a globe depicting not the land masses on earth, but the clouds. He explained how clouds are an important part of the hydrological cycle. They store significant amounts of the earth’s water. If all the clouds were to release their water at once, the land would be completely covered. Clouds also move water from place to place. They share the abundance of water in one place and release water in places that had been dry. Clearly clouds are very important to maintaining life on earth.
But I also wondered about the symbolic meaning of the cloud. I often take the Bible as metaphor, rich in symbolism. As I explored this, I found that cloud imagery shows up not just in Judaeo-Christian liturgy, but also in Islam, in Buddhism, in Jungian archetypes, in ancient Chinese wisdom literature. For example — a cloud pillar led the Israelites out of Egypt and across the desert to the Promised Land; both Jesus and Muhammad ascended to heaven in a cloud; the Egyptian Orphic myth of creation describes the world emerging out of the Cosmic Egg from a cloud; and in Buddhist mandalas, clouds – symbolized as trefoils – depict the trinity of body, spirit, mind or “Wisdom” – realization of one’s true nature. In much of the mystical writings of the world—and among indigenous peoples all over the world — the cloud recurs as an expression of the undefinable nature of the divine. In Jungian archetypes – the cloud is the archetypal image of transfiguration, of the sacred, of transformation to the Holy Spirit, and the profound mystery of the nature of the divine. Even in the digital world, the “Cloud” is a bit of a mystery.
As I thought about the cloud symbolizing mystery, the holy spirit, wisdom, it seemed clear to me that the cloud in the text must be the feminine divine. Clouds are made up of water droplets – water is associated with the feminine. The Holy Spirit in Hebrew is ruah, which is feminine, and associated with the Shekinah and with Sophia. Carol Christ images the divine as “she who changes” – always in process, and certainly a defining characteristic of clouds is that they are always changing. As the mother of a son, I could easily imagine the voice coming from the cloud as female, maternal – “This is my beloved son.”
This, it seemed to me, was the message of the transfiguration – of the return of the feminine divine. Certainly, in the era of patriarchs – both in Biblical times and now – we are very much in need of the feminine divine.
Both Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade and Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her introduced me to the notion of feminine divine – the energy embraced and celebrated in the world prior to the beginnings of patriarchy in Middle Eastern world 7000 years ago — and to the idea of Jesus as a messenger of Sophia – the feminine divine. Fiorenza explains how in the early Jesus movement, Jesus’s disciples, and Jesus himself, understood Jesus to be one in a long line of prophets of Sophia, who were to bring back balance – to restore wisdom, mercy, kindness, justice. The message is repeatedly found in the Biblical Wisdom literature, including the book of Wisdom, which is in the Catholic Bible but not in the Protestant bible. To quote from the Book of Wisdom:
“Wisdom, the artificer of all, taught me.
For in her is a spirit, intelligent, holy, unique,
Manifold, subtle, agile, clear, unstained, certain,
Not baneful, loving the good, keen, unhampered, beneficent, kindly,
Firm, secure, tranquil, all-powerful, all-seeing,
And pervading all spirits, though they be intelligent, pure and very subtle,
Indeed she reaches from end to end mightily and governs all things well.” (Wisdom 7:21-8:1)
I wish that had been in my Bible growing up.
It reminds me of this passage from Paula Gunn Allen:
“There is a spirit that pervades everything, that is capable of powerful song and radiant movement that moves in and out of the mind. . . . Old Spider Woman . . . Serpent Woman…. Corn Woman . . . Earth Woman . . . . At the center of all is Woman. . . . She is the true Creatrix for she is thought itself, from which all else is born. . . . She, like all her creation, is fundamentally female – potential and primary.” (from Paula Gunn Allen, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions)
That spirit pervaded the Women’s Marches in January. A spirit of love, generosity, passion and compassion infused us. At a local gathering a week later, a friend was trying to describe the energy that permeated the march to those who weren’t there. We looked at each other and we both knew exactly what she was trying to say, yet neither of us could quite articulate it. It was beyond words. It was that all-inclusive energy and love of the feminine divine.
Perhaps it is enough to leave the message of the transfiguration there, but simply replacing the male divinity with the female didn’t quite seem to be the message here, so I kept exploring the meaning of clouds. And there it was in Chinese Daoism where clouds are one of the most important symbols and elements. They represent the chi or qi — the life energy in everything that exists.
You may be familiar with this through Chinese medicine and martial arts that work with chi or ki — tai chi, akido, qi gong. I was fortunate to study tai chi with one of my students, Mai Loon Goh, a Chinese woman from Malaysia, whose lineage went back to the original tai chi masters. Our classes focused not on movements of our bodies so much as movement of energy, and were held outside, barefoot. We always began with connecting with the chi in the earth.
The point of working with energy is balancing the chi. The Dao qi is about maintaining balance and harmony in the universe — the balancing of masculine and feminine, of yin and yang, that breathes out as wind, rises up as clouds, descends as rain, and courses underground as vital energy.
In Chinese mythology, dragons — which, like clouds, are symbols of transformation – are believed to create clouds with their breath. The dragon draws in water from earth, rides up on clouds, and sprays it from its mouth as rain. A sick or angry dragon makes too much or too little rain; a peaceful dragon makes just the right amount of rain. In Chinese tradition, rain is recognized as the gauge for measuring balance between humans and nature – too much or too little is an indication of disharmony between humans and nature. In order for a peaceful dragon to maintain world balance, humans must respect the ways of nature.
Every year, we are visited by reminders of the dragon as dragonflies fill our summer skies. In indigenous cultures, dragonflies are regarded as messengers of wisdom and enlightenment — creatures that rise from water to sky, just like clouds. Clouds, and dragonflies, represent the balance of energies – of water, traditionally associated with female and feminine, and sun, traditionally associated with male and masculine.
It strikes me that the message of the transfiguration is to restore balance and right relationship. It has become abundantly clear that in our political, social, and natural climates, our world is out of balance. We are sorely in need of the balancing energies of the feminine divine, and more broadly than this, of the balancing of the energies of earth and sky, water and sun, of chi or ki.
In her later work, Fiorenza writes of how the message of Jesus is one of critique of and liberation from what she calls “kyrioarchy” – from the Greek kyrios — meaning lord or slavemaster, domininon and domination, which is about not only gender, but any form of domination — of race, or class — imperialism of any kind — and to create in its place a discipleship of equals. Focusing on the human discipleship of equals, however, is not broad and deep and wide enough. It still leaves us out of balance with the earth.
Listening to Krista Tippett’s “On Being,” I was introduced to the work of Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist and Professor Environmental and Forest Biology at SUNY in Syracuse, and also a member of the Potawatomi tribe. She began her study of botany with question, “Why is the world so beautiful?” Specifically, she wanted to know why goldenrod and purple asters always bloom together. We could wonder the same of the beauty of a fresh snowfall, the enchantment of the song of the wood thrush, the allurement of the rolling of a wave. The world offers up gifts of beauty everywhere.
While Kimmerer appreciated the way science taught her to observe deeply and to pay attention, she also was discomfited and disturbed by the way it distanced and objectified nature. This is not the way she had come to know the natural world in her childhood summers canoe camping in the Adirondacks. She points out that in science one learns about nature; in indigenous traditions, one learns from nature. To learn from nature, we need to pay attention to the energies of other beings. We need to listen to each being’s song with all our senses – physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual.
But we are limited in even beginning to perceive the energies in other beings by our language. In English, the only way we have to speak of anything other than humans (and occasionally other mammals) is as “it.” As Kimmerer notes, we don’t call anything we love and want to protect, “it.” “It” distances us, and is at the root of a worldview that allows us to exploit other beings.
So how do we expand our language? In her Potawatomi language – a variation of Anishinaabemowin – pronouns are not gendered. Rather, they are classified as animate or inanimate. All natural beings are animated by spirit or energy – not just humans, but four-legged and winged and finned. And not just animals, but also plants – the energy of trees and fungus and moss and mushrooms (which are known in Potawatomi as puhpowee – or the energy that causes the mushroom to rise from the earth overnight.) And not just animals and plants, but also rocks and wind and soil and water – and clouds.
Kimmerer was wondering how she could infuse this concept into the English language, and knew that to do so she would need to come up with an appropriate pronoun. She arrived at (and this is so fun) ki. The Anishinaabe word for earth or ground is aki (and mama aki is Mother Earth.) Also, in French and Spanish, qui means “who.” And then there is ki, or chi, meaning life energy — the energy of the cloud. For the plural of ki (and this is even more fun) she came up with kin. The discipleship of equals, the beloved community, includes all our relations. It is not so much the kingdom, but the kindom of God.
I asked that we use the Jeshua version of Lord’s Prayer because that is the phrase it uses — the kindom, rather than the kingdom of God….
Kids, lying on the grass on a summer’s day, contemplate clouds. They look for the shapes they see in the clouds, and they are ever-changing. “Look, it’s an elephant. No it’s a dog… a man… a fish… a snake … a tulip … a tree … a bird … a butterfly.” We see all our relations in clouds. Each encounter with kin holds possibilities of encounters with the divine.
I want to end with a beautiful transfiguration that I witnessed just a few days ago. One of the people who bags groceries at the Mt. Royal grocery store for quite a while struck me as being grumpy, very curt –almost to the point of being rude. He never makes eye contact or smiles. At some point I realized that he probably has high-functioning autism. The other day, when I pulled my car up and he came out to load my groceries, he saw my dog, Charlie, in the back seat, and I watched him transform before my very eyes. He came to life, smiled, and had a light in eyes as he petted and talked with Charlie. I felt like I was watching his chi being restored, and it was as wondrous as watching an exquisite sunrise or the transfiguration of the dragonfly. And as the wise saying goes – “dog” is “God” spelled backward.
Martin Luther King Sunday
Text: Isaiah 49:1-6
This sermon grew out of my reading of Martin Luther King. Jr’s early works, delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, between mid-1954 and the end of 1956. In the sermons I could locate, I looked for repeated and underlying themes that provided theological grounding for King’s leadership in the civil rights movement. While there is much more to be said, I believe this sermon serves as an introduction to King’s theological viewpoints and illustrates his faith. This sermon was delivered at Peace United Church of Christ, January 15, 2017.
The Rev. Charlotte Frantz, retired, United Church of Christ minister
Tough Minded, Tender Hearted
“This is the beginning of a New year. It is a time when the startling facts of yesterday and the heightening expectations of tomorrow join hands in the pressing urgency of today. There is no better way to begin this year than with the conviction that there is a God of Power Who is able to do exceedingly abundant things in our lives and in the life of the universe. To believe in, and to live by the fact that “God is able”, transforms life’s impending sunsets into glistening sunrises. This conviction stands at the center of our Christian faith. The God that we worship is not a weak God, He is not an incompetent God and consequently he is able to beat back gigantic mountains of opposition and to bring low prodigious hill tops of evil.”
It was Sunday, January 1, 1956. The Montgomery bus boycott was entering its second month. The 26 year old pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was doing what clergy do on a Sunday morning—preaching to the faithful. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded his congregation that God was fully aware of the crisis they were facing, that God would eventually prevail over the forces of evil, and that, in the midst of all the difficulties and hardships, God would provide the inner resources and strength each of them needed.
Martin had been at Dexter Avenue less than 2 years. His predecessor had been a bit of an activist, and the congregation looked for a pastor a little less likely to stir things up. They chose this doctoral student from Boston University, who aspired to become an educator and maybe, someday, a college president. Neither Martin nor the congregation anticipated what was to come.
Martin Luther King, Jr, had grown up in a parsonage. His father and grandfather served Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Like some other P.K.’s, Martin was not so sure about following in their footsteps. He attended Morehouse College in Atlanta and majored in sociology. While a student, he took a class that prompted him to rethink his attitude about the Bible—at the time, he was still not so sure about Jesus, but he concluded that the Bible provided a great many truths about human life. With this cautious theology, Martin enrolled in Crozier Theological School in Pennsylvania. From there he went to Boston University where he earned a doctorate in philosophical theology.
In 1954, while working on his dissertation, he and his wife moved to Montgomery, Alabama so that Martin could serve Dexter Avenue Baptist church. Eighteen months after he arrived, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus. That evening, King received a phone call—it was time to boycott the city busses—would his church be willing to host the organizing meeting? King hesitated, but his good friend and neighboring pastor, Ralph Abernathy, encouraged him to say “yes”. At that meeting, despite voicing his reluctance, King was elected president of the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association.
He spent his weekdays and evenings organizing, but come Sunday, his audience was the congregation at Dexter Avenue. In the context of his ministry to the congregation, King forged the theological foundations for what would become a national movement.
Love. Over and over again, Martin preached a faith and proclaimed a vision with love at its center. We are called to love. We are called to the enormous, steadfast, intimate love God has for each of us. And we are called to love others with that same steadfast goodness. The enemy is not the other, nor the system under which we live, but the power of evil. And only love can transform that power. We are called to this by Jesus, whose life exemplified the meaning of love.
Martin described love as a combination of toughmindedness and tenderheartedness. Too often, the church has preached a gospel of softheartedness—a kind of sentimental love that ends up doing nothing to change the world. Toughmindedness, wrote Martin, includes “incisive thinking, realistic appraisal, and decisive judgement.” We are called to practice toughmindedness—to think critically, to be realistic in our assessments, to be decisive in our judgements about what is happening in the world. In fact, in a sermon preached just before the boycott began, Martin declared that the church was called was to “stand in judgement upon every political, social and economic system, condemning evil wherever it exists.” In his plan for Dexter Avenue’s revitalization, Martin insisted that every church member be registered to vote and hold membership in the NAACP in order to stay informed and exercise political judgement at the polls.
But along with toughmindedness we are called to tender heartedness, to a compassion that connects us to each other and engenders the development of community.
This toughminded, tender hearted love is the essence of God’s nature. Martin wrote, “The greatness of our God lies in the fact that God is both toughminded and tenderhearted. God has the qualities both of austerity and of gentleness. . . . God is toughminded enough to transcend the world; God is tenderhearted enough to live in it. God does not leave us alone in our agonies and struggles. God seeks us in dark places and suffers with us in our tragic prodigality. When days grow dark and nights grow dreary, we can be thankful that our God combines in God’s own nature a creative synthesis of love and justice which will lead us through life’s dark valleys and into sunlit paths of hope and fulfillment.”
In a sermon based on Jesus’ words from the cross, Martin wrote of love’s power to transform. Martin wrote: “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate. We get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.”
We are called to love, Martin said in that same sermon, not in order to change the world, but in order to become children of God. This statement caused me great pause. I am a white American Christian, schooled in the pragmatic, desirous of creating more justice in the world. I want to be called to create change. But Martin told his congregation of hard-working, long-suffering bus boycotters, the purpose of love was not to change the world, but to become children of God.
Listen to his words, “We are called to this difficult task (of loving our enemies) in order to realize a unique relationship with God. We are potential sons and daughters of God. Through love, that potentiality becomes actuality. We must love our enemies, because only by loving them can we know God and experience God’s holiness.”
Martin called love the “soul force” required to stop oppression and endure suffering. He wrote, “Love is the most durable power in the world. This creative force, so beautiful exemplified in the life of Christ, is the most potent instrument available in humankind’s quest for peace and security. The great military leaders of the past are gone and their empires have crumbled and burned to ashes, but the empire of Jesus, built solidly and majestically on the foundation of love is still growing. We will never be true sons and daughters of our heavenly Father until we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.”
In a sermon called “Antidotes to fear” Martin again wrote of the ultimate importance of love—both for individuals and society. “The kind of love that led Christ to a cross and kept Paul unembittered among the angry torrents of persecution is not soft, anemic and sentimental. Such love confronts evil without flinching and shows in our popular parlance an infinite capacity to ‘take it.’ Such love overcomes the world even from a rough-hewn cross against the skyline.”
Martin understood the universe as a “strange dualism of good and evil, right and wrong, light and darkness, happiness and pain, life and death. There is,” he wrote, “a tension or a struggle at the core of the universe. Yet Christians insist that in the long struggle between good and evil, good ultimately emerges as the victor. Evil must ultimately give way to the powerful, insurgent forces of Good. This is ultimately the hope that keeps us going.”
Martin reminded his congregation: “We are not alone in this vast, uncertain universe. Beneath and above the shifting sands of time, the uncertainties that darken our days, and the vicissitudes that cloud our nights, is a wise and loving God. God’s boundless love supports and contains us as a mighty ocean contains and supports the tiny drops of every wave. The confidence that God is mindful of the individual. . . gives us a sense of worth, of belonging, and of at-homeness in the universe.”
These words about the nature of the universe, God’s love and the necessity of our loving were spoken to a congregation all too well acquainted with oppression, discrimination, and hatred. King’s congregants knew what it was like to be treated as less than worthy. They knew what it was like to feel as if they didn’t belong. They knew the fear and anxiety that comes with living in what feels like someone else’s land.
Yet King’s words of hope rang true. He was not preaching religious platitudes or euphemisms from that pulpit in Dexter Avenue Baptist church. He was reflecting on his own experience; his own struggle with doubt, with fear, with faith. In the sermon “Our God is Able”, Martin talked about his own dark night of the soul. It happened in the early weeks of the Montgomery bus boycott. Almost immediately after the boycott began, Martin began to receive threatening phone calls and letters. Over time, they increased in number and intensity.
Here’s how Martin related the story:
“After a particularly strenuous day, I settled in bed at a late hour. My wife had already fallen asleep and I was about to doze off when the telephone rang. An angry voice said, ‘Listen nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.’ I hung up, but I could not sleep. It seemed all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point.
“I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally, I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage was almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’
“At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him. It seemed as though I heard the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.”
Martin knew he was called to love, called to that profound love by a God who would not abandon him to his fear, would not leave him alone, would not let go of him, would love him with toughmindness and a tender heart through all the hard work that lay ahead.
That hard work would be done in community. We cannot do this work alone.
In “Antidote for Fear”, Martin told another story—this one about the necessity of reassuring one another of the tough minded, tenderhearted, ever present, nature of God. Let me read it to you:
“One of the most dedicated participants in the bus protest was an elderly Negro whom we affectionately called Mother Pollard. Although poverty stricken and uneducated, she was amazingly intelligent and possessed a deep understanding of the meaning of the movement. After having walked for several weeks, she was asked if she were tired. With ungrammatical profundity, she answered, ‘My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.’
“On a particular Monday evening, following a tension-packed week which included being arrested and receiving numerous threatening phone calls, I spoke at a mass meeting. I attempted to convey an overt impression of strength and courage, although I was inwardly depressed and fear stricken. At the end of the meeting, Mother Pollard came to the front of the church and said, ‘Come here, son.’ I immediately went to her and hugged her affectionately. ‘Something wrong with you,’ she said. ‘You didn’t talk strong tonight.’ Seeking further to disguise my fears, I retorted, ‘Oh no, Mother Pollard, nothing is wrong. I am feeling as fine as ever.” But her insight was discerning. ‘Now you can’t fool me,’ she said. ‘I know something is wrong. Is it that we ain’t doing things to please you? Or is it the white folks is bothering you?’ Before I could respond, she looked directly into my eyes and said, ‘I don told you we is with you all the way.’ Then her face became radiant and she said in words of quite certainty, ‘But even if we ain’t with you, God’s gonna take care of you.’ As she spoke those consoling words, everything in me quivered and quickened with the pulsing tremor of raw energy.”
We do what we do, with tough minded, tender hearts because that is the nature of a God who has promised never to abandon us. God’s gonna take care of us. Our toughminded, tender hearted God. Amen.
For further reading of Martin Luther King’s sermons, I recommend the book Strength to Love, a collection of 15 sermons first published in 1963. I also recommend the website, http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu for an extensive collection of documents, including sermons, from throughout King’s life.