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.