Homily from service on February 27, 2022 – Final Sunday after the Epiphany
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
There is no doubt that an encounter with the Divine will change you.
No one who has had a close encounter with the Divine has been indifferent to it…(they might not understand it)…but they can’t ignore it. Peter, James, John up on the mountain…the Israelites gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai…they share a common reaction to their proximity to the Divine…They are all terrified. And understandably so…Moses and Jesus are both transfigured…they become physically different. Moses has been in God’s presence for 40 days and the divine radiance has affected him…literally gotten under his skin and changed him…His face…well…it’s hard to describe now…it shines…it radiates…just as Jesus’ face does today, becoming in the words of one scholar, “terrifyingly luminous—[a] reflection of the divine fire” [Alter, The Five Books of Moses, p.512]…The light of the world…the glory of God emanates from within Moses and Jesus today.
There is no doubt that Luke, and Matthew, and Mark, the writers who all describe this transfiguring event in the life of Jesus, were all drawing clear, direct parallels to the experience of Moses and the Israelites described in our Exodus reading. The parallels are all super obvious…Up on a mountain…the cloud that descends…the voice from the cloud…the talk of “departure” (or “exodus”)…even down to the return from the mountain and the failure to perform…When Jesus says, “you faithless and perverse generation,” he’s quoting Moses [see Deuteronomy 32:5]. Moses even shows up, “in glory.” There should be no doubt that there is a deep, abiding, and indelible connection between the Israelites who received the covenant at Mt. Sinai, and the followers of Jesus—particularly his Gentile followers. Tragically, humans continue to be faithless and perverse throughout the generations, and instead of treasuring those connections, insist on creating differences.
Exodus says that Moses’ face “shone”—that word, “shone” in Hebrew shares a root with the word “horn” in the sense of something that emanates from the head…could be horns, could also be “rays” or “beams”…it’s a metaphor. The 4th century Latin translation of the bible (the Vulgate) imposed a literal reading of this Hebrew metaphor, and insisted that when Moses came down from the mountain, he “was horned.” And for centuries—throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance—a diabolical lie circulated at all levels of western culture that Jews had horns.
Hopefully that seems completely ridiculous to us now. But it points to how we have to be careful with our scriptures. Particularly the ones we’ll be hearing from now through Easter*. Because over the centuries, many of our Christian scriptures—particularly the Passion narratives—and the irresponsible use of them—has led to many anti-Jewish beliefs, and horrific violence against our Jewish siblings.
Hopefully, none of us was taught that Moses had horns, but I bet some of Paul’s language today has filtered—unexamined—into our consciousness. Never mind that Paul is arguing about a very specific set of people in Corinth, in the Gentile Christian imagination, when we hear, “whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed,” what it too often triggers is confirmation of a long held belief that the new covenant has replaced the old covenant…That the church is the “new Israel”, and we are now God’s chosen people…and that possibly even that God in the Old Testament is not the same as God in the New Testament. The scholarly word for this is supersessionism (as in to supersede…to take the place of). It exists in much of our interpretation of scripture, in many of our hymns, in centuries of church teachings, and it is fundamentally anti-Jewish. And something we have to grapple with. Like white supremacy,** anti-Jewish supersessionism is a hard truth for us—hard to see—because we are so steeped in it, and hard to admit because admitting it…confessing to it…and repenting of it…requires a radical reconfiguring of our sense of self, and our relationship to others and our relationship to God.
Today is sometimes known as Transfiguration Sunday (not to be confused with the Feast of the Transfiguration). The story of the Transfiguration is always our introduction to Lent. This Lent, we are being invited into a six-week study called What is Truth? Where we will explore why it’s so hard to tell the whole truth…to hear the whole truth…who benefits and who is harmed by holding on to the partial truths that we all have. We’ll practice with one another how to deepen our spiritual roots, and continue building the resilience necessary to stand firm in the faith and hope of God. Whether you decide to join this study or not (I hope many of you do), I invite you to consider how you might use these weeks of Lent to be intentional about growing deeper into the knowledge and love of God…How you might open yourself to the hard truths that we too often ignore…How you might be more committed to living in solidarity with those who have been historically marginalized. But be warned…drawing closer to God—spending time in the whole truth of God’s radiant presence—will change you. But isn’t change…transformation…transfiguration… supposed to be what we are about?
“We are ordained to unrest,” said the great 20th century preacher William Sloane Coffin at the height of the Cold War, “[And] in deceptive times [we are] to reach for truth that seems to many like madness; in the darkness of the world’s hatred and prejudice to keep the small flame of love alight.” And then he ends with that famous line: “For the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth, too small for anything but love.” [Coffin, Collected Sermons, p.404]
With our Jewish siblings, we are to keep the small—brilliant—flame of love and truth alive. Both Moses and Jesus reflect that divine light. Both are chosen…”ordained to unrest…” Both are transfigured. And their journey is our journey—to be transformed…to be transfigured…to be changed more and more into the likeness God. To reflect more and more of God’s divine fire. This Lent, let us draw closer to the flame of God’s love and open ourselves to more of God’s truth. And allow ourselves to be transfigured so that we might reflect that same light and heat.
*For a helpful, non-academic primer on how to approach Holy Week without Antisemitism see Dr. Amy Jill-Levine’s article Holy Week and the hatred of the Jews: How to avoid anti-Judaism this Easter
**One of my teachers, the Rev. Dr. Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski makes this connection clear in his essay, Towards an Anti-Supersessionist Theology: Race, Whiteness, and Covenant.