It’s been a busy summer here in KCMO. Right after General Convention ended, I arrived home to a blistering heat wave, and to discover that several parishioners had entered hospice, only to die in the following weeks. Missionpollooza–the diocesan youth event that sends 70 teens to camp out at St. Paul’s for a week to learn about service–came and went in a blur, with the plumbing collapsing in on itself as per usual. (More about Missionpollooza in the future, I think.)
I have been preaching, but not in a ‘write it all down’ sort of way. By the time I reached Sunday, I generally was too brain-fried to do much more than follow a train of thought to its conclusion.
But this week, I was asked to preach at our local Clericus meeting, on the Transfiguration. Here’s what I said.
You know the allegory of the Cave, by Plato? A man is chained up inside a cave for years, during which he sees the shadows of figures dancing on the wall. Because he doesn’t know any different, he takes them to be the real things—assumes they’re real for years.
Finally, one day, he escapes his chains and ventures outside of the Cave and melts down, when confronted with the real world of material things. The tree is so much different than he knew, the sky so much bluer, on and on. The truth is overwhelming and not in the most pleasant of ways at first.
It’s a transfiguration of sorts, this phenomenon Plato describes. For the man in the cave, the world is suddenly illuminated by the truth, transfigured into something more real, more vibrant…and he can hardly stand it, as accustomed as he was to the illusion.
So maybe it was this that drove Peter to go a bit nuts atop the mountain? He had been so accustomed to Jesus as this normal guy that he followed around Galilee for lo these several years, than when the truth, the fuller truth, hit him, he just sort of snapped, and starts babbling about making booths. It’s all a bit much for poor Peter. But truth can do that to you—knock you sideways for a while. Jesus, I like to imagine, just sort of stares at him, then mutters to Moses that “Humans haven’t improved at all, really” and the three of them have a good laugh.
And then the important part. Then they head back down the mountain. They head back to normal life. And see, that’s the important part, because that’s where you have to make a decision. You have to decide what you will do with that truth you’ve just figured out, as mindblowing and as uncomfortable a revelation as it might have been. You have to decide whether you will continue to let the truth you now know shape you and your life, or whether you will go back to the comfortable, staid darkness of the cave of before.
The disciples, we know, were told to keep quiet when they went back down the mountain. But there’s a difference between keeping something to yourself and forgetting about it all together. Mary, at the birth of Christ, kept all these things and pondered them in her heart, which I take to mean that she didn’t corner the nearest shepherd and talk him to death about these angels that kept showing up—but neither did she forget about what had happened. It showed in her later actions.
But Peter, James, and John, just as soon as they get back down the mountain, they’re up to their old boneheaded decisions again. As soon as Jesus explains to them what will happen to him in Jerusalem, they panic. As soon as he heals a child afflicted with seizures, they marvel. They argue about which one of them is the greatest, the most important. They get territorial, they threaten Samaritan villages with fire from the heavens. And Jesus just sighs and keeps walking. That moment of glory, that moment of truth, was short-lived. The disciples are back in denial.
Maybe it was easier to refuse the truth. Maybe the truth was too blinding and too glorious to be acknowledged. Maybe the truth would have required too much change on their part—their entire worldview upended, everything questioned. A whole existential crisis in one moment.
Despite our blithe proclamations to the contrary, being confronted with the truth is often scary. It’s often blinding, like it was up on that mountain. TS Eliot wrote once that the reason humanity invented poetry was because we couldn’t deal with very much truth. And think of how many of us, when we first contemplated ordination, immediately decided that couldn’t possibly be right. How many times do we see something wrong in the world around us, in the church around us, and do nothing…because God will fix it, or we just need to have more faith. Or believe more.
Yet, we proclaim Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life. We worship a God who is revealed in Truth, who is worshiped truly in spirit and truth, and who calls us in faith to deal with the world as it truly is—not as we wish it would be. Faith in Christ is never a shield from the truth, but a tool to be used in shaping it.
When I was a kid, around 5 or 6, I went with my grandparents and mother to visit a military museum in Virginia Beach. We looked at all the neat planes, all the uniforms, and when we were done, we walked out into the sunlight, and sat on the front steps. My grandfather turned to me, and said, “When I was in the Navy, in August of 1945, I flew escort for the atomic bomb that dropped on Hiroshima.” Everyone was shocked. It was the first time he had ever talked about what he had done during the war.
It took him years–his whole lifetime–to reckon with what he had done back then. And I’m not convinced he ever fully did. The weight of what happened on this day 70 years ago hangs heavy on all of us–but the only way to move into the future God calls us to is to name the truth. To see it. As clearly as we can manage.
Simone Weil, a French mystic and fighter in the Resistance, said “Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”
My friends in Christ, we have nothing to fear from the truth, blinding as it is, as uncomfortable as it may be. Christ is the Truth, and the Way forward into the future God holds for us. And that is where we place our hope.