022722 Last Epiphany Removing the Veil to face the Truth

The sermon begins at minute 18:45 of the video

Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Cor. 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36, 37-43

       Our hearts have been broken and inspired this past week as we have watched images of Ukraine on our televisions. The tragedy of the invasion, matched only by the heroism of the resistance, has been the major focus on the news, and, hopefully, in our prayers. I have also been surprised on Facebook to find so many friends who have connections to Ukraine – either with family, friends, or their own history. What is happening in Ukraine helps us understand the importance of last Sunday’s theme of love your enemies.

       I have spent much of these days reflecting on the connection between the war in Ukraine and the story of the Transfiguration. My guides have been Orthodox theologians, for whom the transfiguration is a major theme. Although the texts on this last Sunday after Epiphany speak of Transfiguration, the Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated August 6, when we read the same Gospel again. If that date doesn’t ring a bell, it was also the date when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The bomb fell on the Feast of Transfiguration. And the name of the project to develop the bomb was Trinity.

       Before going deeper into the significance of all that as we reflect on Ukraine, we need a little liturgical education. The Orthodox Church makes a bigger deal about the Transfiguration than the Western Church; so, the connection between the Transfiguration and the bomb dropped on Hiroshima is more obvious to them. It is the same with The connection to the name Trinity. The Orthodox call January 6, Feast of the Holy Theophany, which combines what we call Epiphany and the baptism of Jesus. Theophany celebrates the Baptism of Christ, the manifestation of God in Trinity to the world, and the beginning of the public ministry of Christ. The Orthodox see the Transfiguration as a second Theophany. At Transfiguration, the Trinity was revealed to three disciples. At Theophany, it was revealed to the world.

       With that background, I want us to hear an orthodox writer make the symbolic connections to war. First he describes the Transfiguration: LIGHT appeared from above and everything changed. In the sky there was a great cloud, and the light radiated forth brighter than the sun. There was a thunderous sound, as if the heavens had opened. “This is my son whom I have chosen, listen to him,” said the voice. The disciples fell to the ground and Jesus said to them “Do not be afraid.” Then the writer connects it to 1945: A light appeared from above and everything changed. In the sky there was a great cloud, and the light radiated brighter than the sun. There was a thunderous sound, as if the heavens had opened. Until that point the images are the same. Then the image shifts: in an instant 66,000 souls fell to the ground, never to get up again. The city of Hiroshima was obliterated by a single bomb. The land was disfigured, irradiated. Over 100,000 ended up perishing from its effects, and those who survived it were changed, bearing the disfiguration in their bodies. This Bomb was a great mystery to the world, and through it the United States meant to speak to the world and to say, Be afraid. (Nicholas Sooy)

       That light from above is radiating over Kyiv this time; and the message, Be afraid, comes from Russia. What is our task as people of faith when we see these connections, whether it’s our own country or another? That was Paul’s question when he wrote to the Corinthians, Since we have such a hope, we act with great boldness… we have renounced the shameful things that one hides. Nearly the whole world is calling what Russia is doing in Ukraine shameful, including many Russians. But not their leader.

       Paul would say that a veil lies over his mind. The veil isn’t the same as blindness. A veil can be removed. Paul says that the veil is removed when one turns to God. I don’t think Paul is saying that religious conversion would remove the veil; the veil isn’t wrong religion. He is speaking about God who offers unconditional love and forgiveness to imperfect people. Wherever that God is, there is freedom – freedom from the fear of having our shame exposed; freedom for committing to the truth. That’s why the veil is removed by turning to God. Vladimir Putin doesn’t know a loving God to whom he can expose his shame without fear, and he doesn’t know that he could even find friends to whom he could admit his shame. He isn’t free to tell the truth, because that would expose his shame. It’s a vicious circle.

       But it is possible for Vladimir Putin to turn to the God of love, freedom, and truth. He could even find community there. Paul writes: all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing God’s glory as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image. I’ve always understood that to mean we are little by little being transformed into God’s image. And I still think that is the first meaning. But this time I was struck by the word same. When we turn to look to God, we see that we are all marked by the same image of God. And that image, as the Orthodox remind us on the Feast of Theophany, is trinitarian. The God into whose image we are being transformed is a community from eternity. That means we find community as we are transformed into that image. How ironic that Trinity is the name given to the nuclear bomb project – an attempt to save one part of human community by destroying another. That is a blatantly false project for those created in the image of the triune God. As we are gradually transformed, or transfigured, into the same image of God, we become a community in relationship with each other. That frees us to stop hiding our shame. And when we confess our shame to each other, we find a beautiful community of forgiven and forgiving people. We cannot wreak havoc and war on people we see as part of the same community. 

       I am not being naïve about how unlikely that scenario is. I don’t expect Putin to turn to God any time soon. In fact, he will probably dive deeper and deeper into shameful behavior. But what if those who resist war turned to God, and became a community of love, forgiveness, and truth? What if they join together to act with the same image? Yesterday, I received a message from William Barber and Liz Theoharis of the Poor People’s Campaign. It included the following paragraph:

Could it be that Ukraine is the Edmund Pettus Bridge of today, where everyone could come together in the open and defeat the autocracy’s power with their bodies and their courage to build a worldwide moral stance? The movement for Indian independence and national liberation broke the back of the British empire by doing that. Other movements have done the same throughout world history. We call forward that spirit again today. Indeed, the entire world must stand against this war and the danger that it poses to escalate into nuclear violence and the annihilation of existence.

       The Transfiguration can be a helpful backdrop for this. Community of Christ, on this Transfiguration Sunday, we have an opportunity to experience heaven’s glory. Have you ever criticized the church for constructing beautiful cathedrals in towns where most people are poor? But many poor have said that a beautiful church offers them a glimpse of what is to come and what Christ has accomplished. That’s what we can receive today as Jesus shines with an otherworldly light, communes with saints of old, and hears the blessing of God. That may be the most important gift from transfiguration in this moment of war. Let us turn to the God of love and freedom, and invite others to do the same.