The following sermon was preached by Joy McDonald Coltvet, Director for Vocations and Recruitment, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Monday, February 23, 2009.
Open the eyes of my heart, Lord. Open the eyes of my heart. I want to see you, I want to see you.
To see you high and lifted up, shining in the light of your glory. Pour out your power and love while we sing holy, holy, holy...
I would not call this one of my favorite songs.
Maybe it's because it seems so individualistic or because I trust earthy visions of Jesus, son of man, a little more than visions of Jesus "high and lifted up"-but on the other hand, this song does seem to express Transfiguration-this dazzling scene that we cannot fully comprehend. It's a musical prayer that we might be open to seeing Jesus more clearly, a prayer that we might be moved to sing with the cherubim:
Holy, holy, holy.
And so it's with this prayer that I'll begin and end today...Open our hearts, Lord.
Two weeks ago here at LSTC, we hosted a conference on the power of Film & Faith-how each has the ability to reinforce and make deeper the stories of the other... and as a part of preparing for that conference, I watched the film The Whale Rider again... Maybe you've seen it-it's a story from the Maori people in New Zealand about moment when there was a crisis of leadership.
In the old days, the land felt a great emptiness.
It was waiting...
waiting to be filled up...
waiting for someone to love it...
waiting for a leader.
And he came on the back
of a whale...
a man to lead a new people.
Our ancestor, Paikea.
But now we were waiting
for the firstborn of the new generation...
for the descendant
of the whale rider...
- For the boy who would be chief.
There was no gladness
when I was born.
My twin brother died
and took our mother with him.
Everyone was waiting
for the firstborn boy to lead us...
but he died...
and I didn't.
"There was no joy on the day of my birth" Paikea says in telling her story. "My Koro wished
in his heart that I'd never been born...but he changed his mind."
Paikea's Koro (grandfather) is the spiritual leader of the community. He is wise in so many ways and in fact, deeply loves Paikea, but is not able to see that she is destined to be the next leader. She has the interest, the gifts, the passion for her people... but she's a girl.
So begins a conflict between Koro's notion of the leader he expects and the granddaughter's uncanny ability to call out the gifts of others. Again and again, she unwittingly angers the person she loves most, her Koro.
Since there is no male heir, Koro starts a school to train the boys of the community. When things don't work out, he falls into a deep depression, calling to the ancients for help.
Paikea says... "He was calling to the ancient ones, asking them to help him...but they weren't listening.- So I tried... and they heard me."
A group of whales beach themselves. The whole community is transfixed by this potential tragedy... if they can't get the whales back into the ocean, they will die... but that will take the biggest whale turning around and leading the others back to sea.
After all the others have given up, Paikea humbly approaches the whale, puts her hands and leans her forehead on its enormous body. Then she climbs up on the whale's back and the community turns around to see Paikea riding the whale out to the ocean depths. Her grandmother cries out her name in love and grief-it's an unmistakable sign. Even her Koro can no longer deny that she is the heir of her namesake, Paikea, facing unafraid a descent to the deeps.
Koro sits beside her hospital bed and says, "Wise leader, forgive me. I am just a fledgling new to flight."
He is transformed. He can finally see her for who she really is... transfigured in his eyes to the one that he has been waiting for-and finally he's able to experience the joy of his community coming together.
My name is Paikea Apirana,
and I come from a long line of chiefs...
stretching all the way back
to the whale rider.
I'm not a prophet...
but I know that our people
will keep going forward...
with all of our strength.
I have loved this film and this little girl who humbly leads them all for a long time-but this time, my compassion went out to the stubborn grandfather-in pain, in crisis, unable to perceive the answer right in front of him.
We, too, live in difficult times and suffer in need of a change of heart... in need of prophets like Elisha-who will not leave, who will not look away-in need of transformation, in need of God who reveals his love.
What a week it has been... a commuter plane crashed in Buffalo last weekend; unemployment figures swelled to an all-time high of 5 million people; the stock market dropped on Friday giving another terrible end to a terrible week in our national and global economies...
Our church released the long-awaited proposed statement on human sexuality but also released regional staff who oversee campus ministry from their jobs.
Here, senior seminarians received news of their assignments to regions (with all the joy or uncertainty that brings) and those going on internship began interviews.
Into all this mix of pain, uncertainty, grief and joy, God breaks in with light and sound. We hear the last of Epiphany's revealing stories, a vision for disciples bewildered on the way.
Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain. And there he was transfigured before them. He was dazzling. Elijah and Moses were talking with Jesus.
Suddenly, our stubborn vision about Jesus is transformed. We're dazzled and terrified. The best response that we can come up with is... let's make dwellings to contain this glory-well, let's face it, we don't know what to say...
But, graciously, a cloud obscures the glory for a moment and instead of disciples doing the talking, we hear another voice... "This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him."
We receive a last glimmer of Epiphany's light to hold onto as we journey into a different season-the invitation is to listen. Listen to Jesus. And, we see Jesus as the risen Christ-a vision so unbelievable that Jesus tells disciples to keep this one quiet until the story of suffering and death and rising has played out.
So, disciples... in the midst of crisis and grief, we start down the hill... in the midst of scary questions and an uncertain future, we move into the next part of the story. We'll sing alleluia in spite of fear. We'll follow Jesus where we could not go without him. We'll face the dust of death & mortality marked in the shape of a cross this Wednesday. We'll begin Lent.
Why do we have to go through it? Why not just skip to the end?
We might like to... but we know that every true story contains pain, brokenness, trouble.
It's into these tears, loss, captivity that Jesus enters freely to walk with disciples both up and down the mountain. Even Jesus does not journey alone-saints from the past join him, the cloud surrounds him and a voice proclaims to the disciples the same promise given at baptism-"this is my Beloved Son"-but this time, with instructions, "Listen." And somehow by the end, the disciples remember to share the story.
They shared it so we can have hope in this journey through the valley because we've seen a glimpse of the end. It's the only vision of resurrection we have in Mark-the transfigured Christ-revealing light and life, no matter how grave things look along the way.
God has broken into our world and transforms it and us... "This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him." What might we see and hear and smell and taste and touch at God's invitation?
So may God awaken our senses so that with our whole selves, we might listen to Jesus as we walk together toward the wilderness,
the thirsty journey of Lent.
May God awaken our senses so that we might walk even in dark days with hope-because God has already shown us the vision of the end.
[ Let's sing
"Open the eyes of our hearts, Lord" together as our shared prayer at this end of Epiphany]