Sermon preached at Warrenton Presbyterian Church and First Presbyterian Church, Henderson, on Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
In the past ten days, four young Americans, all about my age, have been murdered.
Kayla Jean Mueller, age 26, from Prescott, Arizona, was murdered after two years as a hostage of the rebel political group known as ISIS.
Deah Shaddy Barakat, age 23, a graduate of State and a student at the school of dentistry at Chapel Hill, just down the road from here, was murdered on Tuesday by an angry neighbor.
Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, age 21, also a graduate of State and Deah’s wife of two months, was also murdered Tuesday.
And Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, age 19, a sophomore at State and Yusor’s little sister, was murdered Tuesday.
Deah, Yusor, and Razan were each shot in the head in their apartment and left to die.
I am sorry if this is not what you wanted to hear from the pulpit this morning. It is certainly not what I wanted to talk about. Today is Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday, an often overlooked holiday in the church year when we celebrate the story of Christ shining in heavenly glory on the mountaintop. It is a day when we kick back and admire the divine beauty of our savior, oohing and aahing over the display of lights. One pastor I know is even anointing her congregation with glitter, to celebrate just how fun it is to follow this shiny Jesus.
But I can’t go there. Not today.
I can’t talk about light and pretend I don’t see the darkness in the world. I can’t talk about the divine power of Christ and pretend I haven’t cried out this week, wondering where God is and why God doesn’t seem to fix this. I can’t fixate on the ancient stories of Moses and Elijah and turn a blind eye to what is happening in this world, in this state, right now.
And I don’t think Christ wants me to.
Because of the way the lectionary chops up the Bible, we often distance the story of Jesus’ transfiguration from the rest of his ministry. The story is like a diamond, carefully cut and polished, set in its own velvet case, taken out to be admired once a year on Transfiguration Sunday, and then put back again. Blinded by its splendor, we forget that the transfiguration took place in the middle of Jesus’ ministry, and that it comes between two very difficult, and very important conversations.
Right before the transfiguration, in Mark 8, Jesus begins to teach for the first time about his own death. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering,” Jesus says, “and be rejected, and be killed, and after three days rise from the dead.” The disciples don’t understand. Peter rebukes Jesus. This is not the kind of talk that grows a congregation. But Jesus won’t back down. It’s not just him that will suffer. His followers must, too. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” he says, “for those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
It is at this point that Jesus takes Peter and James and John up the mountain to witness his transfiguration, to hear God’s voice saying, this is my son, the beloved, listen to him! Perhaps the disciples were relieved. Perhaps they thought, if Jesus is really God’s son, if Jesus is really divine, maybe there won’t be any suffering. Maybe everything can just stay shiny happy, forever.
But Jesus makes it clear that this is not the lesson of the transfiguration. Everything will not be magically easy from now on. The son of man will suffer, he insists again. Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem, and not too long afterwards, the disciples who saw him shining in glory on the mountaintop will see him hanging in agony on the cross.
Jesus had taught them that the son of man would rise from the dead after three days. But how could they believe it, watching Jesus take his last gasping breaths? How could they possibly have hope, when the man who had wielded the power of God had been beaten down by a few Roman soldiers and a brief court trial?
They couldn’t possibly have hope.
Unless they saw this scene—the cross, the jeering crowd, the bleeding Lord—unless they saw this scene with different eyes.
I wonder—did the light of the transfiguration still lurk in their vision? Were their eyes still dilated with the light of God’s love, for Jesus, and for the world?
The eye is an amazing thing. When it’s dark, the pupils of the eyes expand to let in all possible light. When I was a child, my favorite magic trick was to go in the bathroom, the darkest room in the house, and let my eyes adjust, and then flip on the light and watch in the mirror as my pupils shrunk back to their normal size. Anyone who has had their eyes artificially dilated at the optometrist’s knows that it hurts to walk out in broad daylight with those large pupils, but when I was a child, I always wondered: what might I see if I could keep those pupils wide open? What could I be missing out on, only letting in the ordinary daylight?
Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor was fascinated enough with that very question to write a whole book about it, called Learning to Walk in the Dark. In one chapter, she goes spelunking, deep into a dark cave, into pitch darkness. In a part of the cave almost too narrow to stand in, she finds a vein of crystal, sparkling under the dim light from her headlamp. She takes a broken-off piece with her as a souvenir, but when she goes to admire it later, in the ordinary overhead light of her hotel room, she discovers that it looks like nothing more than a piece of gravel. It is only when she uses the smallest light she has, her penlight, that her eyes open wide enough to see the dazzling sparkle of the crystal. The problem, she says, is not in the stone—it is always the same. Nor, really, is the problem with the light—it cannot change what the stone is. It simply takes a certain kind of vision—the kind that our bodies produce in the dark—to see the crystal in all its glory. “The light was never in the stone,” Taylor says. “It was in our eyes all along.”
The young people who were murdered this week knew about looking at the world with eyes full of God’s light, not because they were naïve, but because they knew how to seek beauty in the dark. In a strange coincidence, both Deah and Kayla were working to bring relief to the people of Syria, a people whose suffering we often forget, because it has been going on too long to seem important anymore. Not to Kayla and Deah.
The Syrian civil war has been going on for roughly four years now, and in that time over 120,000 people have been killed. Another 11 million have been displaced; the majority remain within Syria, while about four million have escaped to other countries. These refugees are coping with the trauma of living with constant destruction and fear; the grief of loved ones killed or left behind; and the daily reality of trying to get by without their possessions, without a home, without any security or hope of a stable life. The enormity of the suffering seems overwhelming, and it is easy to narrow our eyes and say that it is hopeless.
Deah Barakat refused to do that. Himself a Syrian-American, Deah was committed to using his gifts and skills as a dental student to serve the refugees from the war. Deah was the co-organizer of a fundraising drive called Syrian Dental Relief, supported by the UNC school of dentistry and the Syrian American Medical Society. The funds he raised will go to support dental health among Syrian refugees in Turkey, an oft-forgotten but crucial element of health care. Deah planned to visit Turkey this summer with ten of his colleagues to provide dental care and dental health supplies to the refugees and clinics. He looked at the suffering of Syrian refugees with the light of God’s compassion in his eyes, and found a way to bring hope. It would not have ended the war. But it would have brought some healing to as many people as sat in his dentist’s chair.
Like Deah, Kayla also refused to surrender to the darkness of the world. A lifelong humanitarian, Kayla arrived in Turkey in 2012 to work with a group called Support to Life, which helps provide refugees with basic needs and assure them of basic rights. In Turkey, they work with the 1.6 million refugees from Syria, trying to provide some infrastructure on which they can rebuild their shattered lives. Kayla was not blind to the suffering in the area, nor to the danger of working there. But, with eyes full of Christ’s light, she found herself compelled to help.
In a letter to her father in 2011, Kayla wrote, “I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine. If this is how you are revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek you.” Later she continued, “I will always seek God. Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”
Kayla filled her eyes—and her heart—with the light of the transfiguration, so that she could find God in the suffering of Christ on the cross, of the Syrian people on their crosses of fear and grief and homesickness.
In the aftermath of the deaths of Kayla, Deah, Yusor, and Razan, many have narrowed their eyes. The usual suspects have trotted out their usual opinions, and especially in the case of the Chapel Hill shooting, it seems we have been eager to fit the facts into certain patterns, so that we can use the deaths of three young people to bolster our arguments about what’s wrong with atheists, or muslims, or white men, or middle eastern men, or gun control, or gun rights, or mental illness, or personal responsibility, or any other issue we like to argue about over dinner. But when we do this—when we narrow our eyes so that the only reality we see is the reality we expect to see—we run the risk of doing exactly what the shooter of those three young people did. Whether or not the shooting will qualify as a hate crime will depend largely on the technical definition of a hate crime, but I will tell you this: you do not get to a point where you shoot three of your neighbors without hatred of something being a factor, without narrowing your eyes so far that you cannot even see that they are human, without living in darkness so long that you literally cannot fathom what a world full of light might look like.
I do not know what caused the shooter to commit murder last Tuesday. I expect the reasons are complicated. But I do know that we are not called to respond by meeting hatred with hatred, tunnel vision with tunnel vision.
At a vigil for the students on Wednesday night, Deah’s mother, Layla Barakat, reminded those attending that ”[Deah’s] legacy is never hate. You don’t respond back by hating the other. You respond back by love. By peace, by mercy. That’s Deah’s way.“
And, I might add, it is God’s way, too.
As we all know, it can hurt to look at the world with our eyes wide open. But if we fill our eyes with the light of Christ, the light of the transfiguration, we might just find our world transfigured, too. We might find in it not reasons to fear and people to hate but opportunities to serve and a thousand million chances to love.
Before Deah was murdered, he had raised about three thousand dollars to provide dental care to the Syrian refugees in Turkey. His goal was to raise twenty thousand. Since his death, over seven thousand people have donated in memory of him, his wife, and her sister, and together have raised nearly $400,000 dollars. No amount of money can make up for the loss of these young people. But these seven thousand donors have found a way to look at the darkness of this tragedy, the darkness of three young lives senselessly ended, with the light of compassion in their eyes. These seven thousand donors have filled their vision with light, and found some way to see beauty in all this suffering.
As Christians, we are not called to bask in Christ’s glow on the mountaintop, far above the cares of the world. We are called to take Christ’s light down into the world, to serve with hands and feet and voice and heart.
There are only two ways you will ever find hope in this world: to shut your eyes tight and pretend everything is fine, or to open your eyes wide enough to see God at work in every situation, in every life, in every moment of suffering and of joy.
This week, I will try to look at the world with God’s own light in my eyes, in honor of the following people who were murdered young.
In honor of Kayla.
In honor of Deah.
In honor of Yusor.
In honor of Razan.
In honor of Christ.