I wouldn’t say it was the main reason, but one of the powerful attractions about coming back to Christ Church after so many years away was my strong memory of the beauty of the Cranbrook grounds. One of the curious things about living in a beautiful place is that, as time passes and the place becomes more familiar, you don’t see it in the way you first did. A monk friend of mine who is also a painter told me that he began painting when, after he had lived in Peru for several years, he realized that he no longer saw the rather large mountain range around him, the Andes. When he took up painting he had to look carefully at what he was trying to represent. So then he did see those mountains again. For him painting became a new way into really seeing.
Today’s Gospel—Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration—is about seeing. Amid the ream of inserts in your bulletin this morning, I have placed a small reproduction of a painting I saw last week in Chicago at the Art Institute. The painting is by the American artist John Marin, and it is one of the featured items in the exhibit, “John Marin’s Watercolors: A Medium for Modernism”. I just happened into this exhibit as Kathy and I were visiting the museum during a break from a conference, and I learned a lot of things I hadn’t known before. I did not know that John Marin was, in the period between the two World Wars, the most famous artist in America. I did not know that he was part of the group gathered around Alfred Steiglitz, Georgia O’Keefe, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, and others. I did not know he was the first American artist to have a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art (in 1936). Here was a major painter I had never heard of. What a surprise!
And what a delight! It took quite a while to see the over 100 watercolors in the exhibition. They cover Marin’s time in Paris, New York, Taos, New Mexico, and Deer Isle, Maine. The painting I’ve reproduced this morning is one of Marin’s Maine paintings, and it is titled, simply, “The Pine Tree, Small Point, Maine” (1926). It’s one of many watercolors in the exhibit that represent pine trees. Some, like this one, show a tree against the background of water; others show pines against rocks or snow. All the pine tree paintings, like this one, hover in the tension between representation and abstraction. I left the exhibit with images of abstract pine tree shapes almost burned into my mind’s eye.
Now here’s the interesting thing about these pictures: when I returned here after the conference, I went across the street to go running. And I don’t know if it was because of the snow or the lack of competing foliage, but I think it was primarily because of John Marin’s paintings that I was able, for the first time, really to see the pine trees on the Cranbrook campus. Prior to the experience of the Marin exhibit they had been for me only a soothing green background, kind of like a tamarack screen saver. Now, startlingly, I was intensely aware of the shapes outlined by the trees and their branches. It was as if I had never seen them before.
Hold that thought.
Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, the day on which the manifestation of God’s glory culminates in the Transfiguration of Jesus on top of a high mountain. Standing before Peter, James, and John, Jesus is revealed to them in a new way.
Here’s how Matthew describes it: “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” When Peter and James and John look at Jesus, they now see two things about him they had not noticed before. One is his radiance. He glows with a holy brightness. The second is his stature. He is accompanied by Moses and Elijah, the two great prophets of Israelite faith. He is no longer just the teacher and healer they thought he was. He is something more.
Now back to the pine trees. When I looked at the living trees around here after I had seen the abstract forms of them in John Marin’s paintings, you might say that they were transfigured for me. I had not seen them before in quite the same way. Before they were kind of like visual Muzak, but now they were individually unique and important. In the same way, you could say that Peter and James and John had not really seen Jesus before, but now when they looked at him in this moment they saw who he really was. As a kind of presto-chango miracle, the Transfiguration story has always meant very little to me. But as a story about the opening up of our perception of the holy, it now means everything. I believe it because I have seen it.
And I haven’t just seen it around pine trees. I’ve seen it when somebody does or says something that shows there is a grace and depth to them that you hadn’t quite noticed before. In the same way that we can take natural beauty for granted, we can become numb to the human beauty around us, turning people into visual Muzak as well. On the mountain with Jesus, Peter, James and John were opened up to the fullness of who he really was. It was their vision and experience of him that was truly transfigured.
What gives this story such credibility to me is what happens next: “Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’” In this as in so many ways, Peter stands for you and me. He has just had an experience of the holy, and what does he do? He tries to encase it in plastic, turn it into a theological theme park. Human beings cannot help themselves: we take a primary experience of the divine and try to tame and domesticate it, to make it regular, official, and safe. As Bishop Lee of Chicago said at the conference I attended last week, he once heard a priest say, “If you want to avoid God, go to church. If you’re really serious about it, go to seminary.” Whenever we institutionalize God we are trying to bottle lightning. The way to be open to God is not to perma-plaque the experience. The way to be open to God is continually let God get your attention.
When Peter and James and John saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain they “got” who Jesus really was. And if they didn’t get it at first, their perception was aided by the divine voice: , "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" They saw, at least for a moment, something new and true about Jesus, themselves, and God. They saw that this person they were traveling with was holy in a new way: it wasn’t just that he was wise or could do works of power, it was that in his very being he manifested God. And that bright shininess suggested something not only about Jesus but about God. If Jesus was loving and healing and accepting and compassionate, perhaps God was, too. It wasn’t only their understanding of Jesus that was transfigured; it was their understanding of God. The only way to understand the One at the center of the universe was to see that One as being like the healing teacher they accompanied around Galilee. After Jesus, it is impossible to see God primarily as a powerful divine monarch. After Jesus, we must understand God as our loving, embracing, healing companion.
What happened to Peter and James and John on the high mountain with Jesus and Moses and Elijah is a parable of you and me and the life of faith. In the same way that a painting or a poem or a piece of music can open you up to perceive yourself or someone else or the world around you in a new way, so the whole point of this churchgoing enterprise is to open you up to the constant embracing and supporting presence of God in your world and work, in your relationships, in your interior life. God is constantly trying to get our attention. Sometimes God gets our attention dramatically, like being hit in the head by life with a 2 x 4. At other times, God gets our attention by opening us up to the grace and beauty of what is all around us. This is what the Transfiguration is about, and we come to church not because this is the place we know where lightning will strike but because we hope that what happens here will open us up to seeing the lightning that is all around us, already there.
This Wednesday we begin the season of Lent, a forty-day sojourn toward Easter. Lent is many things, but at its heart, I believe, it is a season of paring away distractions so that you and I may have our experience of God transfigured. We give things up in order to open up a space for God. We take things on in order to see God in those we serve. We study in order to allow God to move from the margins to the center of our consciousness.
And that leads me to one more reason I wanted to share John Marin’s painting, “The Pine Tree, Small Point, Maine” with you. It is, at least for me, an emblem of the way God wants us to see the world with new eyes, to be open to the grace and beauty and depth of what is all around us. But it is also a representation of the beauty of God’s created world in and of itself. I don’t have much Lenten advice to give you. It’s really your decision what you are going to give up or take on or study, and I hope that you will find something in Christ Church’s Lenten offerings to help you use this season to open yourself to God in your life.
But John Marin’s painting does remind me of the one piece of Lenten advice I do have: try, in this season, to spend some part of each day outside. So much of our lives is lived artificially, in spaces made and shaped by our human drives and desires. The world we have made is highly artificial, and it can become removed from the actual stuff of life. Nature grounds us in what is real. And if there is any transfigured truth that the life of faith has to tell us, it is that what is real is trustworthy. When we live our lives entirely indoors we become ensnared in a web of human making, and we cease to see things as they are. When we step outside, if only for a moment, we are face to face with not only nature but with the One we meet in and through it.
Peter and James and John did not have their understanding transfigured looking at a TV set, a laptop, or a Blackberry. They had their vision and hearing opened up as they went for a walk up a mountain with Jesus. If you use the next 40 days to walk both inside and outside with Jesus, you won’t bottle lightning, but you will have your vision and hearing transfigured, and you will be open to the depth and beauty and grace and blessing of what God holds out before you, always and everywhere, especially here and now. Amen.