I begin this sermon with a confession. Like many American men, I am in the grip of something bigger than I am. That’s right: I, too, am suffering from “Linsanity”, a condition defined as an obsessive interest in the play of New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin.
As those of you following this story know, Jeremy Lin was a virtually unknown bench player until two weeks ago when he was asked to substitute while the Knicks’ star player, Carmelo Anthony was sidelined. In the past two weeks Lin has racked up an enormous number of points and assists, and he has become a hero to every sentient basketball fan and to the Asian American community as well.
Of all the many interesting things about the Jeremy Lin phenomenon, perhaps the most intriguing aspect is the way he managed to elude notice for so long. He has gone from virtual unknown to media superstar in two short weeks.
If there’s a key element to the “Linsanity” phenomenon, it concerns the sudden transformation in the way we see somebody. Two weeks ago, Jeremy Lin was an earnest young third-string bench warmer. Today he is a super-star. Has he changed, or has our perception of him changed? Though he may be the same guy he was two weeks ago, we all respond to him entirely differently now than we would have then. What’s that all about?
Our Gospel for this morning tells us a similar story. Jesus goes up the mountain with his companions Peter, James, and John. There “he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Two great heroes of Israelite prophetic faith, Moses and Elijah, appear with him. A voice comes from a cloud, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" [Mark 9: 2-9] This story is known as “The Transfiguration”, and it is always read on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. It says something to us about the way the manifestation of God’s glory—and Epiphany is a season about God’s glorgy--culminates in this mountaintop transfiguration of Jesus to his friends. It’s a story about seeing someone in a new way.
Prior to the Transfiguration, Jesus’s companions saw him as a particularly effective teacher and healer. After the Transfiguration, they will be asked to see him as the Messiah. Before the event he was just a specially qualified human being; after it he was understood to be the Son of God. Before the event he could look forward to a long and happy life. Afterward he was seen to be destined to go to Jerusalem and the cross. Something changed in this moment. Was it Jesus himself or his companions’ understanding of him?
I have to admit that when I was younger, I had a hard time preaching about this story. The Transfiguration seemed to me little more than a miraculous magic trick, and I had difficulty connecting it with life experience. But, as the Jeremy Lin story demonstrates, the longer one lives the more one is able to see people revealed in new and surprising ways. Jesus’s transfiguration on the mountaintop is emblematic not only of the way people and our understandings of them change. It is also an epitome of the transformational nature of Christian faith.
For almost exactly ten years now I have been an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, an Anglican monastic community with houses in New York, California, Canada, and South Africa. I’ve been connected to that order since my early days as a priest in Los Angeles in the 1970s. Over the years that connection deepened and, in 2002, I became an Associate. To be an Associate of a religious order, you have to adopt a rule of life and prayer consistent with the values of the monastery. As a Benedictine order, OHC values obedience, stability, and conversion of life above all Christian values. It is to this last that the Transfiguration story speaks. Christian life is an ongoing process, and its goal is that we become completely who we are as people made in God’s image. In the order’s “Rule for Associates”, this is how “conversion of life” is described:
As the monks seek conversion of life, so we will reflect on our own lives in regular self-examination, believing that what God wants of us, as of every human being, is growth toward the fullness of the Image in which we are made. We will strive to be open to the changes required by and for that growth. [“Rule for Associates”, p. 8]
Jesus knew that his life was more than about being a preacher, teacher, and healer. At some point it began to dawn on Jesus that something bigger and deeper was going on in his life than his success as a faith healer in Galilee. At some point he realized that for him to live out the deep logic of his life meant that he would need to make his way to Jerusalem and his confrontation with the forces that would bring him to the cross. It is only after this Transfiguration moment that Jesus can say, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” [Mark 9.31] As Mark’s Gospel presents him, Jesus has been on a transformational journey; and after the Transfiguration he can see himself as someone with a divine mission and destiny. He couldn’t have seen or said that before. Neither could those who gathered around him.
I said earlier that this story used to give me difficulty, that it seemed disconnected from the stuff of life. I don’t have that difficulty anymore. In fact, this story now strikes me as one of the truest ones in all of the New Testament. It’s a story about human transformation. It’s a story about ongoing conversion of life. It’s a story about what the Christian life really and finally means.
Our friend Jeremy Lin, the basketball player, is also a thoughtful and reflective Christian person. Last Friday, David Brooks wrote a column about Lin, his Christian faith, and the difficulty reconciling the competitive values of sport with the self-denying values of religious faith. In that column, Brooks quoted what Lin himself says about this tension:
“The right way to play is not for others and not for myself, but for God. I still don’t fully understand what that means; I struggle with these things every game, every day. I’m still learning to be selfless and submit myself to God and give up my game to Him.” [David Brooks, “The Jeremy Lin Problem”, NY Times 2/17/12]
Those are the words of someone who understands his life as a process, a journey of ongoing conversion of life. Those Christians who rely so heavily on the born-again experience tend to describe conversion as a static, once for all moment. “On such and such a date, I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal saviour. And that’s that.” Those of us committed to ongoing transformation of life see conversion rather differently. God reveals us to ourselves over time. The life of faith is a life of progressive ongoing discovery, one of being continually called into new and deeper understandings of ourselves, each other, and the world.
Jesus went up the mountain and was transfigured before his friends. In our language, we might say that he was transformed. His understanding of himself changed. His understanding of God’s vision for his life changed. He emerged with a new and deeper grasp of his life’s essence and purpose. In the same way, we could say that the life of faith is, for each and all of us, a Transfiguration journey. We are each and all on the way to becoming the people God made us to be, to becoming the completed selves made in the image of God. The life of faith is transfigural and transformative. The work that we do, the relationships we have, the things that happen to us—all of these events go into helping us grow nearer to the divine image, to become who we really are. Through all of life’s changes and chances, God is continually making and breaking and remaking us, all so that, in the words of today’s collect, “we may be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory.”
The Jeremy Lin story is not only about a great athlete; it’s about how we all can be caught up into something bigger than we are and changed by it. The gospel story about Jesus going up a mountain with his friends is not just a divine first-century magic trick. Nor is it a validation of Jesus against other religious teachers. It is instead our call to our own journey of ongoing conversion of life. God is continually making and breaking and transforming us out there and in here.
That is strong stuff, and it means going to church is not visiting a museum of our past, static religious experience. Peter wanted to build three booths, to preserve the moment as a Transfiguration museum, in effect to perma-plaque it. Going to church is not to visit the souvenirs of our past experience. It can and should be a transformational event. We may come here seeking comfort, but what we’re offered is Transfiguration.
Conversion of life seems scarier than nostalgia, but we have Jesus as the example of the joys of transfigured life. On this Last Sunday after the Epiphany—when we see what God’s glory really and finally looks like-- Jesus has been revealed to us as one who opened himself up to God transforming light, whose willingness to become who God made him has opened up joy and hope and blessing for all of us. May Lent be a time that we can open ourselves as he did, and be transformed and converted, too. Amen.