Wondrous Love


A sermon preached on February 14th, 2010 based upon the story of the transfiguration, Luke 9:28 – 36. 

Last week I talked about coincidences that might be God instances.  I had a couple over the weekend.  I met Friday with Drew Morrison’s mother, father, sister and brother who wanted to set up pictures from Drew’s life in the fellowship hall for the memorial service scheduled for the next day. His brother wanted to set up a projector to run a video of old clips from their childhood.  At first he thought he wanted to set the projector up by the bookshelves, so I moved the heavy bookshelves out to get at the outlet.   It was decided that the other end of the hall would be a better location, so I needed to push the bookshelves back in place. I noticed, however, that a solitary book had fallen behind the bookshelves, which took a bit of stretching to pick up.  The title of the book was something like, “How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Has Died.”  I gave it to Drew’s mother.  We were all pretty amazed that of all the books on those great bookshelves, this would be the one to fall. 

The next day following the service my son found a picture of Drew in my desk.  Dressed with gaudy golden wings, he was playing the Angel Gabriel in our Christmas pageant from several years back, appearing to Mary, played by Olivia.  I hadn’t seen Olivia in quite a while, but there she was at the funeral.   

So a question arises, if these are more than mere coincidences, who is behind them?  God, or Drew?  In a sense I don’t think it matters, and the reason I say this is that I believe that if God has a foothold in our heart, which is to say, there is within us some real love, then when we die, we are transformed.  Everything that is not of love – not of the essence of who God created us to be – falls away. 

 It states this at the beginning of the funeral liturgy:

 “As in baptism Drew put on Christ, so in Christ may Drew be clothed with glory.  Here and now, dear friends, we are God’s children.  What we shall be has not yet been revealed; but we know that when he Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

This morning’s Gospel lesson tells the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus, when Peter, James and John caught a glimpse of Jesus “as he is,” with the light of God shining through him.

The funeral liturgy goes on:

 “Those who have this hope purify themselves as Christ is pure.” 

It is important to note that the criteria for this great purifying is “hope” as opposed to being somehow already perfected in love, which is a good thing, because if we are honest, we know that there is plenty of stuff inside us that is not of love.  Last week we talked about how the Biblical tradition implies that during this life we are not ready to see God face to face.   We are not ready for the final purifying.   Our personal face to face with God waits for the moment of our death, at which point we will become like Christ on the mountaintop.  And so we sing that final verse of “Amazing Grace,”

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.”

There is this remarkable passage where C.S. Lewis talks about this:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. . . . There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization–these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit. . . . Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses . . . for in him also Christ . . . glory Himself, is truly hidden” (The Weight of Glory, pp. 14, 15).

Does this destiny await all of us?  Theologians have wrestled over that one for centuries.    John Wesley took the position that God desires that every human being to share in this glory.   I have always found comfort in Jesus’ parable of the good shepherd, who searches for the lost sheep.  Jesus distinctly speaks of “when”, not “if” the shepherd finds the lost sheep, implying that the search never ends and ultimately is triumphant.   There is, of course, the knotty problem of human freedom — the capacity to say “no” when God invites us into his kingdom.   But my belief is that if love has a foothold within us, then when we come before God, the wondrous love we encounter will be so irrisistable that we will be moved to give up every last bit of resistence to this love.  We will shine like the sun. 

So in our Gospel story, Jesus the man takes Peter, James and John on a little retreat from the pressures of their ministry.  Jesus is fully human, and so he is tired, and at times he gets irritable and frustrated, indeed, he reaches the point where he can’t take anymore.  So they get away to the mountaintop.   

Jesus begins to pray, and in his prayer he enters into this state of communion with God so intense that his divine essence is revealed.   What he will become in his glory shines through for a moment here on earth.   Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus from heaven.  Peter and the others are awestruck. 

Today is Valentine’s Day, that day in which we celebrate a certain ecstatic expression of love, the passionate, romantic love where one person “falls in love” with another.  If you have had this experience, you how powerful an experience it is.  It is like “walking on clouds;” you feel more alive than ever.  Everything is affected.  The colors of the world seem to shine forth brighter. 

There is a valid question:  Is this real?  Everybody who has ever had the experience of “falling in love” knows that it is impossible to sustain this state of bliss.   The brilliance of the colors fades.   The best we can hope for as we progbress down the highway of life is to rekindle on a regular basis a bit of that original fire, and to enter into a more mature state of love where we act lovingly in the down to earth routines of life.  But a biologist might wonder if “falling in love” is nothing more than a trick to get us to mate and procreate. 

I think that what we experience when we “fall in love” is real, but its reality is derived from something it points to that is even greater than the love of two people for one another.  We are given a glimpse in “falling in love”  of the wondrous love that God desires that one day we will all share in.

It is interesting that the only time that Jesus spoke directly about what life in heaven was like was when he was addressing a question about marriage.  The Sadduccees were debating him, hoping to show how ridiculous a belief in the afterlife is.  They conjured up a woman who in the course of her lifetime was married to five different brothers, each who died before she did.  In the life after death, they asked, whose wife would she?

Jesus’ response was to call the Sadduccees on their small-minded notions of the power of God and the wonder of life in heaven.   He said that in heaven we are like angels.  (I thought about the picture of Drew dressed up as angel Gabriel.)  Jesus implies that in heaven the institution of marriage is no longer necessary.  This doesn’t mean we won’t see our beloved in the after life, but that the love that dwells in heaven will be of such a nature that we are “in love” with everybody. 

On that mountaintop, what Peter, James and John experienced was akin to “falling in love,” a passionate love that had its roots in heaven.  Lovers are inspired to do silly things for their beloved, like Drew writing poems for Rebecca.  Peter feels that same impulse when he starts talking about building three houses up there on the mountaintop, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.  He’s babbling on like a man head over heels in love. 

At that moment a luminous cloud overshadows the mountaintop.  Peter and the others fall on their faces.  The voice of God says, “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”  They cloud passes; they look up.  Only Jesus remains. 

 The next day they went back down the mountain.  Having seen what they saw up there, perhaps the colors in the valley seemed brighter.

The earth if filled with the glory of God, if only we have eyes to see it.  There’s this delightful poem by Billy Collins called “Aimless Love” that captures a sense of what it might be to “fall in love” with all of creation. 

 This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,

I fell in love with a wren

and later in the day with a mouse

the cat had dropped under the dining room table. 

In the shadows of an autumn evening,

I fell for a seamstress

still at her machine in the tailor’s window,

and later for a bowl of broth,

steam rising like smoke from a naval battle. 

This is the best kind of love, I thought,

without recompense, without gifts,

or unkind words, without suspicion,

or silence on the telephone. 

The love of the chestnut,

the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel. 

No lust, no slam of the door–

the love of the miniature orange tree,

the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower,

the highway that cuts across Florida. 

No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor–

just a twinge every now and then

for the wren who had built her next on a low branch over the water

and for the dead mouse,

still dressed in its light brown suit.

But my heart is always propped up

in a field on its tripod,

ready for the next arrow. 

After I carried the mouse by the tail

to a pile of leaves in the woods,

I found myself standing at the bathroom sink

gazing down affectionately at the soap,

so patient and soluble,

so at home in its pale green soap dish. 

I could feel myself falling again

as I felt its turning in my wet hands

and caught the scent of lavender and stone. 

Perhaps Jesus saw the creation something like the way conjured up by Billy Collins. 

“Love never ends,” says the apostle Paul.  “Now we see in a mirror, dimly,  but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

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