Sunday, February 18, 2007

Transfiguration (Hawaiian-Style)

Last Sunday After the Epiphany – Year C
The Transfiguration of Our Lord

Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:13; Luke 9:28-36
Sunday, February 18, 2007 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

During my recent trip to Hawai’i, I became aware of an apparent shift in the awareness and embracing of the ancient Hawaiian culture. I had lived in Hawai’i 30 years ago, when my father was stationed at Kāne’ohe Marine Corps Air Station, on the windward side of O’ahu. During my three years there, I learned some things about the native culture, primarily through classes in Hawaiian cultural heritage that were part of the public school curriculum. This entailed some basic education into the history of the Hawaiian Islands, the various peoples that populated the Islands nearly a thousand years ago, and about the every day life of the ancient, native Hawaiians. Other than that, there was little evidence of native Hawaiian culture in my every day life, other than the fact that nearly all the place names and street names were in the Hawaiian language. The most notable exceptions were the kitschy hula shows and ersatz Hawaiian music performed in such tourist traps as Waikīkī for the benefit of non-locals.

My first clue as to this apparent renewed embrace of the ancient Hawaiian culture was in the names I saw printed on maps and street signs. Unlike 30 years ago, many of the words had extra symbols used to indicate the lengthening of some vowels and the use of glottal stops. These changes in the use of the Hawaiian language have been made in an attempt to return to a truer representation of the native language – to correct errors in pronunciation that have occurred because of insensitive, non-native speaking makers of maps, signs, and the like. But this is only part of the movement to embrace and revitalize the native Hawaiian culture.

One of the primary, and most impressive, areas of renaissance that is occurring is in the traditional Hawaiian art forms of hula, song, and oli, or chant. While on Maui visiting my friend Moki, he was able to get us tickets to a show by Keali’i Reichel and the students of his hālau, or hula school. Keali’i is one of Hawai’i’s most popular recording artists and an award-winning kuma hula, or hula master. He has dedicated his life to this renaissance of traditional music and hula, as well as teaching others about all aspects of his native language and culture. He is striving, through his art, to dispel long-held stereotypes of Hawaiian culture, and to preserve the authentic culture of his people, lest it be lost for eternity, or worse yet, perpetuated in some sort of inauthentic, bastardized form.

One of the key things Keali’i is doing through his Hālau Ke'alaokamaile is to raise up new masters in the arts of Hawaiian song, oli, and hula so that these art forms will not be lost with the passing of his generation. In fact, at the concert I attended, he introduced the five students he has selected to be the next generation to lead the hālau and carry on his work. In the speech introducing his successors, Keali’i stated that his work and that of his hālau is to preserve the traditional art forms, yet to present them in ways that speak to and reflect the lives of the people today. Not only that, but the hālau must always be looking into the future to determine how these art forms may be adapted and interpreted for future generations – all this while retaining the continuity and integrity of the ancient forms of song, oli, and hula. I thought this was such a beautiful and noble goal – to look to the past, to interpret for the present, and to create a legacy for the future.

For me, today’s Gospel lesson is our own version of Keali’i’s vision. In this story of the transfiguration, Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John, go up on a mountain to pray. While praying, Jesus is transfigured, his appearance becoming dazzling white, radiating in resplendent glory. In the midst of this manifestation of Christ’s glory, two figures appear – Moses and Elijah – the two greatest figures of the Old Testament. After talking with Jesus, they are preparing to leave, when a cloud comes upon the mountain and the voice of God comes from the cloud, proclaiming “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him” (Luke 9:35).

The figure of Moses represents the Law. The figure of Elijah represents the Prophets. Together, these two, the Law and the Prophets, form the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we know as the Old Testament. The appearance of Moses and Elijah point to the tradition of the past – the tradition into which Jesus was born and raised. They represent the tradition which served as the foundation for all that he believed, all that he proclaimed. This tradition of the Law and the Prophets points the way to the Messiah who was to come and be the salvation for all humanity. On that mountaintop, the tradition of the past, in the form of Moses and Elijah, meet Jesus in the present. As Jesus would tell his disciples after his resurrection, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (Luke 24:44). Jesus, in his present, through his birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection, fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. In fulfilling the tradition of the past, he maintained continuity with that tradition, upholding its integrity and its validity.

But Jesus did not merely tow the party line with respect to the tradition of the past. His mission, his calling, was not to simply reiterate that which had been passed down through the ages. His calling was to provide a new interpretation of the cherished tradition. His calling was to be a new interpretation of that tradition. At his baptism, occurring just prior to the start of his public ministry, God spoke from heaven and proclaimed, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:21). These words were spoken by the Father directly to his Son, commissioning him to follow that path that would provide the new interpretation of the tradition for this age. Now, at the transfiguration, God proclaims similar words – “ This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him” (Luke 9:35). These words are not spoken to Jesus, but to the disciples. God is giving them a revelation – to them is revealed the true glory of Jesus, of his true form as the Son of God, breaking through his humanity. And these words are giving the disciples a commission – to listen to what Jesus has proclaimed. With that proclamation, Moses and Elijah disappear. The words of Jesus supersede those of the Law and the Prophets. While based on the tradition, on the Law and the Prophets, the words of Jesus are a new interpretation for the disciples, a new foundation on which to build their lives and their ministries.

In the wake of this revelation, of this new commission, Peter proposes that they build three dwellings – one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. Peter wants to freeze this moment in time. He wants to commemorate this place as holy. But that is not to be. That cannot be. For the commission given by God to the disciples to listen to Jesus, to listen to and live into the new interpretation of the tradition, requires more from them than basking in Jesus’ glory on this holy mountain. True faithfulness will require them to follow Jesus – to follow him as he turns his face to Jerusalem – to follow him to the cross.

Not only does the transfiguration point to the tradition of the past and provide a new interpretation of the tradition for the then present. It also points to an even newer interpretation that is yet to come. In the conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, the disciples hear them “speaking of [Jesus’] departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” While they may not have understood the exact meaning of these words, in time, in hindsight, they would come to understand that this was a reference to Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, where he would be tried, condemned, and crucified. In Jesus’ transfiguration, the disciples, and we, have a glimpse of the glory of the Son of God at his resurrection. In hindsight, the disciples would know that they had witnessed a foreshadowing of Christ’s return in glory. They had received a revelation of the new interpretation of the tradition which would be the foundation for their lives and ministries. They had received a foreshadowing of the new tradition that would turn the world upside down – the resurrection of their Lord and ours.

In this one story, the disciples witness a summation of the totality of salvation history, past, present, and future. In the brief events of this story, they look to the tradition of the past, they witness the interpretation of that tradition for their present, and they are provided with a revelation of an even newer interpretation that would become a legacy for the future.

The legacy that Peter, James, and John glimpsed in Luke’s rendition of the transfiguration is our present, and it is our future. It is a present and future built on the traditions of the past – on the tradition of our Jewish forefathers and foremothers, the tradition of the Law and the Prophets, the tradition portrayed in the rich complexity that is our Old Testament. Our present and our future are built on that tradition, reinterpreted through the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of a man from a backwater town in Galilee who lived 2,000 years ago. Our present and our future is built on the reinterpreted tradition as told in the stories of the gospels and the letters that comprise the New Testament – the interpretation of the Old Testament message, made new and reinterpreted in light of the epiphany of God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The story of the transfiguration is one of change. But it is not random change. It is systematic change built upon age-old tradition, transformation that continues to honor our past, maintaining a connection to that past, reinterpreting the past in new and exciting ways – in ways that will not only affect our present, but will form the foundation for even newer and more exiting reinterpretations that will be our legacy to, for, and in the future. This is emphasized by Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we shall see face to face” (1 Cor. 13:11-12).

In the midst of change, in the reinterpretation of the tradition, in the transformation of the tried and true, we are faced with uncertainty. We see in a mirror, dimly. We can sort of make out what the image looks like, but it is still dim, distorted, unclear. It can be a disconcerting place to be. It can be disorienting, even troubling. It is easy to long for the past, for the old tradition which was so well-known, so comfortable, so safe. But Jesus’ example in the transfiguration, Paul’s words to his flock in Corinth, show us that we are not called to stay in that old place, that place of safety and comfort. We are constantly called to be transformed, transfigured into something new, something more beautiful than we currently are.

Here at St. Alban’s, we are living in that place of uncertainty. Seventy five years after our founding, we are not what we were in the past. Seventy five years ago, Bishop Johnson had a vision for this place, to build a chapel to serve the new University of California campus that was being built across the street – of course, there wasn’t a street there at the time – it was all just open ranch land. So, in 1931, our first building was constructed – the building we now know as the chapel. Over time, our numbers ebbed and flowed, constantly presenting new challenges as to how to do church, as to how to be church. We have constantly had to reinterpret our tradition, to adjust to the changing demands on our facilities, staff, and programming. Just in the last few years, we have been through considerable changes, again, necessitated by the need to reinterpret our history and our tradition, so as to continue to be in a better position to meet the needs of UCLA, to be the Episcopal Church in Westwood, to be in the best position possible for this time to be the Body of Christ in this place. That was Bishop Johnson’s vision, his legacy to us. Rather than bemoan the fact that things are not what they used to be, rather than long for what has been lost, we must instead look to the present, and to the future. We must honor what we were, and then build on it as we reinterpret the tradition handed down to us and prepare to hand it on to the next generation.

We live in a fast-paced world that is constantly changing. Our society is changing. The Episcopal Church is changing. Our parish is changing. Admittedly, change is not always easy. It is not always comfortable. But it is a fact of life. But that does not mean that we have to forget about where we came from. We do not have to abandon what we hold dear. In his transfiguration, Jesus provided us with an example of how to meet the changes and challenges facing our society, our national church, our parish, and our individual lives. Our task is to figure out what it looks like to be the transformed Body of Christ in these turbulent times and circumstances. But the one lesson we must keep in mind, the lesson illustrated by the transfiguration, and the lesson of such visionaries as Keali’i Reichel, is to look to the past, to honor our tradition, and cherish it for what it provides; to interpret for the present in ways that honor and stay connected with tradition; and in the process, to build the foundation for our legacy to the future. That is our calling as the Body of Christ – to continually reinterpret our past in a way that will create a new foundation on which to build our lives and our ministries.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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