- Parish House
Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany – Luke 9:28-43a
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
For all of human history until now, if you wanted to know what it felt like to do something, you had to do it. But something in our culture has changed, according to a recent episode of the podcast “Hidden Brain.” Now we can bring the whole world and a staggering variety of experiences into our homes on YouTube. We sit on the couch eating takeout, transfixed as master chefs create amazing meals from scratch. We can watch others walk us through their perfect bedtime routine for a great night’s sleep, as a substitute for winding down on our own. We can watch endless DIY home improvement videos. And due to how our brains work, we then convince ourselves that we have gained actual skills just by watching because they make it look so effortless. Researchers tested this with an instructional video about how to do the moonwalk. People watched it and reported that they felt confident that they would be able to do the move instantly. The hilarious results proved otherwise.
If the moonwalk is not your thing, don’t worry because the variety of possible video experiences is now endless. It is easy to be lured into an ideal world that has never looked better. Projects don’t have setbacks. Perfect nighttime rituals are observed without fail. Perfect master chef meals seem within reach. We are drawn to these videos because the parts of life that are boring, frustrating, or tedious are spliced out. You don’t have to watch the hours and hours of practice that go into a skill. Also, we should note, story lines are edited. Smiles are bigger, emotions more spectacular, achievements higher. YouTube promises us delight, researchers say, because we can live vicariously through others who showcase a more perfect life.
After listening to the episode, I did a quick inventory of the videos viewed in my home that day. If your home is anything like mine, I encourage you to do the same. Collectively, we watched a guy narrate as he played video games, a woman unbox new toys, also while narrating, a video on how to troubleshoot a dishwasher that had stopped drying the dishes, and a video about cooking beautiful, organic farm to table foods in rural England. With the exception of the dishwasher video, the videos were not particularly helpful to our real lives, but they were all strangely soothing. They made it easy to check out of the real world for a moment into a vicarious one, where life is just a little more predictable and perfect.
The idea that we self-sooth with something like YouTube is not new. Every day there are more headlines about technology and smart phone addiction. And I’m not trying to bash YouTube or any other platform that we enjoy. But I do think we can be more mindful of how we use our devices, and we ought to question whether all that scrolling is good for us and for our brains. On the plus side, one of the newer benefits of coming to church is the opportunity to unplug for a minute. I’m grateful for the opportunity each week to step into a much older world of candles and wood and stone and people with their real, messy and unedited lives praying next to me. Church is wonderfully real and concrete. This feels essential in a world that now offers quick, shiny options for satisfying our appetites and soothing our emotions. In this real and concrete place, there is room for a deeper hunger, one that is part of who we are and which a video can’t satisfy nor a click take away. It’s a hunger that is not easy to name, and it does not have a quick remedy. It’s a real hunger that happens to be at the heart of the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus.
It’s such an amazing story, from start to finish, with spectacular details. It’s hard to put the miracle itself into words. How does one describe the glory that radiated out of Jesus with his dazzling robe that night on the mountain? The glory of God utterly confounded the disciples and left them speechless, except for Peter’s bumbling attempt to regain his composure. It’s a story about the full splendor of God. That is something we hunger after – to see Jesus and to experience that full splendor. To see that would be to understand everything – who we are, what God is like, how we fit into the big picture. People have always hungered for epiphanies in order to understand. The story of the Transfiguration is such and epiphany, in which the disciples glimpsed the glory of God and the big picture itself.
There, on top of the mountain at that late hour, the disciples demonstrated a capacity for glory. The glory of God was received by ones who were created to see that very glory. Glory given, glory received. We, too, are created with a capacity for glory.
Whenever I encounter the Transfiguration of Jesus, I am reminded of a sermon by C.S. Lewis in 1942. He pondered our hunger to see this glory. We do not desire to be glorious in the same way as Jesus, for, he asks, “who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?” It must be something else we’re after. To which, he says, it’s a sense of glory. And we want much more than simply to look upon it.
“We want something else, which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the glory we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it… At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”
He added one more detail. “Next to the the bread and wine of Communion, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. In him or her Christ is hidden — the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly within.” That rather changes how we see the person next to us in the pew, now a carrier of Christ and God’s glory.
We often talk here at Christ Church about seeing the risen Christ in one another. We come here to train our eyes to see more of God’s glory. We come here to see God’s glory in ourselves and in each other, and to know that none of us is beyond its reach. We come here to see Christ who is healing, resurrecting, and sustaining this world around us.
If all of this talk of glory seems remote and ephemeral, I want to suggest that it may be more pressing and concrete than ever. In a world that offers virtual, shiny, and shallow solutions to our cravings, we need to be reminded to hunger after the real and the holy.
I think glory has another message for us today as well. In this week of headlines from the special conference of the United Methodist Church and from those planning the Anglican Lambeth conference, we have seen churches continue to argue over who is welcome and worthy and who is not. Such arguments always cause deep pain. They are also an affront to God’s glory. If C.S. Lewis is right, each and every person has a capacity for glory and has something of the glory of God to reveal to the rest of us. All must be welcome so that the divine glory will be more fully revealed.
To research this homily, I did a YouTube search on God’s glory. I had no idea so many pastors had channels with subscribers. Also, their sermons were well polished and looked effortless. Maybe I could become a better preacher vicariously if I watched more of them. But either way, I think I’d rather be here with you, in this concrete place with our real-life selves, looking for a glimpse of God’s glory together.