Sermon February 27 – Luke 9:27-38 Transfiguration Rev. Betsy Hogan
I learned something new this week. Maybe you did too.
I learned that the sunflower is the national flower of Ukraine. I had no idea. And I'd have been perfectly fine going to my grave not having learned this, but this week I learned it and maybe you did too –
Because of a Ukrainian woman who confronted Russian soldiers occupying Ukraine, telling them "put sunflower seeds in your pocket so sunflowers will grow on this soil when you die".
Quite a striking piece of non-violent resistance even just on its own. Even without knowing, as I later learned, that the sunflower is Ukraine's national flower. But striking anyway because of the sheer earthiness of it: put these seeds in your pocket so there'll be flowers when you die here.
It speaks to a cultural connectedness to land and soil and earth that's almost poetic, that I think struck a chord for many of us in the global west simply because of its evocative beauty – but also because it's just a little alien to us.
To even think of such a thing, as an act of non-violent resistance. I imagined the expelled Acadiens of Grand Pré offering British soldiers handfuls of apple seeds and saying "put these seeds in your pockets, so apples will grow when you die on our land."
I don't think that happened. But perhaps that's because the Acadiens too had been occupiers. "Newcomers" too in a sense, relatively speaking. And so NOT as yet feeling in their bones the depth and degree of rootedness in the actual soil of the place that's required for the kind of expressive and heartbreaking beauty of "put these seeds in your pocket so sunflowers will grow when you die."
But it's not just the poignancy of it. That would almost be enough. But then to learn that the sunflower is Ukraine's national flower, and the DEFIANCE of it is really almost overwhelming.
Because it isn't just the direct defiance of the presumptions of THIS occupation by THAT Russian soldier in THIS particular moment. It's also defiance of the presumption that anything in this particular moment matters, in the grand scheme of things.
That whatever power he imagines he has, and however he chooses to wield it, in the end he'll wind up dust no less than she will. Put these seeds in your pocket, so sunflowers will grow where you lie down and die. It's a degree of contempt for the powers and principalities and their delusions that they matter, that's honestly breathtaking.
The media reports all described her as "fearless" – and oh yes, she sure is, but I suspect that probably what they meant was just that she was "fearless" in her act of non-violent resistance.
"Fearless" in approaching a Russian soldier. "Fearless" in doing really quite a remarkable amount of swearing at him, his very large weapon notwithstanding. "Fearless" in her attacking him and challenging him when he easily could have killed her.
And of course she was fearless in all those ways.
But at the same, what her words revealed is that she was also fearless in a whole different way. Fearless because ABOVE fear, of any particularity. Fearless because ABOVE fear that any moment matters. That righteousness and justice can be limited or thwarted or even affected in any way by whatever paltry attempts to erase them the human family can get up to at any given time.
That's the astonishing fearlessness revealed in her words. Her utter contempt for a Russian soldier and his gun, her scorn that he imagines his power is anything but temporary.
It's fearlessness that isn't just personal, but faithful.
And that's what's really breathtaking, I think. To be able, in the midst of violent presenting danger, not merely to stand up to it directly but to sustain despite all its chaos the crystal clear conviction that the goodness of Godness, the sovereignty and righteousness and justice of Godness Will. Never. Fail. – "put these seeds in your pocket so sunflowers will grow when you're dead" –
It's breathtaking faithful fearlessness. And where does it come from? How does it happen? Inquiring minds might possibly need to know.
I've always found Transfiguration Sunday a teensy bit exhausting. Every single year on the last Sunday of Epiphany, right before we begin the season of Lent: the same gospel story, year after year, of Jesus taking a few of his disciples up a mountain to pray –
and suddenly he's shiny and sparkly Jesus, apparently out of nowhere. And suddenly he's joined by shiny Moses and shiny Elijah as a sort of sparkly trifecta of divine manifestations in earthly form.
And suddenly, bewildered disciples and clouds descending and the thundering voice of "This is my son, my beloved, listen to him."
And then stillness. And back down the mountain and back to work, with Peter still wondering if somehow they missed something. Which to some degree I think I've always had some sympathy for him, wondering that.
Because why? Why this weird interlude? Why this sudden, random, shiny, sparkly Transfiguration EVENT up on a mountain, which isn't warned about or predicted in any way before, and no one's supposed to talk about it after?
But I think in fact, far later when the disciples actually begin to write these stories down into the collections that we now call the gospels – I think in fact that maybe it only WAS later that the randomness and suddenness and weirdness of the transfiguration began to make some sense for them. And so can for us too.
Because it really does happen right smack dab in the middle of a whole lot of moments that are specific and particular and meaningful. That are mattering to the disciples.
Healing moments and teaching moments, but also confrontation moments and argument moments and dealing with conflict moments, each of which and all of which are Jesus' disciples basically learning on the ground what this faithful path they've chosen looks like.
Everything from kindness and welcome to everyone, including those marginalized as "sinners", to miracles of healing that restore not only well-being but community, to even how to deal with people who reject the message or seek to harm them – it's right before the Transfiguration that Jesus tells all those who are sent out that if a village or town won't welcome them, they should just wipe that town's dust from their feet and keep going.
It's all very moment by moment, learning on the ground this "way" of following Jesus.
And maybe TOO moment by moment. Maybe there was a sense in which the disciples had begun sort of domesticating the goodness of Godness, either locating it or wondering where it had got to, in the particularity or the specificity of this encounter or that confrontation or the other episode.
Like, 'wasn't the spirit of God alive and at work when we met up with that leper on the way to Jericho' – or maybe alternatively 'my goodness, there certainly wasn't much godliness in THAT little village, was there?'
Because it isn't hard to see how that could happen, in the moment by moment by moment like that. I mean, we do it ourselves all the time. "Oh what a blessing, I can feel God's spirit" – and there's nothing wrong with that. We can! But it does sort of implicitly domesticate the Goodness of Godness into something the realness and power of which is limited to our personal experience of positive "moments".
It's an easy trap to fall into. To get so focussed on moments. And so I think when the disciples were casting their minds back and collecting the stories together into the gospels, that that's when they realized why the transfiguration event happened and what it was for.
That it was God purposefully reminding them with every ounce of supernatural elemental glory at God's disposal that the Goodness of Godness, the sovereignty and righteousness and justice of Godness, is not limited by moments, cannot be measured in moments, far transcends any moments –
because no matter what things may look like in the particularity of a moment, the goodness of Godness will not fail.
Because it's not just "oh what a blessing" in the moment and hope the blessings keep coming. It's "fall on your knees" before its shiny and sparkly power, even when they don't.
It's God who in Moses is the God who frees from oppression, even though some died in the wilderness. It's God who in Elijah restores the exiled, even though some perished in Babylon. It's God who in Jesus ushers in the New Age, even though the Romans remain, even despite the torture and the death.
It's "the arc of history" sometimes being long, long, long in its bending toward justice. But bending toward justice, and fiercely, nonetheless.
The Transfiguration crashes into the disciples' moments, into our moments, with this perspective that is really really hard to keep hold of. That in no way denies the power of anger or lament or solidarity or action or prayer –
But at the same time can sometimes manifest with a fearlessness that's absolutely breathtaking. The sheer fierce faith of it.
That crystal clear conviction that whatever the powers and principalities are deluded enough to imagine they can accomplish in the moment, they cannot win. Not ultimately.
Because the goodness of Godness persists and endures and it will always prevail.
And so we pray. We watch thousands and thousands of Russians who won't stay silent in the face of this outrage, notwithstanding the very real danger their protests can provoke. We hear of Russian soldiers laying down arms because they refuse to kill Ukrainians. And we see one Ukrainian woman who scorns the delusion that a weaponized occupation matters. Put these seeds in your pocket, so when you lie down and die, sunflowers will grow.
As together we pray, the words I read have been written by my colleague Rev. Dr. Hal Llewellyn, and I'm grateful to him for allowing me to share them with you.