When we think of communication between God and humankind or among ourselves, we tend to focus on verbal exchanges. Indeed this is obviously an important means of communicating. We learn from the words of scripture, we verbalize prayer, and we rely heavily on what is said and heard and what is written and read.
But many concepts, ideas, and understandings are conveyed without the use of words. Non-verbal communication is very powerful. Facial expressions and body language are widely recognized as forms of non-verbal communication, but there are many more. Most husbands know when being told “fine” is anything but.
To suggest a few other examples that might not readily come to mind, North Harmony UMC decided at some point that it would be desirable to add a steeple to the church building, communicating to the world that this is a house of worship. The non-verbal elements that accompany speech often make the important distinction between serious comments and sarcasm or humor. The proverbial and literal “shot across the bow” conveys an effective non-verbal message.
Verbalizing of prayer is for our benefit. It helps us clarify our emotions and our thoughts. But non-verbal prayer is no less effective in terms of communicating with God.
The story of Jesus’ transfiguration, which is described in today’s gospel and which we celebrate today, is understood to be a non-verbal conveyance to those present, and to us, of who Jesus was. It complements Peter’s expressed recognition that Jesus was the Messiah. You may recall that a short time earlier, Jesus had asked the disciples who they thought he was. Peter’s answer that Jesus was the Messiah was attributed by Jesus to divine revelation.
Though not revealed beyond Jesus’ close companions at the time, the Transfiguration experience helps distinguish Jesus from other martyrs. Jesus was uniquely divine, the son of God, and our savior. Rev. Douglas Spencer suggests that, “Without this revelation, this insight of faith, Jesus is just another innocent victim of injustice and violence—of which the world has had and continues to have many….”
Surely, the Transfiguration was one of several events intended to reveal and document Jesus’ divinity and the need to follow him. Others included the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth and his baptism. The accounts in Matthew have the voice (understood to be the voice of God) making almost the same statement at the baptism of Jesus and at the transfiguration. Matt. 3:17 tells us that at the baptism, as the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus, “a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.” At the Transfiguration, Matt. 17:5 says “… suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased….’” This time the words, “listen to him!” were added.
The Old Testament scripture and the Epistle from today’s lectionary relate to our analysis and understanding of the Transfiguration. In the Old Testament, we have an interesting phenomenon affecting a human being, Moses, who talked directly with God. When Moses talked with God, his face developed a noticeable “shine.” This was apparently a result of his having been in the presence of the divine. When those around him reacted with fear, Moses was able to persuade them that the shine was not a threat, so he conveyed his conversations from God to them, shiny face and all. After completing his conversations with his followers, he would then put on a veil. I was surprised to realize that he put on the veil, not the conceal the shine, but to conceal its diminution with time. Apparently, it was perceived by Moses that the loss of the shine was somehow associated with a loss of credibility.
In the epistle, the veil becomes a metaphor for a barrier to understanding. With the spirit of Christ, the barrier is removed and those who convey the messages from God may speak boldly and confidently without this impediment.
Thinking of the Transfiguration, as an important means for distinguishing Jesus from mortal martyrs, and Moses’ shine as another indicator of divine presence, I was reminded of the fact that we must continually distinguish the divine and the sacred from the secular. That which is divine is understood to be or pertain to the deity. God made it clear in many scriptures, including the ten commandments that the divine was to be accorded unique glory, honor, and respect. God began the ten commandments with, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” He goes on to describe himself as jealous and make it clear that he will not share his status with anyone or anything.
Anticipating how humans would react, he followed that commandment with, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.”
Violation of this commandment is pervasive in our culture. While I would not expect to hear anyone here using God’s name in a curse, we do find that many people seem unaware of their inappropriate use of God’s name. “Oh, God,” can be a prayer, but all too often it (or the popular abbreviation, “OMG”) is a trivialized and thus wrongful use of God’s name.
Next God tells us, “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” The precise meaning of this commandment is subject to interpretation, and its interpretation was the subject of many disputes between the religious hierarchy and Jesus. Without trying to define the meaning of “holy” as used here, I will suggest that most of us could improve our compliance with this commandment. We do know that worship, the study of scripture, prayer, meditation, demonstrations of compassion, and serious contemplation of the moral and ethical issues of life can be safely regarded as holy enterprises.
I submit for your consideration the bold statement: What a person holds sacred defines that person. Miriam Webster tells us sacred means:
- dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity
- worthy of religious veneration; entitled to reverence and respect
- of or relating to religion : not secular or profane
Many things are sacred – places, time, and even ideas and concepts. Let’s consider a few.
The Holy Bible is sacred. Adam Hamilton and I don’t believe it is literal or inerrant; but it is the source of divine direction and understanding. Our UM Discipline asserts that everything we, as Christians, need to know can be found in the Holy Bible. It is unquestionably entitled to unique deference and respect.
Nature, a term that some of us regard as a way of referring to certain manifestations of God, is sacred. The scriptures tell us God entrusted much of his creation to us and our care. In Genesis we learn that we are to “fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” We are to “fill the earth and subdue it,” but we are not to damage or destroy it. “Dominion” denotes power and authority; it also denotes responsibility and stewardship.
Having grown up with stinking metal garbage cans that were impossible to keep clean or even closed, I hate to give up the convenience of the garbage disposer in my sink, but its use offends nature, specifically by contaminating Chautauqua lake. I don’t like the added cost and complexity associated with making my cars pollute less, but, we have a sacred duty to protect God’s world, even if it is inconvenient or adds cost.
Just as time, such as the Sabbath can be sacred, so can space. We designate sacred spaces such as our churches and cemeteries. Other spaces are inherently sacred because of their characteristics.
What about us? How do we to relate to the sacred? We are created by God in his image and in a covenant with him. In Genesis we are told, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God…. God blessed them.” God told his people, “For I am the LORD your God. You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy.” Leviticus 11:44a. In Jeremiah 31:33, we read, “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
God gives us the responsibility to avoid desecrating him and ourselves by compromising our integrity. If we hold our integrity to be sacred, we impose upon ourselves significant constraints.
- We cannot deny another sacrificial love.
- We cannot be oppressive or unjust.
- We cannot be apathetic about matters of compassion or justice.
- We cannot be dishonest in any way.
- We cannot be selfish in our dealings with others.
- We must forgive and seek forgiveness.
When I said what we hold sacred determines who we are, this is what I meant. A person of Christian character holds his or her integrity to be sacred.
It sometimes seems that we live in a secular world where that which is sacred is the exception. I would suggest that, as Christians, we live in a sacred world where the secular is the exception. Our thought for the day would certainly suggest this. Using our Christian standards, there is a criterion that helps us distinguish the sacred from the secular. We must ask ourselves whether a situation, decision, opportunity or potential action (or failure to act) involves any element of integrity, compassion or justice. Only if it does not, surprisingly seldom, is the situation truly secular.
The Transfiguration reminds us Christ is divine and sacred. Let us be mindful in our day to day activities of the sacred places, situations, and opportunities that surround us. Let us give them the honor, glory, and deference to which they are entitled.
May it be so.