Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies

Most of our days are lived in the humdrum of just getting through the day.  Each day has its share of muck and mire.  There’s often enough drudgery to mess up any possibility of joy.

When I returned home from West Virginia, out raising money for House of Hope, here on my desk was a copy of our local newspaper, the Claremont Courier.  In the opening pages, is Matthew Bramlett’s column, “Police Blotter.”

This section contains essentially the log of the calls that came into the dispatcher that week with a bit of narrative.  On Tuesday, January 21, Officers arrested a certain Michael Turner who had been drunk and disorderly.  While in the officer’s patrol car, the suspect kicked out one of the windows in the back seat. 

I can just imagine this officer, not only having to deal with such disagreeable folks but now having to waste a bunch of time filling out the paperwork to his car fixed, cleaning up vomit on the floor of his car, and having to calm down from the undeserved verbal abuse from some of our finer citizens he has the honor of hauling into the station.  Where’s the Light in all this?  Where’s the Glory?  Is this the glamor that was depicted on that recruiting pamphlet he read as a senior in high school?  Is this mess really what he imagined when he considered a career of “helping people?”

Much of life is in the muck and mire of just getting through the day.

And it must have been so many days of those who were part of the Jesus Movement.  It’s not easy living off the land.  Sickness from bad food.  Aching bones and sore muscles from having slept out in a dusty field in the bitter cold.  Thirst.  Ridicule from some of the local townspeople.  Not easy indeed.

In the church, it’s not all that different.  One morning I received a call from our administrator, Faith, about the damage she discovered upon opening up the office.  Someone had kicked in the door of the janitor’s supply room.  To what purpose??  I have no idea?  The men’s room was out of paper towels?   Who knows?  Some Sundays, just getting out of bed and getting ready is a real chore.  Running off the bulletin, going through the phone messages?  Having to deal with the county weed abatement notice??  It’s not all glamor and raa-raa enthusiasm.  Faith will tell you.

But, as our selection from Matthew’s gospel relates — now and then, some most amazing, glorious events spring forth.  Through all the filth and disappointment light breaks forth.  Matthew begins, “Six days later.”  Later from what?  From more wandering and rejection?  Through days of busted out windows and the stench of stale vomit?  Six days later from curses and insults?  Six days later from WHAT???

Six days from dusty roads and parched throats Jesus takes some of his little band of followers, Peter, James and John, up on a high mountain.  There they stop to pray.

As they are praying, Jesus’ appearance dissolves into a dazzling radiance.  He shimmers and shines like a hundred brilliant suns.  He is indeed “Christ of the shining mountains, True and transfigured king.”  “Christ, Whose Glory fills the sky.”  Then and there he is the true and only light.

And in the midst of it all are Elijah and Moses, talking to Jesus.  Elijah and Moses, harbingers of the Messianic age.  These two, when they appear, that’s all there is folks.  Time’s up. The roll is called up yonder. 

The disciples’ minds earlier had been consumed by Jesus’ end.  That day the talk on the road had been of Jesus’ coming departure from this world — the deadly confrontation with the powers and principalities of this world, to be accomplished in Jerusalem.

But now this!   It’s way, way too much for the three followers, and though they are weighed down with sleep, they manage to see Jesus shrouded in brilliant luminosity with two men. 

Dreamily, poor Peter really has no idea of what to make of it all.  He is consumed by the experience.  He might as well be in paradise.  He’s as disoriented as someone coming off a bad LSD trip.  He doesn’t know what to say.  He’s like a little boy hauled in before the principal, afraid and stammering.    So finally, he simply blurts out, “Wow, this is great.  Let’s make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  But, of course, he has no idea what he is saying.  His incoherence is as bizarre as a tweet coming out of the White House at three in the morning.

These are strictly Old Testament rumblings:  the mountain, the cloud, the voice, the luminescence, and Moses and Elijah.  The glory of God fully manifest in Jesus as the culmination of revelation.

Spiritually, this is the mountain Moses ascended to receive the Law.  Just as Moses entered into the very presence of God – smoke, fire – a luminosity beyond what sight could bear, Jesus shone with that same divine luminosity – the shekinah — the virtual dwelling of God — far beyond anything that might be conjured up in a Steven Spielberg, film, a brilliance no eye could behold.

Zora Neale Hurston, in her 1939 novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain, describes the aftereffects of Moses encounter with God on Mount Sinai.  “With flakes of light still clinging to his face, Moses turned to where Joshua waited for him, ‘Joshua, I have laws.  Israel is going to know peace and justice.’” [1]

“With flakes of light still clinging to his face.”  What an incredible image of the afterglow of a divine encounter.  “Flakes of light.”  I imagine that this metaphor might describe Jesus and his three disciples as they came off the Mountain of Transfiguration.  “Flakes of light” clinging to their faces.

Isn’t this the glow, the beatific aura that envelopes a new mother as she receives her baby from the attending nurse?  Isn’t this the glow that hangs over new lovers who have just found one another?  Sometimes this luminosity is known by a young person coming down to the altar to make her profession of faith in Jesus Christ as her personal savior.

I’ve seen it at a church service as an alcoholic shared his journey to sobriety and recovery. 

But eventually, it is time to leave the mountain.  And for what?  The alcoholic knows that sobriety and recovery can only be lived as they are given away.  That’s the twelfth step.  It is back into the swamp of addiction that the man or woman in recovery goes to take the message of hope and sobriety.  And as it is given to another, the presence of God – that holy cloud of compassion – envelopes the conversation.

All who have been touched by the glory of Christ have come off the mountain with “flakes of light” still clinging to their faces.  In its best moments the Church is adorned with the same “flakes of light.”  And the afterglow remains only as it’s passed along.

The same is also the case for our democracy.  Those men and women who created this nation seem like larger-than-life figures, so shrouded in legend and myth are they.  Much they got wrong.  They were human beings confronted by the contingencies and prejudices of their day.  But in their finer moments, yes!  They come out of Independence Hall with “flakes of light” clinging to them.

You’ve all seen that iconic painting in your grade school history books by John Trumbull of the Declaration of Independence being presented to Congress for signing.  Pure myth.  But an origin story encapsulating the promise of one of the most radical of new beginnings.  A people charts a course from servitude to citizenship.  Something astonishingly new in the annals of history.  Trumbull got it right.  He captured the “flakes of light” of that unique moment.

And we citizens, many generations later, as we give ourselves to the promise of that original vision – we exit that Independence Hall adorned with “flakes of light.”  Their original vision has expanded to include the original inhabitants of this continent as well as those brought here in chains.  Yes, indeed, “flakes of light.”  The guarantee of the promise primordial is the continual expanding promise of liberty.  To all.

This past week of reprehensible pardons of the worst of the worst swamp creatures.  Men who had cheated and duped their fellows, treasonous scoundrels who have sold out the promise of this nation to a hostile foreign power – I began to doubt that there is any saving legacy of that distant convention at Independence Hall.  I grew quite cynical.  Is all for sale?  Do we have nothing of value to pass along to the next generation?

In the midst of dour gloom, I felt I needed a sanity break.  I went over to Barnes and Nobel Booksellers to see if the new book by Robert Reich had hit the shelves.

While I was scanning the “current affairs” shelf, I spotted a book about a Holocaust refugee’s secret mission to defeat the Nazis.  Not many escaped those camps to tell about it, let alone to to work against Hitler’s war machine.

As I leaned against the shelves and began reading, I realized that I was definitely in the company of a patriot.  The “flakes of light” that clung to Freddy, even through the pages of this book, were restorative to my soul.

The book by Eric Lichtblau, author also of The Nazis Next Door, tells the story of Freddy Mayer, a Eastern European Jewish refugee who immigrated to the United States, fleeing the ever repressive Nazi regime.  When the Nuremburg Laws were passed and the Germans invaded Austria, the family knew it was time to get out.  Unfortunately, for most Jews, the door was permanently shut shortly after their ship sailed for America.[2]

Practicing American style capitalism, Freddy found that his German training as a Diesel mechanic enabled him to get better and better jobs in his new home.  But news from the Old Country continued to haunt him.  Only eight months after the family’s arrival, came news of Kristallnacht, the orgy of violence Joseph Goebbels unleashed on the Jewish community.  Thousands of businesses, synagogues and homes were destroyed.  Over one hundred Jews were killed and the roundup began.  Notable industrialists in America like Henry Ford enthusiastically supported Hitler and his program.  Colonel Charles Lindberg denounced the Jews, as did the KKK.

After Pearl Harbor and the Declaration of War, thousands of eager young boys rushed off to recruiting stations to defend their country, Freddy among them.  

Lady Liberty “had ushered him into the country three years earlier when he fled Nazi Germany, and now she was beckoning him once again – this time to fight for his new homeland.”[3]  Unfortunately, Freddy was rejected as being an “enemy alien.”

Eventually Washington realized that it would need every able-bodied man and woman available.  Restrictions were eased and Freddy joined up.  Though a mechanic, his assignment, in the grand wisdom of the Army, was permanent KP – kitchen police – scrubbing pots and pans.

Out in the California desert, under General George Patton, Freddy was finally able to show his stuff.  He volunteered for the “Wildcat” Rangers and rose to “first scout” on training missions.  A general whom Freddy had taken “prisoner” in a training exercise, the next day called him in.  Not for a reprimand, but to offer him an opportunity to join the OSS – an opportunity for foreign-speaking men from Europe to penetrate enemy lines on secret espionage missions.  Freddy would now be working for “Wild Bill” Donovan.

Freddy would later parachute on a moon lit night into Austria as part of a three-person team.  Even after capture by the Nazis and after having been savagely tortured, almost losing his life, Freddy agreed to speak with the Gestapo officer in charge of Innsbruck to spare the city.  Freddy convinced him that any further resistance was futile.  With the Allies were closing in, that despised Nazi officer realized that Innsbruck was completely surrounded. He also realized that this American captive held out his only hope of averting more waste of life. He enlisted Freddy to approach the American lines with a white flag.  What could have been a bloody battle costing many lives was averted, and it was Private Freddy Mayer who arranged terms of surrender.  What a glorious immigrant! 

Looking back, now at ninety-four in his West Virginia cabin, with his trademark shrug (as if to say What’s the big deal?), Freddy remarked to the author, “What more is there to say?”[4]

Freddy was wrong.  It was a very big deal.  There’s a lot more to say, and that story is not finished. 

All those men and women, who were part of the “Greatest Generation,” came back from those battlefields adorned with Flakes of Light from Old Glory, Flakes of Light from that founding vision at Independence Hall. 

The idea they fought for, the proposition that each is a person of worth, the idea that no one should be forced to live under the tyranny of an autocrat, is derivative of the shekinah, the dwelling of God, upon the Mount of Revelation.

Freddy and his team of agents, Lt. Colonel Vindman, Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, and countless unnamed loyal civil servants — those who spoke truth at great personal risk to career and livelihood, are in that hallowed line of patriots, Flakes of Light from 1776 upon their faces.

These citizens have done their constitutional duty.  Like Moses, they have come down out of secure government jobs into the muck and mire of the Swamp.  They have given testimony to the enduring values we weakly strive to embody – to the vision of a nation under law, ever in the process of perfection.  The glory of our highest aspirations and values is transfigured in their service to our nation.  Glorious Flakes of Light.  These ideals are indeed godly.

Transfiguration is not some biblical oddity of long ago.  I see it Sunday after Sunday as faithful followers of our Lord kneel at the rail to receive the Eucharist.  I see it in the fresh coat of paint in former Sunday school rooms being prepared for outpatient care for House of Hope – San Bernardino.  I see it in those lovely hands preparing a bag of food for a visiting stranger.  Yes, the Church of Jesus Christ daily descends into the fray bearing “Flakes of Light” on its face.

By the time I had finished reading about Freddy Mayer — when I glanced down at my watch, I noticed that almost two hours had passed.  What a glorious browsing of a bookshelf.


[1] Zora Neale Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain (New York:HarperCollins, 1991) p. 233.

[2] Eric Lichtblau, Return to the Reich: A Holocaust Refugee’s Secret Mission to Defeat the Nazis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York, 2019), 27.

       [3] Op. cit., 27.

[4] Op.cit., xii

Preached at St. Francis Episcopal Mission, San Bernardino

February 23, 2020

Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter1:1-16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

Transfiguration Sunday

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

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