“The really wonderful thing about religion is God.” A Christian author named Evelyn Underhill wrote that.”The really wonderful thing about religion is God.” I mean, I guess that’s obvious, but I think sometimes we forget. We get wrapped up in Church and we forget: The really wonderful thing about religion… is God.
And this is Transfiguration Sunday, the Sunday before Lent starts. Lent is that season when we try to face the times we’ve failed, the people we’ve failed- including ourselves, including God- and we try to make it right again. And so the Church in her infinite wisdom has said, “Before this season of truth-telling starts; before we start facing the hard, grimy parts of our life, let’s remind ourselves of what is on the other side of Lent.
And so the Scripture reading for the Sunday before Lent is always this amazing story of Jesus standing on top of Mount Tabor with his disciples, and then Moses and Elijah both appear, and all three of them start shining in the glory of God, and then the Voice of God thunders from the heavens, “This is My Beloved Son; listen to Him.”
This is the risen God, the Easter God. This is the God who is around us, beneath us, above us: The Wind beneath our wings. Unseen. Invisible. Secure.
I love watching swallows fly. If I’m wrong about reincarnation- if the Hindus have it right and I’m wrong, I want to be reincarnated as a barn swallow! I don’t know of any other creature who seems to have as much fun! Swooping, soaring, buzzing around in absolute delight! And I say, “Isn’t that swallow just amazing!” … when all the while I should be saying, Look at how she rides the wind. Look at how the wind supports her… transports her… plays with her! It’s the wind beneath her wings- unseen, invisible, secure. Making all her divine mischief possible.
Every fall the monarch butterfly migrates from Cape May, New Jersey to Mexico. Roughly 2500 miles across open ocean this tiny, delicate creature flies! How can a butterfly keep its head above water all the way from New Jersey to Mexico? Because flying has less to do with the bird or the butterfly, and more to do with the wind: catching the wind beneath her wings, being lifted up, playing on the wind.
You are the wind beneath our wings…
At the height of apartheid in South Africa, Bishop Desmond Tutu was leading a worship service in St. George’s Cathedral. The walls were lined with soldiers and riot police carrying guns and bayonets, ready to close it down. Bishop Tutu began to rail against the evils of the apartheid system, and how the rulers and authorities that propped it up were doomed to fail. He pointed a finger at the police who were there to record his words: “You may be powerful- very powerful… but you are not God! God cannot be mocked! You have already lost!” Then in a moment of unbearable tension, the bishop seemed to soften. Coming out from behind the pulpit, he flashed that radiant Tutu smile and began to bounce up and down with glee. “Therefore, since you have already lost, we are inviting you to join the winning side!” The crowd roared, the police melted away, and the people began to dance- Catching the wind beneath their wings, being lifted up, dancing on the Wind. You are the wind beneath their wings, Lord! You are their power, and their hope, and their courage! You are their dance and their play, even in the face of bayonets and prison!
You know, the most wonderful thing about religion is God.
About 11 years ago, a photograph ran in the Baltimore Sun. The story concerned the Akhdam, the lowest social caste in Yemen. They are a people who are relegated by their society to unimaginable squalor: the Unclean. In the background of the photo is a scattering of huts constructed from crates and shreds of canvas. Everywhere you look, the earth is scarred, and barren, and without a hint of life. But in the foreground is a beautiful little girl. She’s dressed in tatters, her arms outspread, a look of delight upon her face. And she’s dancing. Whirling and twirling in unfettered delight.
Who is this child, born into unspeakable poverty, dancing with unfettered joy like she is in the midst of paradise? Dancing with the wind beneath her wings, like the butterfly and the bird? And what would it take for us to be able to dance like her? With the wind, the Spirit, something inside us which has nothing to do with where we live, or what we wear, or how often we eat? Something which has nothing to do with our health, or our life, or our death?
John was out walking his dog. He was walking his dog, but his mind was down the road about three blocks. John was a doctor; and he usually kept a professional distance between him and his patients. But this patient was different. This patient was a neighbor. Their kids were friends. He’d stood with this guy dripping wet while they cheered their kids’ goals. They went to the same church. The prognosis wasn’t good; John wanted to break the news to him personally. He knocked on Harry’s back door. “Let yourself in!” John left his dog Butchie there in the mudroom and came on into the kitchen. Harry was sitting there hooked up to an oxygen tank, trying to breath. John sat down across from him there at the kitchen table. “It’s bad news, Harry.” “What does ‘bad’ look like, John?” “Well, ‘bad’ looks like 6-8 weeks.” Harry didn’t answer for a long time. They both just sat there. Finally, Harry looked up. “John, I am afraid to die… What do you think will be on the other side?” “I don’t know,” said John. “What do you mean, you don’t know?” All of a sudden, something hard and raw broke out of him: “What do you mean you don’t know?” When he heard the yelling, Butchie in the mudroom started to whine and scratch on the door. John got up, opened the door, and Butchie sprang into the room, leapt on him and splattered his face with wet dog kisses. John scratched Butchie behind the ears for a little bit, then he looked up.“I don’t know what’s on the other side, Harry. But look at Butchie here. He’s never been in this room before. He didn’t know what was on the other side of that door. He didn’t know anything except that I was here, and when the door opened, he leaped without fear. Harry, I don’t know what’s on the other side of death, but I do know one thing. I know my Lord is there, and that is enough.”
My dear friends, I don’t know what’s on the other side of death. Neither did Jesus. “Lord, if it is possible, take this cup away from Me.” Jesus didn’t want to die- and yet… there was Someone there He was betting His life on.
I don’t know what’s there, but I’m betting my life on Who is there. It’s the One who has been the wind under our wings from the day of our first breath. It’s the One who has carried us through good times and bad, there on the wings of love, whether we knew it or not.
You want to know the really wonderful thing about religion? It’s God.
Did You ever know that You’re my hero, and everything I would like to be? I can fly higher than an eagle, ’cause You are the Wind beneath my wings.
In the Name of the One who will never let us go, even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Resources: David Bentley Hart, “Where Was God?” Christian Century, Jan. 10, 2006, pg. 29; Exegetical Resource, 2-26-95; Homily Service, 2-26-95
SCRIPTURE FOR FEB. 26, 2017
Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near Him, Jesus asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?” They answered, ‘John the Baptist; but others say Elijah; and still others say that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’ Jesus said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Christ of God.’ Jesus sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’ Then Jesus said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for My sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Those who are ashamed of Me and of My words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when He comes in His glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God.’
Now about 8 days after these sayings, Jesus took with Him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while Jesus was praying, the appearance of His face changed, and His clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly, they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to Him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of His exodus, which Jesus was about to accomplish at Jerusalem… Just as they were leaving Jesus, Peter said to Him, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make 3 dwellings; one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’ -not knowing what he said. While Peter was saying this, a Cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the Cloud. Then from the Cloud came a Voice that said, ‘This is My Beloved Son, My Chosen; listen to Him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.