The Transfiguration of Blue Hydrangeas

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“You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not…Elisha kept watching and crying out…” (2 Kings)

“Let light shine out of darkness…” (2 Corinthians)

“And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white…” (Mark 9).

As I walked around the Greeting Area and the Parish Hall on Sunday afternoon as we gathered for Xander Corso’s funeral, my heart swelled.  At every turn in the hallway, at every long spot on the wall, at every door, I saw parishioners standing silently, keeping vigil and making themselves available to those who were coming with deep, deep grief.

Every person who came in—so many young people from Johnson High School with their families and friends, fellow lawyers and friends from the community, grief-stricken family, each and every stunned and fragile young person—found a warm face, a gentle smile, a kind guiding hand welcoming them and helping them ease into a very thin space.

I heard our people say, gently, “Welcome.  I am glad you are here.  Please, right this way.  Make yourself at home, please…”

I stood against the wall at one point and just watched as a space we are so accustomed to was transfigured before my eyes into something that was nothing short of a glimpse of the kingdom of God.

A bit earlier that morning, Jeremy had found me around 9:30 as I was heading toward the youth room as they looked at details for their pilgrimage next year.

“I know you saw that the hydrangeas have died in the chancel flower arrangements. They just didn’t make it” he told me.

“Yes.  I saw them.  What can we do?”

See, the Corso family only requested one thing when it came to flowers for Xander’s funeral on Sunday: blue hydrangeas.  Being the first of February, it was not an easy thing to find.  Being our Flower Guild, there was no hesitation that we would do this for the family.

“Well,” Jeremy said, “Durwood has spoken to Carolyn Smith, and they have a plan.  A few folks are looking at stores to see if they have any.  We’ll make it work.  Don’t worry about it.”

A bit before the service, Jeremy found me and told me that a group of folks had spread out in the town, working together to get the flowers the family had requested.  When I walked in the nave, I saw they had found beautiful, silk blue hydrangeas that blended in the arrangements, filling them out.  The flowers were beautiful.  They were perfect.

This extraordinary group of folks had helped transform flowers into embodiments of grace and light in a space that was so heavy.  Throughout the service, I sat in my chair and looked over at the flowers as the cellist played, thinking about all the hands who helped offer this gift.

I can sincerely say that I don’t think I have ever been as proud to be the rector of this parish as I was last Sunday as I saw so many people come together, offer themselves…as I saw this space transfigured before my eyes.

Look at the texts from today and you see a deeply profound dynamic at work around this image of transfiguration.  Elisha is grieving the impending loss of his teacher, Elijah.  How will I make it without you?  Can you give me a double share of your blessing?  How will I go forward?

There is this incredible moment when Elijah tells him: “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”

Here’s what I understand that to mean: if you want to understand how you will experience a blessing, how you will carry the blessing forward in the midst of grief, keep your eyes open.  Keep watching what will happen.  Pay attention, and look for the hope in the midst of your grief.  Keep watching…

Then, there is this dynamic in Paul’s Second Letter to Corinth, with how we struggle with veiled sight, with God acting through Christ to give a light in the midst of darkness.

And, then this pivotal moment with Jesus taking Peter, James, and John on a walk up a hill.  In that seemingly mundane moment Jesus is transfigured before them, “and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”

Peter, James, and John respond to this experience in a way we can understand: this is a good thing for us to be here.  Let us build a house, a container for this experience so we can hold it.

But no…that was not to be.

You can behold it, but you can’t control it—this is a deep truth of spiritual practice that we are always called to remember.  This is what the transfiguration teaches us, if we will allow our hearts to be open to receive it.

How often have we found ourselves in a situation and been surprised by grace?  How many times have we thought we would be overwhelmed by grief or loss or frustration or confusion, and then we encountered a glimpse of God’s presence that infused us with hope?

How many times have we found ourselves in the midst of the mundane, the typical, the usual…and then…something happens?

Silk blue hydrangeas become harbingers of grace.

Silent parishioners keeping vigil become angels in the lives of a grieving community.

In times when we find ourselves asking for grace and strength to continue on, we find ourselves standing next to Elisha as our own Elijah tells us, if you keep watching, if you keep your eyes open, you will experience it.

Perhaps we are in a climate, a time, when the spiritual practice of beholding becomes so key for us.  What to do when we are bombarded by ______ insert frustration or pain here?  How else can we understand—in our hearts—that proclamation in the Book of Revelation, “Behold I am making all things new?” (Revelation 21:5).

To be sure, we are not seeking to negate the pain.  We are not ignoring the suffering.  We are not denying the suffering and the frustration.  What our practice of faith invites us to do is to look for the glimpses of light—to behold the moments of transfiguration—within our lives, within our mundane existence, within those moments of frustration.  Within our human condition.  Within our real lives.

That is where transfiguration takes place.  Here.  In the ordinary.  In a community that opens its doors to those who are grieving.  Beholding people in this community holding vigil and opening their hearts and arms to the hundreds who came to support one another in their grief.  In those who work to move in chairs, to offer a place to sit.  In those who clean and prepare the space.  In those who light a candle to pierce the darkness.

We don’t look for transfiguration in places that are already glistening with grace.  We look for it in blue hydrangeas and in the love that a community shows to a family with unimaginable grief.

It may surprise you that we embody this in our liturgy in, of all places, the burial rite, in the funeral service.  If you would turn in your prayer books to page 499.  This collection of prayers is from the Commendation, that point in the service when we intentionally ask God to welcome the one who has died into God’s loving embrace.  As we share in this prayer, I invite you to look for the transfiguration.  If you keep looking, you will be able to see it.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant(s) with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither sighing, but life everlasting.

You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind;
and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant(s) with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither sighing, but life everlasting.

There is no better embodiment of the transfiguration than this moment: when we find ourselves standing by the grave, joining our voices with the prayer of the Spirit of Christ, saying together: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!  And we’re going to need to remember this as we take the next steps into this holy Season of Lent. 

 

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Sermon #4 in the Praying Shapes Our Lives Series
Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year B
2 Kings 2:1-12; Mark 9:2-9
February 11, 2018

 

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