Lent 1, Year C Tranfiguration, Sensuous Sunday
Readings: Exodus 34:29–35; Psalm 99; (2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2); Luke 9:28–36
At my graduation banquet, the person responsible for getting a speaker found a nun to come and talk to our class. A nun. To talk to a roomful of Protestants about to be ordained and commissioned as ministers. She was wonderful. She chewed us out, in a gracious nun way. “You Protestants. You’re so good at doing. You’ve accomplished so much by doing. I want you to think about being as a faithful activity.” She led us on a guided meditation that was sensuous, and wonderful. There may have been gardens involved. I can’t quite remember. I remember being brought up short just as my education for ministry was coming to an end with this whole other aspect of faithfulness. My childhood, my education–nothing had prepared me to consider myself beloved because I was a being. I had somehow soaked up the message that I would be loved if I were doing.
On Sensuous Sunday, I want us to think about thinking and feeling. Descartes helped established the Enlightenment with his concept of what makes a person a person: cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. Big breakthrough for humanity to privilege thinking and the individual over other human attributes. Last week Evans Rubara raised an African contrast: ubuntu. He defined it in a way I hadn’t heard before. Another way of defining it is: “I am because you are.” Ubuntu claims that I am because I am in relation with everyone else. Reason or relating. Thinking or feeling. Individual or collective. Everyone uses reasoning logic and everyone uses emotional logic, but our society usual gives precedence to one and pushes the other to the side.
We suffer if individuals are not allowed to flourish because of the collective. We suffer when the collective is ignored or marginalized because of individualism. We need Descartes and ubuntu. Barack Obama is a marriage of both. His father was Kenyan and black. His mother was American and white. Obama sounds like a person who wants the world to get along, wants harmony and good relations. Ubuntu. He behaves in some ways with a cold logic that is frightening, a logic around drone aircraft, for instance, that could be leading humankind to a terrifying new chapter of warfare. As with most of us, Obama may be having difficulty getting his two sides into conversation with each other.
Christians care about this stuff. Not just the current issue of robot warriors, but the very big issue of who we are, really, at heart. Are we grasshoppers, or ants? Are we worker bees, or drones? Are we efficient producers and consumers, noses to the grindstone, who keep the whole capitalist enterprise going, or are we really supposed to be hanging around the garden of Eden, accepting all the free stuff that grows on trees and grooving on creation and the Creator?
This is especially relevant at Transfiguration, while we are celebrating Sensuous Sunday. As always, we try to be wary of false choices. It’s rarely one thing or the other. Life is usually a somewhat messy blend of two more impossibly neat alternatives. The nun is right. The Protestant reformers were right. Ubuntu is amazing. Empowerment of the individual has had much to recommend it.
And today we have these two mountains, and two very different men, Moses and Jesus. The gospel writer is trying to portray Jesus as the new Moses. Moses is surrounded by a cloud; Jesus is surrounded by a cloud. Moses’ face shines; Jesus’ face shines. This is not coincidence. Luke is making very deliberate references to the story from Exodus. Point being: Moses passes along to the people a law, while Jesus has nothing in his hands. He is the latest revelation of the divine will. This is one way to look at Luke’s transfiguration story. Law vs. grace, or law and grace? Rules or a forgiving redeemer? Or somehow, both?
The challenge on Sensuous Sunday for some of us, the paler people, is a heavy reliance on thinking, on logic. Perhaps too heavy. We have many generations of formal relationships, even with loved ones, to get over. Hugs are good. We have learned to give and accept hugs. Sort of. Hand shakes are still second nature. I suppose hugs can be overdone. High schools are trying to figure out how to set and enforce limits on personal displays of affection, as they are called, in order that schools remain places of learning, not simply passion pits.
But nothing replaces personal familiarity. If I have canoed on a river, and fished in it, and swum in it, I am going to be much more concerned about some threat to it from industry, let’s say. It’s one thing to oppose homosexuality in the abstract. Suddenly it’s a very different story if my child or my brother or sister, or niece or nephew comes out. Someone I have held, teased, played, fed, loved up close. Our familiarity can help me get past rigid ways of categorizing, of pigeon holing. My senses have some things to teach me, that my thinking might never be able to do.
What would it be like to be with Jesus, up that mountain, or anywhere he went? How did his friends experience his faithfulness? How does anyone experience the faith of another person? And where are the women in these stories? Our scriptures tend to be about men. No one knows who did the compiling and editing. Perhaps they were groups of people picked with gender equality in mind. Perhaps. Our Christian life needs to add the views, the skills, the stories of women back in to make up for their comparative absence in our holy books. We’re missing the point of view, for the most part, of those who become pregnant and give birth. Those who nurse infants and provide most of the care for very young children.
Our understanding of God would be very different, more sensual if it reflected all humans, if we incorporated all that mothering imagery into our sense of the sacred. Apparently the Church of Scientology teaches it adherents to separate their mind from feelings completely. There’s a new book out by Jenna Hill, the niece of the present leader of the church. Her uncle’s title is Chairman of the Board of Religious Technology Center. Ms. Hill pulls the drapes back and talks about how the church indoctrinated her while isolating and controlling her. As we get all judgmental about Scientology, it would be well to look to our own past, when the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches were highly suspicious of feelings, when pleasure was suspect, and thinking was prized above all.
How can we recover balance? Sensuous Sunday is a good start. Honouring the stories and experiences, the theology and insights of women is crucial. It must have taken Ms. Hill much courage to do what she has done. It cost her her marriage. The church persuaded her husband that he would be “disconnected” from his family, shunned, if he left the church with her. Jenna Hill is not the first woman to go against a controlling church establishment. And she won’t be the last.
We need, somehow, to be comfortable with bodies, senses, pleasure, mortality–to recover the masculine and feminine in all of us. We need to attend to the Christ who got dissed as a glutton and a drunk because he didn’t take on an aesthetic life, the one who let a woman bathe his feet and anoint them with costly oil. Jesus seemed to get human life. Later writers seem determined to make him into someone utterly different than us, so there is some tension for us within the pages of the New Testament. And that’s a good thing. It means we have to bring our whole selves to this business of Christian faith, our bodies and our minds, our critical faculties. We need a Christ who is just like us, and a Christ who is utterly different.
And speaking of anointing, this would be a good time for some of those cinnamon hearts you received earlier, if you have any left. Cinnamon goes back a long way in human history. The recipe for the oil of anointing of Jewish priests and the high priest, for instance. The oil Moses used in the ordination of the priests had expensive cinnamon in it. Perhaps it’s not too inconsistent. Evans Rubara reminded us last week that Moses was sometimes guided by his strong feelings. We’re doing him an injustice if we think of him only as a giver of the law.
Cinnamon comes from warm parts of the world, like oranges. These days we’re lucky that we can enjoy food from all over the world at almost any time of the world. To celebrate all we are, our creation in the image of the Holy One, we claim our tropical heritage and our colder heritage all together. We celebrate all our senses, including that gift of the Spirit called imagination, or intuition. We revel in a world full of things to hear, see, taste, smell and feel, and where our heroes, male and female show us ways to be that honour all our thinking and all our feeling.