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We the people of Glen Rhodes United Church, are determined that our life together will be fully inclusive for people of all ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, differing abilities, ethnic origins and economic circumstances. Therefore, we hope that God will work in us so that we will be a sensitive congregation, willing to share our faith and gifts in language and worship, in the life and work of our church and wherever God calls us to do justice in the wider community, with compassion, fun and laughter

Monday, 3 March 2014

“The Undiscovered Country”        Robin Wardlaw       March 2, 2014 

Transfiguration, Year A
Readings: Exodus 24:12–18; Psalm 99; (2 Peter 1:16–21); Matthew 17:1–9
Shakespeare calls death “the undiscovered country.” Which was controversial in his day, it turns out. The church had been saying for hundreds of years that the country of death was well known: sin, and fail to repent and you go to hell. Confess and seek forgiveness, and go to heaven. And artists and performers of medieval mystery plays had pretty well spelled out what heaven and hell were like. But by Shakespeare’s time, the old certainty about death was giving way to fresh questions.
It is Hamlet, afraid of death because he doesn’t know what it might bring, who says,
Who would fardels bear,
. . .
But that the dread of something after death,
         The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
         No traveler returns, puzzles the will
        And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
        Than fly to others we know not of.

A fardel is a ‘burden.’ Should I take my life, and go to face who knows what, or put up with things here in this life? The minister, paraphrasing the Bard very badly.
But the minister doesn’t want to talk about death. I want to talk about the undiscovered parts of life. It was Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, on April 3, 1968, 
Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The minister, repeating poorly the soaring rhetoric of a master preacher.
He said that in Memphis. He was there to speak to the Memphis Sanitation Workers, who were on strike. In the speech he called for a black boycott of white businesses until the city dealt fairly with its workers. The next day he was shot and killed. He wasn’t killed when he worked and struggled for civil rights, the integration of schools and lunch counters, voters rights. He was killed when he argued for workers’ rights, for economic justice, and threatened to make white business share the costs of injustice.
I have been up the mountain and I have seen the other side. Who gets to do that? Moses went up a mountain, and came down with rules for living a good life, a respectful, dignified life. Jesus went up the mountain and heard praise for the path he had been walking, to share a message about respect and dignity and a fair share of God’s good gift with the poor.
If you had been lobbying for women’s rights since, what, the fifties, and lived long enough to see what gains have been made since then, would you say you had seen the undiscovered country? What if you had been fighting for LGBT rights since the seventies, let’s say, or effective treatment of HIV and AIDS since the eighties? Would you dare say, we have arrived? I have seen the Promised Land?
There is so much still to be explored. A world that works differently. Where dog eat dog thinking is gently consigned to the history books. Where we learn from First Nations to think ahead seven generations before we take actions now that could affect our great-great-great-great grandchildren. Where we ask bullies to get the emotional help they need instead of electing them into top leadership positions.
We don’t all have mountain climbing abilities. The people who do, we call prophets, and sometimes artists. They can rise above the confusion and constant demands of the day to gain a vantage point on next day, next year, next century. The Rachel Carsons of our world, to pick an environmental example, alerting us to the dangers of DDT fifty years ago while we were still happily spreading it on fields and swamps, dusting crops and people with it, oblivious to how it would affect all nature.
The undiscovered country, the undiscovered world, the undiscovered self. The bear went over the mountain, to see what he could see, apparently. That’s part of it. The job is not quite done, though, if that bear just sees stuff. She needs to come back to the rest of us with a report.
And what happens when prophets come back and give us the heads up? The record is not that great. If they’re lucky, we just mock or ignore them. It gets worse, of course. We’re about to go into the season of Lent and Easter. A huge, annual reminder of how we treat those who challenge the status quo, the Martin Luther King, Jrs., and so many others.
What happens to the bears who go over the mountain? The bible talks about their faces shining, or their whole persons shining, brighter than the best cleaner could achieve. It’s called transfiguration. The changing of one’s appearance. When it comes to ourselves, we sometimes discover parts of ourselves we didn’t know were there. We are utterly changed. People sometimes make such discoveries in some form of therapy. Sometimes by doing something very strenuous or difficult—climbing a mountain, say, or sailing a long distance by oneself. And sometimes a mountaintop experience can happen in worship, or on retreat, or in meditation.
“I have always thought I was the kind of person who couldn’t stand up for herself.” “I never imagined I could cope on my own, without some kind of substance to help me.” “I was sure I would resent and hate that person, or something they did, until my dying day.”
But something happens. One of those life commandments that can handcuff us is exposed, examined and left to one side. New possibilities emerge. Someone else behaves in a very gracious way, and makes us realize we could do that, too. Our prayer is answered, and the hold that food, or alcohol, or a drug, or nicotine, or gambling has on us begins to ebb.
Our faces shine. We can’t stop talking about what has happened to us. We are filled with excitement about this new country we are just beginning to explore. The people around us who haven’t, who can’t share our mountaintop experience get a little tired of us. They miss the old us, with the familiar tics and quirks and buttons that were so easy to push. Who is this new, unknown person, and why can’t they stop talking about the dangers of casinos, or how many barrels of bitumen are going to go through some stupid pipeline, or how I statements changed their life? Can’t we just get back to kibitzing or moaning or gossiping together like before?
When Moses came down the mountain all shiny, he found the people having an orgy of magical thinking, according to Exodus, praying to a golden calf and “running wild.” Moses got mad, and then he got all Taliban on the people. He had the Levites, the only ones who remained loyal to him, go “kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbour.” (Exod. 32:27b) That got the people’s attention, and their trudge through the desert to the Promised Land continued, with Moses still leading.
When Jesus had his transfiguring moment, he didn’t get to go down the mountain to find opposition. It came to him. One of his inner circle didn’t like the direction things were going, and decided direct confrontation with the authorities was needed, so he led them to Jesus’ side.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. came down the mountain…well, we know what happened to him at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968. The next night, in reaction to the assassination of this proponent of nonviolence, riots broke out in many American cities, the Holy Week riots, as they were called.
When we use the words trans these days, it refers to someone who feels they have been given the wrong body, that they are really the other sex, whether that’s male or female. For them, the undiscovered country is very personal, as personal as it’s possible to get. Transfiguration is what a transgendered person might wish, but in a way never dreamed of by those of bible times, or even until very recently. Maybe those of who are not transgendered have something to learn about change from those who are. We might learn the joys—and the costs—of higher ground.
If you listen carefully, you will hear Johnson Oatman, Jr. explore this image in our anthem in a few minutes.
I’m pressing on the upward way,
New heights I’m gaining every day;
Still praying as I’m onward bound,
“Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”
Oatman was a Methodist preacher from New Jersey who couldn’t sing, but wrote over 5,000 hymns in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, including “Just a Closer Walk,” and “Higher Ground.”
Lord, lift me up and let me stand,
By faith, on Heaven’s tableland,
A higher plane than I have found;
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.
Where Oatman departs from the bible understanding of the mountain top experience is that he doesn’t want to come down. “I want to live above the world…,” he says in verse three. He’s probably speaking for many people when he says it, but the witness we have inherited is a little different. If you have had a vision of another kind of country, a different way of doing life together with more respect and less suffering, if your face is shining, your calling is back here, with the rest of us, singing your song, or writing your hymn: bearing witness to your truth, our truth, God’s dream.

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