Sermons

Dross; Rev. Dee Ledger, March 3, 2019

Do you remember the many changes and transformations that led to who you are and how you are now at this point in your life?  “All things change,” or so we say, and that includes our own personalities, dreams, livelihoods, and even our souls.  When I consider my own multiple transformations over time, it was usually the end result of some hardship or difficulty—or the slow fulfillment of some internal, persistent yearning and a mysterious process that was carefully and serendipitously reflected back by the people with whom I crossed paths.  And when I consider these many transformations, I realize, too, somewhat humbly, that the main point wasn’t that I had changed, but that I had changed for some larger purpose, which was often unknown to me at the time.  Perhaps it is the same for you.  Perhaps you, too, can see that the many changes that you have undergone in a lifetime of change and transformation were not solely for your own benefit but somehow affected those around you, and those beyond you.  God is good that way.

Today is Transfiguration Sunday—a Sunday that marks the close of the Epiphany season, but also one of those Sundays when we encounter a strange scripture passage about Jesus being changed before the disciples, Peter, John, and James.  I suspect that Jesus had already been changing before these four took to the trail for their daylong mountain hike.  The moment crystallized in some special way up there on the mountain—some kind of shimmering glow about Jesus helped them to see something that they couldn’t quite see before.  Our biblical writer adds all kinds of details to help us visualize the change.  Just to enumerate:  Jesus’ face appears somehow different, his clothes become dazzling white, two long-dead and famous prophets—Moses and Elijah—conveniently and mysteriously show up from the afterlife to give their affirmation of Jesus, and a cloud seems to overshadow them intentionally.  Add to this a mysterious Voice which comes from the cloud and declares, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him” just in case the disciples couldn’t quite believe their eyes. What was it all for?  Whatever happened on that mountaintop was a shining, beautiful thing, but it wasn’t the main point.  Jesus had not yet gone to Jerusalem.  Jesus had not ascended by way of the cross.

In Eastern Christian thinking, human beings are quite capable of deification.  The process is called theosis, and for various reasons, the Western church has downplayed this idea.  Theosis is our eventual transformation into the likeness of God or union with God.  But the idea can be deeply misunderstood.  It would do little good and much great harm if humans thought that they could become God or change ontologically into little (or big) gods or goddesses.  In fact, some of the most evil in the world has been done by those whose ego outgrew their humanity.

Yet, the idea of theosis is that we can cooperate with the Divine energy in a kind of synergistic fashion.  Westernized religion might talk more about the sanctification of the human soul, or becoming more holy, or even becoming a “little Christ.”  Ben Blackwell, in writing about theosis from a Baptist perspective has said, “We might say that theosis is to the Orthodox as justification is to the Protestant.”[1]  The Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, has written,

“Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share in the life of Christ. If we do, we shall then be sharing a life which was begotten, not made, which always existed and always will exist. Christ is the Son of God. If we share in this kind of life we also shall be sons of God… Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.”[2]

Indeed, several scriptures support this theosis of humankind.  In the Hebrew scriptures, (specifically, Psalm 82:6), God addresses a divine Council of gods: “I say, ‘You are gods, children of the most High, all of you; nevertheless, you all die like mortals, and fall like any prince.’”  This is a psalm in which God warns the nations, urges a just order in ancient Israel, and that likewise says, “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.  Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:3-4).  And in the gospel of John, when Jesus himself is accused of blasphemy by the religious authorities of his day, he answers them: “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’?  If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’—and the scripture cannot be annulled—can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?” (John 10:34-36)

Of course, this may all be a bit heady and academic.  But the point is—if you dare to believe it—that we are encouraged in our soul-life to become transformed in such a way as to share in the life and energy of God while still retaining our humanity and creaturely being.   This happens by grace and through the work of the Holy Spirit.  The ancient Eastern fathers explained this process by way of an unusual metaphor: that of iron sword in a fire.  As Chris Jensen writes, “Deified human beings forever remain human while at the same time sharing in divine grace or energy, just like blazing iron in the fire shares the properties of flame but doesn’t cease to be iron. Human beings will not melt into an impersonal God like a salt statue tossed into the ocean, or become new and independent divine beings in a type of polytheistic evolution…Only God is transcendent, uncreated, and divine by nature.”[3] 

That is all fine, well, and good.  Many of us do not plan to become goddesses or gods—we don’t want that kind of responsibility.  But we might like to think that some of the dross in our lives and personalities might be more conformed to the likeness of Christ on our good days and, on our worst days, not cause undue harm to others or cause us to fall flat on our face in a pool of misery.   And if you are like me, most days, I’d simply like not make the same mistakes over and over again.

It’s this idea of transforming our dross that is so appealing.  Do you know of what dross I mean?  Dross is the dregs or waste that is formed on the surface of molten metal.  It’s considered rubbish, unusable.  Extend the metaphor now to those parts of you that are less cooperative with whatever theosis to which you might aspire.  In Christian thinking, this dross can be transformed by God’s grace into something beneficial, something beautiful, and something that shines with God’s glory.  It is not our doing, but we choose to cooperate with this process.  We cooperate by giving ourselves more fully to the Holy Spirit, more fully to a relationship with the Divine.  In many cases, we simply get out of God’s way.

In her book, When the Heart Waits, Sue Monk Kidd writes,

“There’s an old Carolina story I like about a country boy who had a great talent for carving beautiful dogs out of wood. Every day he sat on his porch whittling, letting the shavings fall around him. One day a visitor, greatly impressed, asked him the secret of his art. ‘I just take a block of wood and whittle off the parts that don’t look like a dog,’ he replied.

Kidd writes, “In spiritual whittling, though, we don’t discard the shavings. Transformation happens, not by rejecting these parts of ourselves, but by gathering them up and integrating them. Through this process we reach a new wholeness. Spiritual whittling is an encounter with Mystery, waiting, the silence of inner places — all those things most folks no longer have time for.”[4]

I thought about this idea of transformation as I watched Elijah Cummings give his closing remarks to Michael Cohen and the House Oversight Committee.  He said, ““I don’t know why this is happening for you… But it’s my hope that a small part of it is for our country to be better.”  He then told Cohen and all of those watching the hearings: “Let me tell you the picture that really, really pained me. You were leaving the prison, you were leaving the courthouse, and, I guess it’s your daughter, had braces or something on. Man, that thing—man, that thing hurt me. As a father of two daughters, it hurt me. And I can imagine how it must feel for you. But I’m just saying to you—I want to first of all thank you. I know that this has been hard. I know that you’ve faced a lot. I know that you are worried about your family. But this is a part of your destiny. And hopefully this portion of your destiny will lead to a better, a better, a better Michael Cohen, a better Donald Trump, a better United States of America, and a better world. And I mean that from the depths of my heart.”[5]

The Japanese have art of pottery mending called Kintsugi.  It is the art of embracing damage.  Kintsugi literally means, “golden joinery” or “golden repair.”  The Japanese fix broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with gold, silver, or platinum.  Breakage becomes part of the history of the object as opposed to something to conceal or hide.

A story is told that, in the late 15th century, a Japanese shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa sent a damaged tea bowl back to China for some repair work.  When the bowl was returned to him, it had been repaired with a bunch of ugly metal staples and was found so unsatisfactory that Japanese craftsworkers were compelled to find a more beautiful way to mend the break.  Instead of concealment, the Japanese artists chose to highlight the imperfections and transform them into something even more lovely to behold.  Over time, this “golden repair” became a form of high art.

Likewise, sisters and brothers, God –like a master craftsperson—takes our breaking points and our dross and transforms it into something more beautiful.  And this theosis—this process of our becoming more fully human and more God-like—is not for us alone to benefit, but for the healing and help of the world.  It is our cooperation with the process that helps the transformation to occur.  Jesus’ transfiguration is something in which we can participate.  It is not up on a mountaintop somewhere, inaccessible to us.  More often than not, it happens in the valley, in the schoolroom, in the courthouse, in the hospital, in the city alley ways and around the family table.  Jesus’ glory is our glory and his shining our own.  His story gives us hope that there is something larger at work here and it is for the good and benefit of all.  Amen.

 

[1] See Ben Blackwell’s article, “Man as a God in Ruins: Theosis in the Christian Tradition,” https://cct.biola.edu/man-god-ruins-theosis-christian-tradition/

[2] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.

[3] Chris Jensen, “Shine As the Sun: C.S. Lewis and the Doctrine of Deification,” In Pursuit of Truth: A Journal of Christian Scholarship, October 31, 2007.  Accessed 2-28-2019. http://www.cslewis.org/journal/shine-as-the-sun-cs-lewis-and-the-doctrine-of-deification/view-all/

[4] Sue Monk Kidd, When the Heart Waits (HarperSanFrancisco, 1990).

[5] See multiple videos of hearing or this article by Quinta Jurecic, “The Most Important—And Neglected—Moment of the Michael Cohen Hearing,” The Atlantic, March 1, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/03/elijah-cummings-saved-michael-cohen-hearing/583915/