Transfiguration and Reality
by Rev. Joe Connolly
I have often referenced my theater work in my Sunday comments. When I do so most of the time the relationship I draw is to the work of being a writer. This characterization is true.
However, to paint my theater work in a way which is that narrow also short changes what I did. This is a list not of all but of some of what I did.
I was a stage manager for an Off-off Broadway production. I had a hand in designing lighting and sets, even helped build some of those sets.
I directed— both plays and club acts, booked musicians for gigs, coached singers and actors. I was an advisor at the High School of Performing Arts.
I was the business manager of a Children’s Theater. Let me translate that one: I kept track of finances, yes. But drew up schedules— made sure people were where they were supposed to be for performances— wrote grants, one of which was a National Endowment for the Arts which grant we got, grants through which the operation survived.
Last on this brief list, I was an executive with The Actors Fund of America. This is a charitable organization which supports performers and behind-the-scenes workers in arts and entertainment— film, theater, television, music, etc.
The Fund offers social services from financial assistance to employment training. It operates the Actors Home, a nursing and assisted living facility. (Slight pause.)
Now, when I worked for the Fund I was one of two people who went through the estate of Basil Rathbone. Those of you over 50 will know exactly who Basil Rathbone is. Those of you under fifty will probably have to Google him.
Suffice it to say Rathbone, a British character actor, played both heros and villains— Sherlock Holmes and Pontius Pilate to name one of each— and in the 1940s was one of the highest paid Hollywood actors. After Rathbone and his wife died their lawyers rummaged through the estate, got what they thought was of value and handed the rest over to the Fund.
To them what was left looked like— and I’ll use the Yiddish word here— dreck— what was left looked like dreck, rubbish, trash. It was not dreck.
And I plowed through all this stuff. Now, at that point I already had a reputation for evaluating theatrical memorabilia— memorabilia— items of historical interest associated with memorable people.
Right now I don’t and you don’t have time for me to try explain why I had that reputation. Please take it for what it’s worth.
But this is an example of the difference between something of worth and dreck. Rathbone’s first Actors Equity contract, the first time he appeared on Broadway— valuable— no doubt about it. An 8×10 glossy picture of a place setting from a dinner party the Rathbones threw in Hollywood— not so much in terms of value.
Now, when you do something like this— go through what someone has left behind— you need to be ruthless about what is of value and what is not. The picture— dreck; the contract— not dreck, And then you throw the dreck— that picture— out, get rid of it. (Slight pause.)
As of today, I will be the pastor in this place for another 120 days. Let me be blunt: after 23 plus years I am having separation anxiety. To combat that I have just stared to separate some the dreck from non dreck in my office. I’ve not gotten too far but I’ve started.
I came across this. (The pastor holds up what looks like a rolled up newspaper wrapped in rubber bands.) If it looks like newspaper wrapped in rubber hands, that’s what it is. I used this in a Children’s Time not long after I got here.
Why did I save it? This harkens back to my own childhood. When I was perhaps in the first or second grade my friends and I would play what we called baseball in front of the house on the streets of Brooklyn with this.
We were young. So we had little bats and this was what our so-called ball looked like. It would not break any windows, especially care windows. It would not hurt any of us if we were hit by it.
I don’t remember what I said at that Children’s Time. But I have kept this on my desk for 20 plus years.
Why? Probably because it’s about my childhood. But let’s face it. It’s dreck— rubbish, trash, even if I am emotionally attached to it. (Slight pause.)
We hear this in 2 Corinthians: “Therefore, because we have this ministry through God’s mercy, we do not give into discouragement, we do not lose heart.” (Slight pause.)
Every commentary I’ve seen says one thing about this passage. It is very complex. Hence, figuring out what Paul is trying to do here is not easy. But I want to make a suggestion. Paul is encouraging us to go back to essentials— get rid of the dreck, the trash, the rubbish.
You see, I found it fascinating, instructive and informative that this reading is the assigned lection from the Epistles today. Why?
As you heard earlier, today is called Transfiguration Sunday. In each year of the three year lectionary cycle one of the Transfiguration stories is read from one of the Gospels on this Last Sunday Before Lent.
And what is the Transfiguration? Here’s a $64 word, one you also heard earlier. The Transfiguration is a theophany, an experience of the real presence of God.
Which brings us back to Paul. The apostle clearly brings up the Torah, the teachings, Moses, then says this (quote:) “And we… reflect the glory of our God (and) grow brighter and brighter as we are being transformed into the same image we reflect. This is the work of our God, who is Spirit.”
Any Jew in New Testament times would recognize what Paul says here. (Quote:) “the glory of our God”— glory— in Hebrew Kabod— which means the real presence of God. And what is the Transfiguration? It is an experience of the real presence of God.
And that is, I think, why Paul insists ministry is present through God’s mercy and we should not give into discouragement, we should not lose heart. God is present. God walks with us.
That is the reality we Christians claim, the claim of the Transfiguration, the claim of the Resurrection. God is present. God walks with us. (Slight pause.)
To reiterate and be to be blunt: after 23 plus years here I have separation anxiety. To combat that I have just stared to separate some dreck from non dreck in my office.
And this week I came across some memorabilia. (The pastor holds up what looks like a rolled up newspaper wrapped in rubber bands.) But this is dreck. (The pastor drops this object to the floor of the nave.)
Why do I say that? It may tie me emotionally to the past. But should that be my focus? And what should be my focus? (Slight pause.)
For these 23 plus years I have done my best as I tried to focus not on the idea that God is present to me, walks with me. I have tied to focus on the idea that God is present to us— all of us. God walks with us— all of us.
And yes, at times I have been discouraged. At times Paul had to have been discouraged also or the Apostle to the Gentiles would have never written (quote:) “we do not give into discouragement, we do not lose heart.”
And we, you and I, should not be discouraged. We, you and I, should not lose heart. Why?
(Quote:) “We have this ministry through God’s mercy, we do not give into discouragement, we do not lose heart.” And that, my friends, is not dreck.
Ministry here, in this place, at this time, is granted to us by God and God is with us. God does walk with us. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I am going to say something about my process in preaching. That’s different. Often I don’t say anything about that. I usually work a month or two ahead in planning sermons. I decide on which reading I will preach, I formulate a sermon title and I make notes to myself as to where I think I might go with a sermon. And then I sit down with Mary Williams and shs pushes me. ‘What do you mean by that?’she says. And she helps me think it through. In any case, the note I made over a month ago said: ‘We need to daily realize Christ is with us as we do the work and the will of God. This is a message of the Transfiguration and Paul understood hope is central because of the reality of the Christ. The Transfiguration story— it really is just a story— but it is meant to help us and give language with which we can express a foretaste of the reality of the Risen Christ.’”
BENEDICTION: God heals and restores. God grants to us the grace and the talent to witness to the love God has for us. So let us live in the light God offers. And, therefore, let us be ready as we go into the world, for we are baptized in the power of the Spirit. And may the peace of Christ, which surpasses understanding, keep our minds and hearts in the companionship and will of the Holy Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.