I was mulling over a sermon of a similar subject matter awhile back and I stumbled across this sermon by Madeline L'Engle while researching it. It was so close to what I was getting at and said so much better than I could, that I merely saved the text for my own reading.
So now I offer to you Madeline L'Engle's
The texts I've chosen for today should be familiar to us all. From the Old Testament I want us to think about the marvelous story of Elijah, and from the New Testament the even more marvelous story of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, for these readings speak to us of story, of great story that moves beyond fact into myth.
And don't let the word myth be upsetting. In one dictionary a definition of parable is myth. Far from being a lie, myth is a way for us to see beyond limited fact into the wonder of God's story. Of course, whenever anything is wonderful, Satan's pleasure is to turn it around and make us think it isn't wonderful at all, that it isn't even true. So let's not give Satan pleasure today. Let us understand that we are seeking for that truth which Jesus urged us to seek, and which he promised would set us free.
Elijah the prophet is a mythic figure, larger than life. He challenges the gods of Baal, laughing their prophets to scorn when they cannot light a fire at the altar of Baal, whereas Elijah's God helps him light a fire of wood over which buckets of water have been poured, more and more water. But the fire blazes and burns brilliantly. Elijah then slays, single handed, all the prophets of Baal.
When Elijah was fleeing Jezebel, and was afraid for his life, God told him to "stand upon the mount before the Lord. And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice."
The late great Canon Edward West said that "still small voice" might better be translated, "a thundering silence."
At the end of Elijah's life a chariot of fire appeared, and horses of fire, "and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven."
Strong stuff. Mythic stuff.
The story of the Mount of Transfiguration is also strong stuff, not to be understood in the language of provable fact. Jesus, like Elijah, stands "upon the mount before the Lord." He took with him Peter and James and John, and extraordinary, incomprehensible things came to pass. Jesus' clothing became shining, and Elijah himself appeared to Jesus in the brilliance, and Moses came, too, and they talked together, the three of them, breaking ordinary chronology into a million fragments. And then a cloud overshadowed them, as it overshadowed Moses on the mount, and the voice of God shouted out of the cloud.
Strong stuff. Mythic stuff. That stuff which makes life worth living, which lies on the other side of provable fact. How can we be Christians without understanding this? The incarnation itself bursts out of the bounds of reason. That the power which created all of the galaxies, all of the stars in all of their courses, should willingly limit that power in order to be one of us, and all for love of us, cannot be understood in terms of laboratory proof, but only of love. And it is that love which calls us to move beyond the limited world of fact and into the glorious world of love itself. Of Jesus standing with Moses and Elijah, both of whom had themselves stood on the mount and been illuminated by God's glory. When Moses went down from the mountain his face was so brilliant that people could not bear to look on him, and he had to cover his face in order not to blind them.
The brilliance of God is indeed blinding, and we need myth, story, to help us bear the light.
The existence of God can neither be proved nor disproved. Most of what makes life a wondrous journey lies beyond the realm of provable fact. Did God make the universe? Again, we have neither proof nor disproof, at least not as the scientists search for proof or disproof.
We do need to beware of `cunningly devised fables' which Scripture warns us against, and which we see on television commercials every day. Why are we so gullible when it comes to promises about floor waxes which are better than other floor waxes, or pain killers which will remove all our physical ills, or all the other false promises which are constantly being offered a credulous public, and yet are afraid of the myths which will give meaning to our lives?
Just as we are losing vocabulary in these late years of the twentieth century, we are losing myth, and the true meaning of myth. Karl Jung wrote that we are a sick society because we have lost a valid myth to live by.
Dr. Richard F. Ott in a recent article in a medical journal wrote that "throughout time, myths have provided meaning for the life of the individual and his society. They have also provided the ability for people to experience the mystery of life by participating in the rituals of myth."
We experience one of those rituals in each of our church services, particularly during a communion service when we move through the great drama of the divine liturgy. For me, one of the most potent phrases in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer is: "Because in the mystery of the Word made flesh." Indeed, it is a mystery, the glory of the Second Person of the Trinity coming to live with us and show us how to be human. It cannot be understood in terms of provable fact or the jargon of the media. It is mystery and can be understood only mythically.
Dr. Ott in his article reminds us that "The American Indian Myths were based upon their environment and food sources. Their participation in daily activities was a meditation that provided meaning and the experience of being alive. When the white man destroyed the buffalo herds, he not only destroyed their food source but their myth. Myths, like dreams, are grounded in the subconscious and cannot be replaced as easily as it was to move entire nations."
What is destroying our myths today? Two of the great destroyers are literalism and fear. When I was in Egypt I asked the guide why there were so many cobras, crocodiles, vultures, in the temples. The reply was, "They worshiped what they feared."
This same kind of fear is behind much Bibliotry today. Some people worship a Bible which is largely terrifying. How are we to understand Elijah ascending into heaven in chariots of fire drawn by horses of fire? Has anyone ever seen such a thing? How is it to be believed? How are we to understand Moses having to cover his face to protect his people from the brilliance with which it shone? What are we to make of Jesus in a blaze of blinding glory on the Mount of Transfiguration? These marvelous mysteries cannot be understood in the language of literalism, or inerrancy, and all such attempts to restrict the glory are deadly. Deadly indeed.
How can we understand in terms of literalism the glory of the creation of the universe, or those extraordinary wheels Ezekiel tells us about, or the dry bones which God can re-enflesh? How can we understand Jonah in the belly of the large fish, Daniel in the lions' den, or angels coming to unsuspecting, ordinary people and crying out, "Fear not!"
Literalism is a vain attempt to cope with fear by taming Scripture, attempting to make it more palatable, less wild and wonderful. Would the angels cry out "Fear not!" if there were nothing to frighten us?
Myths make us more alive, more human, more courageous. They are more powerful in the long run than cruise missiles or scuds or heavy artillery, and if we have allowed our myths to dwindle and diminish we are in grave danger.
When we lose our myths, we lose our place in the universe. Dr. Ott points out that, "Our sense of self-worth has become based on what we possess, and our language has evolved to reflect this. We not only have material possessions, we have children. When we cannot sleep, we have insomnia. We have even replaced `my head hurts' with `I have a headache." We even `have' the Bible! And, God help us, we sometimes think we `have' the truth. God gives us the truth; we do not `have' it, and when we think we do, we are often close to sin.
How do we get rid of this have, have, have mentality and return to I am, I will be, I am hopeful, I am joyful? The `I have' complex has led to a litigious society, with malpractice suits crippling medicine. "The Japanese have a fraction of the lawyers that we have," Dr. Ott reminds us, "because the myths of their culture have meaning to them. We need not contrast their (scientific) successes in the last twenty years, as it is common knowledge. Yet the western mind seems incapable of understanding what lies behind these successes."
Jesus was not a westerner and He did not have a western mind, which is perhaps why He is so frequently misunderstood by the western mind today. His first miracle was a lavish turning of a large quantity of water into very fine wine at a wedding feast where the guests had already had a lot to drink. He was not interested in the righteous and morally upright people whom He saw to be hard of heart and judgmental, but in those who knew they were sinners and who came to Him for healing. His birth was heralded by angels, visited by adoring shepherds, and resulted in the slaughter of all Jewish infants under the age of two.
If Jesus was a threat to Herod two thousand years ago, He is still a threat today because He demands that we see ourselves as we really are, that we drop our self-protective devices, that we become willing to live the abundant life He calls us to live. We retaliate by trying to turn Him into a wimp who has come to protect us from an angry father who wants us punished, and the retaliation hasn't worked, and we're left even more frightened and even more grasping and even more judgmental.
Let's recover our myth because we'll die without it, and it's a life-giving myth indeed. It has been called the greatest story ever told, and we understand it best in terms of story.
Shakespeare said, "We are such stuff as dreams are made of," and that is true, but we are also such stuff as stars are made of. From what our present understanding of the universe tells us, everything came from one tiny, tiny, sub-atomic particle so small that it cannot be comprehended. From the opening of this infinitely small particle came all the galaxies, the solar systems, the planets, the oceans, land, green things, creatures, and finally human beings. We are all made of the same matter as stars.
Matter and energy, we are taught, are interchangeable, so the sheer energy of Christ, for love of us, took on the matter of Jesus. This is the myth that is true, that truth which sets us free, and gives us life, and life more abundantly.
Amen! Alleluia! Amen!