February 19, 2023

"Something God Alone Can Do”

Rev. Scott Landis

Matthew 17:1-9

The season of Epiphany officially ends today on what the church refers to as Transfiguration Sunday. This week we move from the season of “enlightenment” which is the general meaning of “epiphany” or to shine through or shine forth and prepare to enter into the season of Lent – a more solemn period of reflection and contemplation. If epiphany is the season of light then Lent is the season shadows. [Outward - inward.]

Epiphany, you’ll recall, began with the arrival of the Magi (January 6 on our calendar) who came to Bethlehem bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh at the time of Jesus’ birth. The season later moved into the arrival of Jesus at the Jordan where his was baptized by John, and then to the period of his teaching culminating in the “Sermon on the Mount” which we have been reading during the past few weeks. And today the season concludes in his “Transfiguration” which we will look at in detail in just a few moments. 

While the season of Epiphany is known as a time of enlightenment – it is also a time where God repeatedly reveals that which had previously been unknown to humankind.  Before that these revelations were – as the song we just sang reminds us – “Something God alone can see.” 

But throughout Epiphany the revelation of God is accented through the voice of God proclaiming:

This is my son, the Beloved,
With him I am well pleased; (some translate ‘my delight’)
Listen to him! 

At that moment Jesus was transfigured before them – changed inside and out – a dazzling display of light. It said his face shone like the sun and his clothes became brilliant white. Peter, James, and John were overwhelmed with fear not understanding what it was that they were seeing. They even thought they saw Moses and Elijah with him. [Pause]

He didn’t know what was happening, but he knew he didn’t want it to end, so Peter exclaimed, “Lord, it is good that we are here. I’ve got a great idea. How about if I put up three tents – one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah. 

When the air had cleared, the dust had settled, and the light began to fade, Jesus came to them and said, “Don’t be afraid.” And then he led them down the mountain and warned them not to tell anyone what they had just seen until AFTER he had been raised from the dead. An admonition, I imagine, they had no idea what to do with. But what happened on that mountain forever changed them. They were not the same. We might even say they were transfigured as well.  

When God is revealed – when God speaks to us – we can’t help but be changed. [Pause]

[Think about a moment like that in your life.] 

Over two hundred years ago a young boy by the name of Opukaha’ia, witnessed the deaths of his mother, father, and siblings on what we now call the Big Island of Hawai’i. The Ali’i of the neighboring villages were constantly competing to gain more land and resources using violence to assert their power. Traumatized by the tragedy Oupkaha’ia ran and hid and was eventually taken in by relatives before one day seeing out in the bay, “the biggest ‘canoe’ he had ever seen.” The Triumph, a cargo ship, brought new items to the island in exchange for sandalwood and other goods unique to Hawai’i. Opukaha’ia was invited by the ship’s captain to travel with them as a deck hand which gave him the opportunity to see the world. Henry Obookia (as he was now called) listened to that inner voice - the call of God - and went on the adventure of a lifetime. He eventually ended his tour in Connecticut where he found himself lost and alone in a very foreign land. Looking very different from everyone else and unable to speak the language well Opukaha’ia did not know where to turn or how to learn. 

He lived in various homes and worked lots of odd jobs but what he wanted more than anything was an education. One day while sitting on the steps of Yale College, a senior, the future REV. Edwin Dwight approached him to find out what was the matter. To which Opukaha’ia lamented, “No one give me learning.” Edwin agreed to offer him tutoring in English and eventually introduced him to one of his relatives, The Rev. Dr. Timothy Dwight IV who just happened to be the President of Yale. President Dwight took him under his wing instructing him by using the Bible to teach him the English language. 

From there and explosion of learning transpired. English, Greek, Hebrew, Bible, theology – Henry Obookia — could not get enough. Dare I say he was “transfigured?” While he was not on any physical mountain, he was “on top of the world” as far as his life was concerned. In fact, his whole life was changed — inside and out. 

He adopted the Christian faith as his own. He inspired the idea of a missionary school to become reality. Translated the scriptures into the newly written Hawaiian. His life and passion for his newly adopted faith further inspired over 100 Christian missionaries many of whom came to The Sandwich Islands – what we known as Hawai’i – to fulfill Henry’s dream of bringing the gospel to his homeland. 

It was a dream Henry Opukaha’ia never realized himself. He died prematurely of typhus in 1818 at Cornwall at the age of 26 and was buried in Connecticut. In 1993, some descendants of `Ōpūkaha`ia's family decided to return his body from his grave in Connecticut to Hawai’i. On Aug. 15, 1993, his remains were laid in a vault facing the sea at Kahikolu Church near the town of Napoʻopoʻo, Kona, on the Island of Hawai’i. Susan Riford, a deceased member of our church and author of Black Rocks and Rainbows – a novel about Henry Opukaha’ia’s life – spoke at that interment as her husband Steve tells me proudly each time I visit him. 

A picture of his grave is on the cover of your bulletin. It was a site I was blessed to visit on a recent trip to Hawai’i. Standing at his grave I was humbled by the place and the person whose life changed the course of history for these islands we are privileged to call home. The hush of that place is much the same as I feel when I come into this space or walk these grounds of our church. In those places I feel the presence of God that is timeless and true. [Pause]

The reason I say Henry Opukaha’ia was transfigured – like Jesus, like Peter, like James, and like John – is for the very same reason, I believe, you and I can be transfigured as well. And it is something ‘God alone can do.’ 

When one is transfigured, they are changed – inside and out – and those nearby notice. Oh, it may not be dazzling light and a face that shines like the sun, but it is a change that is captivating and leaves others wanting what you have. [Pause]

Let me conclude my mana’o today with a story a dear friend of my, the Rev. Jane Heckles, shared with me that speaks to this. When I told her I was considering applying for a church position in Hawai’i. She lit up recalling her halcyon days at Andover Newton Theological School – a seminary of the Congregational Church – now known as the United Church of Christ. Andover Newton is now housed at Yale University in Connecticut. She remembered Henry Opukaha’ia whose picture hung in the seminary library (a duplicate of which is on your bulletin cover). Students there knew his story. It was passed down to each new class where Henry became a legend of sorts. Opukaha’ia’s life is still speaking and inspiring folks today. Jane was so eager to tell me his story and wanted to see the church and grave where he is now buried – a dream she never fulfilled due to her untimely death. 

But you see – his legacy lives on. [Pause] Transfiguration does that. [Pause]

When you are changed by the Spirit of God on the inside and out – when you are transfigured -  exciting things can happen that far exceed your abilities or wildest dreams. 

Not many of us have the gifts or intellect of Jesus, or Opukaha’ia, but neither do we need that to be transfigured. We just have to be open, willing to receive, and allow what is given – to blossom – it’s something God alone can see – and do. 

Listen to the words of Natalie Sleeth once again – allow them to show you the possibility of transfiguration in your life:

In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;
In cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see. 

May it be so. 


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