Sunday, March 3, 2019
Last Sunday after Epiphany
The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika
What I am about to share with you is a fish story. You know how it the story goes. You start out by modestly announcing family and friends that the fish you caught was about “so” big. But as one day turns to the next, you find yourself embellishing the story a little more by pointing out that the fish was “this” big.
With each passing day the fish grows bigger and bigger until a year later, it turns out it was the “biggest” fish you every caught in your entire life. Who cares if it hardly tipped the scale when you weighed it? Who cares if everyone knows you had a photograph to prove that it was a very big catch no matter what others may say even though you know it is clear that the camera angle made the fish appear a lot bigger than it actually was?
Anyway, I want to tell you another story. It is not about fish but it is about embellishments – about how stories change over time.
More than a few years have gone by since I was invited to offer a blessing for the opening of Azeka II, a commercial business center, in Kīhei. What I remember about that day was the morning weather.
Dark storm clouds clung to the slopes of Upcountry Maui. The sky above us was a heavy gray. Haleakalā was totally obscured. There was a cold edge to the morning wind and the air was growing thick with moisture.
A crowd had gathered. Speeches were made by dignitaries and politicians were recognized. But with each passing moment, many began to grow anxious – worried whether or not we were about to experience a deluge.
A man standing to my left was especially concerned. “I dunno know,” he said turning to me. “No look too good.”
“I know people say rain is a blessing,” he added reminding me that we have grown up here in Hawaiʻi acknowledging that the first sign of rain is a blessing. “But what if no stop?” he asked.
“Well, then it is no longer a blessing,” I responded. “It’s just rain.”
That did little to comfort him. It was only then that he realized I was there with my lau kī or ti leaves and a bowl of pī kai or ocean water to offer the blessing for the event.
A few more speeches were made and when I was about to be asked to come up onto the stage to offer the blessing, I turned to him and said: “Going be okay.”
Just then the clouds over Haleakalā parted. There was a puka or window that opened up to blue sky. A bright light from the morning sun broke through.
I offered the blessing and after I was pau, when I was done I stepped off the stage. The man who was standing next to me appeared flabbergasted and asked: “Eh, how you did that?” pointing to the sky above the mountain.
“I nevah do anything,” I said.
He shook his head, “No, no. You wen do something.” And as he said that, the puka closed and Haleakalā disappeared from sight.
I am not sure if he decided to put the word out that he had witnessed what he was certain was a miracle at the blessing. Whether or not he embellished the story over the years I do not know, but I have a hunch he felt the parting of the clouds was more than coincidental.
We learn lessons from the stories we tell even when they are embellished over time. For me, the miracle of the blessing was not that the clouds parted at an opportune time, but that friends and neighbors had gathered for an occasion to celebrate our life together as a community.
Our reading from The Gospel According to Luke is a miraculous story that has been told down through the generations. But before we turn to what happened to Jesus that day when he went up to the mountain with Peter, James and John, I want to tell you another story.
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) was the founder of Hassidism. He led a revival of Judaism in the seventeenth century that put love and joy at the center of religious life and championed the piety of the common folk against the rabbinic or religious establishment. He has been recognized as one of the greatest teachers in Jewish history, and much of what is alive and vibrant in Judaism, today, derives from his inspiration (Yitzhak Buxbaum).
This is the story.
“When Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, saw that the Jewish people were threatened with tragedy, he would go to a particular place in the forest where he lit a fire, recited a particular prayer, and asked for a miracle to save the Jews from the threat. Because the Holy Fire and faithfulness of the prayer, the miracle was accomplished, averting the tragedy.
Later, when the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, the Maggid of Mezrich, had to intervene with heaven for the same reason, he went to the same place in the forest where he told the Master of the Universe that while he did not know how to light the fire, he could still recite the prayer, and again, the miracle was accomplished.
Later still, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, in turn a disciple of the Maggid of Mezrich, went into the forest to save his people. ʻI do not know how to light the fire’ he pleaded with God, “and I do not know the prayer, but I can find the place and this must be sufficient.’ Once again, the miracle was accomplished.
When it was the turn of Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn, the great grandson of the Maggid of Mezrich, who was named after the Baal Shem Tov, to avert the threat, he sat in his armchair, holding his head in his hands, and said to God: ʻI am unable to light fire, I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story. That must be enough.’”
It was enough. It was sufficient.
Today is the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany. It is also Transfiguration Sunday. It is a time when we recall the story of what happened to Jesus the day he took Peter, James and John with him to a mountain to pray. We are told that it was there on the mountain while praying that Jesus’ appearance changed – his face changed, his clothes became a dazzling white.
It is clear from Luke’s account of that day that something external to Jesus changed. But it is also clear that something internal changed.
It was there that his identity is affirmed by God for the second time: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him” (Luke 9:35). Yet Peter, James and John were unable to comprehend what had occurred. Why were they so afraid and why did they feel compelled to remain silent, speaking to no one about the things they had seen?
Luke tells us that it may be because they were weighed down with sleep. It may be that they were initially unable to see or hear very clearly because they were physically exhausted. Whatever the case may be Jesus was aware of the temptation for him and for Peter, James and John to remain on the mountain.
The transfiguration occurred on a mountaintop, but Jesus knew that they were not remain there. Instead, they would need to come down from the mountain and back into their everyday lives. Sharon Ringe, a Professor of the New Testament, reminds us: “The glory of God’s presence and the pain of a broken world cannot be separated” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2009, page 457).
Lori Hale, a Professor of General Education (Op. cit., page 456), echoes Ringe’s reminder: “ . . . living up in the rarefied air isn’t the point of the transfiguration . . . [it was] never meant as a private experience of spirituality removed from the public square. It was a vision to carry us down, a glimpse of unimagined possibility at ground level” (Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx, Heidi Nemark, Beacon Press, Boston, 2003, page 268).
So it must be for all of us. We must come down from the mountain.
While we may not know where the place is in the forest, how to light the fire or the words of the prayer, it is enough to tell the story. And while we were not there with Peter, James and John on the mountaintop to see or hear what transpired, it is enough for us to tell the story.