Sermon: Poetry, Light, and Transfiguration

[Sermon given on Sunday, August 6, 2017 (Feast of the Transfiguration) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, MN]

And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.

Luke 9:29

In her essay on the importance of poetry in the search for courageous and creative identity entitled “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”, Audre Lorde writes this:

The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give names to those ideas which are – until the poem – nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes understanding.[1]

For Audre Lorde, a black feminist, the expansive words of poetry break open our prosaic worlds, stretching us to think about the world and our place in it in ever-new ways. Poetry, unlike prose, is not bound to the laws of gravity, space/time, and thermodynamics. The best poetry can cause us to tunnel through the sky or fly beneath the ground, it can transport us to another place and time, and it can transfigure us altogether. The best poetry seeks to recreate our world by rewriting the rules that govern it.

I had the privilege of being introduced to a woman a few weeks ago who is quickly becoming one of my favorite poets. Stephanie Pruitt is a poet out of Nashville, Tennessee who describes herself as an “ARTreprenuer.” She gave a reading for the College of Letters at the University of the South, where she introduced me to a fabulous called “Ode to the Hyphen.” As you listen to it, pay attention to her playful use of language and ask yourself what she might be questioning.

Ode to the Hyphen
by Stephanie Pruitt

No dash, minus sign or broken line. You fill
and make continuous until there is no pause
for breath or thought between otherwise well-spaced words.
Oh, the way you change man eating shark
to man-eating-shark.
I see you in anti-intellectual working
to keep those ‘I’s from merging into a diphthong, and
there in syl-lab-i-fi-ca-tion.
You compound modifier, line wrapping wonder,
under your influence, adjectival phrases flourish
like bubble-gum-flavored or spine-tinglingly-sensational.
Then you turn mister into m-i-s-t-e-r. (period)
I have never mulled over you between x and ray,
first and class or out and of and body.
And now here you are
in the signature I practice along the margins
of my thesis, as if there is this fracture
in need of bracing with surgical grade
stainless steel, holding bone to bone until it fuses.
After the cast is cut away, you will have calcified.
Yes?[2]

Poetry, when done well, can cause to ask deep questions like how something as simple as a hyphen can transform man eating shark, a human enjoying a maritime delicacy, to man-eating-shark, an altogether more horrific scene for the human. Poetry blows the doors off our expectations and makes it possible, sometimes with great coercion, for us to experience the mysterious unknown.

When we consider the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ, it might be helpful to think of it in similar terms. Like poetry, the Transfiguration sheds new light on what might to us seem deceptively ordinary. Through the dazzling transfiguration of our Lord we see him as he is ­­– glorious in holiness, awesome in renown, and worker of wonders. Through the eyes of Peter, James, and John we see a post-Resurrection-Jesus pre-crucifixion. Like poetry, the Transfiguration bends time and space and begs us to ask deep questions about who Jesus really is.

Ultimately, though, that question does not stand alone. The question is not: who is Jesus? Full stop. Rather, the question continues: Who is Jesus and by extension who are we?

Understanding the Transfiguration as divine poetry opens up a new world for us to courageously and creatively consider the world around us and our place in it. When we see ourselves reflected in the light of Christ, particularly brilliant on the holy mountain, we see ourselves as bearers of the light.

The light of Christ illuminates the world, causing us to question things held sacred and sacrosanct. One of the ways see this is when we hold the worlds brokenness up to the searching light of Christ. Seventy-two years ago today, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, the United States would do the same to Nagasaki. Both event would bring the Pacific theater of World War II to a dramatic close; but, in the process, over 225,000 Japanese were killed or wounded with lingering health problems that would persist for generations. In the seventy-two years since that day, nations all over the globe have scrambled to acquire and maintain an arsenal of these deadly weapons. But the light of Christ invites us to consider a world in which such deadly swords are refashioned into life-giving and life-sustaining ploughshares because we’d rather build and share than destroy and hoard. It invites us to recognize that light within our neighbor where propaganda lures us into seeing the darkness of an enemy.

Growing up there was a song that we would often sing in the children’s choir.  The words are strikingly simple: This little light of mine / I’m gonna let it shine. / This little light of mine / I’m gonna let is shine. / This little light of mine / I’m gonna let is shine. / Let it shine. / Let it shine. / Let it shine. Like Jesus, these words are deceptively ordinary, but in asserting our possession of divine live, they become bearers of a new world.

Dear friends in Christ, you and I have that light. We are the light of Christ. We are called to shine in the darkness. We are called to dispel hopelessness. We are called to the high way of love. That is who we are. We can try to hide it, but the light will find its way out. We can try to put it out, but the light is unconquerable. Light is who we are.

How might our world be different if we recognized the fundamental luminosity in every person we meet? I believe we could change the world if we really believed our neighbor, however different they might me, was fundamentally brilliant. A friend of mine, the Rev’d. Broderick Greer, says that this is the definition of love. He says that the baptized life is an awakening to those moments in which we ourselves are loved by God – “not possessed, recast, or remade by God, but loved,” received and accepted as we really are – as light that derives from the source of light of itself.

And if God does that for us, what do you think we are called to do for others?

Poetry expands the limits of the possible. Perhaps Jesus desires for us to relate to one another poetically, dreaming up new possibilities where nothing but intractable differences currently exist.

Because the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it.


[1] Audre Lord, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” in Sister Outsider (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007), 36.

[2] Stephanie Pruitt, “Ode to the Hyphen” in Unblanking the Page, 13.

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