Josiah Royce and the Transfiguration


Matthew 17: 1-9

Whence Saving Insight?

When and how does a moment of insight come? What are the steps up along the mountain trail of life which give a moment of clarity that can save us?

Peter has just heard our Lord’s ageless command: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow.” (Mt 16:24). Then Peter is led, step by step, up a high mountain, where something…unearthly…occurs. He sees what cannot be seen. And, from this mountain view, for a moment, there is insight and there is clarity.

When and how does such a moment arrive, a moment of clarity that can save us from an anger that leads to murder, or a heartache that leads to suicide, or a despair over a gun-totting nation drenched in violence, or a chagrin about a country that ever more closely approximates Fosdick’s verse, “rich in things and poor in soul”?

Today’s Gospel offers us a mountain view, clarity and insight, found step by step along the rocky trail of life, that can lift us up above sin and death and the threat of meaninglessness. Its five step program was inspired by Josiah Royce’s little book of 1912, The Sources of Religious Insight.

In earshot of insight on the mountain of transfiguration…Walk along with me, if you will, for just a few minutes…up the mountain path we go…and take, Come Sunday, a divergent road.

  1. Insight Through the Thicket of Personal Need

One step toward insight lies through the thicket of personal need. Careful, step carefully here. Here you recognize your mortality. “It is a great life, but few of us get out alive.” We truly do not know the hurts and needs others face. Every heart has secret sorrows. Here you admit that the acts of desperation in news reports come from conditions you also know. Fear, anger, jealousy, hatred, dread. Here—step lightly—you see the shadow, and your shadow in the greater shadow. One called this “the feeling of absolute dependence”. Here we are confessional. We say, “Hello. My name is John Smith and I am an alcoholic.” We say, “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.” We say, “There but for the grace of God, go I.

I remember the first time I was left alone with our first child, to give her mother a night out. She had been the most pleasant of children, happy and bright, sleeping through the night. She hardly cried. But that hot August night, at the very moment the door closed and the car drove off, she began to wail. Not to whimper or weep, but to wail and shriek and scream. Five, twenty five, fifty minutes. I was really shaken, terrified, angry and frustrated, at my wit’s end, and probably at the edge of some irrational behavior. Over the din of the howling daughter, I heard the doorbell. In came our church’s lay leader, Bernice Danks, a veteran nurse and teacher of nurses at Cornell who wordlessly took the child and somehow the howling ceased. “Oh, I like to make a few house visits a week. It’s a little routine of mine…You know I tell my nursing students that we call the things that are most important, ‘routine’…and I came by the parsonage and for some reason I decided to stop. I hope you don’t mind the intrusion…What a pleasant baby she is!”

When we are helpless, insight can come.

Wesley is still with us to ask, “Will you visit from house to house?” Insight sees inside the closed door of personal need, and measures the distance between public appearance and private reality. We recognize personal need with every Sunday, at Marsh Chapel with gusto, in confession and kyrie, cry for forgiveness.

  1. Insight Over the River of Others’ Hurts

A second step toward insight lies over the river of another’s hurt. Here, we’ll jump the river at the portage path, where we bear each other’s burdens like canoes carried in tandem. A moment of clarity can come when you truly see another’s plight, and feel it in your heart. Some insight comes from serving others, some from sensing others’ hurt. It is really a matter of understanding power, this insight about others. Think of the Prince and the Pauper, or of Lazarus and Dives. Insight happens in the chorus of the common life, when we sing out, “so that’s what it is like to be you…”

The social gospel tradition, theological and political, (Rauschenbusch, Douglass, Anthony, Gladden, and others) may be criticized as a “Johnny one note” presentation. But if you have to choose just one note to play, this is one to pick. Jesus means freedom. To learn about the nature of power, and the effects of power, we listen to the powerless.

Men, listen to the women about whom you care, as they describe being pulled over on the thruway in a winter night. With red lights flashing…sirens wailing…car door thudding…a tall male figure in uniform and wide brimmed hat…a revolver in the belt… “May I see your license please?”…Men, listen to women.

Majority, listen to the minority describe the feeling of being stopped on the front porch step, at night, after a long day of menial work. Do you remember this New York tragedy of some years ago? With the lights flashing and the uniforms and hats and, when you reach for your wallet some one yells.”Gun!” 41 bullets later a tragedy—unintended to be sure—has occurred. Not a gun but a wallet. Such a tragedy for all. But maybe it can help us to gain insight, to feel what others feel. Majority, listen to the minority.

Insight comes through the common song that recognizes another’s hurt.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday as we sing hymns together, to recognize that we are all in this together.

  1. Insight Scaling the Cliffs of Reason

A third step toward insight lies over the cliff of reason. “Come let us reason together” says the Psalmist. God has entrusted us with freedom, and with minds to think through our use of freedom. While reason has its limits, it is reason, finally, that will help us learn the arts of disagreement—at home, at work, in church, in the community. We say, “Try to be reasonable”. And reason often prevails. If you ever doubt the power of reason to bring insight, remember the words of the Psalmist, and the voices of great minds through the ages. Josiah Royce’s Sources of Religious Insight, is itself a gem of such reasoned discourse. Come let us reason together…

Now I submit to you that this meaning of the word reason is perfectly familiar to all of you. Reason, from this point of view, is the power to see widely and steadily and connectedly. Its true opponent is not intuition, but whatever makes us narrow in outlook, and consequently prey to our own caprices. The unreasonable person is the person who can see but one thing at a time, when he ought to see two or many things together; who can grasp but one idea, when a synthesis of ideas is required. The reasonable man is capable of synopsis, of viewing both or many sides of a question, of comparing various motives, of taking interest in a totality rather than in a scattered multiplicity. (87).

You know, we recognize this chance for insight, this moment of clarity, every Sunday through a sermon, a word (we hope) fitly spoken.

  1. Insight Across the Gorge of the Will

A fourth step toward insight lies across the great gorge of the will. Look before you leap. We are here ever closer to the mountaintop. Real insight comes in a moment of decision. Some say we learn to choose. But our experience is that we learn by choosing. Viktor Frankl spent his whole life developing the “logotherapy” around this one conviction: we grow by deciding. Choose. You cannot lose, in the fullest sense, and in the long run. Choose. Either way, you have learned, you will grow, you have changed, you will improve, you have developed. Choose.

Faith is not a matter of emotion or feeling or soul or heart or intellect only. First, faith is a decision. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow.”

As Kierkegaard put it, “eitheror”… Either God or not. Decide. Either you see God in Christ or not. Decide. Either Jesus Christ has a claim on your life or not. Decide. Either every day is a chance for love or not. Decide. Either the way of love means particular consequent acts regarding your time, your money, your body, your community…or not. Decide.

Faith is not as much thrill as it is will.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday, in a moment of invitation—to devotion, to discipline, to dedication.

  1. Insight Upon the Summit of Loyalty

A fifth step toward insight brings us to the summit. There. Take a breath. Up here, the air is rarified. Up here, you may have a moment of clarity. For the fifth step toward insight brings us to the altar of loyalty. We are in the thin air that requires a use of archaic words—loyalty, duty, chivalry. Beware though the sense that loyalty is a matter of sullen obedience. On the contrary! Loyalty is the red flame lit in the heart’s chancel, lit with the admixture of personal need and social concern, illumined by the reason and ignited by the will. Loyalty combines the conservative concern for morality with the liberal hunger for justice. Loyalty is life, but life with a purpose. Insight, real clarity, can come with a brush up with loyalty. Tell me what you give to, and I will tell you who you are. Tell me what you sacrifice for, and I will tell you who you are. Tell me what altar you face, and I will tell you who you are. Dime con quien andas, y te dire quien eres

And real loyalty is magnanimous. Real loyalty is bighearted enough to honor an opponent’s loyalty. At the summit, there can be a reverent respect for another’s loyalty, truly lived, even when it clashes with our own. Maybe especially then. US Grant felt this at Appomatox as he took the sword from RE Lee. It is chivalry, this honoring of loyal opposition. We were once known for this kind of chivalry, a reverent respect for divergent loyalties, as long as they did not eclipse the one great loyalty. I overheard this kind of chivalry from a local football player this week, a burly formerly bearded lineman, who said, “They played better than we did.”

Such a memory could help our political conversations, reminding us that at depth loyalties converge out of difference. Surface difference can occlude deeper agreements. Loyalty has a magnanimous depth that honors others’ divergent loyalties.

One of the strangest turns in the New Testament is found in 1 Corinthians 15. After Paul has reached the very summit of our faith, and sings of the resurrection in such heavenly tones, then, immediately, he turns to—do you remember?—the collection! A matter of loyalty.

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday, through the presentation of gifts, an expression of loyalty, at the altar of grace and freedom and love.

Royce on the Mountain

Several years ago, we worshipped in the tiniest church in our area. A little Adirondack chapel, at the end of the trail, high up in the northern mountains. Beyond Owl’s Head, and Chasm Falls and Wolf Pond, there is the
summit of Mountainview, with its chapel and pump organ and wooden pews and simple pulpit, and humble service, still though a service like this one or any — a chance for saving insight as we recognize personal need, others’ hurts, the power of reason, the importance of will, the force of loyalty—in the prayer of confession, the music of community, the preaching of the Word, the invitation to decision, and the loyal offering of gifts.

Let insight abound on the curvaceous slopes of personal need! Let insight abound on the majestic mountains of social holiness! Let insight abound on the prodigious cliffs of reason and will! Let insight abound on the purple mountain summit of loyalty—from every mountainview, let insight abound! So that, to paraphrase the spiritual, we might sing, insight at last, insight at last, thank God Almighty, we have saving insight at last!

Somehow we were deluded to think that worship is optional. Many things are optional. For those, however, who desire to see life as human and keep life human, worship is essential, essential, essential to insight, essential to the insight that keeps life human. How can we be human without seeing our own frailty, without knowing another’s pain, without learning to reason together, without the courage to decide, without the love of loyalty? So let us improve in Lent.

Let us worship God together. As you are doing, do so more and more.

Let us make it our earnest desire to worship God each Lord’s Day.

Let us make preparation for our ordered worship in daily prayer and reading.

Let us sing lustily, as Wesley taught, and pray with energy, and listen with care.

Let us do as OW Holmes regularly did with every sermon, ill or well though the sermon was: “I applied it to myself”.

Let us shake off our timidity and seize every opportunity to include others, friend and neighbor and relative in worship.

Let us savor the memory of Sunday all week long—humming familiar verses, reciting familiar phrases, chewing on various themes.

Let us expect and experience of love, of presence, of God.

Let us enter silence with grace and song with freedom.

Let us prepare to worship…

To Quicken the Conscience by the Holiness of God

To Illumine the Imagination by the Beauty of God

To Open the Heart to the Love of God

To Devote the Will to the Purposes of God

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