“The Power of Beauty”

A Sermon by Rev. Ben Daniel at Montclair Presbyterian Church in Oakland, California

February 27, 2022

Luke 9:34-36

In my sermon last week, I spoke a bit about how the situation in Ukraine was causing me to re-live a lot of my childhood nightmares about Nuclear War. I am, after all, a child of the Cold War—as are many of you here in the sanctuary and watching online—and despite having grown up at a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were facing off against one another around the world, I’m not sure I’ve ever lived at a time when things have seemed so dangerously close to nuclear war. The Russian Army has invaded Ukraine, and at some point last week, Vladimir Putin threatened the West with extreme suffering if they use military violence to defend Ukraine, a threat that sounded to me like a reference to use of old Soviet warheads. Of course, I was hoping I was just overacting, but then, just this morning before I started revising this sermon, I read that Russia has put its nuclear arsenal on high alert. 

And coincidentally, today is a Sunday when it is traditional to think about and talk about nuclear disarmament in churches. 

Which may not seem intuitive. After all, in Protestant Churches the last Sunday before Lent–which is today– is the day when we remember the story of the Transfiguration, when Jesus went up a mountain and changed in his appearance such that he was filled with divine radiance as he conversed with Elijah and Moses and God’s voice proclaimed “this is my son, the Beloved” and the disciples wanted to settle down and set up camp. 

You can be excused if it seems to you that the story of the Transfiguration doesn’t seem to have anything to do with nuclear disarmament. But on the Catholic and Orthodox calendars, the Transfiguration is celebrated on August 6, the anniversary of the day when the United States dropped the first of two nuclear warheads on civilians in Japan, and over the years, Christians have contemplated the juxtaposition of light in the story of the Transfiguration and the detonation of nuclear weapons. In one case, light is a matter of absolute beauty, in the other, light is a manifestation of absolute destruction. 

I really don’t know if Putin’s threats are anything more than bluster. I thought the whole situation was posturing by thespians in the geopolitical theater of the absurd until the Russian Army started rolling into Ukraine and Russian missiles started raining down violence and horror on the people of Ukraine, and now I don’t know. I like to think–I hope to think–I’m just reliving my childhood paranoia of nuclear war, but who knows?

What I do know is that the war in the Ukraine is ugly. And as such it stands in stark contrast to this morning’s lesson from Luke’s Gospel, the story of the Transfiguration, which I’ve always read as being a story about what it looks like when heavenly beauty is manifested. Divine beauty changes us. Transports us. It motivates us to find and to create beauty. It is the opposite of military violence, which is destructive, painful, and inspires more violence and hatred. 

The Russian position is that their invasion of Ukraine will prevent Ukrainian atrocities against Russians living in Ukraine; they also have said their military violence will rid the Ukrainian military of neo-Nazis. But of course, none of that will happen. Any atrocities’ the Ukrainians are committing against Russians will probably only rachet up during the war, and, on the off-chance Ukraine can stave off a Russian invasion, recriminations against ethnic Russians in Ukraine, are likely to get much worse—this is the nature of war—and the Neo Nazis currently serving in Ukraine’s military will only double down on their resolve. This is exactly what happened when the United States invaded Iraq and Afghanistan promising to end terrorism and root out extremism. It made the situation worse. History is likely to repeat itself. And if the United States and its allies think the use of Military Violence will pacify the Russian army and change Putin’s mind about wanting to expand Russia’s power and influence, they have another thing coming.

I mean, I’m no scholar of military history, and so please correct me if I’m missing something, but I can think of no example in the historical record in which a military victory led to real peace. Subjugation, perhaps, and total anhelation sometimes, but those outcomes really aren’t peaceful, because peace is not just the absence of hostility. It is the indwelling of goodness, of justice, of beauty.

Which is one of the reasons I am a pacifist. 

And because I am a pacifist, I felt like I needed to say something somewhere, in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, so I threw up a few paragraphs on Facebook, which I actually recommend not doing. In response to my post and old friend of mine challenged me by asking my what my proposed solution might be. He wanted to know how pacifism might solve the crisis, and all I could say is that I don’t have a solution other than to quote the great pacifist and interfaith activist and civil rights leader A. J. Muste: “there is no way to peace, peace is the way.” which, admittedly, doesn’t help much if you are living in the parts of the Ukraine that Russian arms currently are targeting. 

But what I can say is that, at the very least, I know I don’t have a solution. Those who favor military violence also don’t have a good solution, they’re just not acquainted with their own inability to fix the mess.

I wish I did have an answer. I wish I had a magic wand I could wave or a spell I could cast that would wake the leaders of the world up to the inability of military violence to create real or lasting peace, and I’ve been lying awake at night trying to figure out ways that a pacifist like me can fix global messes without resorting to the death of children and the destruction of homes and schools and hospitals and stores and streets and gardens and watersheds. If there is such a solution it didn’t come to me in time to be included in this sermon, and so, let me just return to the story of the transfiguration and to the record of Holy beauty set down in this accounting of Jesus visit with the Prophets of Old. 

The story of the transfiguration is a story about beauty, and we can all choose to live our lives guided by Heaven’s beauty. There is a lot of ugliness in the world. This was true before the Russians Invaded Ukraine, and, of course, it’s only gotten worse; and I remain terrified that we’ve only seen the beginning of the ugliness. I really hope I’m just being paranoid, but I’m not optimistic.

Either way, what I do know is that the ugliness of military violence—the kind of thing we are seeing now with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—does not need to define us or to guide our spirits or mold the lives of our souls. God’s beauty can yet dwell in us and among us. The wonder of holiness can define us. And it should. 

We can choose beauty over and against violence. It may not solve anything geopolitically, but it may heal us as individuals and as communities. 

All it takes is a little bit of transfiguration. 

This is not to say any one of us is likely to glow Like Jesus, but still, our eyes and our perceptions can change, because beauty is all around us. We just have to notice it and allow the beauty to define we are.

Some of you are worshiping here in the sanctuary this morning, and some of you are joining us online. If you are here, look around the sanctuary. Notice how beautiful this space is. If you are at home, take a sip of coffee or tea or have a bite of your scone and taste the beauty of God. Allow that beauty to mark you. To define you. To change you. 

And when you leave this place, or when you leave the place where you are watching this service, you will walk out into a beautiful world. Notice the beauty of the trees, listen to the beauty of birds singing, go find a daffodil, or a budding plum tree. Behold God’s beauty in the world. Go down to the ocean and listen to the music of the waves.  Go the forest and dance in stand of ancient redwoods. Find a stream in the hills and rejoice. Take a chair out into your garden, bask in the beauty that comes from God. Be defined by that beauty.

I know I’m starting to sound like someone who writes copy for trite inspirational posters, but what I’m suggesting here is actually radically countercultural. 

We have been trained to put our trust in the ugliness of military violence. We have been trained to believe violence is a cure for violence, that the horrors of bloodshed can be cultivated into a garden of peace.

But I say only beauty can create more beauty and only peace can lead to peace. And because we are people of faith, we can climb the mountain, see the beauty of Christ, and choose to live in that beauty. We can choose to be transformed by that beauty. We can choose to be guided by beauty in all that we do.

When it comes to the ugliness of warfare, we don’t have a lot of options for fixing the world such that peace will break out and silence the guns and the bombs and the missiles. But we can embrace the prophetic power of beauty. It may not change the world’s waring ways, but it may change us. It may even save us. 

And who knows? Maybe our own embrace of beauty will inspire others to be touched by Holy splendor. Maybe a choice to be shaped and molded–to be transfigured–by beauty will inspire others so that they also might be changed. Beauty can have that effect–I personally have been inspired by the beautiful courage of Russians who are marching in the streets demanding peace–but if an embrace of beauty changes only me, it will have been enough, if only you are transfigured as you see holy Beauty in the world, it will have been sufficient.

So, dearly beloved, pray for peace. Work for an end to violence and seek transfiguration by finding god’s beauty in the world around you. Be guided by that beauty. Create that beauty. Refuse to be defined by the ugliness of military violence. Be filled with wonder and joy and the beauty of peace.