Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Sunday's Sermon - Being Transfigured.

Exodus 24:12-18
Matthew 17:1-9

While at first the story of transfiguration may seem like something we don’t really experience, I think when we put it into different words, all of us have experienced or witnessed some kinds of transfiguration, probably not to the degree described here, but a transfiguration, none the less.  Let me give you an example: pregnant women often have a glow about them, and when people talk about the things that are deepest and dearest to their hearts, we can see in them a light, an animation, a transformation that resembles the glow we read about in the transfiguration stories. 
Additionally, most to all of us have had mountain top experiences - those times when we go on retreat or as a young person to church camp or to trienium or a family adventure or other adventure, have fallen in love, had heard a piece of music or experienced someone’s words that moved deeply within you in which we have encountered the God of goodness and love in an entirely different way.  Can you think of times and experiences like that in your lives?  We come away from these experiences on a high.  We come away feeling God’s call raging through our very beings.  We come away with a strong sense of God’s presence and a feeling that we can, truly, do anything with God behind us or in front of us, leading the way.  We come back on a mission, with a sense of purpose and God’s presence. 
That isn’t to say that the encounter with the holy is ever easy.  Most of the time I think it can really be terrifying to encounter the holy.  The disciples response, as we read it in verse 6 was, “When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground, terrified.”  Have there been times for you in which you’ve encountered the holy and it was terrifying?
I remember as a child one night laying in my bed and praying to God that an angel would visit me.  “Please God, just let an angel come to see me this one time!  Please God, I want to see an angel and know that your love is here with me!”  I prayed and prayed and when I finished I opened my eyes.  At that moment in the corner of my bedroom I saw a bluish, cloudy haze.  Whether or not that was an overactive imagination, the strong effects of hope, simply the result of having squeezed my eyes shut for so long while praying, or in fact a genuine answer to my prayer, my reaction was exactly like that of the disciples.  After seeing the blue haze, I immediately squeezed my eyes back shut and fervently began to pray again, “God, I made a mistake!  Take the angel away!  Take it away!”

But even our less dramatic encounters with God can be disturbing.  Because a consistent result of an interaction with God is a difference in the way you perceive the world around you.  An encounter with God causes you to see things in a way you hadn’t the moment before.  And that can shake us at a very core level.  It can change the way we relate to everything and everyone , the way we understand ourselves and the world, the way we see and experience God.  It’s like the first time that you put a prism into a white light, the first time that you see the spectrum of the rainbow come from the prism and you realize that what you thought was the absence of color is in fact all the colors.  Or the first time you learn in science that while everything that we see looks solid and like it is hard matter, that in fact atoms are mostly space, and therefore all that we see is mostly space as well. 
The truth is we don’t see the many layers of any reality very often.  We tend to see only one or two layers of the way things really are but we don’t see the whole.  That’s not to say that the layers we do see aren’t real.  They are, but it is only a part of the truth.  We see the white light, but we don’t see that it is made of all the colors.  We see the people in front of us, and we don’t see the atoms that make them up or the space that makes up the atoms. In terms of the world, all our histories and news stories - all of them - are written from a perspective. No one has the whole truth on anything.For people who don’t have faith, they see the world, but they cannot see the loving hand behind creation and behind every breath we take. 
And when we then are given deeper glimpses, or rather, glimpses at some of the different layers of reality, it can be amazing and awesome in the deepest sense of the word.  But it can also be disturbing to learn that our vision does not encompass the whole picture, that our reality is only a piece of the what is “reality”, and that this extends into everything, including our understanding of and our relationship to God.  Paul says in 1st Corinthians 13: 9-12, “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.  For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”  We get only glimpses into the deeper reality, and even these can be disturbing.
The transfiguration is such a glimpse into the deeper, a glimpse into the whole, an encounter with the big picture, with the many layers of reality, with God.  And that is not easy.  But it is transforming and changing.  It opens us up to a deeper relationship with God and with each other. 
The real question then becomes, what happens when the amazing, awesome interaction with the holy has passed?  What happens when we descend the mountain and return to normal life?  What happens when the prism is removed and we no longer have it out to help us see all the colors in the white light?  How do we continue to carry with us those mountain top experiences which feel so transformational even we descend once again into day to day living?
We have Moses and Jesus as examples of what that might mean.  When Moses returned from the mountain, he found that his people had made idols and were worshiping them and had turned from God.  Moses descended with the ten commandments to a people gone wrong.  But the faith that he gained from his transformative time with God strengthened him to confront their behavior and to bring them back into faith and faithful relationship with God.  Jesus returned from the mountain to a people in need of his healing, in demand of his being and presence.  Neither of them was allowed to bask in the glory of their experience on the mountain, neither of them came down from the mountain into a place where they could teach and preach about their wonderful experience of the Divine.  They both came back to this world: a world that is hard and demanding, confusing and disappointing much of the time.
And that is our experience as well.  We may have the gifts of these mountain top experiences, but we are called then to go back into the world and to use our time with God to strengthen us to face whatever life hands us.  We are not called to be monks, isolated and away from the world.  We are called to come back to the world, to be in it and to be part of transforming it.  Henry Drummond, a Scottish theologian said this, “God does not make the mountains in order to be inhabited. God does not make the mountaintops for us to live on the mountaintops. It is not God’s desire that we live on the mountaintops. We only ascend to the heights to catch a broader vision of the earthly surroundings below. But we don’t live there. We don’t tarry there. The streams begin in the uplands, but these streams descend quickly to gladden the valleys below.” The streams start in the mountaintops, but they come down to gladden the valleys below.
That isn’t to say that the mountain top experiences are pointless or meaningless or unimportant.  For Jesus and Moses, their mountain top experiences were not then just for nothing.   They remained a gift that empowered them, that guided them, that strengthened them to face day to day life.  And so for us as well.  It is from the place of our own transformation that we will be better able to transform the world and bring it more into God’s realm.
I want to read you a poem written by Christian Wiman about an experience with the larger vision.
From a Window
Incurable and unbelieving
In any truth but the truth of grieving,
I saw a tree inside a tree
Rise kaleidoscopically
As if the leaves had livelier ghosts.
I pressed my face as close
To the pane as I could get
To watch that fitful, fluent spirit
That seemed a single being undefined
Or countless beings of one mind
Haul its strange cohesion
Beyond the limits of my vision
Over the house heavenwards.
Of course I knew those leaves were birds.
Of course that old tree stood
Exactly as it had and would
(But why should it seem fuller now?)
And though a man’s mind might endow
Even a tree with some excess
Of life to which a man seems witness,
That life is not the life of men. [sic]
And that is where the joy came in
Christian Wiman

Those moments of transformation, those times of transformation can carry us forward on the wings of joy, to face whatever life has to offer us that day.

The final good news in this is that even though we do have to descend from the mountain into the valley, even when we struggle to hold on to our transforming experiences so that we may be strengthened for our times off of the mountain, the good news remains that God is not just on the mountain top.  While we may experience God and the holy in a new, different and awesome way on the mountain, God still remains with us in the valleys and God remains with us in the plains as well.  Take strength from the mountain tops.  But live in the valleys and plains.  Take joy from the mountaintops, so that you might be able to see God in the valleys and plains as well.  Be transfigured, so that you might transform the world.  Amen.