Today is Transfiguration Sunday when the common lectionary brings us one of the most bizarre stories of scripture, found in all three synoptic gospels. The Church traditionally reads this story the Sunday before Lent, because it stands as a pivotal point in Jesus' ministry - a moment in scripture when Jesus has a mountaintop experience which confirms his mission from God. Here are the basics of the story:
Jesus frequently urges people to keep quiet in the gospels. Last Sunday Jesus told the leper to tell no one about his cleansing. Dr. Jones explained that Jesus knew that if word got out that he had touched a leper, and was therefore unclean, he would not be able to enter the villages where he had planned to teach and preach.
Why would Jesus urge his friends to tell keep this experience to themselves until the Son of Man had risen from the dead? Was he afraid that people would think they were all crazy? Did he fear the Jewish leaders would charge him with blasphemy? Maybe he discerned that it would simply be unbelievable and would discredit his teaching.
Eventually the disciples did tell this story - probably after their master's death and resurrection. It would certainly not seem so bizarre in comparison to the resurrection of a dead man! While Peter and James and John did not understand what had happened on that mountain top, surrounded in mist, they did know that Jesus became more resolute and sure in his mission. They knew their teacher had had a mystical encounter with the divine; and it was shrouded in mystery. The event was neither describable nor believable. They themselves could not believe it, and probably never would have believed it had it not been for each other and their Master's resurrection.
The Bible is full of people's encounters with the divine - Moses and the burning bush, Job and the whirlwind, Jacob and the ladder full of angels, Samuel and the voice in the night. They are all cracked doors between this world and some other, where God is no absentee landlord but a very palpable presence.[i]
But God does not work that way any more. Ever seen a shrub combust with heat? Ever heard a whirlwind say anything but "whoosh"? Ever noticed a halo hanging from the steps of your ladder? The only voices we hear in the night are our children or loved ones calling out in their sleep. Who would believe such nonsense? Fire and wind, angels and voices? Dazzling clothes, dead prophets, and a deity speaking from a cloud? Telling such tales might just get you locked up in a psych ward for a week or two.
Pastors may be uniquely positioned to hear people describe personal glimpses of grace and close encounters with the divine. I remember Jan Peters and her husband Bill, in Texas, telling me about the two angels who often visited them in the middle of the night. The celestial pair stood in their living room at the foot of the hospital bed where Bill had been confined for the past three years. The angels spoke nary a word, but their visitations confirmed God's presence and abiding care. Then there was Kathryn who lay immobilized in an apartment, undergoing medical treatment in another city. One Sunday she heard a preacher on the radio encourage worshippers to watch for signs from God. She was flat on her back, a prisoner to pain, not able to walk, or go outside, so she simply gazed out her window and suddenly saw a white feather dance up and down the outside of a plate glass window. [This was before the story of Forest Gump!] She watched mesmerized for over an hour, and then the feather turned and continued to press against the window on the other side of the building. As she became more mobile and returned home, Kathryn noticed white doves alight in the strangest places - whether she was disembarking from her car in North Wilmington, or hiking up a hill in Northern Ireland. Kathryn found herself viewing these birds as holy messengers, signs of God's presence and peace. Not so many years ago, a member of Westminster told me that his wife had visited him, several days after her death. She came to him, as if in a dream, only he believed he was awake. If I recall it correctly, he told me that she was wearing white, and that she was luminous, shining. She did not speak, but simply smiled at him, bathing him with light and love.
These are some strange stories, huh? Bizarre if you will. Perhaps even tantalizing. It is truly a privilege to hear them - to listen to someone testify to a brief but palpable encounter with Mystery.
Several of my favorite writers have boldly shared their glimpses of God. One of the more well-known testimonies is that of Anne Lamott, who actually told her story in this pulpit about twelve years ago. In her memoir Traveling Mercies, she describes Jesus following her, shadowing her in her drunken days, hovering in the corner of her bedroom, like a cat on its haunches - never chiding her or condemning her, but simply loving her into a submission to grace.[ii] Sara Miles, another erstwhile agnostic turned Jesus freak, recounts her experience of meandering into St. Gregory Episcopal Church in San Francisco, being given some communion bread, and suddenly having her eyes opened to Christ who satisfies all our hungers.[iii]
There are other people who have discovered a holy mountain or mesa, a holy tree or seashore, or as the Celts suggest, a"thin place" where the veil between this world and the next is so sheer that you can almost feel God's breath, almost sense the eternal, practically see God's majesty in all its glory. We are blessed with poets throughout the ages who have born witness to this experience with an economy of words. Two modern day observers are Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver. Listen to the latter's deposition of her encounter with the Divine, in a portion of a poem from Thirst:
All day I watch the sky changing from blue to blue.
For You are forever
and I am like a single day that passes.
All day I think thanks for this world,
for the rocks and the tops of the waves,
for the tupelos and the fading roses.
For the wind.
For You are forever
while I am like a single day that passes.
You are the heart of the cedars of Lebanon
and the fir called Douglas,
the bristlecone, and the willow.
It's close to hopeless,
for what I want to say the red-bird
has said already, and better, in a thousand trees.
The white bear, lifting one enormous paw, has said it better.
You cannot cross one hummock or furrow but it is
His holy ground.[iv]
What about the rest of us? Those who do not see angels in the night or hear voices from the sky. Those who have not discerned any signs from God or have yet to discover a place where the veil between earth and heaven is as thin as silk. Perhaps most of us journey through life in this other boat, gripping the railings in stormy seas, and frequently crying out for Jesus to save us. Unlike those disciples on the mountaintop and the occasional mystic, we have not seen Christ radiant in glory. But like those disciples we have seen Christ at work in our world. We may have glimpsed our Savior's face on a Family Promise guest, or in a woman at Epiphany House. We may have experienced Christ's healing presence in the care of a Christiana nurse or in the steady listening of a Stephen Minister. We may have witnessed Christ's sacrificial love in the mother tenderly massaging the feet of her step-son crippled with cancer, or in the man gently guiding his wife, addled with Alzheimer's, into the hair salon. Perhaps you met Christ in the line at the Acme this week, or in the adjacent desk at school or work. You see, while some of us may not have once-in-a-lifetime mountaintop experiences, all of us may experience a transfigured Christ in our daily life - in an encouraging teacher, a faithful friend, a forgiving colleague, a wise parent, a compassionate stranger, a devoted loved one, a caring neighbor.
Peter, James and John were warned by Jesus not to tell anyone of their glimpse of Glory. But they eventually did bear witness to this paranormal event. What about us? Are we embarrassed or afraid to try to share a personal mystical experience? Do we lack the courage and language to describe our glimpses of God? Do we have eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to recognize Christ in our midst? Or do we risk remaining cloudy witnesses of God's glory?
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, "Thin Places" sermon, Home By Another Way (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1999.) p. 58.
[ii] See Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies for her story.
[iii] See Sara Miles' Take This Bread for her story.
[iv] Mary Oliver, Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.) from "More Beautiful than the Honey Locust Tree Are the Words of the Lord" pp. 32-33.
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