by Louise Westfall
Typically, I introduce the Scripture text for a sermon with a little context, setting the scene, describing the action, even taking the first steps toward considering how its story might illumine our stories. I’m not going to do that today. Let this event surprise and astonish us, as it did the disciples. Without warning, boom! There it was, right before their eyes! A reading from the good news according to Mark, in the ninth chapter, reading verses 2 through 9. Listen for God’s Word to us, skeptical, distracted, earth-bound beloveds though we be. [Mark 9:2-9]
Can you imagine yourself as one of the disciples in this scene? A little breathless, perhaps, from the altitude after a long climb. Then the light, the dazzling, unearthly light. A vision of long-dead legends of the faith bathed in that same brightness conversing with their Teacher. Wonderment and terror–mostly terror. A cloud suddenly encompassing them, shadowing the light, and a heavenly voice speaking words of confirmation (similar to the ones spoken at his baptism): This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him! And then just as suddenly, it all vanishes, and before them they see… only Jesus.
What an unforgettable experience! This once-in-a-lifetime mountaintop moment must have marinated in their memories forever after. But I’m intrigued to notice that the experience itself didn’t transfigure those disciples–or even change the way they understood Jesus–until later. Only retrospectively through the heartbreak of his crucifixion and the earth-shattering reality of his resurrection did they understand Jesus’ transfiguration as their own. The dawning realization of his identity and the connection it offered to the Divine gradually changed their perspective and purpose. From fearful concern for their own lives and safety, the transfigured disciples became bold prophets, sharing faith and showing love and embodying the truth they’d seen and heard in Jesus.
I wonder if it’s supposed to work that way.
Personally, I’ve never had an experience like the one narrated in the text, but I know people who have. I’ve been privileged to listen as they struggle to put into words some experience of the world beyond the one we know through our senses; some event they couldn’t explain with words, but that had confirmed for them that God is real and breaks through the clouds of mystery to become known. Who knows what prompts these bright and shining moments? Or why they appear only to some?
Or do they?
What if the mountaintop experiences are not the only way God gets our attention? The people I know who have had such stunning experiences speak about them as just one ingredient in an ongoing process that drew them closer to the Almighty, clarified their vision and deepened their faith. Maybe they’re paying extra-close attention. Or maybe they’re unusually attentive to the reality of Christ’s presence here and now.
Our distance from the Holy is our doing, our choice, our resistance, not God's.
Or maybe it’s their willingness to take a chance on the existence and good purposes of the Holy One. To dare to believe the world is so loved by its Creator that She will stop at nothing to birth us into life. It’s funny how that door held even a tiny bit ajar can yield startling insight. Maybe we have not had the one shimmering moment of clarity to keep drawing upon in the valley of the shadow. But we can start looking around for the hand of God in everyday life–for example in the train wreck-of-a-year 2020 was. We can consider what has changed, what we’ve learned, how we’ve responded, what we’ve done, and with whom. We can think about what it took (what it’s still taking!) to adapt to a global pandemic; to address centuries-old injustices and perceptions; what we’ve lost, and what we’ve discovered. We can remember the physically-distanced but beloved community that came around us. What, was that mere coincidence? Just luck? When times are rough and evidence of God’s goodness is scant, we can remember that from the very start God declared that it was not good for humans to be alone. None of us thrive by ourselves. What potentially transfiguring moments have we missed because we were too busy to reflect on them through the rearview mirror?
Because here’s the thing, friends. Our distance from the Holy is our doing, our choice, our resistance, not God’s. St. Augustine noted that God wants to give us good gifts, but sometimes our hands are so full we can’t receive them. What if we prepared for illumination by opening ourselves to what Marcus Borg called “the More”–the real that is really-real? Putting aside our work, backing away from the Internet, consciously cultivating Spirit in our daily lives relaxes our vise-like grip. Creating time for prayer and worship, Bible study, exercise, making love, listening to music, spending time in nature, just sitting and breathing, serving neighbors in need without thought of reward… Director of Children’s and Family Faith Formation Molly Brown has prepared a Lenten calendar with very brief daily messages–a question to ponder, a breath prayer to offer, a simple action to take alone or with others–any and all of these could heighten our experience of the Divine.
And maybe help us see the Divine right in front of us. Only Jesus. To hear his voice above the din of conflict, confusion, exhaustion and grief. Listen…
Ernie and Margaret Cubbon are well-seasoned Central folks. Margaret sings in the choir; Ernie is a retired minister who served as Central’s youth pastor during the 1960s. You might remember Ernie’s anniversary message last fall–about a fiery sermon he preached against “white flight” from racially integrated neighborhoods–that got him in hot water with some leaders. Years later, he and Margaret retired and returned to Central, for which we are immensely thankful. A couple of years ago following some particularly challenging health issues affecting them both, Ernie wrote a poem to express gratitude to the Central doctors and others who helped in the acute emergency and afterwards. A thoughtful gesture that fits these two loving people. But what struck me was the way Ernie described the helpers (he’s given me permission to share these words with you): When hurt cries out for help…you are there…You undergird our faith in ways that help us endure all that heartbreak may bring. In those moments, together, we know the real presence of Christ. [From An Ode to Christ-Figures All by Ernie Cubbon]
Doesn’t always take a mountaintop to reveal the Divine in plain sight; the heavenly purpose is often made known through human voices. The clouds dissipate, the vision disappears, and our attention is fixed on nothing else any more, but only Jesus and the Body his Spirit animates.
Only Jesus. Forget the dwellings, Peter. We’re not staying here. Jesus leads us back down the mountain to the places where human life is lived. To carry on his work of love, truth, healing, and justice, for the Kin-dom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
May it be so.