by Louise Westfall
Think of a time — an event, a situation, a moment — when God became real for you. I’m fascinated with this question and our responses in light of the dramatic experience of illumination that is our morning Scripture text. My anecdotal research revealed several of you who noted that the birth of a child prompted feelings of spiritual connection like no other. One person described slowly emerging from a painful, difficult experience, gently drawn by unseen but deeply compassionate hands. Others talked about the power of community to embody a sense of Divine presence, support, and love. I had hoped the confirmation youth would identify that process as one that was opening their eyes to the mysteries of God, but hey! — we’re only halfway through the year.
I have never had an experience like the one narrated in the text: a supernatural vision of utter clarity that confirmed the existence and good purposes of the Holy One. It’s beautifully displayed on the bulletin cover this morning. The disciples’ dazzling mountaintop experience of seeing their Teacher aglow with unearthly light, surrounded by legends of the faith must have been a game changer, especially in the hard days of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion, when all seemed lost. But is this the only kind of revelation that can transfigure us with light for our complicated, messy lives? What can we glean from this unique moment to illumine the many ordinary moments of our days? A reading from the good news according to Luke in the ninth chapter at the 28th verse. Listen for God’s Word to us. See God’s Word to us, whose gaze is often earth-bound and distracted. [Luke 9:28-36]
They say the devil is in the details, but God is there too. Recently I had a revelation … about pretzels. [begin distributing them] Come to find out, these little treats were first made by monks in the seventh century. Sources differ: some say it was a frugal way to use up the unleavened dough intended for Communion bread.
Others say it was a delicious way to get around the strict dietary prohibitions of the Lenten season, when no meat, eggs or dairy could be eaten. The shape of the pretzel is meant to recall the arms crossed in prayer, and the three spaces a representation of the Trinity. The word itself comes from the Latin for “little reward,” and it is known that the monks gave them to children to break up the severity of the Lenten fast. Still later, the pretzel became a symbol of undying love and the intertwined arms of a couple in marriage. Enjoy a pretzel as we consider the multiple ways God becomes known and real to us.
The transfiguration of Jesus may well have been a one-and-done event, but it continues to shed light for our own spiritual journeys. Right off the bat, notice that illumination came when Jesus and the disciples were seeking it with intention. They ascended the mountain to pray. They ceased the active daily round of teaching and preaching and healing — their “work”, and made time to bring their attention to Spirit. We Coloradans understand the power of mountains to connect us to the Holy. The breathless ascent of a fourteener is ultra-exhilarating and empowering, even without the vision of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. But so, too, is the time and space you make to gather with others to worship or participate in a Bible study or the daily discipline of personal prayer. Could it be that there’s a correlation between preparation and realization; between expectation and fulfillment? St. Augustine noted that God wants to give us good gifts, but sometimes our hands are so full we can’t receive them. Putting aside our work, backing away from the Internet, consciously seeking the spiritual dimension to our lives, could heighten our perception of God’s presence here and now.
As we love and serve people, we’ll become more open to the presence of God; as we experience the presence of God, we’ll become more able to love and serve deeply and effectively.
Many transfiguring moments are understood only in retrospect. The text concludes with the silence of the disciples. They don’t tell anyone about this experience, and you have to wonder whether it was because they themselves didn’t understand what had happened, or why, until later. Looking back on the experience after the cross, after the empty tomb, they could interpret it as a vision of Jesus as the eternal Christ, the one in continuity with Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet, yet uniquely identified as God’s chosen one who alone is to be followed. Perhaps you and I sometimes miss the transfiguring potential of a moment, except as we reflect on it in the rearview mirror. I’ve never seen skywriting or heard an audible voice. But I can identify the hand of God at work in my life at pivotal moments when I remember them today and consider what has changed, what I learned, how I have grown.
Peter’s response to the vision couldn’t be more human. Let’s build three dwellings to preserve this experience so we can recreate it at will. We want to replicate those bright moments of clarity to feed our souls continuously. We want to “commodify” those “aha moments” as things to be achieved again and again. Read this book. Adopt this “clean” diet plan. Pray this prayer. And then you’ll see. You’ll know. Look, I’m all for tools that help us discern God’s presence in new ways, or help us let go of some of the things that block our vision. But biblical accounts of illumination, including the Transfiguration, are not so much for the experience itself, but for a particular purpose. The authentic spiritual life will not take us from mountaintop to mountaintop, nor keep us perpetually high. Instead these bright moments of clarity — rare though they may be — will strengthen us to live in the valley of real life.
Jesus and the disciples headed back down the mountain, and though we don’t hear about it in today’s reading, run smack dab into crushing human need. They’re confronted with a seriously ill young person and his desperate father. The two texts should be read as one and not separated, because they represent both transfiguring dimensions of the spiritual life: seeking God in moments that transcend ordinary human experience AND seeking God in moments that ground us in the work of healing and justice. In fact, I think together they reveal the essence of Christian spirituality. As we love and serve people, we’ll become more open to the presence of God; as we experience the presence of God, we’ll become more able to love and serve deeply and effectively.
These transfiguring moments matter, friends. This past week was one to test and try even the most spiritual people. The disappointing decision by our United Methodist brothers and sisters to tighten the ban on full participation by LGBTQ persons may very well mean further acrimony and division. No matter what your view of Michael Cohen’s testimony, it certainly highlighted the erosion of character, honesty, and unity in our national life. What can be said? What can be done to restore, repair, redeem, reconcile?
Listen to Jesus. The directive from the cloud echoes across time and space to the church, to these moments in our lives here and now. Listen to the One who told us to love one another, and then showed us what that meant. Listen to the One who cast a vision of the beloved community in which all are welcomed to the Table, to eat and drink the food that nourishes us for life. Listen to the One who leads us up the mountain to pray and down the mountain to serve. Listen to the One who shows up, in big transcendent moments of glory, and in a tiny chunk of bread, a swallow of grape juice. Even a pretzel.