by Ellen Sims
texts: Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9: 28-38
It was surely obvious to you that our Gospel story for today was cut short, ellipses trailing. The lectionary gods had decreed we should read a Gospel passage that actually ends five verses beyond where we concluded. That’s because the lectionary gods want us to see that the story of Jesus’s transfiguration and the story of the next day’s ministry of healing are the necessary yin and yang of Christian spirituality: like Jesus, we may climb to the mountaintops of ethereal spirituality but immediately find ourselves serving in the valleys of hurts and despair. The Jesus Way is to put prayer and action in a recursive rhythm. His prayers led him to act and his actions returned him prayer.
We, too, can alternately listen for God and speak of God.
We can balance our need to get away from the world and to immerse ourselves in the worId.
We can replenish our spirits and give ourselves away.
We can both receive and give.
Although Jesus never says this explicitly, the narrative makes clear that Peter is wrong to try to turn Jesus and Moses and Elijah into frozen icons that only inhabit sacred mountains. Jesus’ role and ours is to visit the mountaintop but not remain there. I understand why the mystical story set on the mountain and the miracle story set on the plain need to be told together.
But today I’ve perversely lopped off the miraculous healing story that immediately follows the transfiguration account. I’ll merely hint about the crushing crowd that came to Jesus and a desperate father who pled for his son’s healing. Because I’m feeling the crush of the crowd and the shouts of those in trouble. And I think maybe you are, too. We’ve been working hard to launch Free2Be Mobile, for instance, while continuing our engagement in many other areas of service. (By the way, if you’ve never read Open Table’s principles for serving others, go to our website’s What We Do page and click on the document called Principles for Serving Others). We are a church strongly committed to serving others. Our challenge may be to spend more time on the mountain instead of rushing down to the clamoring crowd. Will you linger with me on the mountain a bit longer?
Yes, some congregations pour their energies primarily into building and maintaining buildings—the “tents” Peter hoped to erect on the mountain. Many Christians practice their religion mainly through church attendance and private prayers and “fellowshiping” with fellow Christians. These are folks who may need to hear sermons challenging them to get off their, um, pews and get out into the community.
Our growing edge is different. Especially during the reflective season of Lent, we may want to commit to spending more time in meditation and discernment, stillness and quietness. We may feel called to “listen to Jesus”—as the voice from the Cloud instructed the disciples on the mountain to do. I want to slow my pace during Lent’s calm and unhurried weeks. So this sermon invites you to do the very thing the story implies we should not do. Even so, will you linger with me on the mountain a bit longer?
On the mountain, let us hope, God will remind us of our true names. Just as the voice from heaven named Jesus “Beloved” in the river at his baptism, so the voice from the cloud named Jesus “Chosen One” on the mountain at his transfiguration. Last Sunday we had the privilege of helping Lane hear his true name through a renaming ritual. In ritual and reflection, we, too, can hear our names spoken with love, affirmation, and hope. Think how differently we will live—how even our countenances might soften or brighten or relax or strengthen—when we truly claim the name Beloved.
And once we can hear God say our real name, it’s easier to hear the divine in other ways. Once we have tuned into God’s compassionate frequency, we are better able to tune out the static that distracts us from Compassion’s voice, filter out the strident sounds and cruel messages and despairing sighs transmitted by Culture. We’ll have climbed a veritable mountain when we are able to unhear harmful messages we’ve internalized and rehear the empowering baptismal affirmation of our belovedness. And we will shine!
But on the figurative mountain, the dazzling light is accompanied by a mystical cloud that obscures even as the light reveals. The mystic knows that real knowing is not about facts; it’s about deeper knowing. In fact, at spiritual heights we might experience greater ambiguity and even deeper doubts. What we’d assumed was a simple article of faith might become a more complicated question. The cloud that guided Moses’s people through the wilderness by day led them one day at a time, one step at a time. Before we travel farther, will you linger with me on the mountain a bit longer?
On the mountain we might be transformed. The mystics say we’re saved not by head knowledge (gnosis in the Greek) but by transformation (epignosis or knowledge gained through first-hand relationship). We recognize those who have been to the mountain because their faces beam and their lives are changed. Sadly, the way forward is not always triumphal. The way forward is often through travail. Jesus, upon leaving the mountain, began his walk toward Jerusalem where he would be lifted up on a cross and where, according to Luke, others would derisively name him King of the Jews. Will you linger with me on the mountain a bit longer?
Let’s linger on the mountain because, after all, it’s the last place they’ll think to look for progressive Christians. As we’ve discussed in the 9:30 class, progressive Christians are sometimes misperceived to have turned science into our god. Not true. In fact, we are concerned that some scientists and religionists are desacralizing a world the Bible perceives as pulsing with Godness. Eighteenth century Enlightenment at its extremes as well as modern Fundamentalism (an extreme reaction against evolutionary science and modern biblical scholarship)—turned the world into formulae and the Bible into a rulebook. Progressives regret that narrow worldviews may have squeezed out much of the beauty and deep wisdom from the natural world and the Bible. Progressives and modern mystics hope to encounter the natural world and the biblical Word with ecstasy and wonder as we open our hearts to Compassion.
I’m saying progressives appreciate the mystical, not magical. Magical thinking is for children who believe in fairy tales. Mystical practices are for those who suspect there is more that we’ve not yet understood, can’t measure, and shouldn’t commodify or manipulate.
Today’s story of a vision on a mountaintop is the stuff of progressive theology. We don’t have to see Transfiguration as a magical or supernatural (in the popular sense of that word) event. But we don’t have to force a logical explanation onto the story, either. We won’t approach it as an intellectual exercise. We are compelled by its beauty and humbled by what we don’t know from this story. We can explore meaning, make connections, and marvel at the sheer beauty of it and the life in God it reveals—rather than tie it down with explications.
On the mountain we speak poetry. On the mountain we see haloes of light. On the mountain there’s a mystery to be experienced rather than solved. On the mountain there is Light and there is Cloud; there is ecstasy and trembling fear, awe and nothingness, a tender realization of our belovedness, and a self-forgetting.
On the mountain we are anchored in the natural world and have a vantage point of the More. And from the mountain top we glimpse a way to return to our work in the world with healing ways and caring hearts.
Friends, I hope your experience at Open Table is helping you shine a little brighter. I hope we’ll all be open to a Lenten experience this year that will make us more receptive to the world’s beauty and a holy call upon our lives and will respond by moving out into the world to radiate God’s compassion.
But the work you do, causes you champion, care you give, benevolence you offer, donations you make, slogans you shout, injustices you protest . . . are not enough and cannot be sustained unless you and I are connected to the Source of Love. You don’t have to be a member of a political party or a church or a family or a labor union or a nonprofit or a neighborhood organization in order to be part of the Force for Love and Life. But you do have to step outside yourself—-your fears, your worries about how YOU appear to others, your self-centeredness—-and step into a flow that is about us, about all, about the Really Big Thing that moves us forward in love, that moves us up the mountain in search for what is ultimate, for what matters—and then moves us back down the mountain to work for transformation out there. Our Lenten Devotional booklets from the UCC prepare us for this sacred season, a time to move up the mountain, with this introduction:
Christians sometimes treat Lent as an opportunity to become better persons, a time to give something up or take on a new practice. And if Lent serves you as a spur to a self-improvement project, go for it. It’s always good when someone tries to be better. But what if this year your hopes were greater, your prayers more daring? What if you didn’t ask for help in becoming a better person and prayed instead for the grace to stop being the subject of your own little life project? What if this year you gave yourself up, gave up not just chocolate, beer or Facebook but yourself? What if this Lent you invited God to speak not so much to your behaviors as to your heart?
Are you ready to give up yourself for Lent?
To engage in such a daring Lenten practice, we may need to linger a bit longer on the mountain.