Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 16, 2015

2015.02.15 “When Life Goes Luminous” – Mark 9: 2 – 9

Central United Methodist Church
When Life Goes Luminous
Pastor David L. Haley
Mark 9: 2 – 9
Transfiguration of the Lord
February 15th, 2015

Transfiguration, from Art in the Christian Tradition

Transfiguration, from Art in the Christian Tradition

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”

Mark 9: 2 – 9, the New Revised Standard Version

Believe it or not, the three-day warning buzzer has sounded, and with it the end of the Sundays after Epiphany. Ash Wednesday and with Ash Wednesday the beginning of Lent – the forty day period of preparation for Easter – is now three days away.

In the church the Sundays after Epiphany – the time we conclude today – is called “ordinary time,” which doesn’t mean what you think it means, but that seems like a good name for it. It feels like just a short time ago that we were all gathered around a manger in church and Christmas trees at home, celebrating the holidays.  And then the holidays ended and we all had to go back to those ordinary things we have to do in Chicago in January, like school and work and shoveling piles of snow and shivering, even starting to think about filing our taxes, which makes us shiver even worse.

That’s why, in the midst of such humdrum activities, it’s always fun and enlightening to go off if only in our imaginations to accompany Jesus during the Sundays after Epiphany, as he does those ordinary things like growing up and beginning his ministry. For one thing, it’s warmer where he was than it is here, so to imagine ourselves standing with Jesus out on the banks of the Jordan River or calling disciples on the Sea of Galilee or walking the streets of ancient Capernaum, is always a pleasant January diversion, when we’re out shoveling snow. To see what the reign of God looked like when Jesus was around is enlightening; it helps us imagine what the reign of God might look like today when Jesus is not around, and it’s only us, attempting to do what Jesus did, ministering to people.

So now that the three day warning buzzer for Lent has sounded, you know what that means: it is time to call a halt to Valentine’s Day celebrations, if there were any, and to pull on our hiking boots and head up a mountain to observe the Transfiguration of the Lord. Yes, it is a little early this year, which is why it falls this year the day after Valentine’s Day, a holiday important to wives, girlfriends, and also the greeting card and floral industries.

I’m pretty sure the disciples were bummed about it too, – although not as much as their wives – in that they had to end their Valentine’s Day celebrations to put on their best sandals to hike the 11 miles to Mt. Tabor, and then of course, climb it. That seems an awful long way to go just to pray, even though some of you come longer distances. “That far to pray, Jesus?” “Surely, we can pray right here, on the Sea, much closer to our homes and our wives, can’t we?”

And – for that matter – apart from all the Old Testament symbolism involved with praying on top of a mountain, like Moses and all that; why couldn’t what happened that day on the mountain have happened anywhere?  If we learn anything today, what we learn is this: such luminous experiences still happen, if we but have eyes to see.

You remember what happened up there on the mountain, which we just heard a few minutes ago in the reading of the Gospel. How Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and went up the mountain to pray. And how while they were there and Jesus was praying, Jesus was transfigured (metamorphosed) before them. He became dazzlingly radiant, and Moses and Elijah showed up (you could tell by the nametags on their shirts) to talk with him. Peter and James and John were terrified, and Peter began to babble, as we sometimes babble when we don’t know what to say. Off the top of his head, Peter proposed that they build three temples, one for Moses and one for Elijah and one for Jesus; whether or not he had been drinking before he said this it does not say. Peter did not get a direct response to his proposal, not even, “You’ll get your temple some day, Peter, only it will be for you not me.” All he got was a cloud that overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice, saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” In other words, perhaps the best directions for an attitude of prayer and receptivity to God ever given: “Stop talking, and start listening!”

And the voice – haven’t we heard it before – doesn’t it sound familiar? Wait! – we heard it at the beginning, at Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1:

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1: 9-11)

Do you think God is trying to tell us something here? These are the two bookends for the whole season of Epiphany, when we were introduced to God’s glory revealed in Jesus, through his birth, his baptism, the calling of his first disciples, and the first days of his ministry. Now, with Jesus’ transfiguration the next chapter begins, Jesus’ journey toward the cross, which is our theme during Lent.

Now – after the Transfiguration – the glory has departed – or shall we say diminished from sight – and it is time to go back down the mountain, back into the valley of human need. Contrary to what we might expect, Jesus orders them to tell no one what they had seen, at least not until he had risen from the dead.

Surely, it is one of the strangest stories in the Bible; but what is it about? Is it only about Jesus and his disciples, or is it about us? Is it only about what happened to them up on that mountain, or is it about such mystical experiences that we have from time to time in our lives? (It better not be confined to mountains, because, here in the Midwest, we don’t have any mountains around here, so we flatlanders would be out of luck.) Have you ever had such an experience, where life went luminous?

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, one of the most popular authors and teachers of progressive Christianity, Marcus Borg, died on January 21st at the age of 72. Two years before he died, he published a memoir, entitled Convictions. In his memoir, Borg told how he made the transition from the traditional Lutheranism of his youth, to realizing in experience that God is real, not only in belief, but in experience.  Says Borg:

“It happened as I was driving through a sunlit rural Minnesota   winter landscape alone in a nine-year-old MG two-seater roadster. The only sounds were the drone of the car and the wind through the thin canvas top. I had been on the road for about three hours when I entered a series of S-curves. The light suddenly changed. It became yellowy and golden, and it suffused everything I saw: the snow-covered fields to left and right, the trees bordering the fields, the yellow and black road signs, the highway itself. Everything glowed.  Everything looked wondrous. I was amazed. I had never experienced        anything like that before—unless perhaps in very early childhood, and so I no longer remembered it.  At the same time, I felt a falling away of the subject-object distinction of ordinary everyday consciousness—that “dome” of consciousness in which we experience ourselves as “in here” and the world as “out there.” I became aware not just intellectually but experientially of the connectedness of everything. I “saw” the connectedness, experienced it. My sense of being “in here” while the world was “out there” momentarily disappeared. That experience lasted for maybe a minute and then faded. But it had been the richest minute of my life. It was not only full of wonder but also filled with a strong sense of knowing—of seeing more clearly and truly than I ever had. (Borg, Marcus J. (2014-05-20). Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most (p. 37). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition).

Have you ever had such an experience? I realize, there are people sitting here who might say, “I have no idea what you are talking about.”  But my guess is that there are others who have had such experiences, where life becomes luminous and the mystery of God and life becomes real and overwhelming and the tears begin to flow from our eyes. They never last long, but such experiences are life changing. I have had a few, and that’s why I’m standing before you today, doing something I wouldn’t have ordinarily chosen to do – talking to you not as a teacher telling you what to believe about God, but as a mystic, telling you that the most important thing in our short lives is to experience God, in whatever surprising ways it occurs, whether on a mountaintop or here in the flatlands of our lives. Sometimes – most of the time – it occurs beyond our control, but I do believe we can cultivate a mindfulness and receptivity that allows it to occur more often.

Why are such luminous experiences important? Because – as even Jesus’ disciples were to find out – it is such mountaintop experiences that keep us going through the dark nights of the soul, the hard times that inevitably come in the valleys of spiritual experience, when there is no experience of God and what we believe about God seems ridiculously shallow.

I have always liked the example of the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who lived from 1623 to 1662. Pascal was brilliant, and even invented a mechanical calculator, an early forerunner of modern computers. But because he was influenced by a spiritual movement within the Catholic Church known as Jensenism, Pascal became deeply religious, and is now less known for his scientific and philosophical work than for his most famous work, his Pensees (Thoughts), a defense of the Christian faith.

Though raised in the heyday of Enlightenment reason, in the time of Voltaire and Descartes, Pascal found reason alone finally inadequate: “Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it.” He concluded, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know at all.”

On November 23, in 1654, Pascal had a dramatic encounter with God, which became known as “Pascal’s Night of Fire.” It was such a powerful experience, he wrote a memoir of it and sewed it into the liner of his coat. It wasn’t until after his death that people learned this, and realized that what this meant was, everywhere Pascal went, he carried this experience with him, not only in his coat, but in his heart.

Such an experience as Pascal had, was the kind of experience Jesus’ disciples had there on the Mount of Transfiguration. It is the same kind of experience we have, when life goes luminous, and we get a glimpse of the glory, which sustains us through the difficult days of our lives.

Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968), philosopher, theologian, and Trappist priest, whose own life ended prematurely in a bathtub accident in Japan, once said, in a sermon:

“Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows himself everywhere, in everything — in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him. It’s impossible. The only thing is that we don’t see it.”

Thus ends the season of Epiphany. The time has come to go down from the mountain of glory, and to begin our Lenten journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem, where a cross awaits.  May what we have seen on the mountaintop and in the light, sustain us through the days to come, in the valley and in the dark. Amen.

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