Sermon preached February 10, 2013
Texts: Luke 9:28-43a
Sly and The Family Stone, "I Want To Take You Higher"
Playing music during sermons, I am afraid that I might be risking becoming something of a caricature of myself. I might have to give this up during Lent. We’ll see.
I want to take you higher. Mountaintop experiences. There is this wonderful story that comes from the Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers tradition. Abbot Lot went to see Abbot Joseph. “Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of bad thoughts: now what more should I do?” Abbot Joseph stood, raised his hand up in the air, his fingers becoming like lamps of fire. “Why not become all flame?” (Kathleen Norris, Dakota, 123).
I love that story. Why not become all flame? I want to take you higher – up the mountain.
The French philosopher Pascal, had sewn in his coat something he had written on a scrap of paper, the scrap of paper being discovered only after his death. From about half past ten in the evening to about half an hour after midnight. Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not the God of philosophers and scholars. Absolute Certainty: Beyond reason. Joy. Peace. Forgetfulness of the world and everything but God. The world has not known thee, but I have known thee. Joy! Joy! Joy! Tears of Joy! (Happold, Mysticism, 39).
I want to take you higher. Why not become all flame? I have had some of those kinds of experiences in my life – moments when God was extraordinarily close, remarkably real, moments when the light and warmth and power of God’s love embraced me closely. This past week I was for three days at Christ the King Retreat Center near Buffalo, MN where the Minnesota Conference Board of Ordained Ministry meets. We interview persons coming for ordination in the UMC in Minnesota. A couple of years ago, in that same place, while in worship in their chapel, I had such an experience of the closeness of God. The physical presence of Jesus, a presence I saw on a crucifix in front of the chapel, became very real to me. I was in the same chapel this year, but did not have that same experience.
Today’s Gospel reading from Luke, there are some of these moments. One is a very literal mountain top experience where Peter, James and John go with Jesus to pray. “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” There is a shared experience here. Jesus experiences something. Peter, James and John experience something. They see Jesus becoming all flame.
The very last words of the reading for today also indicate some kind of mountain top experience, though everyone has come down from the mountain. A father, concerned for the well-being of his only child, a son, brings him for healing. The healing happens, “and all were astounded at the greatness of God.”
There have been times when I have felt something like the dazzling presence of Jesus. There have been times when I have been astounded at the greatness of God.
As human beings, we are wired somewhat differently. I can hear Sly and the Family Stone sing “I Want To Take You Higher” and I get taken higher. I can hear the words of a poem and feel them deep in my heart or gut. Many years ago, I heard the Irish poet Seamus Heaney on public radio. It was a broadcast from the Guthrie Theater. I was so moved by it that when the program was re-broadcast later, I taped it and have often enjoyed listening to Heaney’s reading.
But I know that Sly and the Family Stone, or the music of John Coltrane, or the poetry of Seamus Heaney don’t take everyone higher. That’s o.k. Not everyone has intense experiences that might be called mystical. I do think that we all have some capacity to experience the closeness and love of God and I hope that for you all, you have had such experiences in your own way. And the experiences are not always solitary. We can experience the closeness of God together, like at worship. We can experience the closeness of God sharing a common task done in love. The hug of another can feel like the very hug of God.
I believe Jesus wants to take us all higher. I believe that we all have some capacity to know and feel and experience God and God’s love deeply. Such experiences may not be frequent. A couple of years ago, Mother Theresa’s journals were excerpted, and many were surprised to read that she went for many years without an intense experience of the presence of God. Still, Jesus wants to take us higher.
Jesus also wants to take us lower. There is this remarkable weaving in the Gospel this morning. The story immediately preceding the transfiguration is about Jesus anticipated suffering and death. When Moses and Elijah come they speak to Jesus about his departure and what he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. They speak about the difficult road ahead and about his death. Whatever wonderful experiences we may have of the presence of God and the love of God do not isolate us from difficulties and the harsh realities of life, including death.
Then they come down from the mountain and are immediately confronted with another difficult challenge. A caring father needs help for his tormented son, his only child. The son is traumatized. Something in his life is tearing him apart. We can wonder about the language of the demonic, but we know that lives can be traumatic. We know that people can be torn apart by forces that go beyond them – think addiction, think sex trafficking, think gangs, think vicious bullying, think of grief that won’t let go, think of having done something that haunts you.
There is a loving father. There is a hurting child. The situation is difficult, seemingly beyond the ability of the disciples of Jesus. Jesus seems a little peeved about it all, too, even after his mountain top experience. Perhaps the journey to Jerusalem is weighing heavy on his heart. Yet in the end there is healing. In the end there is astonishment – another transfiguring moment.
In his introduction to The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, Bernard McGinn writes: One thing that stands out in the accounts of all the Christian mystics is that their encounter with God transforms their minds and their lives. God changes the mystics and invites, even compels, them to encourage others by their teaching to open themselves to a similar process of transformation (xvii).
God desires a relationship with us. The God we know in Jesus wants God’s love to be known in the depth of the human heart and soul, in our human hearts and souls. We may experience that differently, but I believe God wants us to know God’s love deeply and intimately. God wants to warmly and strongly embrace each of us. Jesus wants to take us higher.
The same love which God desires to have penetrate our deepest being is a love that cannot be contained there. The love we know within is a love for the world that drives us out to be there in the difficult moments, to confront the demonic, to plumb the depths, to engage the work of transformation. It has never really hit me before, but this story of the transfiguration always comes on the last Sunday before Lent, that time when we are asked to plumb the depths of our hearts, when we are asked to commit ourselves anew to the loving way of Jesus.
Jesus wants to take us higher and lower. And here is one final remarkable thing. This journey with Jesus is not simply a two-step movement – up the mountain for extraordinary experiences, down into the world to minister God’s love, justice and care. The same Jesus who takes us up the mountain walks with us in the valleys and can be known there, too. It is not just when we get away from the difficulty and messiness of life that we know God’s love intensely. God’s love in Jesus can be known right in the midst of the messiness and muck and difficulty. It’s there where demons are cast out leaving us astounded at the greatness of God.
At the end of the day, the most important transfiguration is that a son is made well and restored to his father. Every time there is a little bit of healing, we catch glimpses of the dazzling greatness of God’s love, and we can be moved just a little higher. Amen.