Sermon preached February 7, 2016
Texts: Exodus 34:29-35; II Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36
Bruce Springsteen, ‘Blinded By the Light” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjxbOe7p8C0
November 29, 1978, St. Paul Civic Center, I heard Bruce Springsteen live. It was a wonderful concert, so full of energy and joy. Springsteen did not play this song that night, but it was a blinded by the light kind of night. It was a transcendent experience of sorts, a mountaintop experience of a kind.
Every year, on the Sunday before Lent, and yes, this is the Sunday before Lent – Ash Wednesday worship will be Wednesday night at 7 p.m. we are given in the Revised Common Lectionary one of the versions of the transfiguration of Jesus. It is not the easiest text to preach on. What can be said about this wild experience had by Peter, James and John as they accompany Jesus up the mountain to pray. Just on the verge of sleep, they see Jesus’s face change. There is brightness and light. Moses and Elijah show up. A cloud overshadows the scene and from the cloud a voice. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”
We are not helped much by the accompanying texts. In the passage from Exodus we have the story of Moses coming down the mountain, his face shining because he had been “talking with God.” So disconcerting is this to the Israelites that Moses covers his face, until he goes back to speak with God. In II Corinthians Paul refers back to this story of Moses, and uses the image of the veil to imply that some don’t quite understand what God was up to in Jesus. He then goes on to write: “Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
Year after year, just before Lent, we have the story of the transfiguration of Jesus to grapple with, to make sense of, but maybe there is some sense to this. In Lent we are encouraged to dig deep, to tackle tough subjects, to grow in self-awareness even when that growth is difficult. This Wednesday, we are going to be hearing about digging deep. The theme for Lent this year will be “challenging emotions.” We will look at difficult emotions and how to work with them, sometimes how to challenge them in order to incorporate them more fully into our lives. This is tough stuff.
So maybe before we begin to dig deep, to wrestle with ourselves and with God, we need some reminder of those moments where we have experienced God as close to us as our own heartbeat, where we have known God deep in the marrow of our soul, where we have felt God as near as our own breathing. Each of the Scripture texts we read is a witness to experiencing God intimately, to being “blinded by the light” as it were. Each offers a glimpse of the kind of experience the psychologist Abraham Maslow termed a “peak experience.” The emotional reaction in the peak experience has a special flavor of wonder, of awe, of reverence, of humility and surrender before the experience as before something great. (Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd ed., 87-88) At the same time a person having such an experience “usually feels himself at the peak of his powers, using all his capacities at the best and fullest” (105). Maslow argued that a peak experience “can be so profound and shaking an experience that it can change the person’s character… forever after” (Religion, Values and Peak Experiences, 59). Other writers describe these kind of experiences as being in a thin place, where our sense of the boundary between ourselves and the Spirit is thin. “Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts, and we behold God, experience the one in whom we live, all around us and within us” (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 156). Just before we enter Lent, perhaps it is good and wise to be reminded of these kind of experiences, moments when we know the goodness of God in the marrow of our souls, moments where we are touched deeply by wonder, mystery, hope and joy, where we are “blinded by the light” only to find we see ever more clearly.
I have had such experiences and in hopes of helping you touch some of your own, I want to share a few of mine. I’ve shared some of these before, I know so please bear with me. This week I spent a number of days with the Minnesota Conference Board of Ordained Ministry interviewing persons for commissioning or ordination. I could not help but think a bit about my own ordination experiences. When I went through the process, clergy were ordained twice, as a deacon and as an elder. I remember both ordinations as moments that touched something deep within, as marking me profoundly.
There was a snow storm in parts of the state this week, though it did not affect me much. I recall a time when I was on the road as a district superintendent driving home in a heavy snow north of Park Rapids, on the border of Itasca State Park. I was the only car on the highway, and at one point I had the overwhelming feeling I should pull over and get out of the car for a while. I did. In the blowing snow, when I simply listened to the snowy winds whisk through the pines, I felt wonderfully close to God.
On another drive as a superintendent, I was making my way early on a Sunday to the town of Hawley. I was listening to a cassette tape of John Coltrane. One side of the tape had some of his wonderful ballads – “Naima” and “Central Park West,” along with his version of “My Favorite Things.” The other side of the tape had his album length work “A Love Supreme.” The sun shone brightly on Highway 10, and I was touched deep inside by a feeling of the closeness of God, this God I know in Jesus.
You know that later this year I will be one among a number of persons considered for election as a bishop in The United Methodist Church. This is not the first time I have been endorsed by the Minnesota Conference. We went through that together in 2008. My first time through it was 2004. I was obviously younger then, really on the young side to have a realistic chance of being elected, but I was in the process. I will never forget a moment in the shower a couple of months before that election process. I was beginning the day in the shower, thinking about the weeks ahead, and I had this deep sense, this audible sense, that I was not going to be elected, and that it was going to be just fine. The sense of peace at that moment was indescribable. I never really made a splash in that election.
I have been to the Rosebud Reservation a couple of times, and there is something about that place that feels very thin to me. I don’t know if it is the wide open spaces where you feel like you can see for miles, or if it is the deep sense of history, some of it deeply painful history, but with the prairie winds I have often also felt the winds of the Spirit.
There are more moments I could talk about – moments of deep joy with my family, including the birth of each of our children; holy moments of caring for someone as a pastor, including standing with a large family as together we watched their father take his last breath. There are moments on Sunday mornings when a song chosen weeks earlier, suddenly sneaks up on me while we are singing. Something in the words resonates with something I’ve said and I get a chill down my spine.
Where have your peak experiences come? When have you felt the close presence of Jesus like a shining light, the breath of God’s Spirit warming your heart? It is good and wise that we have Scripture readings as we head toward Lent that help us remember to touch again, to taste again, to feel again these moments. It is good and wise because there is work ahead in these forty days of Lent – inner and outer work, challenging, difficult, perhaps even bruising soul work, but it all brings us back to knowing God more deeply in Jesus Christ, to knowing ourselves more deeply and knowing ourselves as loved by God and being transformed by God’s Spirit, to living more joyfully, more authentically, more lovingly, more freely. Amen.