14 February 2010
The Rev. Dr. Bruce Epperly
Director of Continuing Education and Professor of Practical Theology
Lancaster Theological Seminary
Recently, I had the opportunity to drive by the home of author Annie Dillard in Hillsborough, North Carolina. As I paused in front of her house, the light shining through the trees reminded me of words from her nature study, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in which she describes a moment of mystical transfiguration: “I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw a backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost, charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it/ grass that was wholly fire/ utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I'm still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. But I was still ringing./ I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment when I was lifted and struck."
As I pondered Dillard’s experience, I considered that fact that, at various times in our lives, if we are so fortunate, “the doors of perception are cleansed, and everything appears to us as it is: infinite.” (to quote William Blake) In our gospel reading today, we are told that the disciples experienced a similar opening of the doors of perception: an epiphany, a ringing of the bell of their souls, on a hilltop with Jesus.
As we reflect on the Transfiguration of Jesus, I would like us to consider the idea that lived Christian faith is most effective when it includes three things: perception changing visions…. empowering promises… and transformative practices. I would like us to entertain the notion that, gifted as moments of visionary transfiguration may be, they are useless unless we seek to discern the promise of God’s love embedded within them and then take the initiative to “spend the power” of these transforming moments in the context of God’s promise given us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and then last, but not least, take concrete actions based on the visions and promises you have been given by God.
Now, I must confess that I am a mystic of sorts but my emphasis is always on the “so what?” factor. That is, what do you have to do to put into practice to be empowered by of God’s transforming visions and promises long after we have come down from “the mountaintop” as we face the personal, social, and global challenges of our everyday lives?
What is really important is our response to God’s transformational visions and promises. I believe that God given transformational moments are all around us and are ultimately about choice. They are not just about rare “mountaintops” but continuing to seek and find a multitude of grasses and trees with lights in them in the dark valleys of our everyday lives!
Each day of our lives, we have a choice to seek out and focus on the ever present reality of God’s transforming power in all things… or to ignore it. Each day of our lives we can choose to become co-creators with God – each day we can let God’s vision and promise of light and love “lift us and strike us” so that it rings forth in our everyday relationships and commitments.
Think about it for a minute. For the past five weeks of the season of Epiphany, almost every lectionary selection has been an invitation to see our world differently and then acting accordingly – to see our lives rooted in the surprising and infinite and often challenging light and love of God in all things. Our scriptures have affirmed, with Gerard Manley Hopkins, that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God…flaming out like light shining from shook foil!”
- That’s what the story of the magi following a star and then being led home by a different path because of a dream - is all about.
- That’s what the story of the divine voice proclaiming to the recently baptized Jesus “you are my beloved child” is all about.
- That’s what the story of Jesus’ transformation of water into wine so a wedding party can celebrate life is all about.
- That’s what the story of the young prophet Jeremiah being challenged by God to claim his own voice is all about.
- And, that’s what the story of Isaiah being overwhelmed by God’s presence, bursting forth in fiery images and sounds in the midst of worship is all about.
In short, the entire season of Epiphany affirms the basic truth of Isaiah’s vision, “the whole earth is filled with God’s glory!” This is the affirmation that no matter where you are on your journey of life - employed or unemployed, grieving or rejoicing, burdened with chronic illness or celebrating wellness and cure, experiencing a budget surplus or trying to maintain the congregation’s vision with diminished resources - your life right now, this minute - is filled to overflowing with the eternally transforming light and love of God!
God’s light and love is all around us and in us right now. Our task, as spiritual activists is to open our lives to it NOW…not sometime in the future…but right now in what Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh calls, “this present…wonderful moment.”
So, today, I invite you to go to the mountaintop of your choice…Take time to imaginatively seek to discover anew the power of God’s transfiguring vision for your life, and dedicate yourselves to practicing the truth of God’s promise, given us in Jesus, that you will always be provided with all the light and love you need to be sustained for your journey through the wildernesses and conflicts of your lives.
Remember how, forty years ago, Martin Luther King proclaimed “I have been to the mountaintop; I have seen the promised land.” Remember how, from the vantage point of this “mountaintop,” King glimpsed an America in which the descendants of slaves and slaveholders would walk hand in hand, and – dare we add - a person of color would lead our nation?
My friends, practicing God’s promise of sustaining light and love for the journey isn’t some kind of otherworldly mysticism…but visionary, “walking mysticism” faithfully putting one foot in front of another. It’s walking the talk and never giving up in our work for justice and equality for all God’s children.
It’s about seeing the light and love of God shining through each cell of our bodies and each moment of our lives “buzzing with flame” and choosing moment by moment to affirm and follow the vision and promise of God’s all embracing love… “wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed”.
We are told that thousands of years ago Moses went to Mount Sinai, and experienced his own “tree with lights in it.” We are told that Moses returned shining like the sun, carrying the wisdom of God’s law that transformed a rag tag group of wandering pilgrims into a nation.
Perhaps, two thousand years after Moses, we are told that Jesus ascended another mountaintop to pray for wisdom in preparation for facing the dangers that awaited him in Jerusalem. Like Moses, Jesus was spiritually enlightened on a mountaintop. Is it not possible that Jesus himself was empowered for the journey by seeing each cell of his body – in the spirit of quantum physics - “buzzing with flame”? Is it not possible that in light of this transfigured moment, Jesus was more fully able to realize his unique “spiritual energy” to bring healing and wholeness to the world – I think it is no coincidence that after he came down from the mountain, he was able to share this energy first in healing the child with epilepsy.
If our Biblical “enlightenment” stories were merely about miraculous events of a bygone era, they would be of little use for us today. Stories of radical “mountaintop” spiritual visions and transfigurations such as those of Moses and Jesus, Dillard and King, invite us to believe in the transforming power of God’s light and love challenging the limitations we typically place on ourselves, and awakening us to seek God’s life changing light and love first-hand.
Claiming our very own “enlightenment” experiences can free us from our reality-shrinking habits of mind and outworn relational scripts so that we can creatively face the challenges of our own lives afresh.
The thing is… you don’t have to find a mountaintop to have such experiences. You only have to open yourselves to God’s amazing moments of transfiguration which are around you all the time.
What I am telling you is that sudden, overwhelming transformative experiences are not the only kind of spiritual experiences that we can empower us or that we should expect to have. In fact, they don’t happen very often….even to mystics! I believe that we can all experience visionary moments of Divine light and love every day if we practice pausing and opening ourselves and to them.
Spiritual transformation, is almost always gradual. It’s a matter of practice. Once our awareness is opened we have to continue practicing this openness by pausing and noticing that God’s “trees with lights in them” just waiting for us to see.
A Jewish commentary once raised a question regarding Moses’ first encounter with God in the form of a burning bush, “Why was it that the bush burning but not consumed?” And, then, answers, “So that Moses, who walked by it every day, might someday actually pause and notice it!”
Recently, the Pew Center on Religion reported that nearly 50% of North American mainline Christians claim to have had “life changing feelings of transcendence.” For some, it is a feeling of God’s grandeur in nature or in sacred places. For others, it’s a sense of a divine guidance in a time of deep questioning, or a sense of peace during a time of quiet meditation. Still, for others it can be a simple experience of illumination at sunrise or sunset. I think that far more persons have been to the mountaintop than they realize…until they really take the time to stop and contemplate the fact.
It is my experience that we seldom talk about such spiritual experiences in church. Whether written large or small, our stories of experiencing God in transformative ways are rarely shared. Why not? Perhaps, because we think people might think us crazy or naïve, or otherworldly… but, ask yourselves, what does it really mean for us to say that “God is still speaking” - that God is at work transforming our lives and our church - if we fail to claim those life changing moments when our hearts “burn within us” and we experience moments of divine “enlightenment”?
Think about it. If you truly affirm that “God is still speaking” in our midst, then when is the last time you experienced God’s whispered or shouted word in action? When is the last time you shared about those holy moments which have given you a new, transformed perspective on your life? Maybe your transfiguring moments were in times of worship, like Isaiah, or justice advocacy, like King or, during times of personal prayer or contemplation in nature, like Dillard!
Years ago, Marcia Sinetar wrote a book, entitled Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics in which she suggested that we can experience holiness and gain life-changing perspectives right where we are. In the challenges of life, we are more powerful and creative than we can imagine, because God has chosen us – just as God chose Jesus - to share God’s mission in our time.
Jesus went to a mountaintop to pray and was transfigured before their eyes; and we too can be transfigured by our commitment to finding sacred spaces and sacred times to listen, watch and wait for God’s light and love. This is what I mean by “practicing transfiguration,” by bringing God’s vision and promise to everyday life in concrete moments of awareness that inspire service to others.
We can take a few moments each morning for meditation, to read an inspirational book, or to pray as we jog, walk, or swim, or dig out our driveway! We can open our senses to the holiness of each moment by noticing the earthly beauty and yet also divine light that shines through all things. Within these moments of transformed perspective, transfiguration lurks and we are enlightened and empowered for the journey ahead. In these moments, we will discover that God’s light and love is in us and around us connecting us to God’s miraculous future in ways beyond our imagining, and we will bring that illumination and energy of love in claiming our role as God’s companions in “mending the world.”