The sermon for week March 06, 2011
MAJESTY, Matthew 17:1-9
Peggy Lee, a jazz vocalist from many decades ago sang a song that expressed the mood of a generation and a melancholy aspect of the human condition that is timeless. The title of the song was, “Is That All There Is?” and it was the refrain throughout the song. She attends a circus as a child and at the end of it asks, “Is that all there is?” She grows older, experiences losses, has affairs of the heart, falls in and out of love, and at the end of each episode she asks, “Is that all there is,” and then she answers, “if that is all there is, then let’s just keep dancing,” but it is a sad dance where one hears not music but a sigh.
Sometimes life feels this way. It loses its luster. It loses its inspiration. Life feels flat, numbingly dissatisfying, an ache appears in the soul, and we wonder, is that all there is? But, we do not succumb. Instead, we go searching, we wander, we say to ourselves, “Surely there is something more.”
Sometimes that search, rightly so, leads us to the Church, and sometimes it happens, a light appears, we are set aflame and something in the soul awakens, and we see as we have never seen before. This is the story of what transpired on the Mount of Transfiguration.
The disciples had left everything to follow Jesus. The days were long, the sun was always hot, their motives were mixed, they were still trying to figure it all out, and now Jesus was beginning to warn them that it was not going to end the way they had imagined, and that one day, not too far away, they would all be tempted to ask, has it all been for naught, is that all there is? With this looming shadow upon them Jesus “took Peter, James and John and led them up a high mountain.” (17:1).
There on that mountain Jesus was transfigured before them. “His face began to shine like the sun. His clothes became dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appeared with him and talked with him, and a cloud overshadowed them and a voice from within the cloud said, ‘This is my son, the Beloved. I am well pleased with him, listen to him.’” (17:2, 5)
It was an experience of the transcendent. It was an experience of being in the presence of all that is Holy and Sacred. It was of the same fabric as Moses’ experience on top of Mount Sinai when a cloud overshadowed him and his own face so shown with light that he had to cover it when he descended the mountain.
A part of faith, a part of being a religious person, a part of what it is to be human, created in the image of God, breathing the breath of God is both the longing and the vulnerability we have to these experiences. It happens, those luminous, transcendent moments in life where there is no other way to explain it than to say, we know ourselves to have been in the presence of Lord, we know ourselves to have been to the mountain top.
I have a friend who for many years taught organ in college and was herself a church organist and received her doctorate in organ performance. In all other ways she was somewhat of a cynic and a skeptic, but she told me about an experience she had one time as she was practicing on the pipe organ in her church. She was alone in the sanctuary and at the counsel and she said she began to feel herself move into the music and then it was as if she entered another reality and she stood outside herself listening to herself play the organ. The music was carried forth on its own power. It left her shaken. It was for her, this skeptic and doubter, a deeply religious experiences, an experience of the transcendence and glory of God, an experience of like that of being on the mountain with Jesus where “his face shone like the sun.”
We long to know that there is something bigger than ourselves, something more than the landscapes we have created on Central Avenue and Airport Highway. We long to know a world that is more than a job that perhaps has simply become routine. Or, when we are discouraged and the good work we try to do seems to come to naught, we need to know that it is not in vain and that life holds secrets that are luminous and holy and confirm for us the Way we chose when first we said we would follow Jesus. We want to be a fourth disciple standing with Peter, James and John when on the summit of the mountain they heard a voice from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved.”
Churches are the one place where there should exist at least the viability of majesty. I lament that in the architecture of our church buildings today and often in the music and the styles of worship we have exchanged majesty for familiarity, mystery for down home-ness, and a sense of awe for feelings of comfort. It may be modern to have cup holders in the pew so you can bring your latte into worship, but sometimes I think what the soul is longing for is to hear the command given to Moses, when as a young man, long before Mt. Sinai, he saw a burning bush, yet it was not consumed, and he was told, take off your shoes because the place upon which you stand is Holy Ground.
We need these holy ground experiences. I believe Moses became the leader he was, able to keep leading when his people became rebellious and there seemed to be no end to their wilderness longings, because he was sustained in the memory of the burning bush and Mt. Sinai, as my friend could never forget the time she played the organ and it seemed as though she was outside herself. These experiences are of the same kind, humbled in speaking of them, but sustained in their Mystery.
Even science needs this element of mystery. The role of science is to demystify, but if we have lost all sense of mystery and a certain contentment is al that hovers over us, science has no place to go. The inquisitive side of ourselves is lost. Science needs religion because religion deepens the awareness of mystery; it takes us into places we do not understand and know.
I think more than generally acknowledged, many, many people, if not most or all, have had what we have come to refer to as these mountain top experiences. They are experiences beyond explaining, but we hold them dearly and often privately, and they sustain us and confirm us, and keep us going even when the valley seems so flat and parched, yet because of having been to the mountain top we keep going.
Our worship should affirm these moments and whether it is a Bach prelude or the minister lifting the chalice at communion it should say, you are right to cherish those moments of inspiration and transcendence and hold them in your heart because God is with you and one day it will be as you have known in those moments and God’s glory will fill the earth as you were filled when you gazed upon the Holy.
When I was a young adult, nineteen or twenty years old, I would meet a friend in Downtown Detroit and we would traverse the city, exploring everything from diners to museums, movie theaters to empty churches. There were two churches I particularly remember, a Methodist and Episcopal, both downtown. In those days the buildings were never locked, so on weekdays you were free to enter and wander. It was a new world for me. My religious background was brick and cinder block. Inside these churches I saw stained glass and carved woodwork with figures of the apostles and prophets surrounding the pulpit for the first time, and was struck by the echoing sound of my footsteps on the slate aisles of the sanctuary.
It was as though my friend and I had been allowed to follow behind Peter, James and John as they followed Jesus up the mountain. Until that time I had known only a neighborhood. I knew religion as primarily restrictive and confining. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but a self was emerging that summer and the brilliant light that shone through the stain glass of that empty sanctuary was like Jesus face and the left over scent from the candles like the voice from the cloud. A new world was dawning for me, a world I responded too. I saw beauty. I found inspiration. I was filled with wonder. And, I began to see a place for me that could have never been found, except the Light shined through those windows and the rays of that light touched me.
We praise God for those moments of wonderment in our lives. Perhaps it is a sunset, or in a walk along the beach, or quite literally in a retreat on a mountain top. We know we have stood in the presence of the Holy. We wish to stay, we want to stay, as did the disciples, but Jesus says, No, and the disciples are led back down to the valley. There is work to do, a job to go to, a family to be raised, a career to pursue, people to be healed, hungry to be fed, outcasts to be embraced, a planet that needs your stewardship, injustices that need to be corrected, and Gethsemane and Calvary.
Your life is in the valley, you have to pass through, sometimes you have to endure, but believe, what was once one moment on a mountain top will one day be for all eternity, the darkest hour will give way to the dawn of resurrection morning and the glory of God will fill the earth as in that moment it filled your soul.
For now, your life is here, in this place, in this town, with these people, sharing and caring, and most miraculously of all, the same Jesus revealed in splendor and majesty. You see, there is one other interpretation of the event that took place on the Mount of Transfiguration when Jesus face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. This interpretation was found hidden, lost away in the library of an ancient orthodox monastery and was written centuries ago.
What it said was that when Peter, James and John gazed upon the luminous presence of Jesus, it wasn’t that they saw Jesus as he was to be following the resurrection and second coming, but that they saw Jesus as he always is. For one moment the scales on their eyes were lifted and they could truly see him the way he really was all the time he was with them.
The meaning of this interpretation is that whenever you have those moments of transfiguration, whenever the light shines through, those spiritual moments, those awakening moments, those moments of blessedness when you are filled with a sense of awe and mystery and wonder, you are seeing life as it always is. The world is filled with the luminous quality of God’s Love. All of life radiates the Divine. It is all sacred. It is all Holy. If only we had the eyes to faith to see the really real.
I went to visit a church member in the hospital. I barely knew him. We had only recently become acquainted. He lived on disability. He had anger management issues. The reason he was in the hospital is that he had created a disturbance in a store and the police had brought him there, the mental health ward of the hospital. He was big, taller and heavier than me; generally and genuinely he was kind, but his mind worked slow and sometimes he would become confused and that is when he would get angry.
We sat. We visited and he talked about the way life was for him, not making excuses, but sharing his difficulties and hardships. Then it came the time for me to leave. I prayed, reached over and shook his hand. We stood and he said to me, “Would you give me a hug?” We embraced, I hugged him, and his face for me became the face of Jesus and it shined like the sun. If only we had eyes to see, what we would see is that all the world is illumined by God’s Love and that in every face is the face of the one Peter, James and John saw on the mountain top, and it shines like the sun. Amen.