Based on Luke 9:28-36
Today, in the unique world of the church calendar, is called Transfiguration Sunday. It is the bridge between the post-Christmas season of Epiphany – the time of awakening symbolized by the Magi’s guiding star, the Spirit’s presence at Jesus’ baptism, and into the new season of Lent, traditionally a more sombre, reflective time as Jesus’ faithfulness leads him toward Jerusalem.
The gospel for Transfiguration Sunday tells this strange tale of Jesus on the mountain top with three disciples, when something decidedly unusual happens. But first, let’s hear of another mountain top experience.
“I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land!
I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.” These are the words of Martin Luther King Jr. from an address give in Memphis the night before his assassination, April 3, 1968. He was 39 years old.
As a Baptist minister, King would be very familiar with the story of Jesus on the mountain top, of and the appearance of the long dead but revered figure of Moses, who did not get to cross over into the Promised Land, but led the people as far as he was able. This passage gave him hope and courage to keep going; and not even his death the next day, could stop his message from expanding. We know we need to hear and continue to expand that message today on behalf of so many groups of people who are still marginalized, still in need of justice and equity.
What did the experience mean for Jesus? We can only guess at what sort of conversation he would have with what appears to be Moses and Elijah. What did it mean for the disciples? We hear of their immediate reaction, and we are told that they went back down the mountain and didn’t tell anyone what they experienced! I wonder that that was about?
Reg Bibby, Professor of Sociology of Religion in Canada has done a multitude of surveys and many people admit to what they believe to be spiritual experiences. But most people never talk about them! It’s not because they aren’t important. But people second guess themselves, or try to tell someone and are told they are crazy or wrong or have a great imagination.
What’s the purpose of an extraordinary spiritual experience? Maybe that’s the wrong question. What’s is the experience itself? How does it shape us, affirm us, challenge us, change us?
We can recognise and acknowledge our experience of holy encounters and give thanks for them. Marianne Williamson wrote: ‘It is not our darkness, but our light that we most fear… Your playing small doesn’t serve the world’. She encourages us to shine and thus reflect the character of God and that will encourage others to shine too.
We can recognise that a spiritual encounter, a mountain top vision isn’t given so we can stay and bask in it forever, but so we will have the strength to go back to the valley, to the everyday reality with all its challenges and trials.
The view from the mountain top or even the view from the balcony can help us see the big picture of life. Reinhold Niebuhr said, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
The word “transfiguration” itself can be a little intimidating. If I’m expected to glow like Jesus – well, that’s not going to happen (except perhaps when I have a hot flash.) I think it’s more about having a sense of transformation, or spiritual alignment – when your intellect, your emotions, your body are connected, but more than that – they are in alignment with something bigger – call it God, call it life-force, call it the universe… but for a moment you just know… this is the path, at least this is the turn in the path that must be taken. Maybe it’s a glimpse of the bigger picture, and even if you can’t change things, fix things, you still know that what you are doing is not in vain.
Or maybe it’s just this particular moment that you know – you can’t do it all, and you certainly can’t do it all at the same time – so here’s the one clear thing to do in the moment. In this moment, your soul has a chance to be heard.
Parker Palmer, founder of the Centre for Courage and Renewal, says “Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places. …Yet despite its toughness, the soul is also shy. Just like a wild animal, it seeks safety in the dense underbrush, especially when other people are around. If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out…”
Parker continues, “Unfortunately, community in our culture too often means a group of people who go crashing through the woods together, scaring the soul away. In spaces ranging from congregations to classrooms, we preach and teach, assert and argue, claim and proclaim, admonish and advise, and generally behave in ways that drive everything original and wild into hiding. Under these conditions, the intellect, emotions, will and ego may emerge, but not the soul: we scare off all the soulful things, like respectful relationships, goodwill, and hope.”
He encourages us to “sit quietly “in the woods” with each other and wait for the shy soul to show up… In such a space, we are freed to hear our own truth, touch what brings us joy, become self- critical about our faults, and take risky steps toward change – knowing that we will be accepted no matter what the outcome.”
It was this very process on retreat at Sorrento Centre last spring that helped me to come back here to this congregation and ask for some time to write – so thank you for blessing me with your trust and with this time.
I know there are other things I must pay attention to and must do, but for the moment, there is the knowing, and responding as faithfully as I can. Some questions to reflect on this week:
What are the moments when you `just knew’ that you were on the right path?
When have you experienced a sense that you were not alone, but were in alignment with your whole self, including your soul, and with God, or a power greater than yourself?
How has it strengthened your journey, your resolve, your willingness to step into the challenge ahead, even if it cannot all be achieved in your lifetime?