Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9
Let me tell you a story.
A few years ago, I was with some friends. We’d decided to take a day hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains . The day was sunny, tho’ a few clouds from time to time threw shadows on the road as we headed out. We parked in an area set apart for hikers and started up the trail. It was early spring. The soft purple of the red bud filled in spaces between the bare branches of other trees. The mountain stream running beside the trail was icy cold. I dipped my hands in the water, watched it sparkle in the sunlight as it slipped through my fingers.
At the top of the mountain the trail opened up to clear sky and there we were on a huge outcropping of rock on the face of a steep cliff. Breathless, we took in the amazing view. A valley world spread out below us. A lone hawk hung suspended on unseen wind currents and then dipped out of sight. We were silent as we sat on ancient stones, taking it all in.
A cloud drifted over the rocks. I shivered. I felt a chill, a sense of apprehension. And then one of our small group – well, really, I guess I’d call him the leader – stood up suddenly, shouted out, raised his arms and before our very eyes, turned dazzling white. As if someone had switched on a gigantic light bulb inside him. Two other figures appeared out of nowhere, almost as dazzling. Zap! There they were. And then out of the cloud boomed a loud voice, “This is . . . .”
Well, I’ll stop my story here. “Unbelievable!” you say. But it does have a ring to it, doesn’t it? Like you’ve already heard it once today. Different details, different location, but essential parts the same.
As you might have guessed, the story I just told didn’t really happen to me. At least that part about people dazzling and shining and a loud voice booming out of a cloud. I was just trying to imagine what it would be like, in a contemporary setting that is, to be present at a Transfiguration.
One morning at Westminster Canterbury I was to give the homily for the Friday morning healing service in the chapel. Before the service began I placed an empty chair in the center of the room just in front of the table altar. It just sat there. As residents came in, nobody seemed to notice it. I started my homily. I started it with, “Suppose when you walked in this room this morning, Jesus was sitting in this chair. What would you have done – when you caught sight of him?” I paused a moment to let this startling idea sink in. Some of the residents who were there that morning still come up to me on occasion when I’m at Westminster Canterbury and talk about that chair and what it might have been like to meet Jesus face to face, in the flesh, that morning.
“Provocative,” you might say. “To consider meeting Jesus, the Divine Christ, face to face.” “Interesting,” you might say. “To imagine what God’s voice sounds like.” But, “Unrealistic, not in my life,” you’d probably think.
It happened to Moses, God’s voice that is, and meeting God. It happened to Peter, James and John when they saw Jesus transformed/transfigured into pure Divine in front of their eyes. But happening to you or me, today? That’s going too far.
The Bible, from Genesis through Revelation, is full of stories where the characters encounter the Divine. The stories are so amazing it’s hard to believe they really happened. Or, maybe it’s not so hard to accept that such events actually happened way back then. Where the problem comes in, where our skepticism takes over, is in thinking that these kinds of events can happen today, to us. Like you listened to the Gospel story a few minutes ago and, at some level, perhaps you simply accepted it. After all, it’s in the Bible. But you listened to my story and, well, when things started dazzling and booming you probably thought I was crazy.
When I was first started the ordination process to become a priest in the Episcopal Church, lots of well-meaning, loving people gave me all sorts of advice. A couple of them, very serious, who’d had experience with the process warned me. “You know, if you’ve ever had visions or you’ve ever heard voices, God’s that is, don’t talk about it. It makes ‘them’ nervous.” “Them” being all the folks who are part of the discernment process. “Them” being the ones who were to pass on my suitability for priesthood.
Then when I went before the Commission on Ministry for my afternoon of being questioned by the full Committee to determine whether I could become a Postulant for Holy Orders, the first question I was asked, by the Chair of the committee no less, was, “Well, Torrence, tell me about your friend Jesus.” All the faces around the full table stared at me, waiting. The chair right beside me was empty and without even thinking, without hesitation, I patted the seemingly empty chair and said, “Jesus? He’s right here, right beside me.” And then shocked I thought, “Oh no, that’s it! I’ve done the unthinkable. It’s all over.” But a still, quiet voice inside whispered, “All is well. All will be well.” The words soothed me as they had Julian of Norwich several centuries ago.
Religious experience, or whatever you want to call it, is somehow suspect. It’s “out there.” It’s “on the fringe.” It makes us nervous because it defies rationalization.
Our Anglican tradition lifts up the three-legged stool. It’s how we make sense of our religious life: Scripture, Tradition and Reason. Reason is a way to make sense out of the events of our life, how we bring order and rationality into what could otherwise seem simply an emotional response to things that happen. Emotions – so unreliable, so volatile, so chaotic at times.
They say the Episcopal Church attracts thinkers, the intellectuals, the highly educated, the rational, the logical minds in our society. Religious experience, voices, visions? Not for us! Let’s just leave that for the Pentecostal types.
But are the three legs of the stool the whole picture? What about experience? Can experience inform our life of faith? Can we trust it? Can we risk its impact on who we are and who we are to become. Can we let our intellect relax from time to time and open our hearts and minds to the possibility of experiences we just can’t explain? Can we really “Let go and let God?” Can we let the Divine touch us, mold us, transform us? Sounds a bit scary, doesn’t it?
But we are called to encounter the Divine. We are called to follow Christ, to let Him touch us, to let Him transform us. We are called to let the Spirit enter into our minds and hearts and direct or redirect us. We are called to seek the face of Christ among us. We are called to believe and to trust that matter is God’s creation and that when we, God’s created matter, let ourselves rest in God’s hands we will be molded and transformed into wholeness, into the Divine image, by Divine love. And it’s only then that our lives can become abundant in a way that is beyond reason, beyond rationality, beyond even our wildest imagination.
God gives us many chances to encounter his Divine love and to experience transformation. The opportunity to partake in the sacraments is just one way, but a way that is right here, right now. In Communion. When we take communion do we simply munch a crisp wafer and wash it down with a sip of wine? Or do we let ourselves feel Divine nourishment enter us, strengthen us. In this sacramental act we are called to remember the gift of Christ’s body and blood and be nourished by the realization of awesome Divine love.
Today we celebrate another sacrament in this place. Elizabeth Townsend Mundin will be baptized in a few minutes. Little Townsend, a gift from God placed by God in all of our hands for safe keeping, in the hands of her parents, in the hands of her Godparents, in your and my hands as the community of faith she will officially enter today. In her and through her Baptism we are given a unique opportunity to encounter the Divine.
Babies are special messengers from God. Philip Newell in his beautiful book One Foot in Eden shares with us the Celtic tradition which holds that “when we look into the face of a newborn baby we are looking into the image of God.” In this spiritually rich tradition, as Newell continues, we experience the reality that “The life of God is born anew among us in the birth of a child.”
Little Townsend, as she is brought before this faith family today, is a window for us, bringing into our lives the light of Divine love.
Forget my mountaintop story. Forget what the Gospel story was, if you must. But remember this day and little Townsend. However unbelievable it may seem to you, Christ is present, in this place, this morning. He is standing by that font – waiting. As I dip my hands in the water, lift it up, let it stream through my fingers and as it splashes onto Townsend’s forehead, I believe it will sparkle in the light. It will reflect the light from Christ’s face and it will feel holy.
And if you look closely with the eyes of an open heart, you may just see a glow within and around this child, this baby created in and reflecting the image of her Divine maker. And, if you listen, with a heart yearning to be in tune with the sound of the Divine in your life, you may just hear a voice, soft but oh so clear. A voice saying,
“Listen. This my child, like you, is one of my beloved.”