Mountaintop Magic

March 1, 2015 – Rev. Jan Hryniewicz

Text: Isaiah 55: 9 – 12 & Luke 9: 28 – 36

I have to begin today by announcing something I just learned yesterday:. Marcus J. Borg, beloved husband and father, renowned teacher, author and leading scholar of the historical Jesus, New Testament and contemporary Christianity, died on January 21, 2015. He was 72. Marcus J. Borg was known for teaching that a deep understanding of the historical Jesus and the New Testament can lead to a more authentic life—one not rooted in dogma, but spiritual challenge, compassion, community and justice.

I am deeply saddened that he will no longer be writing books, teaching and offering workshops, yet his wisdom has planted many seeds in the minds of spiritual seekers that will continue to take root and flourish. I am currently reading his latest book, published just last year called Convictions…. How I learned what matters Most. I am grateful that he lived and wrote and touched my life. Hardly a sermon is written when I don’t look and see what Borg says about this or that!! In his obituary, it says that he is survived by his wife, children, grandchildren and two terriers, Henry and Abbey. Not surprised that he was a dog person!! May he rest in eternal peace…. and see fully the God he served so faithfully.

In tribute to him, I want to begin my sermon reflection this morning with a quote from his best selling book The Heart of Christianity. He has a chapter, which is very relevant to our discussion today entitled Thin Places, Opening the Heart.

His words: “Open hearts” and “thin places” suggest much of what is central to being Christian. They name the goal and means of transformation, the purpose and the practice of the Christian life for us as individuals and in our life together as church….Thin places are places where two levels of reality meet or intersect. They are places where the veil momentarily lifts, and we behold God, we experience the one in whom we live, all around us and within us.”

These “thin place” moments may also be called “wondrous encounters” to use the words of another brilliant scholar and spiritual mystic, Fr. Richard Rohr. The veil is lifted and we behold God…..and are never the same.

These are moments when we feel we have been blessed by a divine miracle!   Are you a believer in miracles? In “thin places”? Am I? Do we have open hearts….or are they closed up tight? Borg suggests that having an “open heart” is essential to experiencing the lifting of the veil… the miracle….the first step in the process of spiritual transformation.

One morning a man came into the church on crutches. He stopped in front of the holy water, put some on both legs, and then threw away his crutches. An altar boy witnessed the scene and then ran into the rectory to tell the priest what he’d just seen.

“Son, you’ve just witnessed a miracle!” the priest said. “Tell me where is this man now?”

“Flat on his back over by the holy water!” the boy informed him.

Oops! A failed miracle!?

Abraham Joshua Heschel (January 11, 1907 – December 23, 1972) was a Polish-born American rabbi and one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century. He wrote this in his book I Asked for Wonder

God is not always silent, and men and women are not always blind. In every one’s life there are moments when there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known, opening a sight of the eternal. Each of us has at least once ….experienced the momentous reality of God ….. The remembrance of that experience and loyalty to the response of that moment are the forces that sustain our faith.

It is interesting to note that the title of this book, I asked for Wonder, comes from the preface in Heschel’s book of Yiddish poems, where he comments to God, “I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.”

….And isn’t that what we relish about children…their capacity for wonder…their insatiable curiosity ? It truly is a blessing when we are able to retain or at least revisit our sense of awe and wonder.

Carl Jung, the renowned psychiatrist, believed that in order to be healthy and whole we much accept the fact that we live in a world, which in many ways is mysterious. We have to know, he believed, that the unexpected and the incredible belong in this world.

Like Jung, Albert Einstein insisted that some things are simply impenetrable. He believed that to accept this fact as a reality was what it meant to have a religious attitude toward life.

Those of us who have been raised in a scientific, fact orientated world frequently lose sight of what lies beyond those facts. Those of us who are obsessed with what is provable and can be rationally explained, may be left with an deep longing for the More…something to satisfy the inexplicable longing of our souls. What a relief to not only accept the reality of the impenetrable , but to revel in it!

That’s what, I hope and pray will happen to us on our Lenten Journey this year!   We will rediscover our childlike wonder…. relax in the belief that, because the Divine Presence…..God is a mystery beyond all human comprehension….that there is much that is unknowable and to come to a place where we can be content …and even excited by that. Herschel writes:

“ We must beware lest our dogmas overthink the mystery.”   Amen to that!

 We can be deeply moved by stories like Karen shared this morning…and that others will share each Sunday…..stories that have profoundly affected and supported the faith and lives of those who have had such experiences. We will be guided by author Fr. Richard Rohr to take another look at some of the Wondrous Encounters found in Scripture…. that give us a clue to the way people have experienced the Higher Power for centuries…. events describing God’s interaction with creation.

Did they really happen? Are they true? will NOT be the questions we will focus on, as we explore instead the impact of these magical, inexplicable mountain top experiences. We will go much deeper….. to the mystery and ultimate truth beyond the fact.

The Rev. Chandler Gilbert, better known as Tuck, a United Church of Christ pastor who graduated from Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, MA.

includes a chapter entitled Mountain Day in his delightful book, When I Open My Window. He writes about the Transfiguration experience which Cris just read from the gospel of Luke. He writes:

“ Once upon a time, the Bible tells us, Jesus declared a Mountain Day. He took 3 friends along…. Peter, James and John.   We are told that up there on the mountain, right before their eyes, Jesus was transfigured. In Christian tradition, this is considered an important event. There is even a day designated as Transfiguration Sunday. Raphael went to great lengths to paint the event as he imagined it. Jesus, dressed in dazzling white, is wearing a somewhat sickly, ethereal smile. Floating about three feet in the air, his eyes rolled up toward heaven, he appears not to be well grounded. ( shame on you, Tuck!!) In awe or terror or both, his three hiking buddies are cowering below him. Two of them are literally hiding their faces; the other risks a tentative peek.

I’ve never liked this story, Rev. Gilbert writes. I cannot recall ever having preached about it. Raphael’s attempt to capture it on canvas didn’t help me a bit! His portrayal is too other-worldly, to far removed from my experience and imagination.

Now suddenly, it dawns on me what this may be about. What if the point of this story is not what happened to Jesus but what happened to the disciples? What if THEY were the ones who were transformed? Suppose this was about their ability, at last, to see Jesus as he really was? What if this is about what Marcus Borg calls “meeting Jesus again for the first time?’ ( another of his best selling books).

Tuck concludes: Sometimes I would like something like that to happen to me ….to see Jesus as if for the first time, my eyes unclouded by years of accumulated assumptions and over-familiarity.

“I’ve grown accustomed to his face.” He’s become “old hat.” I feel fettered by the encrustations of the familiar.”

I read Tuck’s commentary with great relish! I too have never liked this story and have never preached about it. You know why? I think because it does not fit my image of or experience with Jesus. I believe that it was written by all three of the synoptic gospel writers to substantiate Jesus’ prophetic lineage with the Hebrew prophets, Moses and Elijah…and to confirm his status as the promised Messiah.

I am not comfortable with the idea of Jesus being transfigured into an ethereal ghost like apparition. Doesn’t fit for me. So I have been guilty of avoiding it! I have had a closed heart. Yet, I am constantly looking to see Jesus…to experience the divine with new eyes.

Our theologian in residence this Lent. Fr. Rohr begins his devotional on the Transfiguration this way:

“The Transfiguration is one of those passages that refuses to be “talked about”….as Jesus himself commands when they descend from the mountain top experience. It surely is a mystical account. The stage is fully set for encounter and for divine intimacy. The apparition included the two symbolic figures of Judaism – the law and the prophets – Moses and Elijah.  When Jesus appears, the other two disappear. We have what appears to be full light in the dazzling image of Jesus, yet there is still darkness in the cloud that descends and covers them. Knowing, yet not knowing. Getting it, and yet not getting it at all.

Hmmm… Isn’t that the character of all true mystery and every in-depth encounter? “ I think I get it, but don’t ask me to explain it!!”             The verbal message they hear emanating from the clouds: “ He is my beloved son…. but…..don’t talk about it!”

Rohr suggests that this kind of miraculous experience, confusing as it may be, needs only to happen once….just as it did for Peter, James and John. That is enough. It changes everything. You will never be able to fully explain it, nor do you need to. Your ordinary shining life, different now down in the valley, will be its only and best proof.

Whenever we have had a “wondrous encounter” of any kind which confirms for us the existence of a Divine Presence in the Universe….. it is enough. Our soul is awakened and the divine/human connection is established… our countenance, our attitude, our lifestyle, our faith is changed forever.

For Jesus it was a time of confirmation and affirmation of his ministry. For Peter, James, and John it was a brief glimpse of the transcendent, a peek at the reality that lies just beyond everyday life. This story confirms Jesus as the Messiah, the Deliverer, the one who would lead God’s people out of oppression again. The one who would restore glory to the nation of Israel. And Peter wanted to be in on that glory. That’s why he wanted to stay up on the mountain with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Carpe diem–seize the day! Let’s just stay here in this glow of glory and forget about the life down below in the valley.

But notice that Jesus quickly led the disciples back down off that mountaintop – in spite of Peter’s desire to pitch a tent and camp there for a long while. Jesus led them back into the daily routine of teaching and preaching and caring for the broken and hurting people of the world they lived in, back to the reality of life in the valley.

Old Testament scholar who some here may know…Hubert Beck shared a commentary on this text that I really like. He wrote: We may have various experiences we could call mountaintop experiences. Perhaps in a beautiful sunset, a glorious strain of music, the satisfying tiredness of a hard day’s work well done, the uplifting friendship of a favorite person, our eyes may be opened to see the glory of the Lord, to know the wonder of God’s love, to feel the nearness of divine presence. All these everyday things can transform an ordinary moment into something extraordinary, and we may find ourselves transported to a mountaintop that will make it easier travelling in the valley.

Who has not felt the need for transfiguration? Who has not felt the Cinderella in them needing to be transformed from a deprived stepsister to a beautiful princess? Who has not felt so drab, so hum-drum, so dull, so boring even to one’s own self that one could hardly stand it? In moments like that – and for some people a good part of their life seems to be spent like that! – we feel that we simply must get beyond ourselves.

We long for wondrous encounters….whether we know it or not! We want to believe in miracles. We want to believe that Jesus was transfigured to reveal the power and glory of God…as we too can be. I have been blessed with those moments and some …perhaps all of you have also. Rainbow moments…. mysterious encounters that filled me with a warm sense of well being… spirit writing that came from somewhere beyond my weary mind….breathtaking blessings from nature giving me a profound of connection with all that is…a persistent sense of call to ministry when a part of me was longing for the stage!

During this Lenten season, let’s all try to maintain an open heart ( and mind and spirit) to receive a wondrous encounter with the Divine presence.

The book of Isaiah is a perfect foundation upon which the themes for Lent can spring forth. Repent, return, renew and rejoice appear to reflect the New Testament themes of the Lenten season, but wait: this is an Old Testament prophet calling the nation of Judah to return to God. Seek God while God may be found.

Isaiah reveals that God is saying that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and our ways not God’s ways. We cannot humanize God….. define or confine God to a box of human understanding. But the passage suggests that like the rain ( and snow…..oh yes, the snow) descends to Earth… nourishing it and promoting new growth…so God’s words, God’s thoughts enter our human souls and minds , nourish them and enable us to do the necessary work to fulfill God’s purposes for creation. We go to the mountain to be inspired and return to the valley to do the work.   The passage closes with two of my all time favorite verses:

“ You shall go out with joy and be led forth in peace…the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song and all the trees in the fields will clap their hands!”  

The magical experience of divine presence on the mountain top enables fruitful lives in the valleys.

I will let author/pastor James McCormick offer the closing words….. with which I agree and could not have said better:

I am convinced that the deepest levels of human experience are dealt with best not by analysts…not by detached, objective, rational reporters, but by people who get inside of an experience, and seek to share that experience, even though they know they cannot adequately explain it. The deepest things in life cannot be fully described…they can only be hinted at. They cannot be looked at directly, but obliquely. That’s why it takes artists, and poets, and musicians to deal with the deep things of life, because they have the sensitivity necessary to deal with mystery.   Amen!