On the Mountain
Transfiguration Sunday--Mark 9:2-9
Belmont UMC—February 15, 2015
Ken Edwards, preaching
The Celtic spiritual tradition gives us the concept of thin places—places that give us an opening into the magnificence and wonder of the other. There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three apart but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. “A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God.” (“Where Can I Touch the Edge of Heaven,” by Sylvia Maddox, explorefaith.org)
Rags could not tell me the story of his vision. Every time he tried he became too emotional. His real name was Ragsdale, but everyone had called him Rags since he was a little boy. Rags and his wife, Edna, lived in white framed, neat as a pin, farm house about mile from our parsonage. We loved Rags and Edna and ate dinner with them regularly. They had one son who was away at college and they loved him more than anything on the planet.
Rags could be a little peculiar about things. He believed that the safest place in a thunder storm was his pickup truck and he and Edna would run to the truck at the slightest hint of thunder. I can recall driving by and seeing them huddled together in the cab of the truck.
Rags always kept a harmonica in his front shirt pocket. On Sundays he was apt to get out of his pew and join the pianist in playing a hymn—especially one of the old favorites like “I’ll Fly Away.” Rags had a heart condition and I would always worry when he played and his face turned beat red and he became a little winded. His heart condition was part of his story.
Rags tried to tell me about his vision for two years but he would break down and cry so hard that Edna worried it would make him sick. “When you’re ready,” I told him.
One day we were sitting on the front porch of the house and he told me about the day of his heart attack and how he’d gone into cardiac arrest in the emergency room. Through buckets of tears he told me about the light that he saw and the river of God and his mother and father waiting for him on the other side. He said it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. While he was having this glorious vision doctors were working to revive him. By the time he finished telling it I had begun to cry with him.
Rags said, “That’s my rags to riches story.” For him this vision was so real that it had changed his life and defined the way he lived. It had given him a certainty and a hope we all long for.
Frederick Buechner describes his own experience as he writes of surprising tears that came to him in a Presbyterian church one day, tears that came after a passionate search to know God and put a face with the mystery that seemed to seek him out. That face was the face of Christ. He writes, “I wanted learn more about those tears and the object of that astonishment. I wanted to know, and be known by, people who knew greatly more about Christ than I did, were greatly closer to him than I was, greatly more aware of what they were about and of what he was about in them.” (Listening to Your Life, pp. 30-31)
Jesus took three of his disciples up a high mountain to be by themselves, apart from the others. It was not unusual for Jesus to retreat to a quiet place to pray, but on this day something quite remarkable happened. Jesus was changed in front of them and his clothes became extraordinarily white and there appeared with him 2 prominent characters in Hebrew history, Moses and Elijah, persons who had had their own mountain top experiences with God.
The experience was surprising and terrifying for the disciples. Peter says, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make 3 shrines—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” The next sentence is quite human. “He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified.” (verses 5-6; CEB) Peter feels a need to speak, to fill the void, to distract them from their fear, to take control of the situation, to make sense of what has happening, or . . . How like us to feel a need to control that which we cannot explain!
When I was 18 years old I had an experience of spiritual renewal. I was a college student at the time in the early months of my freshman year. There was a place on the college campus where I would go to get away and be alone. There was one hill on campus and on top of that hill was a deserted old brick house. In front of the house was a huge old oak tree that appeared to have weathered many storms. I’d sit on the steps of the house and read and reflect. One sunny, warm day as I was sitting on the steps, I looked down the hill. The limbs from the tree formed a shadow in the shape of the cross and a wonderful sense of peace and assurance flooded me. It was quite stunning and I sat there for a long time basking in the sense that God was very much with me.
I share this story so that you will pause and remember those times when you were surprised by a sense of God’s presence. Those experiences can be filled with wonder and awe or they can be a bit unsettling as well.
When I shared my experience on the hillside with my friends, they all wanted to know what the experience meant. Was it a sign? What are you supposed to do with the experience? Their questions puzzled me. I had been so caught up in the wonder and awe of the experience it had not occurred to me to look for a reason and try to define the experience in any way. When I look back on that day I’m grateful to have moments when I sense God’s reassuring presence and that alone is good enough for me. I suspect our best response to those moments of surprising grace is one of awe and wonder.
Peter’s words on the mountain remind me of something my seminary history professor said once. He said that most of the great spiritual awakenings began among the laity. The clergy and the theologians always came along later and tried to tidy everything up. We seem to have a need to explain these theophanies, to codify them, to control them, to tone them down. Like Peter we fill the silence and the wonder with our talk, because we find the silence disconcerting. Or maybe we are afraid of where they will call us; maybe we know that the Transfiguration story means that the journey to Lent is near.
I remember a Father’s Day weekend when the three sons went with me to Six Flags in Atlanta. It was our youngest son’s first time at a big amusement park. He had been on small rides at the county fair but he’s never seen a roller coaster like the one we boarded as our first ride that day. As the cars made their slow grinding ascent up the first mountainous hill, he said, “But Dad, it’s so slow.” I replied, “Just wait.” Again he said, “But Dad, it is slow.” I said, “Wait!” He was frustrated by the ascent. But at the top of the hill, the brakes were released and we felt like we were flying downward. I looked over at the little boy’s face to see the look of joy and fear.
We have been making the slow, but steady ascent up the mountain of the Transfiguration, and we are reluctant because we know on the other side of the mountain is the journey to Lent, a journey that can be one of joy and wonder and maybe a little fear—especially if we allow the Lenten journey to speak to us of a closer walk with God.
The Continental Divide is the great watershed divide where all the waters on the west flow toward the Pacific Ocean and the waters on the east flow toward the Atlantic Ocean. The Mount of Transfiguration is that great divide, after which, the activities of Jesus and the disciples flow toward Jerusalem, the cross, and the resurrection. After today we begin our descent to begin the journey of Lent.
In the Gospel story Peter’s suggestion of building shrines is silenced by a cloud and a clear voice from the cloud. The voice is the same voice we heard at the beginning of Epiphany at the baptism of Jesus. The voice says, “This is my son, my beloved, listen to him!” This mountain top experience is about Jesus, about listening to him, about focusing on who he is and what he is saying to us about God.
Today we spend a little time on the mountain with Jesus. Today we hear a clear voice that bids us to “Listen to him.” On Wednesday night we will gather here to begin our journey through Lent. On Wednesday we will be reminded that we are human, and always will be, and God is God, and always will be. On that journey we will be invited to trust God and God’s leading. On that journey, during a time when many voices will compete for our allegiance and following, we will be invited to listen to Jesus! As we listen, we may find ourselves entering a thin place between heaven and earth and we will be filled with wonder and awe!