by The Rev. Deborah Silver
I love mountains. When I was growing up at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California, I could look out of our kitchen window and see Mt. San Antonio or what we affectionately called Mt. Baldy because it had no trees on the summit. Today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings suggest to us that God is partial to mountains too. Especially mountaintops.
Bill and I are drawn to the mountains of western North Carolina. One summer some years ago, we had a memorable mountain top experience. As our car climbed up the winding road toward Mt. Mitchell, about 20 miles northeast of Asheville, the clouds got thicker and the sky grayer. As soon as we got out of the car, a strong gust of wind and light rain whipped our faces. For a summer afternoon in August it was cold! As we headed toward the path that led its way up to the peak of Mt. Mitchell, I wondered out loud to Bill if this hike was such a great idea. We met some folks coming down the mountain who looked rather wet and miserable. One woman was shivering and shaking her head as if to say, “Don’t go up, it’s not worth it!” But we went on, making our way up the steep path. We decided that even if the mountain was shrouded in a cloud, at least we could congratulate ourselves on climbing the highest peak east of the Mississippi at 6,684’.
When we neared the top of Mt. Mitchell, we could see that the sun was just breaking through the clouds. The promise of sunshine and the possibility of a clear view spurred us up the last few yards. At the top of the mountain, we noticed a couple of hikers pointing excitedly towards the horizon.
We followed their gaze beyond the trees and above the clouds and gasped. A spectacular rainbow stretched itself from one end of the horizon to the other in bold and brilliant colors. We stood transfixed for several minutes staring at the sky in utter amazement, overwhelmed by the glory of God’s artwork.
It was one of those things that is pure gift. And, this was before the age of smart phones so we didn’t have a cell phone camera to capture the sight. So instead of pointing and clicking, we stood wrapped in the moment. I recall that I lost all sense of time and place. It was one of those moments when you feel at one with the universe.
This mountain top experience reminded me of the Celtic sense of ‘thin places’ where the veil between heaven and earth is so sheer that it is easy to step through. The separation blurs and according to one mystic it’s as if “heaven and earth kiss”.
Sometimes, the challenge for us is to walk into the clouds, to look beyond the trees, to get beyond the obstructions we encounter on life’s path in order to perceive God’s glory. Sometimes the challenge is simply to push past our cynicism or hopelessness, or to move beyond our comfort zone. Mountain top moments can happen quite literally on top of a mountain in the form of a breath-taking rainbow. Or, sometimes we can even see God’s glory shine through in the face of another person.
In the Transfiguration story we heard this morning, Jesus and three of his disciples had THE mountain top experience.
Peter, James and John followed Jesus up the winding trail to the top of Mt. Hermon outside of Ce-sa-rea Philippid to pray. While praying, they became drowsy and just as they were slipping off to sleep, they suddenly encountered something that defied reason. They looked up and saw that Jesus’ face had changed. He seemed to be glowing with an inner light. Even his clothes were dazzling white. And then Moses and Elijah showed up and Jesus talked to them. If this weren’t enough, a cloud overshadowed them and a voice said, “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him.” And there it ends.
This luminous encounter between God and his beloved Son, two prominent Old Testament figures and three disciples may best be described as a mystical encounter. And, perhaps it is best to leave it at that. Yet, we tend to believe that our task is to figure out the meaning of this mountain top encounter.
The most common meaning of the Transfiguration is that Moses stands for the law, Elijah stands for the prophets and Jesus, of course, is the Messiah. By calling out from the cloud, ”My Son, the Chosen” God sets the gospel over the law and the prophets. “Listen to him” says the voice. And then there’s the interpretation that says Peter gets it all wrong by wanting to erect tents and memorialize the experience rather than simply being in the presence of the holy. And the final explanation of the Transfiguration is that the true purpose of mountain top experiences is to strengthen us for the real work of ministry when we climb down from the mountain.
All of these interpretations may be right on target. These are certainly the interpretations I remember learned in seminary a gazillion years ago.
But, Barbara Brown Taylor, that renown Episcopal priest, preacher and author has another take. She says that when given a passage of scripture, we tend to think that it is our job to “decipher the symbols, read between the lines and come up with the encoded message that Jesus or Luke or God has hidden in the passage for us to find…. Then we can place the meaning neatly folded in a drawer and find it the next time we need it.” And, about the Transfiguration in particular she says, “what if the point is not to decode the cloud but to enter into it?” “In fact,” she continues, “What if the Bible is less a book of certainties than it is a book of [divine] encounters …. that have a way of breaking biblical people open, of rearranging what they know for sure so that there is room for more divine movement in their lives.”
At this point in my life, I find myself less enamored by decoding biblical texts. I’m now much more content with entering the cloud of mystery and wonder. Or, at least that’s what I tell myself. While the Cloud of Unknowing may sound like an intriguing title for a book on Christian mysticism, I don’t necessarily want to enter into that cloud of unknowing.
The truth is, we really don’t want to suspend our need to know what this or that means or what the outcome will be.
But what if the promise of the Transfiguration is that if we’re willing to walk into the cloud, to suspend our need to know, and stay fully present we just may make space for divine movement in our own life.
As a pastoral psychotherapist, I’m drawn towards making the link between spirituality and psychology. And, in one way, “walking into the cloud” describes what some call the “transitional space of therapy.” These are those times when we’re able to trust the process and be present in the moment. It’s tough to explain these “sacred moments”. And, it’s probably better to avoid trying to explain. Instead, it’s best to simply be open to whatever God might be up to. And, yes, it may sound presumptuous to assume that the Holy Spirit may be up to something but isn’t that what our faith is all about?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I believe that in these sacred, transitional spaces, these thin places, the Spirit is actively present. What if the Holy Spirit is actively rearranging our thinking, perhaps changing our minds about what we think is true and why. What if the Holy Spirit is opening hearts and minds so that real, transformative healing and change can occur.
Have you had an experience of being broken open, of having what you thought was true and certain turned inside out and then discovering something that has God’s glory written all over it? My guess is this has happened to you. We usually recognize these experiences in retrospect and sometimes after going through heartbreak.
It doesn’t always take being broken open to become aware of God’s presence. Often times it takes being awake and aware. And, maybe willing to take a risk.
Being awake and aware may mean allowing oneself to be vulnerable. But when we are faced with almost daily mass shootings, as we have this past week, we may indeed feel quite vulnerable. And, let’s face it, our current political climate does not invite vulnerability and risk taking. At times, it seems more like we are living in a Reality TV Show where all human interaction is reduced to scoring sound bites and media attention. This way of living robs us of what is life giving. We are left with cynicism, despair and maybe just plain old apathy.
But, we are people of faith. We can ground ourselves in the stories of our faith. We can ground ourselves in the story of the Transfiguration that proclaims to us that God shows Godself everywhere if we are willing to step outside our current preoccupations and distractions and be open to God’s in-breaking. As mystic Thomas Merton put it, “the story of the transfiguration is not an historical event as much as it is worship, an experience of the divine, a vision of a new reality, or perhaps a vision of the way things really are.”
We live in a time where we desperately need a vision of the way things really are. A vision of what is real and true is our antidote to cynicism and despair. We need to be open to signs of God’s grace. My friends, we need to share our stories of divine encounters, moments when we catch a glimpse of God’s grace, God’s truth-telling, God’s justice-making. We need more moments of what your wandering rector calls “moments of zen” where we are reminded of the majesty of God’s good creation and our place in it. We need to share these stories and experiences so that we can be grounded in God’s reality—in what is real and life giving.
I invite you to listen to such a story now. Perhaps you’ve heard it before but it is worth hearing again because it reminds us in a powerful way of what can be discovered when vulnerability is shared, common decency triumphs and boundaries disappear. Arab American poet and prose writer Naomi Shihab Nye writes about her own unexpected divine encounter. She says,
Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.” Well— one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,” said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”
I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly. “Shu-dow-a, shu-bid-uck, habibti? Stani schway, min fadlick, shu-bit-se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”
We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies— little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts— from her bag and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single traveler declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo— we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
Then the airline broke out free apple juice and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powdered sugar too. And I noticed my new best friend— by now we were holding hands— had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere. And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate— once the crying of confusion stopped— seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too. This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
Friends, not everything is lost. Even in the midst of violence and domestic terrorism. We are God’s people who dare to climb mountains and walk into the clouds. We can push past the fog of lies and distractions. And, God willing, we might even discover a rainbow at the mountain top. Or, better yet, we just might encounter God’s glory in the face of another person – another pilgrim on life’s way and find God’s shalom – all is well. May it be so. Amen.