Sunday, March 02, 2014

Transfiguration Year A

NB: With a bit of help from a variety of sources.

The ancient Celtic Christians liked to talk about what they called “thin places.” Places where heaven and earth intersect, where time and eternity, life and death, God and the world converge.

Or at least that’s what it feels like. Thin places are where the boundary between flesh and spirit vanish, where the veil of death lifts, even if momentary, and we behold our God, experiencing the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

For some people, thin places were - and still are - actual places. For Celtic Christians, the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland was such a place. But for others, the traditional destinations of pilgrimage: Rome, Santiago de Compostella, Lourdes, and of course, the holy land - Jerusalem, still attract millions of people each year, souls looking for a deeper, more direct experience of God.

Others find nature to be a thin place, where God is revealed untouched by human involvement. Or in music, experiencing that which cannot be expressed by words. Or in books with stories that tell us more about life than life itself.

A thin place is where our hearts are exposed to God’s presence, God’s glory, God’s holiness, God’s profound otherness. It’s as if a window to eternity has been opened and we breathe the fresh air of divine love. Where grace and beauty, joy and peace, overwhelm the pain and hurt, the tedium and the routine that too often finds a home in ours.

And in response, we worship. Not because God demands it. But because beauty does.

We get our word “worship” from the old Anglo-Saxon word “worth-ship.” To worship means to see and respond to the true worth of something, to recognize and adore the value of another.

The bible talks about worshiping “God in the beauty of God’s holiness.” Beauty has a way of reaching out to us, seizing us, demanding our adoration. 

I’m guessing that’s why, in today’s gospel reading, Peter, James, and John wanted to set up camp and stay on that mountain. They wanted to bask in God’s beauty because human life is not always beautiful. 

They wanted to stay up there because that’s where they knew they could find God, because God does not always feel so close. They wanted to stay up there because they didn’t want to lose the fire, the passion, the overwhelming holiness that stole their breath right from their bodies.

Maybe that’s why some of you come to worship. You come looking for something you don’t see “out there.” You come hoping to see and touch something of God. 

You come to this hour wondering if there is anything beyond or above the life that makes up the rest of your hours. 

You know how easy it is to become accustomed to an anesthetizing routine, how easy it is to have your vision dulled by the reassuring ordinariness of everyday life. And you ask if there’s anything more than what you see day after day after day.

A job that drains your energy and your conscience. Relationships that are comfortable, but not exciting and intimate, at least not the way they used to be. Dreams that were swallowed whole by family obligations. There has to be more than this.

So you come to this gathering place, into this house of prayer and praise hoping that the veil between life and death, eternity and time, heaven and earth, might be lifted, even just a little, so you can see a glimmer of the beam that lit up the night on that mountain. Maybe that will give you enough strength to make it through the week, and perhaps beyond. At least that’s the hope.

I know that’s why I come to church. Other than because I get paid to. I come seeking that shining light, to see the veil lifted from between this life and the next.

Some may dismiss this as mere daydream, a fanciful diversion from life’s troubles; a distraction from the realities that confront us. A self-imposed delusion.

And they may be right.

Or it could be training for the soul, coaching us, preparing us for those times when pain and loneliness and hunger ambush us. Remembering God’s beauty when the world can often seem so ugly. Fortifying our compassion to help us to respond to those in need when our own resources are stretched.

And I know the constant gravitational pull of the mountain. I often pull out the blueprints for the house I want to build there.

I spent March 1996 in a monastery - St. Augustine’s House in Oxford, Michigan. I was seriously thinking about becoming a monk. Going to St. Augustine’s House was the culmination of three years of discernment; reading, thinking, praying, worshipping, wondering, and dreaming. I loved chanting psalms. I loved silence. I loved worship.

I loved the rhythm of the monks’ life together, pulsating between work and prayer, song and silence. When I arrived at St. Augustine’s House, I felt like I had arrived home.

I stood in the middle of the church sanctuary and drank in its simple beauty, the aroma of the lingering incense, the mystical elegance of the statuary and stained glass, the deep, full-bodied silence that soaked into the walls and the floor. Like the disciples on that mountain, I thought to myself, “It’s good that I be here.”

I almost stayed and joined the monks. I really wanted to. But I also wanted to finish my semester. So I packed up my stuff and left, believing I’d return.

When I arrived home, I hopped on a bus to the Station Hotel, in downtown Kitchener, Ontario, where my friends and I were doing “mission work” for our church history class. The Station Hotel was the dingiest, most notorious bar in town, infamous for its bikers, prostitutes, and really cheap beer.

My friends and I would show up at the hotel bar on Friday afternoons wearing our clerical collars, which made quite the impression on the patrons, of which there were many, even at that time of the day. Our work clothes opened some doors, and closed others.

We usually just chatted with folks. Everyone had a story. Some were more believable than others. One of my friends heard a guy’s confession in the bathroom while doing their business. Others invited us to play pool while we talked.

But when I showed up that day after arriving home from St. Augustine’s House, I sat with a fellow who said he once a professional hockey player. Now he was a professional drinker. We talked, he shared his life story with me, and then he asked me to pray. So I did. Right there in the middle of the bar. He didn’t care who saw and neither did I. 

For a moment, I saw a light shine in his eyes that looked like a recognition that something new was stirring within him, that he was seeing something beyond the alcohol, loneliness, and regret that was his life.

It must have been a glimpse into what Peter, James, and John saw when Jesus shone on that mountain.

And I as I prayed with that fellow in the middle of that pub, and saw that light in his eyes, I thought to myself, “I was wrong. I was wrong the same way the disciples were wrong. God didn’t want me cloistered away in a monastery living a peaceful life of prayer. No. It WASN’T good that I be THERE. It’s good that I be HERE. This - here - is where God wants me. This - here - is where I meet the God shown to us in Jesus.”

On the mountain, it is said that Jesus was “transfigured,” that his garments gleamed white, and a light shone from him brighter than the light of the sun. 

So, the disciples, who had walked dusty highways with him, fell to their knees when they saw Jesus shine, and were overwhelmed with wonder. A voice from heaven reminded them who Jesus was. And so they worshipped.

But that worship, that mountain-top experience, prepared the disciples for what was waiting for them down the road. That moment on the mountain gave them strength for the death waiting for Jesus just a little time later.

Mountain-top experiences prepare US for the plains and valleys, the pains, worries, and tediums of life in this broken and many times un-beautiful world. Meeting God in the beauty of worship helps us meet God on the cross of our own suffering, and in the suffering of others.

It’s those moments when the veil is lifted, when we visit those thin places, when we “worship in the beauty of God’s holiness” that we then find our way back into living the life God wants us to live.

Where the beauty of God intersects with pain of our lives is where faith begins. Where the serious business that we do here, in this place, finds its feet, and runs out into the world proclaiming life in Jesus’ name.

And there’s no more serious business for us in the Church, than holy baptism, the entry way into the faith, where God, today, takes Asher up the mountain, blesses him, declares him part of God’s family, and sends him into his life as a healing presence, using his years as a light of God’s love, no matter where he finds himself.

Just like each one of you here. As we gather in Jesus’ name, we worship the one who called us up the mountain,  lit the fire, and removed the veil, taking you to the thin places, so that you can make your way back to meet the God of the suffering, crucified Jesus, in a broken and hurting world, with a message of new life for everyone, and - together - we sing with one voice, it is good that we be THERE.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Blogger Contact Information said...

NIce... great angle.

I ended up preaching what sounded like a funeral sermon in some ways today... (mostly because my story was about my Grandpa's funeral).

I saw the line of Peter wanting to live on the mountain in the holy moment but God ultimately walking with humanity into the hard parts of life (Lent and Good Friday)

I really liked the part where you said we are attracted to the beauty and this give strength for the days to come ahead.

11:28 AM  

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