March 2, 2014: The Elusive Presence of God by Rev. Beth Hayward

Listen to the sermon here:

This week marked the ten year anniversary since the death of Fred Rogers, in honour of this icon of children’s television many people turned to social media to keep his legacy alive. Maybe you saw the clip posted online of Mr. Rogers receiving the life time achievement award at the 1997 Emmys.  In his trademark humble demeanour he takes to the stage and commands the attention of the crowd.  He says to the Hollywood elite:   “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being.  Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people that have helped you become who you are.  Those who have cared about you and have wanted what is best for you in life…” And then he stopped and looked at his wristwatch for 10 full seconds.

Ten seconds felt remarkably long as Rogers patiently watched the clock.  Our society is not so used to pause, time out for silence.  Today we stand in the place between Epiphany:  the season of light and wonder, and Lent:  the season of deep self-reflection and wilderness wanderings.  We are moving ever further away from the dazzling wonder of Christmas and persistently toward the deep and trying wilderness that takes us to the cross. We are about to enter the season that is the ten second pause, or the forty day pause as the case may be.  Lent is a bold time out for silence in a world that never sleeps: a counter cultural action of being over doing.  And we are scripturally invited into this pause by a story that defies easy interpretation.

The transfiguration of Jesus can certainly be described as mystic.  Preachers, the world over come to this one with a bit of trepidation.  Or maybe it’s just me.  It is difficult to describe, elusive and fleeting and so we tend to offer the same old interpretation with new illustrations.  I think we fool ourselves into thinking that you want an explanation when in truth you are wise enough to hold the wonder of it, to embrace the mystic experience portrayed here, as gift.

In a nutshell the transfiguration story goes like this:  Jesus and three disciples head up a mountain to pray, while there Jesus is transfigured:  becomes all dazzling and bright.  The long dead Moses and Elijah appear and hold counsel with Jesus.  Peter thinks a fitting thing would be to build a tent for each of them but before he can put that plan into action they are enveloped in a bright and scary cloud.  A voice erupts from the cloud:  “this is my beloved:  listen to him!” As the cloud vanishes, the ghosts of scripture past go with it and Jesus pulls his followers to their feet.  He urges them to not be afraid.  On the way back down to the awaiting crowds Jesus swears his followers to secrecy about what went down on the mountain.

And so some have said:  it is about Christology.  Moses and Elijah are heavy weights of the Jewish scriptures.  Moses represents the law and Elijah is here to represent the prophets.  Jesus: is the beloved, the Messiah.  In this interpretation the story serves to tell us the true identity of Jesus.

Then there is the popular and plausible psychological explanation:  we all have mountain top experiences where what we knew to be true is shaken, where the way we used to see things no longer holds: we are transfigured.  These encounters are meant to fill us up for the hard work that lies ahead back in the valleys of life.

Both are plausible:  the risk is that we can hide behind the theological and psychological interpretations, when the wonder and mysticism of the story can actually stand on its own.   Barbara Brown Taylor says this about the transfiguration:

What if the point is not to decode the cloud but to enter into it?  What if the whole Bible is less a book of certainties than it is a book of encounters, in which a staggeringly long parade of people run into God, each other, life–and are never the same again?[1]

What happens when we enter into the cloud:  when we take 10 seconds or 40 days to be in the cloud?  We see in short order that there in much in this elusive story that touches our experience.

Making our lives here on the coast amidst the mountains we know that the peak of a mountain can be unpredictable and ever changing.  Sometimes when you summit a mountain you can see as far as the eye can see and it is majestic, spectacular, breathe taking, awesome.  Other times the peak and us on it are enveloped in cloud, denied the expansive, awe inspiring majestic view.  We know that either experience can change us: in the light we breathe in the majesty of the natural world.  In the cloud we learn to notice what is at our feet or in front of your noses.  As scary as the cloud might be, it holds the voice of God just a little bit closer than it might otherwise.  In the cloud the pace is slowed and the senses heightened.    We don’t know if the cloud ever lifted from the disciples but we do know that when it came they fell to the ground in fear and at some point after they were touched by Jesus and assured to not be afraid.

There is much in this elusive story that touches our experience.

Jesus comes face to face with those who loved him into being.  There he is, on yet another Biblical mountain top in conversation with Moses and Elijah, summoning the presence of those who have shaped his story, pausing for ten seconds to wonder.  Who would you summon on the mountain top?  Whose light would you long to be bathed in if you were about to descend the mountain into the sure and murky depths of life?  Jesus? Desmond Tutu? King? Merton? Nouwen? Your special grandma? A teacher from years ago?  The child who brought you light in ways you couldn’t have anticipated?

Film producer Tom Shadyac pulled together a circle of wise elders who have loved a generation into being in his 2011 documentary:  I am.  Perhaps some of you saw Lonnie’s post online earlier this week.  For some reason Lonnie and I both missed the original release of this film three years ago:  it’s a compelling story of a wildly successful Hollywood producer who had a life changing experience.  As he contemplated his own mortality he began to ask different questions than he had ever asked before.  And so he set out to film a documentary based on two simple questions:  what is wrong with the world?  And What can we do about it?  To answer his question he drew together the likes of Desmond Tutu, David Suzuki and other historians, journalists and scientists, big thinkers.  He posed the questions to a group of people who had shaped the lives and thinking of many in our global community.  Like Jesus in the mountain top cloud he sat in counsel with the wise elders.  As the story unfolded it was clear that it was clear that Shadyac was falling down in the cloud, reaching for the light so that he could return to the grind of real life with something to offer.  He came away with the knowledge that we are made for love, hard wired for it.  Did you know that in Darwin’s The Dissent of Man, he mentioned survival of the fittest twice and love 95 times? Did you know that 95 percent of signals come through nerves to the brain not the other way round?  The heart he discovered is what unites us and in fact love and empathy are a far stronger drive than competition and dominance.

There is much in this elusive story that touches our experience.

More than anything what we can’t deny in this the story of Transfiguration is the light. Jesus face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.  That’s the line that pushes our rational selves a bit far.  Process theologian Bruce Epperly describes it this way:

It is as if the quantum energy of the universe is localized in his mortal frame.  Jesus radiates divine energy: the energy of incarnation and resurrection.  He is found to be more than we can imagine.  Yet, the mountaintop is not an end unto itself…  As[they] go forth from their ecstatic experiences, Jesus and the disciples encounter a desperate parent and a demon-possessed (epileptic) boy.  We go from mystical heights to the messiness of human pain and the cross in the distance.  The energy of the universe goes forth in healing and a child is transfigured and made whole.[2]

There is much in this elusive story that touches our experience.  And it invites us into 10 seconds of silence and forty days of contemplation, wandering and waiting.

Perhaps the mountain prepares us for the place in between: we know the mountain top and the glory of the light and we know how desperately we need to remember the mountain top when we are in the valley.  What about those other times when we are numb or we can’t touch our passion, can’t tap into our light? What about the times we must make our way down the mountain and our memory begins to fail us and our doubts begin to seep in and we don’t have any real crisis to shake us back into the truth that we can’t do this alone?  That just may be what the transfiguration prepares us for:  the forty days in between what was and what will be…

Perhaps like Barbara Brown Taylor suggests, we need a bit of lent because…

Most of us are so distracted by our gadgets, so busy with our work, so addicted to our pleasures, and so resistant to our depths that a nice long spell in the wilderness is just what we need.

No one can make you go, after all.  But if you’ve been looking for some excuse to head to your own mountaintop and pray, this is it.  If you’ve been looking for some way to trade in your old certainties for new movement in your life, look no further.  This is your chance to enter the cloud of unknowing and listen for whatever it is that God has to say to you.  ..[T]his is your chance to encounter God’s contagious glory, so that a little of that shining rubs off on you.

This elusive tale might well linger with us in the seconds and days to come:

–          reminding us that we don’t go alone.

–          reminding us that we will be enveloped in clouds that at first seem frightening and that make way for the glory of holy presence.

Above all, this tale might linger within us reminding us that the radiance, the dazzling light of Holy love is right there in the thick of the cloud with us:  defying easy explanation and shining so brightly that our words fail us.  This tale might linger as an assurance that whatever you face when the cloud lifts:  you belong and you are up to it.  Whether you take 10 seconds of 40 days: come to the mountain to pray for a while, fell the divine light that warms you even as the clouds settle in and embrace the invitation to not be afraid, whatever lies ahead.  Amen


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Bright Cloud of Unknowing,” March 2, 2014.

[2] Bruce Epperly, “The Adventurous Lectionary: Transfiguration Sunday,” 2 March 2014.