Friday, February 13, 2015

“Joy and Wonder” - February 15, 2015

Text: Mark 9:2-9

A few days ago, Susan and I were heading east on Lincoln Way when we noticed the vehicle in front of us, a red SUV, drifting into the right lane.  This happened a couple of times, and then a big truck started to pass the SUV on the right.  And sure enough, as this big delivery truck passed it, the SUV again drifted into the right lane.  The truck driver laid on the horn, but instead of quickly getting back where it belonged, the SUV just slowly drifted back into its own lane.  When we got to Grand Avenue, the SUV was in the left turn lane, and we pulled alongside it.  The young woman who was driving was busily texting, fairly oblivious to what was going on around her.

This happens all the time.  If you are putting on makeup or messing with the radio or arguing with the kids in the backseat, you will be distracted from the road and are much more likely to have an accident.  I am not trying to be holier than thou here – when traveling I will sometimes eat my lunch while driving, and I sometimes take a phone call, but at least I haven’t read a book while driving, as I have witnessed some drivers doing on the highway.

Our house is close to a four-way stop.  I can’t tell you how many times somebody has pulled out right in front of me and made a left turn at that intersection when it was clearly not their turn to go.  Or how many times one car on 24th Street will go through the intersection and then the next car in line behind that one will go too, even though three other vehicles were already at the intersection waiting.  It’s galling.  Invariably these people are chatting away on the phone, in their own world.

What can be done about this?  Maybe the problem is education.  Maybe people don’t know that they can be distracted by using the phone or sending a text while they are driving.  If people were just properly informed, then the problem would be solved. 

We could extend this to other driving habits.  Not just texting or talking on the phone while driving – but drinking and driving.  If people only knew that it was a bad idea and could be dangerous, they wouldn’t do it.  And if people only knew that they were much more likely to survive an accident if they were wearing seat belts, they would wear them.  

This need for more knowledge, for better information applies to so many other things.  If people only knew that cigarettes cause lung cancer, then they wouldn’t smoke.  If someone would just explain to us the benefits of exercise or of eating plenty of fruits and vegetables or why we should have a will, we would do it.  And this information problem must also be true for world problems.  If someone would just explain to us the dangers of polluting the air or the problems that come with building in flood plains, we would make changes.  If somebody could just explain to terrorists the advantages of a free and open society and the need to stop the violence, then disagreements could be resolved.

Hopefully you are getting the picture.  It is not that knowledge and information are unimportant.  They are very important, but information is not necessarily the best motivator.

Dr. Thomas Butts wrote (on Day1.com):
We generally assume that human beings are rational creatures who live in a world that is governed by rational behavior.  Therefore, our personal and public problems are the result of ignorance, the solution to which is the discovery and dissemination of correct information….
But then he goes on to say, however:
…It appears that simple, sensible information has a very low persuasive value.  We are far more likely to be motivated by some emotion than by information. Observing an accident on the roadside where someone was killed, or spotting a police car in our rearview mirror will likely get our attention far more quickly than a billboard or a radio ad on safe driving. 
Psychiatrist Gordon Livingston points out that motivations and habit patterns that underlie most of our behavior are seldom logical.  “We are much more driven by …emotions of which we are only dimly aware.  One is often confronted by the fact that some ignorance is invincible.”  What a quote: “some ignorance is invincible.”  People can become so wedded to their particular view of reality that they ignore all evidence to the contrary.

Information and logic are important, but it is inspiration and emotion that really motivate us to creative change.

Think for a minute about the life of Jesus.  Look at the people around him.  Look at how they learn and how they grow and how they change.  He teaches them – but not simply through rote memorization or class lectures.  Not simply through traditional or predictable means.  He’s not just disseminating information; he uses parables, stories, metaphors that grab their imagination.  And he teaches not only through his words but through his life.  He breaks social norms.  He confronts power brokers.  He is a person of absolute integrity.  He feeds the 5000.  He walks on water.  He turns water into wine.  After a day of striking out on the lake, he tells his disciples to put out their nets and there is a miraculous catch of fish.  He heals lepers.  These miracles are the sorts of things that break through preconceived ways of thinking – they break through the “invincibility of ignorance,” as Gordon Livingston so nicely puts it.  And Livingston is undoubtedly right; the invincibility of ignorance is so great that it takes several of these signs and miracles before Jesus’ disciples even start to get it.  We see miracle after miracle, sign after sign, and the disciples still struggle to understand.

When we come to today’s scripture, the story of the Transfiguration, we are faced with an event that is beyond mere fact.  We read the account and it just states it very simply, “He was transfigured before them.”  The word “transfigured” means to be changed into something more exalted or more glorified or more beautiful, but we don’t just throw the term around.  I don’t think I have ever heard it used to speak of anything but this moment in the life of Jesus. 

Jesus took Peter, James, and John up to the mountain.  It was a chance to get away from the crowds that followed him, a chance to catch his breath and reflect and meditate and spend time with God.  And in the midst of this time of prayer, something happened - something mysterious and powerful and wonderful.  Jesus’ face began to glow.  There was a dazzling white light.  Peter, James, and John had fallen asleep but they awoke and saw the light.  And with Jesus, in the light, they saw Moses and Elijah.  Moses, the giver of the Law, and Elijah, the greatest prophet of Israel. 

Peter and James and John didn’t know what to think or what to do.  They only knew that something incredible was happening, and they wanted to capture the moment.  They wanted to hold on to the glory.

Peter said to Jesus, “Let me build three dwellings--one for you, Moses, and Elijah.”  He wanted to bottle what they felt at that moment.  But he couldn’t.  It wasn’t something he could control. 

Immediately a cloud came upon them, and there was a Voice.  They were terrified.  The voice said, “This is my son, my Beloved; listen to him.”

In the Bible, mountains are often places of worship, places where God is experienced.  Moses goes to Mt. Sinai to receive the law.  We read that the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain, and Moses stays on mountain for forty days and forty nights.  Later, from the top of Mt. Pisgah, Moses can see the Promised Land.  Elijah goes to the top of Mt. Horeb and experiences God as a still, small voice.  And then it was on Mt. Carmel that Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal.  Jesus went to the Mount of Olives to pray.

And now, Jesus again goes to the mountain to pray.  He took his closest followers with him.  But they couldn’t stay awake.  While Jesus meditated, they began to sleep.  They awoke to a mystical, mountain-top experience, a powerful experience of the presence of God.

How about you?  Have you had a mountaintop experience?  A brush with the Holy in which God seemed especially real and near? 

Such times can be very important for us – they are times when it is reinforced for us that our faith is not simply a collection of beliefs that we sign on the bottom line.  These Holy Moments are times when faith is experienced, when faith is lived.  They teach us, they remind us, they grab us with the truth that faith is not just about the facts; it is about trust and wonder and awe and joy and relationship. 

We need these Holy Moments.  These are times when we may break out of that ignorance that can be invincible, experiencing God in a new way and seeing a bigger world out there.

These Holy Moments may not necessarily be big and dramatic.  God may speak to us in a still, small voice.  For me, some of those mountaintop moments have actually been on a mountain, or in the woods, or along the ocean or at least far away from my normal routine.  Last April, I saw the Grand Canyon for the first time and was just blown away – I experienced in a new, fresh way the power and the beauty of God’s creation. 

Holy moments may occur when we clear the distractions that are so much a part of our everyday lives and really have time for God.  It’s no accident that the Transfiguration took place on the mountain, a place where immediate worries and concerns could be set aside in order to focus on prayer.

But then again, Holy Moments may happen in the midst of the everyday when we somehow are enabled to see things – to see one another, to see life, to see God – in a new way.  We may experience God’s presence in the most mundane moments – while doing the laundry, or driving to work, or walking to class.  Holy Moments may happen even in some of the most difficult times of life as we are sustained by the love and care of God, often experienced through the love and compassion of others.

We cannot create or force these moments - they just happen.  Peter and James and John were not expecting this “brush with the holy.”  They did not plan it or make it happen.  It was God’s doing.  Those mountain-top experiences are not up to us.

Morton Kelsey did a study many years ago in which the majority of people reported that they had had mystical experiences with God.  But a majority also reported that they had never told this to anyone because it was too hard to explain and they were afraid no one would believe them.

The Transfiguration was a unique event in the life of Jesus, an event that affirmed for Jesus who he was and the path that he was taking.  And it was something so powerful and so mysterious, it obvious that the gospel writer is trying to describe something that is very hard to put into words. 

It is important that these mystical, mysterious stories are included in the scriptures because we can be tempted to give an overly rational explanation for faith.  We can be tempted to think of Christianity like we do trigonometry or algebra, as a largely intellectual enterprise in which these are the facts, these are the seven golden principles for living, and if we do “x” then God will respond with “y.”  We can come to think that we have it all figured out – or at least to rely on an authority who has it all figured out.  We can make faith into a neat, tidy, transactional endeavor.  But faith doesn’t work that way. 

The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church has a wonderful prayer to be said for the newly baptized.  The prayer concludes with these words:
Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit.  Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.  Amen.

I love that last line: “The gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”

Faith is not simply about the facts.  Following Jesus is not about believing certain things and taking certain positions.  In the words of that prayer, following Jesus is about having an inquiring and discerning heart, about having the courage to will and to persevere, about knowing and loving God, about finding joy and wonder in all of God’s works.

Mike Gecan talked about going to his child’s Kindergarten class and seeing a bulletin board that listed what the students wanted to learn in school that year.  Most of the statements were things like “learn to sit still” or “follow the rules,” or “listen to the teacher better.”  But one child had said, “I want to know why the ocean shines like fire.”

Wow.  Here is a kid who has the gift of joy and wonder in all of God’s works.  His goal for kindergarten was, “I want to know why the ocean shines like fire.”

Knowledge is important, but knowledge doesn’t necessarily turn your life upside down – or even change you.  Finding the joy and wonder in all of God’s works – that’s another story.

Our faith is about knowledge, to be sure.  It is about learning.  We are quick to say around here that you don’t have to check your brains at the door.  Faith engages the intellect, and it is important to think deeply, to use the minds God has given us.  But faith involves a lot more than “just the facts.”  Let us pray:

Sustain us, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit.  Give us inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.  Amen.

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