Friday, February 19, 2016

“Holy Moments” - February 7, 2016

Text: Mark 8:27-9:8

Several years ago, Susan and Zoe and I had a wonderful trip to Europe.  We spent time in a little medieval town on Lake Constance, we visited the area in Germany where Susan had lived as a teenager, we saw the cathedral and other sights in Strasbourg, and we visited a farmhouse in Switzerland built by my ancestors in in 1608.  My distant cousin has a dairy farm there in the Emmental region, famous for Emmentaler cheese – the classic Swiss cheese. 

One of the most memorable parts of our trip was spending time in the Alps.  One morning we got up early, took the train to Interlaken and then a mountain railway and an aerial cable car.  Zoe and I hiked to the little town of Kleine Scheidegg, at the base of three great mountain peaks.

The forecast was iffy, but it turned out to be an absolutely gorgeous, picture-perfect day.  It was late June, and we walked in the sunshine along snow-covered mountains.  We looked down over deep valleys.  We saw wildflowers along the path and cattle with bells around their necks grazing above the tree line as we approached some of the highest peaks in the Alps.

It was hard to go on – not because the walk was difficult, it was actually pretty easy, but because we wanted to stop about every five feet and take another picture.  It was so beautiful and so stunning and we were so amazed to actually be there.  Seeing the incredible beauty of God’s creation, breathing in the fresh mountain air, stopping to rest and just take in the expanse of sky and snow and meadows and mountains, it was a mystical experience.  It was a holy moment.

There is something about the mountains that I have always found very appealing.  Maybe it’s because I grew up in the Midwest and have spent nearly all my life in relatively flat country.  But it’s not just me.  For Native Americans, for example, the Black Hills are a sacred place.  This is also true in scripture.  Mountains are places to meet God.  Moses received the Law on Mt. Sinai.  He gets to see the Promised Land, but not enter it, from Mt. Nebo.  The prophet Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.  Jesus goes to the Mount of Olives to pray.  Mountains can be what Celtic Christianity calls “thin places,” where there is little  separation between heaven and earth.  They are places where Holy Moments can take place.

We have been making our way through Mark, and the scripture this morning raises the question of identity.  Jesus asks his disciples, “What are people saying about me?”  Some were comparing Jesus to Elijah or John the Baptist or one of the prophets.  Then Jesus asked a bigger question, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter gave a big, bold, answer: “You are the Messiah.”

It’s a wonderful answer, but Peter really has no idea what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah.  Peter is thinking of Messiah as in overthrowing the Romans and becoming political leader of the Jewish nation.  So when Jesus begins to speak of suffering, Peter rebukes him.  A Messiah would not suffer the way Jesus is talking.  But Jesus then says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Jesus comes down hard on Peter.  Rather than lording it over others with power and glory, Jesus says, “If you want to be my follower, you have to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”  Those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”  It is a completely different take on what it is to lead.  Jesus has a different idea of what messiahship involves; God’s kingdom is very different from the kingdom of this world.

With this question of identity hanging in the air, and right after Jesus publicly reprimands Peter, Jesus takes Peter along with James and John up on the mountain.  Mark reports it in quite a straightforward manner: “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”  There isn’t much explanation, but I’m not sure how helpful any amount of explanation might be.  Jesus went up on the mountain, and something powerful, something awesome, something other-worldly took place.

The three disciples saw Moses and Elijah with Jesus.  Peter apparently hasn’t learned the lesson about not putting his foot in his mouth, and he starts talking about building dwellings for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses, but while he is still speaking, God’s voice is heard.  And the words are those same words heard at Jesus’ baptism:  “This is my son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”  It is a holy moment, and both for Jesus and for his disciples, it is a confirmation of his identity.

I wonder - have there been holy moments in your life?  Have there been powerful spiritual experiences you find it hard to put into words? 

I have a friend who, after his first child was born, finally went home from the hospital.  He took a shower, and then started calling family and friends to share the good news.  (This was in pre-cell phone days.)  He says it was about an hour before he realized he didn’t have any clothes on.  He was so caught up in the moment that he just hadn’t stopped to get dressed when he got out of the shower.  (Maybe that was too much information.)

The birth of a child can be one of those mountaintop experiences.  We hold that baby for the first time and we may be overcome by the miracle of life.  A holy moment can also come at the death of a loved one, when there is a sense of thankfulness for a life well lived, a life that has touched one deeply, and a sense of God’s presence.  Those holy moments may come in many ways.

The writer Frederick Buechner tells about one of those times in his life.  He writes:

A year or so ago, a friend of mine died... One morning in his sixty-eighth year he simply didn’t wake up.  It was about as easy a way as he could possibly have done it, but it was not easy for the people he left behind because it gave us no chance to start getting used to the idea... or to say goodbye... He died in March, and in May my wife and I were staying with his widow overnight when I had a short dream about him.
I dreamed he was standing there in the dark guest room where we were asleep, looking very much himself in the navy blue jersey sweater and white slacks he often wore.   I told him how glad I was to see him again… Then I said, “Are you really there, Dudley?”  I meant was he really there in fact, in truth, or was I merely dreaming he was.  His answer was that he was really there.  “Can you prove it?”  I asked him.   “Of course,” he said.  Then he plucked a strand of wool out of his jersey and tossed it to me.  I caught it between my thumb and forefinger, and the feel of it was so palpably real that it woke me up.  That's all there was to it...

I told the dream at breakfast the next morning, and I’d hardly finished when my wife spoke.  She said that she’d seen the strand on the carpet as she was getting dressed.  She was sure it hadn’t been there the night before.   I rushed upstairs to see for myself, and there it was -- a little tangle of navy blue wool.  (The Clown In The Belfry, p. 7 ff.)
Buechner is not the kind of guy who does séances.  To a certain extent, he is as much at a loss to explain this incident as anyone else would be.  But all of us, if we are truly honest, have to admit that the mysterious will from time to time invade our nice, rational, common-sense lives.  God may be speaking to us in those moments.  God may be present to us through the beauty and wonder of nature, through the awe and mystery of life and death, through joyful times of celebration, through powerful, gripping experiences.  Holy moments may just come out of the blue, when we least expect them. 

Most of us would like to have a greater certainty about these things.  We’d like to know that the vivid dream we had is from God, and not from the pepperoni pizza we had for supper.  We’d like to know that the beautiful rainbow in the sky, or the eagle we saw in flight, was indeed a sign from God for us.  And we would like to figure out a way to experience these holy moments.

But that’s not the way it works.  We live most of our lives not up on the mountain, but down in the ordinariness of the valley.  We cannot make such holy moments happen.  What we can do is open our eyes to the mystery and wonder all around us.  What we can do is be sensitive to one another, to develop the ability to listen, to be attentive, so that we might be able to see and hear and experience the holy around us.

Emily Dickinson famously wrote,

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes -
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
For me, holy moments often come in times of worship, and often through music.  I remember the first time I sang Brian Wren’s hymn, “Bring Many Names.”  The hymn speaks of Warm Father God, Strong Mother God, Old Aching God, Young Growing God, and finally Great, Living God, and I was moved to tears.  It was a Holy Moment.  I remember the worship service the Sunday following 9/11.  It had been an emotional, gut-wrenching week.  And I remember singing “A Mighty Fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.”  It was like hearing those words for first time.  It was powerful, and it was comforting, and it was exactly what we needed, and for me it was a Holy Moment.  Then again, I remember that day in the Alps, and I remember seeing the incredible expanse of the Grand Canyon.

These experiences just happen.  I can’t plan or force mystical experiences in worship, but I am not in worship, I know they won’t happen.  I cannot create a holy moment in the midst of nature, but if I never spend time in nature, I know it won’t happen.  We need to be open to God in the present moment.

Imagine Peter and James and John, finally heading back down the mountain.  They wanted to stay.  Peter wanted to build dwellings for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses.  But they can’t stay on the mountaintop forever.

When they returned back down the mountain, what was different?  They were still plain old fishermen; they were still followers of an itinerant rabbi.  They still had the same sort of everyday concerns they had before the experience.  So in a sense, nothing really changed.  But in another sense, life had changed completely.  Though they did not yet fully understand it, they had a glimpse of who Jesus was.  They had seen his glory, however briefly.  They had heard the voice of God: “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”

There would be days when they didn’t listen to him so well, and there would be days when the experience on the mountain seemed to be a million miles away, but looking back, the writer of 2 Peter said, “he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him… saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’  We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.  So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed.”

The experience on the mountain changed the disciples.  Years later, that experience still had an impact.  Holy moments have the power to change us.  How can they not?

Those powerful experiences of the Holy can affect our more mundane, everyday living.  They serve as a reminder that there is a God who loves and cares for us.  They help us to put life in perspective.  They can give us hope and help sustain us in hard times.  They can affirm who we are and give us a sense of joy.

I’m reminded of such a moment for Martin Luther King, Jr.  In the early days of the Montgomery bus boycott, he reached a place where he felt he just couldn’t go on.  He was under great pressure, facing daily death threats.  In the middle of a sleepless night, he sat at the kitchen table, filled with anxiety, and said out loud, “I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”  As he spoke these words, the doubts suddenly melted away.  He became intensely aware of an “inner voice” telling him to do what was right.  That experience, that holy moment, changed the course of his life. 
Frederick Buechner, who had the dream and the experience of the blue thread, told about a couple of other experiences, the kinds of things that might be called a very strange coincidence.  And then he wrote,

All that’s extraordinary about these three minor events is the fuss I’ve made about them.  Things like that happen every day to everybody.  They are a dime a dozen.  They mean absolutely nothing. 

Or.  Things like that are momentary glimpses into a Mystery of such depth, power, and beauty, that if we were to see it head-on, we would be annihilated.

Perhaps our holy moments are brief glimpses into the power and glory of God, a kind of brief peek behind the curtain.
What is interesting is that while these encounters with God may well happen in church, in corporate worship, they can come anywhere.  Diana Butler Bass, in her book Grounded, explores the way that people experience the divine in the everyday – through our surroundings, through the ground we walk on and the air we breathe, in our family, in our neighborhood.  Our experience of the holy and the work of God’s Spirit is present here and now, and all around us.

The Transfiguration is an epiphany – an appearance and a revelation of who Jesus is.  But in the end, this is not only about Jesus.  It is about us.  It is about our seeing the glory of God in Jesus on the mountaintop as well as the glory of God that shines all around us. 

We cannot create or control the holy moments of life.  But we can be open to God’s spirit around us.  We can allow ourselves to learn and grow and be challenged and changed and affirmed and comforted by such moments.  We can be sustained through the hard times by such experiences.  And when we are open to God’s Spirit, we may find that there are incredible mountain peaks all around us.  Amen.

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