The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of the Transfiguration
6 August 2017
Twice daily at the dawn and dusk – in the twilight where colors seem somehow more vibrant and the air around you seems to shimmer with a living energy – these are known in the Celtic tradition as Thin Places… where the boundary between the human world and the spiritual or faerie world is at it’s thinnest. This idea is also applied to particularly holy places such as mountain tops, glens, or meadows in the middle of thick woods, quiet pools of undisturbed water, and open valleys amidst the hills. It is particularly in such places at the twilight hour when legends tell of hapless travelers hearing the music of the faerie folk and being lured into the depths of the forest or hills – finding themselves quite lost and typically subject to the mischief of leprechauns or other myriad faerie-creatures out of Scottish and Irish legend.
Celtic Christianity similarly recognized these thin places… where one could feel the presence of the divine so strongly that one could almost reach out and touch the face of God…
We have several names for these experiences in our own culture: Epiphanies, Visions of the Divine, and perhaps most appropriate to today’s readings, Mountaintop experiences.
Whatever we might call them, these are the experiences in our lives that in a single instant can change us forever. Those rare moments when something within us touches on the profound, unexplainable truth of God or we find ourselves suddenly and unexplainably in the presence of the divine.
Part of what speaks to us so deeply and so profoundly in these stories is their likeness to experiences in our own lives that, while we may not relate to them in practical experience, yet we relate to them symbolically through those thin places in our lives, in which we too have felt so close to the divine, that we might have reached out and touched the very face of God, and after which we have never again been the same.
We hear this morning in our readings two amazing mountaintop experiences, and two very human reactions to the divine. Moses, himself both fascinated and yet afraid at his first encounter of the divine in the burning bush, is now more comfortable with his ongoing encounters with God, but we see in the Israelites the same human experience of apprehension and fear that the disciples experienced on the mountaintop with Jesus in today’s gospel reading. While Moses’ encounters had already trained him to take his mountaintop experiences back to the valleys of normal human community where they can best serve God’s purpose, his followers experienced the brilliance of an encounter with God through Moses’ own shining face and were just as terrified as Moses and the disciples were in their first surprising and life-changing encounters face to face with the divine.
Peter, James, and John experienced, first hand, the brilliance of Jesus as he, in the presence of God, spoke with Moses and Elijah in what could only be described as one of the ultimate mountaintop experiences described in the gospels. Peter, always the first to speak up with his honest, human, and frequently inappropriate response, speaks from our own hearts’ desire to stay in those moments—to remain on the mountaintop and set up camp.
Much like the people encountering Moses’ shining face, and much like the rest of us faced with a moment of profound and experiential spiritual depth, they simply didn’t know what to do with it. They didn’t know what to say, what to do, or how to respond. In an instant their lives were changed as God’s presence became shockingly real, shockingly personal, shockingly immanent in a common experience that was so beyond words that the story tells us they just didn’t—for what seems like a long time—tell anyone about it as they struggled to processed what had happened. Somewhere between telling no one, and coming down from the mountain with our faces shining so brightly we scare people, we find ourselves faced with how we respond to those moments of profound experiential depth that bring us back to our normal lives changed forever.
I’ve spoken before of my late-teenage spiritual retreat experience at Happening in the diocese of California, which was the defining mountaintop experience of my life up to that point. It was an event that quite simply changed me forever. I came home from that weekend with a deep and abiding sense of God’s love for me, Austin, an eighteen year-old teenager who struggled with self-worth and self-confidence, and sought desperately for approval from all the wrong places… Yet at that retreat, I no longer needed to prove my worth, to question and second-guess myself and my abilities, and to win the approval of everyone around me. I was free to be myself, secure in knowing that I was all I would ever need to be—that I was all that I could ever be. Whatever I would become beyond what I already was would be for me and for God.
Of course I couldn’t have put that into words at the time. I wandered in a half ecstatic haze for about two weeks, veiling my full experience as too deep and too personal to share fully with anyone other than my friends from the retreat who had been there to share the experience. But I felt as though my face must have been shining from the reactions I got from people I encountered in the weeks following. The difficulty was that the rest of the world didn’t even pause to appreciate the soul-shaking experience I’d had. The rest of the world down below that mountaintop didn’t care that I would never be the same again, or that I had no words to describe the primal depths of the encounter. But for me, the world had stopped. For that weekend and for the next couple of weeks as I adjusted to being back in the valley of normal life, I set up my dwelling on that mountaintop and didn’t want to come down.
As our second reading refers to Peter telling this story to his followers, and as is also attested to in the presence of today’s Gospel story in all three of the synoptic gospels, the disciples did eventually process their experience and talk about it. It just takes time sometimes to comprehend such experiences and find the words to describe them.
Other times, the mountains are brought down to the valleys in all their unprocessed and shining glory, and, while people may initially want to run away from us and the energy of the encounter, it also stands to enliven the whole community.
The example in Exodus gives us a very telling example of the response of the masses in the valley when they encounter us in the ecstatic aftermath of a mountaintop experience. Having not realized that his face was shining brilliantly from his encounter with God, Moses brings the good news back from his mountaintop to find the people terrified of his very presence – unable to comprehend the experience he’s just had and afraid to even approach him.
Another of my own mountaintop experiences may require a bit more explanation: My best friend for many years was a woman named Lindsay. We had known each other for about twelve years, had attempted to date each other—rather disastrously—for two and a half of those years, had been college roommates, and had continued to be roommates for the last two years we knew each other after college. When I told her about meeting and falling in love with Jane, she surprised me with reactions of anger and resentment rather than the congratulations and joy I had expected from my best friend, and told me that she could not be my friend anymore if I decided to date Jane (which I quickly came to realize meant anyone when she confessed that she had secretly hoped we would get married some day). This came at the end of the weekend between two summer camps I was working that year, so the next morning I had to drive back up to camp, thinking about what she had said and praying for an easier way out than choosing between my then best friend and someone I really thought I might have a future with.
I knew what was right in my heart, but up to that point in my life it was the most difficult decision I had ever had to make.
A wise and good friend of mine, The Rev. Lynn Oldham-Robinette, was the chaplain for camp. When I told her of my dilemma, she used the example of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane—praying for an easier way out than breaking the hearts of his twelve best friends by doing what he knew was right to do. I phoned Lindsay to let her know that as much as her decision not to be my friend anymore saddened me, I had to do what was right in my heart. She had moved out and headed back to San Diego before I got home from camp that week.
Where this becomes a mountaintop experience is through Jane. This was the first time in my life I had to face an unappeasable situation, and having done what was right instead of what was easy, I suddenly found myself more alive in the coming weeks than I had been in about seven years. I was in love with the woman of my dreams, I had friends again, one of my best friends (whom I had neglected at Lindsay’s insistence and who had been instrumental in getting me to Happening) moved in as my new roommate, I felt spiritually and emotionally energized and free. This time, I brought the mountaintop experience with me to the other relationships in my life instead of staying on the mountain. My world didn’t stand still as the rest of the world continued spinning around me. Rather I felt like I was living life in fast-forward for the next several months. Looking back on my life previous to that summer, it looked like an endless holding pattern of emotional and spiritual stagnancy.
What both of these experiences have in common for me is the profound change that they made in my life. In the capacity of these encounters to permanently change something deep and fundamental about myself, my relationship with others, and my experience and understanding of God, there is something at once captivating and yet terrifying. Some aspects have taken years to fully understand and describe, much as I’m sure the disciples’ encounter at the Transfiguration took them some time to fully embrace and understand. The other continues to change my life every day. Jane and I celebrated our 14th wedding anniversary on this past Tuesday and she thanked me for continuing to grow with her over the course of this amazing journey. We’ve climbed a lot of mountains together, and I give thanks both to her and to God that the honeymoon isn’t over yet!
Perhaps one of the single biggest reasons for the veil we put up between ourselves and God is that it is simply too terrifying a thought that we could be fundamentally and permanently changed by removing it. We hear countless examples in the Bible of people whose lives were completely uprooted, swirled around, and replanted as something other than what they were before. The blind made to see, the deaf made to hear, the lame made to walk, the leper made clean. And today—a teacher going up a mountain and bursting into brilliant white light as he converses with long-dead prophets and has his divinity confirmed by God’s own voice.
It’s no small wonder that we want to remain in those moments when we finally drop the veil and experience something so awesome and powerful that we can’t imagine our lives any other way than that which they’ve become through the experience. But until we’re willing to drop the veil and start climbing, the mountaintop will always be just a beautiful mystery on the horizon.
I don’t know if it’s the weather or just something I ate, but I haven’t been feeling like myself this weekend. Part of the beauty of being in relationships that sustain us is how the peaks and valleys of our own lives can be smoothed out by the mountaintop energy not only we bring at our high points, but that others bring to us at our low points. I’m quite convinced that sharing our moments of profound heights and depths not only deepens our relationships, but is part of how we survive as humans. Not only did I celebrate with Jane this week, but in finding myself feeling low, it was her love and care, her listening, and her support that has helped me find myself on the other side.
We hear that God’ kingdom is a place where the mountains are brought low just as the valleys are lifted up—where we find ourselves on the level Ground of God’s abundant love, care, and wholeness. And we are invited, as communities of care in relationship with each other and with God, to both offer and receive that kingdom with one another.
Lord, grant us the courage to start climbing, the grace to experience your unfathomable and life changing love for us, and the wisdom to come back down the mountain.