Transfiguration: Living on the Border of the Holy
February 26, 2017
If this gospel story – the story of Jesus’ transfiguration –
seems weird or hard to connect to –
you’re not alone!
I’m told that our presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton,
finds this gospel so difficult to preach that when she was a pastor in the parish,
she made Transfiguration Sunday – Youth Sunday…
And gave it to the youth to preach!
But in truth, I think it’s something all of us can relate to.
We’ll just ponder a little deeper…with some questions to help draw out the more ‘mystical,’ the more ‘spiritual’ in us today.
You heard the story –
Jesus takes Peter, James, and John,
And they go up a mountain – all by themselves.
Then all of a sudden Jesus is changed – he’s transfigured –
His face shines, his clothes become dazzling white,
He’s speaking to Moses and Elijah.
And if that’s not enough, a heavenly voice comes from a cloud saying,
“This is my Son, the beloved;
Listen to him!”
This experience is so powerful to Peter, James, and John,
That it takes them to their knees.
They don’t know what has just happened,
But they do know they have been touched by the holy…
Jesus has been transfigured…
And Peter, James, and John have encountered God.
And here’s where I think we can relate…
There have been moments in each of our lives where we have been touched by the holy…
where we have encountered God.
If you’re not convinced that you’ve had such an experience,
let’s explore it further.
An example from my life:
My friend Rikki invited me to go on a mission trip to Peru.
If she hadn’t invited me, I’d never have gone.
One morning, I was in my sleeping bag in the Amazon jungle.
It was just before sunrise,
and in that hazy, surreal, early dawn moment,
I heard the sound of a guitar and a couple of voices singing.
At that very moment, I knew I was where I was meant to be.
It was an unexplainable touch of the holy.
The village around me was transfigured into something other-worldly,
It was a bit scary.
It was a bit lonely.
And yet, I was left with a feeling of deep gratitude.
Like Peter, I wanted it to last –
but the sun rose, the music stopped, and the day began.
The Celts used the term ‘thin places’ to describe these places
which temporarily disorient us;
where the distance between heaven and earth breaks down
and we catch a glimpse of the divine.
They used “thin place” to describe the wind-swept island of Iona off the coast of Scotland,
and the craggy peaks of Croagh Patrick in Ireland.
There’s a Celtic saying that “heaven and earth are only 3 feet apart,”
but in thin places that distance is even shorter.
They are places and times when the world is transfigured –
If only for a moment.
Peter, James, and John experienced a thin place on that mountain.
Thin places aren’t always on remote mountains or islands or jungles…
In his book “Living on the Border of the Holy,”
a book I first read in seminary and several times since,
William Countryman reminds us that we are always
In the midst of a thin place.
Our very existence is on “the border of the holy.”
If you’re still skeptical about your own experience,
think of it this way with some questions suggested by another bishop – Bishop Mike Rinehart:[i]
When have you been most powerfully aware of the incredible gift of life?
When have you been overcome with beauty? Compassion? Joy?
When have you encountered truth that has sent shivers down your spine?
When have you been overwhelmed by hidden, underlying realities that take you deeper than the superficialities of everyday life?
When have you sensed that there is more to life than meets the eye?
When have you had mountaintop experiences that gave you a new perspective on life and perhaps a new direction?
When have you been drawn out of yourself and out of your own self-preoccupation?
When have you had an experience that caused you to see with new eyes?
When have you been confronted with a cause for which you would give your life?
Have you sat under the stars and been struck by the immensity of the universe,
Or looked at a cell under a microscope and been struck by the complexity of life?
Maybe you experienced holiness in a time when you’ve felt on top of the world;
Or maybe you’ve recognized God’s presence most closely when you’ve felt the most broken.
It was a thin place for me standing at the bedside
of my dying father as my mother held his hand and talked to him about all the memories they shared.
For many, music or poetry or drama or dance takes us to a deeper place.
For others, relationships bring moments of ecstatic joy:
Laughter around the dinner table;
The touch of a partner.
Two weeks ago I was walking on Constitution Ave in DC
On my way to a synod meeting and a homeless man was lying in the middle of the sidewalk.
That encounter was somehow holy for me.
It suddenly brought me out of my schedule and my plans – it brought me out of myself.
Many people describe the birth of a child as a transcendent moment
as we experience the true miracle of life.
Others experience transcendence when speaking out for justice at a rally;
or speaking to a legislator.
As we prepare for the season of Lent…
A season of reflection..
Perhaps instead of giving up chocolate or soda…
Maybe take on a practice instead.
Maybe take on the practice of noticing the holy moments you’ve had at the end of each day.
You will be surprised at how small the boundary between heaven and earth really is:
We live on the border of the holy.
We live in the midst of transfiguration.
God – help us notice.