Today is the last Sunday before Lent starts. Let’s enjoy the Alleluias from these mountain tops. We just heard the paraphrased story of Moses on the mountain. We sang the abbreviated version of Jesus on the mountain top with the disciples. What do these mountain top stories have to do with those of us who live at sea level?
The story of Moses on the mountain with God is found several times in Exodus and Leviticus. These stories describe a relationship between Moses and God that seems pretty intimate when they meet on Mt Sinai. In Exodus, on Moses first trip up the mountain he receives many laws and ideas for how the people should live together and with God. The conversation with God is so long that the people at the bottom of the mountain get impatient. They don’t know if Moses is ever coming back. They want something to worship, they need something to give them direction – so they turn their gold jewelry into a golden calf. God sees this from the perch on Mt Sinai and gets angry; in fact God is so angry that God is ready to destroy the people. But Moses, BFF with God, reasons with God. Moses reminds God that God loves the people so much that God brought the people out of Egypt into freedom. Now is God going to destroy them? God listens to Moses and relents.
When Moses finally does come down the mountain and sees for himself the golden idol the people have built, he gets so angry that he breaks the stone tablets on which ten of the commandments are written. Moses takes it upon himself to make sure that God’s wrath lands hard on the people.
God and Moses remain tight. Eventually Moses heads back up the mountain and again receives ten of the laws on stone tablets, and God again speaks aloud many more laws. Moses and God may be close but that doesn’t mean that Moses gets to see God’s face; Moses only sees the back of God. Yet something remarkable happens between God and Moses because when Moses comes back down, his face is all aglow. The people are intrigued and they listen to the message from God but it makes them nervous. They are fine with Moses being the one that relates to God, just as long as Moses doesn’t glow too much around them.
Perhaps the bright light of God, that reveals all, is too much for the people. They know they have a lot to hide. Perhaps they don’t like what they learn about themselves in this bright light of God. It exposes more of them than they are comfortable with. To make themselves less uncomfortable, they make Moses wear a veil when he is around them. He can take the veil off with God, the veil is no matter for God. But with the people, Moses must cover up so that his true self is not so visible – and maybe their true selves aren’t as visible either.
Hundreds of years later, Jesus and three of his disciples also climb a mountain – for a prayer retreat. Jesus has an experience similar to Moses – but without the stone tablets. Jesus is bathed in the bright light of God, Jesus’ true self is revealed. This time there are others there to witness this clarifying light. Peter, James and John see how Jesus is transformed. They even see Moses and Elijah, their beloved and respected prophets, standing with Jesus, talking together in the revelatory light. Instead of being frightened like his ancestors, Peter is thrilled – and determined to preserve the tableau. He will keep them all there, capturing the moment forever.
This time it is God that drops the veil; a cloud comes over the scene and God’s voice is heard, like at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my child, my chosen.” And an additional direction – “Listen to him.” Then the veil of the cloud disappears and it is just the overwhelmed disciples and Jesus standing there on the mountain.
Eight days earlier, when Jesus had asked Peter, ‘Who do you say that I am?” and Peter answered, “You are the chosen one, the Messiah,” Jesus was very clear, stern even – “Do not tell anyone what you know.” Remembering the mysterious voice, “This is my child, listen to him,” they also remember Jesus’ instruction (‘do not tell anyone’) and the disciples don’t. say. anything. They go back down the mountain and don’t tell anyone. It is sort of like in Mark’s gospel when the women go to the tomb on Sunday morning and can’t find Jesus’ body. They run away in fear and don’t tell anyone. Of course, eventually they do tell: the disciples talk about their experience of the mountain top and the women tell about seeing the angel at the tomb. And we are still telling these strange stories.
If the bible is the story of God’s work in the world, what captivates me this time as we read these stories from the mountains is how complicated it is to experience God in the world. Moses has an experience that so energizes him that he glows but he can’t really share it fully with other people. And Peter wants to hang onto the glorious feeling, but it cannot be captured in time and space.
What do these stories say about what it means to experience God?
How do we experience God?
What does transfiguration have to do with it?
And who gets transfigured anyway?
It is not easy to talk about our experiences with God. We ask people to tell their faith stories when they become members of this congregation. We love to hear the many ways people talk about their spiritual journeys. They are different and varied and none of them are wrong. And it is sort of unusual for people to describe their experiences with God. It is just so hard to do. Speaking about our experiences of God can make us feel very exposed, as if the Godlight is shining brightly on us. Or it might feel sort of clouded over and unspeakable, so personal that we aren’t sure how to put words to it. Are God experiences always mystical and mysterious, unnameable and unspeakable? And anyway, what do we mean when we say God and God experience?
Those of us who are more interested in what is happening down on the ground, rather than on the mountain top, the practical rather than the mystical, may be ready to set these biblical stories and questions aside. The idea of God experiences is all just too “woo woo.” We are drawn to things that are explainable and replicable. These mountain top stories from the bible are not “real” or “true” so why keep repeating them? We want to help people, do justice, we are ready to get our hands dirty doing the real work. We don’t have time for strange overpowering light and voices from clouds. And besides, we are 21st century, intellectual people who believe in science. Speaking of God, or God experiences, just seems silly.
Last week Stanley and Herb both talked about experiences of congregational singing, from their childhood, as something that made them feel connected and like they belong. That sounds like a God experience to me. It might not be bright lights and voices from clouds but singing together, or even alone, can be a way to feel connected to something beyond oneself. Is that a transfiguring God experience?
This past Thursday as we gathered for morning prayer, we named our concern for the people and situation in Ukraine. We sat in silence in our own homes; we prayed poignant words about the “light that dapples through creation”, and hope that “stirs us to true desire.” I felt connected to the others across Zoom, and energized for the work that was my day. Is that a God experience?
The story of Jesus on the mountain top tells us that Jesus is transfigured; the disciples see Jesus in a new way. It becomes an important part of the story because it is a hint of what is to come in the resurrection. But what if it is not just Jesus that is transfigured? What if the disciples themselves experience change? Are themselves transformed? What if it is not so much that we need to see Jesus in a new way but that there is the possibility of seeing ourselves in a new way?
It probably doesn’t happen these days so much through glowing lights or clouds coming upon us. But by stepping away from what is usual, visiting a figurative – or literal – mountain, we might experience some new understandings. We might experience our mind shifting slightly when we walk along the river, listening only to the sounds of nature, hands, ears and eyes free of devices. Taking time to create some art or listening deliberately to music might create some space to feel a connection beyond our usual sense of self.
When we place ourselves in an intentional space, there is a chance that we will experience the light in a new way, feel the wind blow on our skin, our mind may be allowed to breathe and our heart open wide. Gift #27 of the pandemic: some people took the opportunity to practice this on Sunday mornings. No screens, no church buildings, just walking in the woods and connecting with themselves, connecting beyond themselves.
So can we really manufacture a “God experience,” a transfiguration moment? We can try to create space to feel connected beyond our bodies. We can attempt to set the scene for feeling part of what is nearby and what is far, part of humanity, part of nature, and stardust. Is this what was happening for Moses, for Peter? They experienced being part of history and the future, humanity and beyond?
Of course for all our efforts to set the scene, to find the perfect place for a new understanding of ourselves, it might or might not happen. All we can do is put ourselves in a place of possibility, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we will have a God experience of glowing proportions.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Life is too busy to take time for these “woo woo, mountain top, bright light, God” experiences. We live in the real world and there is real work to be done, justice and mercy to be lived out. Bright lights and veiled faces will not get us there.
I know, I know. But hear me out. If we want to be able to do the good work for the long haul, we have to find ways to stay connected with ourselves and beyond ourselves. Father Richard Rohr says it this way: The true purpose of (mature) religion is to lead you to ever new experiences of your True Self… to allow you to experience your True Self—who you are in God and who God is in you—and to live a generous life from that Infinite Source. (from “Trusting Our Essential Self” Feb 27, 2022)
In the transfiguration, we catch a glimpse of Jesus being refueled by that Infinite Source. In Jesus’ case, it is pretty spectacular. But it doesn’t have to be so other-worldly.
Breathe with me.
Begin to sense, even for a fleeting moment,
a connection with yourself
a connection those around you
a connection with the Infinite Source.