Grace to you and peace from our loving God and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
One of the most compelling experiences of my life—and among the most breath-taking.occurred back in 1972. I had just crested the top of Mount Lovenia, peaking at 13,219 ft.—the 10th highest in Utah. The day was clear after a bivouac about half way up near a cirque, where a tarn (a small lake) had formed. A cloud had hung at the peak that morning.
It was the view that took me deeply by surprise as the cloud dispersed. I was young then—just out of high school and engaged in a month-long wilderness trek through the Uinta Wilderness Preserve. I had never seen mountains like The Rockies before. Everything was new and glorious—other than the 60-pound pack I carried along the trail. But that was back at the camp; we used day packs for the summit.
That panoramic splendor is seared into my brain. King's Peak—the tallest in Utah—is only another 300 feet or so higher, so nothing blocked the view of waves and spikes of rugged peaks and ridges. A few billowy clouds hung near some of the tips and on the horizon. The sky was a vibrant azure. The sun was dangerously radiant. Snow caps and small glaciers accented the granite. I thought I was in heaven, and I wanted to stay far longer than was possible.
I thought I was in heaven, and I reveled in the moment. But we had to get down to the base before dark. Our provisions were sufficient only for the overnight bivouac, the ascent, and the return.
That experience, which I don't believe I have ever spoken of before, came to me for obvious reasons this morning. The disciples may have had similar feelings that day on the rather small mountain of the transfiguration. I've been on the top of that one too (assuming it was Mount Tabor), and it's nothing to write home about (less than 2,000 feet high). Their encounter on the mount was less, perhaps, about the splendor of the physical view and more about the radiance of Jesus, who appears in a radiant cloud. But they too thought perhaps that they had arrived in heaven. They too wanted to stay.
Today, God comes on mountains in clouds—as God had done before in scripture (We read about one of the more prominent examples from Exodus today). There is something other-worldly about the mists that envelop us. Our limited vision enhances perception, perks up the ears, and narrows the eyes in search of footholds, dangers, or clearings.
What seems notable about my experience is that there was nothing exceptional about it. There was nothing supernatural, nothing marked by exceeding the normal bounds of human experience or perception.
And that strikes me today as the point. When the haze and cloudiness dissipate and we are struck dumb by glory, it may not be reality that has altered but merely our vision.
The disciples go with Jesus to the mountain—a place they perhaps had been before. Mountains had always been places of encounter with the holy. And there, they are able to grasp, for a moment, what appears to them to be a transcendent reality. Was it a supernatural encounter with the divine, or was it a glimpse of what mere humans may view with vision that is transformed?
In Annie Dillard's essay, "Seeing," she recounts the experience of people who had been blind at birth, but had received sight thanks to a restorative surgery. To begin to see the world, the newly sighted had to reconcile preconceived notions of the world with objects, colors, and distances. Even with this radical new gift, it was easy to get the meaning of what they were seeing wrong. This suggests a spiritual kind of sight as well as a physical—that a person having received a radical new gift might struggle, like Peter in today's gospel, to understand precisely how to use it.
It takes a while for the haze to clear, whether the obscuring come from the mists of a cloud or a fog of the mind or spirit. Transfiguration may simply be about learning to see ordinary things in extraordinary ways.
"In a poem from Christian Wiman's new collection, Every Riven Thing (2010), he addresses transformed sight. The poem is called "From a Window."
Incurable and unbelieving
In any truth but the truth of grieving,
I saw a tree inside a tree
As if the leaves had livelier ghosts.
I pressed my face as close
To the pane as I could get
To watch that fitful, fluent spirit
That seemed a single being undefined
Or countless beings of one mind
Haul its strange cohesion
Beyond the limits of my vision
Over the house heavenwards.
Of course I knew those leaves were birds.
Of course that old tree stood
Exactly as it had and would
(But why should it seem fuller now?)
And though a man's mind might endow
Even a tree with some excess
Of life to which a man seems witness,
That life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.
"Wiman, who has described coming to Christianity as "color slowly aching into things, the world become brilliantly, abradingly alive," begins the poem in a reduced state, a state in which he is unable to believe in anything, except what he calls the "truth of grieving." Seeing the truth of grieving is ordinary for him, an old habit, and he is stuck inside it. Looking out his window, he sees something that at first appears impossible: "a tree inside a tree-rise kaleidoscopically," as if leaves hidden inside the seemingly barren tree had suddenly taken flight. He feels, in a moment, like he is seeing the spirit of the tree, like he can see beyond it. "Of course," he writes, he knows the tree is just a tree, and that the "leaves" are birds suddenly taking flight.
"And yet the event changes his perception. The ordinary world is fuller, more real, endowed with some "excess/of life." He understands that he is participating in the creation of this image, that his mind has helped to create a transfigured understanding. But he resists the idea that this is a sufficient explanation for what he has seen. Instead, he says, the life perceived through the tree and birds is larger than he is and is connected to the holy. When he recognizes this series of connections, he experiences joy. His perspective has shifted—the limits with which he begins the poem have become something else entirely.
"Today's New Testament reading alludes to the provisional and yet transformative nature of this kind of sight, "We did not follow cleverly devised myths," the epistle writer asserts, but something more concrete, something the disciples saw with their own eyes, something that kept them from the blindness and nearsightedness that traps Wiman at the start of "From a Window." Despite the instability of their vision on the moment, the disciples believe it is reliable. They urge their followers to hold on to this way of seeing, this light, attentive to it, as "to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts." We begin with the provisional, the momentary, the fragmentary, and reach toward a fuller perception of light.
"As we move between the extraordinary accounts of Transfiguration in today's readings and the ordinary events of seeing in our own lives, we do not need to collapse the two. But we can remember, with Peter, that the light of God is not so hidden that we cannot seek it in ordinary life." (Amy Frykholm, The Christian Century, 2/28/2011)
I believe that those of us who shared in yesterday's launch event for Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light were treated to a bit of the light of God that may be perceived upon occasion through the ordinary. It was wonderful to have some thirteen of our members present at that event. And there were two specific ways in which the haze began to clear a bit for me.
The first was simply the blessing of a statewide gathering of nearly 200 people who came to demonstrate and to enhance their commitments to care for God's good earth in new and more effective ways. Simply to know that there are so many who share values of earth care lightens the heart, enlivens the spirit, and offers dazzling rays of new hope.
The other was the presence, at our closing worship yesterday afternoon at First Baptist Church in Indianapolis, of some 20 representatives of various denominations and faith traditions in our state. I doubt seriously that there have been other occasions at which such a wide array of judicatory executives and faith leaders have come together.for this or any other purpose: Mennonite, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, African Methodist Episcopal, AME-Zion, United church of Christ, Buddhist, Unitarian Universalist, Presbyterian, Wesleyan, Lutheran, Methodist, Muslim, Baptist, Sikh, Quaker, Jewish, and Disciples of Christ.
I don't believe that I have ever been part of such a diverse gathering. And for me, the light shone dazzlingly, yes, in the shared song—in the shared praise, in the shared confession, commitment, and blessing. But even more so, it was in the parade of senior clergy reading each from their own statements from holy scriptures or from official faith-informed positions speaking eloquently of the calls to act immediately and decisively for our planet. Each added a flicker of spark drawn from that faith into a growing flame of urgency that was at the same time profoundly holy and eminently motivating.
As relieved as I was, as one with variousl responsibilities throughout the afternoon, to see the day come to a close, those movements of the Spirit are treasures that I did not want to see pass quickly. I wanted to savor and to relish and to extend the moment.
But, of course, as with that day on the mountain, as with the disciples, as with all of those moments of transformed sight, they can only be brief foretastes, fleeting flashes of vision, and they are meant to remain with us as reminders of the depth of the ordinary and as motivations to act in ways that honor them.
When the haze and cloudiness dissipate and we are struck dumb by glory, it may not be reality that has altered but merely our vision—God lives here—in this world. And it is in the ordinary—seen with transformed eyes—that the glories of God's good creation and the blessings of God's light and grace may reveal themselves to us. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.