Homily: Threshold to New Life Part 2

   Today’s Gospel is often called the Transfiguration. And it is a great moment to get more serious about Lent, with our parish theme of Thresholds to New Life. The story defies interpretation, although that hasn’t stopped legions of interpreters from trying.  It is the luminous story of a mystical encounter, not only between God and God’s Beloved but also between those at the center of the story and those who watch.  Those at the center are Jesus, Moses and Elijah.  Those who watch are Peter, James and John.  And then, of course, there are all of us watching all of them, most of us laboring under the illusion that our job is to figure out what the story means.

   In the present case, the most common decoded message is that Moses stands for the Law, Elijah stands for the prophets, and Jesus, of course, is the Messiah.  “Listen to him”, says the voice from the cloud.  There are two auxiliary meanings as well–one about how it’s better to keep your mouth shut in the presence of the holy than to blurt things out like Peter does.  And another about how the purpose of such mountaintop experiences is to strengthen us for the climb back down into the valley of the shadow of death, where our real work remains to be done.

   For all I know, those are exactly the meanings that Jesus or Luke or God meant for us to get from the story; but it’s important to note that the passage itself does not say any of those things.  Instead, it describes something so beyond ordinary human experience that most of us are perfectly content to watch it from, at least, this far away.

   If anything even remotely that strange has ever happened to you, then you know why Peter, James and John were relieved when Jesus told them to keep what had happened to themselves.  Supernatural light.  Famous people come back from the dead.  God talking to you from inside a cloud.  Things like that may happen in the Bible, but try talking about them now and someone’s going to give you the name of a good psychiatrist.  If you have to say anything at all, then you’re better off sticking with the Bible commentaries.  Just say the thing about Jesus surpassing the law and the prophets, poke a little fun at Peter, and bury the rest.  It might have been God.  Then, again, it might have been last night’s pizza.

  Most of us are allowed at least one direct experience of God (within bounds)–something that knocks us for a loop, blows our circuits, calls all our old certainties into question.  Some denominations even require you to produce one as proof of your conversion.  But even in our Catholic circles that welcome signs and wonders on a regular basis, there seems to be a general consensus that life in Christ means trading in your old certainties for new ones.

  Once you emerge from the cloud, you are supposed to be surer than ever what you believe.  You are supposed to know who’s who, what’s what, where you are going in your life and why.  You’re supposed to have answers to all the important questions, and when you read the Bible you are supposed to know what it means.  You have your Christian decoder ring, now use it!

  But what if the point is not to decode the cloud but to enter into it?  What if the whole Bible is less a book of certainties than it is a book of encounters, in which a staggeringly long parade of people run into God, each other, life–and are never the same again?  I mean, what don’t people run into in the Bible?  Not just terrifying clouds and hair-raising voices but also crazy relatives, persistent infertility, armed enemies, and deep depression, along with life-saving strangers, miraculous children, food in the wilderness, and knee-wobbling love.

   Whether such biblical encounters come disguised as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, they have a way of breaking biblical people open, of rearranging what they think they know for sure, so that there is room for more divine movement in their lives.  Sometimes the movement involves traveling from one place to another.  Sometimes it means changing their angle on what is true and why.  Sometimes it involves the almost invisible movement of one heart toward another.

   Certainties can become casualties in these encounters, or at least those certainties that involve clinging to static notions of who’s who and what’s what, where you are going in your life and why.  Those things can shift pretty dramatically inside the cloud of unknowing, where faith has more to do with staying fully present to what is happening right in front of you than with being certain of what it all means.  The meeting–that’s the thing.

  There is no way to be sure, but I think Peter sensed that.  When Jesus lit up right in front of him, Peter knew what he was seeing.  The Bible calls it “God’s glory”–the shining cloud that is the sure sign of God’s Presence.  In the Book of Exodus, when Moses climbed Mount Sinai to fetch the tablets of the law, the whole top of the mountain stayed socked in divine cloud cover for six whole days.

  That’s what God’s glory looks like, apparently: a big bright cloud—dark and dazzling at the same time–an envelope for the Divine Presence that would blow people away if they looked upon it directly–so God in God’s mercy placed a cloud buffer around it, which both protected the people and made it difficult for them to see inside.

 Before the cloud rolled in, Peter knew what he was seeing.  What he did not see was a tent of meeting, a dwelling place, like the one where Moses met with God during the wilderness years.  So Peter offered to set one up — one for each of the great ones who appeared in glory before him.  “Lord…if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  Peter may not have known what he was saying, but his instincts were good.  He knew that he was in the presence of The Presence.  He knew that God was right there, and that tent or no tent, he was standing as close as he was ever going to get to the only kind of meeting that really matters.

  Today is the 2nd Sunday in Lent–the day those who follow Jesus look down and say, “Uh-oh,” because we’ve turned away from the twinkling stars of Christmas and are now entering into the deep wilderness of Lent.  As gloomy as that may sound, it is very good news.  Most of us are so distracted by our gadgets, so busy with our work, so addicted to our pleasures, and so resistant to our depths that a nice long spell in the wilderness is just what we need.

   No one can make you go, after all.  But if you’ve been looking for some excuse to head to your own mountaintop and pray, this is it.  If you’ve been looking for some way to trade in your old certainties for new movement in your life, look no further.  This is your chance to enter the cloud of unknowing and listen for whatever it is that God has to say to you.  Tent or no tent, this is your chance to encounter God’s contagious glory, so that a little of that shining rubs off on you.

   Today you have heard a story you can take with you when you go.  It tells you that no one has to go up the mountain alone.  It tells you that sometimes things get really scary before they get holy.  Above all, it tells you that there is someone standing in the center of the cloud with you, shining so brightly that you may never be able to wrap your mind around him, but who is worth listening to all the same–because he is God’s beloved, and you are his, and whatever comes next, you are up to it.              (©Barbara Brown Taylor)






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