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Holy Ground (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

Mark 9:2-9

 Sermon:

It is hard to know what to say about this happening on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured before three of his disciples, glowing white like the sun, and joined by two men (Elijah the prophet and Moses the freedom fighter and law giver) whose lives on this earth had ended centuries before. It is hard to know what to say about this awesome experience when a thick cloud descended, blocking out all light but that shining from the presence of Jesus, and the voice that could be heard speaking from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

It is hard to know what to say about this… What do we call it? Epiphany? Mystical experience? A momentary tearing open of the fabric between heaven and earth? Unlike some commentators, I have nothing of a critical nature to say about Peter, James and John. I would have been terrified too if I had been there when Jesus started shining like the sun and two dead guys showed up to have a conference with him. And I could very easily see myself in Peter’s shoes, fumbling around for something appropriate to say in an unspeakable situation, only to have my words come out sounding like meaningless drivel—although the joke I have been making with some of you recently is that as many times as I have received radiation treatments lately, I should be glowing like Jesus on the day of transfiguration.

To try to explain things that are unexplainable and to make sense of mystery is one of the temptations that those of us who are preachers face on a regular basis. Stories like the one the gospel writers tell about the time Jesus was transfigured before three of his disciples and had his meeting with Elijah and Moses just seem to cry out for explanation, for a bringing down to earth of what appears to have happened in another dimension. But there is no adequate explanation. What do you do with mystery? Break it down into its constituent parts? Explaining that Elijah represents the prophets and Moses the law and what happened on that mountain with Jesus was just to show that he was a fulfillment of God’s mighty acts in history and to remind the disciples of the future glory that was to come after Jesus’ suffering and death? I don’t have any problems with such an explanation. It just seems inadequate and superficial.

Of course those of you who have been a part of the church long enough to hear a number of sermons on the transfiguration of Jesus will recall that a usual tactic of preachers is to get the heck off that mountain of transfiguration as soon as possible. We preachers are often quick to remind our listeners that you can’t stay on the mountain forever. You can’t dwell in the glory of God’s presence all the time. You have got to go down the mountain and begin putting your faith to work in the real world. And for good reason. There is work to be done and a world that needs Jesus’ followers to put their faith into action—feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, listening to the troubled, bearing witness to God’s vision of peace and justice for the world. Indeed, the story of Jesus’ transfiguration in Mark is set smack dab in the middle of his ministry of healing and proclamation of the good news of God’s kingdom, a ministry that is headed down the mountain and out where there is more human need and toward Jerusalem where Jesus will be arrested by the authorities and ultimately put to death on a cross.

So it is all well and good to talk about the need to come down the mountain and get to work. It’s just that it is easier for most of us to talk about getting to work and doing something productive and leaving mountains behind than it is to talk about mystery.

But this Sunday I don’t want us to be so quick to come down from the mountain. We’ve got Lent ahead of us when we will hear the call to follow Jesus to the cross. This is Transfiguration Sunday; and so, for now, let’s stay on the mountain and for a few moments soak up the mystery of Jesus and the mystery of life in this world.

While we may not talk about it very often, none of us is a stranger to mystery. Even though it seems that the vast majority of our waking hours are spent making a living and a life for ourselves and those we love, I suspect that in one way or another we have all been to our own mountains of transfiguration. I suspect we have all had experiences, even if only for a moment, when a veil seemed to have lifted and we experienced something like a light breaking through our reality reminding us that there is something more to life that just what we can see with our eyes and touch with our hands. I suspect we have all had experiences in which we found ourselves on holy ground.

Sometimes these experiences are quite extraordinary in their uniqueness. In a moment of prayer I remember Margaret McKee, one of the participants in the life of our church who is now deceased, sharing on more than one occasion a time when Jesus appeared in a vision at her feet as if he were wanting to wash them. On his face was the look of longing, as if he were wanting to claim her for a life she had never fully known before. Going through the valley of grief, another person among us shared of a time when it seemed clear to her that she was in the presence of her diseased husband. He seemed to be assuring her, sort of matter-of-factly, that he was alright and that she would be alright. In my own life I had the vivid experience of audibly hearing a knocking at the door in a dream with a deep awareness that somehow Jesus was trying to get through to me in some new way. These are not experiences that most of us find easy to talk about. But they are real. They happen. And they cannot simply be ignored or explained away without risking the loss of something that is vital to who we are as persons and what we are being called to do.

Often our experiences of mystery seem more typical, but nonetheless profound. A child is born, placed in our arms, and it is as if we are holding something fresh from God. Or maybe we go for a walk one afternoon, full of the thoughts and concerns of the day, and out of nowhere something happens. The world seems to shine with a beauty we were not noticing before. The things we were worried about just seem to dissipate, and it is as if we are walking on holy ground. Or maybe we are struggling with something at work, at school or at home—an idea that just won’t come, an experiment that is leading nowhere, a management problem that just can’t be solved, a student that just can’t be reached, a direction that seems fruitless. And then something opens up. Out of nowhere a thought, a new possibility, something that rings true, a way forward; out of nowhere mystery happens. Out of nowhere we find ourselves on holy ground.

Thomas Merton, the Cistercian Monk, quite famously noted in his journal about a time when he was walking along a busy street in Louisville, Kentucky. There is actually a historical marker in Louisville at that spot which I have actually seen. He wrote, “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.” As he continued to reflect on his experience, his thoughts seem to lead him to praise: “I have the immense joy of being (a human being), a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

Here is the account of someone who seemingly out of nowhere found himself on holy ground, who was caught off guard by a mystery he struggled to explain. I am certain that there are many stories that could be told among those gathered in this place of times when mystery broke through, if only for a moment, and it seemed as though other people or creation or maybe even our own lives were shining like the sun.

Even so, I am certain that such experiences are more easily recognized when we are open to them. I think we adults would do well to pay attention to our youth in this regard. They come back from camp and youth conferences talking about how they found God there. It is not that God has set up shop at the Cumberland Presbyterian Youth Conference or Presbyterian Youth Triennium or Camp Clark Williamson and can’t be found anywhere else. But in such places youth do get away from television and computers and I Phones and schedules filled to the brim with all the activities that parents and society say “good kids” are supposed to be doing, and they have time just to be—to be in relationship with other youth and adults, to be in relationship with nature, to be in relationship with God. Very often when we allow ourselves times to set aside the demands of our daily lives and just be—times the Bible calls Sabbath—we find ourselves on holy ground where the mystery and wonder of the holy shines in the midst of our very ordinary lives.

But most of the time mystery just happens and catches us off guard and unprepared. We trudge up some mountain, huffing and puffing, worn out, and suddenly Jesus comes alive for us in a way he never has before. Or we go through some terrible experience—a divorce, a sickness, a death, or some other kind of heart-wrenching loss. We seek help. We worship. We pray until it seems we are all prayed out. We read so many self-help books that they are all starting to sound the same. And still it seems that we are not getting anywhere. Then it happens. The realization comes that we have been on holy ground. God has been seeing us through and will continue to see us through.

Or maybe we find ourselves in a place of disappointment, maybe even shame and disgust, with who we are as persons. Our mistakes and failings seem overwhelming. The direction we have taken in life seems to have led us to a dead end from which there is no turning back. And then—maybe while we are praying, or maybe while we are doing something that seems to have nothing at all to do with prayer, or maybe when we don’t even think we can believe in God anymore—grace happens, the future seems to open up. We find ourselves on holy ground.

Look, I am well aware that we can’t stay on the mountaintop forever. Most of us can’t stay on the mountaintop for more than a few moments at a time. Mystery is an elusive thing. Jesus described it well: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

But the least we can do is to be open to mystery. The least we can do is to be on the look out—when we come here to worship, when we pray, when we go home, when we head off to work. We never know when we are going to realize that we are on holy ground. We never know when for just a little bit the veil is lifted and we see life as it really is—infused with the presence of God. We never know when maybe on some mountaintop of joy or in some valley of despair or on some plateau of boredom a light will shine in our hearts and we will see the love with which we are all embraced.

And then the light will seem to dim and even appear to go away. The demands and pains of life in this world will be upon us once again. But we will know the truth of the way it really is. See it or not, aware of it or not, wherever we go and whatever we do we will be on holy ground. Thanks be to God.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, February 11, 2018

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