"Close Encounters"

Sermon February 15, 2015

Mark 9:2-9, II Kings 2:1-12

“Close Encounters”


Several years ago, I was invited to participate in a series teaching a group of clergy in the western states how to start new churches. We went to different locations to learn from each unique context. In Utah, we went to a town north of Salt Lake called Bountiful. There we walked the neighborhoods talking to people and asking if they were interested in seeing a new protestant church. In Las Vegas, we stayed at the MGM Grand and listened to a young pastor tell us that we had to “Get Raw. Get Real. Get Relational.” Several members of our group missed that talk because they went to hear the Bee Gees who were doing a preview concert in the hotel that evening. In Los Angeles, we went to Disneyland and learned a new word: Entertailment. We were told that there are stores at the exit of the rides. If you love Pirates of the Caribbean, you get off the ride and find yourself in a store where you can buy Pirate paraphernalia and take it home with you. Entertailment meshes the words Entertainment and Retail. Disney has mastered this concept. I wondered this week if Entertailment is the modern version of the disciples wanting to build booths to prolong their experience of transfiguration.


No matter how you read the stories we heard today, they are both strange and don’t fit easily into any categories. Both of them involve mystical, magical moments with heavenly intersections, both involve unique clothing (a coat that parts water and clothes whiter than bleach could make them), and both involve followers trying to figure out how to respond to what has happened. There is another interesting thread in these stories…they both offer glimpses of heavenly glory and human vulnerability. These are stories that some would like to avoid altogether – they are just too weird and there is no simple explanation. They also show us how vulnerable we can be in the face of the holy.


We humans like to believe we are in control. We like to avoid situations that make us feel vulnerable. Over the years, I often have people tell me that they don’t come to church because they can’t stop crying when they are here. It may be that they are grieving the loss of a loved one or they have just come through a difficult time. I can tell them that it is ok to cry through church, but they don’t want to feel so exposed. Sometimes I wonder if our difficulty around our deficit budget is that it makes us feel vulnerable. We don’t have the answers and we don’t know for sure how we will get through. I am guessing some people don’t sign up to do small group things because they feel vulnerable. Our book group is reading An Altar in the World and we began our first session by talking about where we had seen something holy. So yes, it is a place of vulnerability. Some don’t want to serve at Project Share because they are scared of feeling vulnerable.


The story from Kings is a story of a transition. Elijah is leaving as leader and Elisha is preparing to move into that role. He has been chosen for it, but he still has to show that he has the needed skills to fulfill this role. Life is full of transitions. While transitions make us uncomfortable because we can’t script the next step, they really are opportunities to rely on God. The transfiguration story also comes at a time of transition in the church seasons. We hear it each year on the Sunday before Lent begins. It offers the disciples something to hold on to as they face the difficult days leading toward Jesus’ death. This moment places them in the hands of God.


It makes me think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech delivered April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. These were his last public words and they were full of hope: “Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”


Moments of transfiguration come in many shapes and forms. They offer us sustenance. Philip Simmons describes Living at the Edge in an essay by that name. Philip was an English professor who wrote a book about living with Lou Gehrig’s disease called Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. I have read his book over and over because it is so beautiful and so real. Philip knew about living on the edge. He said that, “we all stand at the edge. The present moment is itself an edge, this evanescent sliver of time between past and future…the present moment has become an endangered species. Yet more and more I find that dwelling in the present moment, in the face of everything that would call us out of it, is our highest spiritual discipline…the present moment, entered into fully, is our gateway to eternal life.” As Philip looked his own death in the face, he recognized that eternity is now. It is not something that happens after we die. He said, “If eternity includes all time, we are living in eternity now.”


Perhaps these two mystical stories remind us that we are living in eternity. God is with us when we knowingly stand at the edge and God is with us when we find ourselves entering a threshold of one kind or another. Standing on the edge may evoke terrible fear in us, but it may also open us to wonder. Parker Palmer offers rules for conversation and one of them is “When the going gets rough, turn to wonder.” That is a great guideline for any of us in our lives, in conversations, and in places of uncertainty. We may be tempted to get angry or defensive or to make decisions based on fear. But turning to wonder is another way to move us forward. We can ask what might be possible in a time like this.


One of our great hang-ups can be belief. We may not believe the story happened this way. My honest response to that is, “who cares?” I don’t think God cares as much about what you believe as how you respond. Can you suspend belief for a moment and ask is there a message here for you?


On this final Sunday of Epiphany, as we turn toward Lent, we can stop and acknowledge our hunger for God. If that hunger can drive rather than what we believe, we may find ourselves encountering the holy all over the place. Lawrence Kushner is a rabbi who asked some grade school children if they believe in God. To his dismay, not a single hand went up. He eventually thought to ask how many of them have ever been close to God. Showing no awareness of the contradiction, every child raised a hand. They told Kushner about their closeness to God when helping their parents, when lighting Shabbos candles, when angry and sad at a grandparent’s death. Kushner says, “Too often we get hung up on the question of ‘believing in’ when what we really want is ‘closeness to’.” (from Honey from the Rock)


If we can suspend belief or disbelief for a bit, we may tap into the deep desire we have to be close to the holy. That desire may lead us to encounters with the holy on a regular basis. We may realize that it has been there all along. We simply have to open our eyes and welcome it. We don’t hear many stories in scripture about what people believed, but from the beginning, we hear stories of how close God really is. We see God coming to people in many forms – a burning bush, a ladder, a still small voice, an opening in the clouds, tongues of fire – and we don’t hear anyone stop and recite a creed at that point. They simply say yes to the holy in front of them and their lives are never the same.