Click on the play button above to hear audio of this Sermon.
Transfigurationon Sunday | Rev. Vicki Kemper
2 Corinthians 3:17-18
As far as we know, there were no sunglasses back in the days of the burning bush, the Ten Commandments, and Moses’ shining face. So when Moses came down from the mountain, for the second time, with two new tablets of the covenant, his face shining like the sun because he had been talking with God, the people sort of freaked out.
It was because Moses was so bright and the people were so scared— and there were no sunglasses—that Moses wore a veil whenever he was with them. Not because he needed it, mind you, but out of consideration for the people who were blinded by the light. Whenever Moses left them to go talk to God, he would take the veil off. When he came back, glowing bright as ever, he would put the veil back on.
As far as we know, back in the days when Jesus walked the earth there were still no sunglasses. Which is to say that there was nothing to come between his dazzling mountaintop glory and three sleepy disciples rubbing their eyes in shock and awe. Nothing but a cloud, a voice, and a great epiphany: that their teacher was God’s Chosen One.
And now you know, if you didn’t already, where the phrase “mountaintop experience” comes from. Its original meaning refers not to victory or conquest; it is more mystery than mountain, more gift than accomplishment, more unexpected ecstatic encounter than well-planned itinerary, more fleeting than firm.
We cannot schedule a mountaintop spiritual experience. We don’t know when, or if, we will have one, or what form it will take. We don’t know if, or when, we will actually feel God when we pray, or whether we will feel anything when we come to worship or take communion, when we stop doing and start paying attention, when we stop trying to control and, instead, simply open our hearts.
But, oh, how we want to, and oh, how we try.
Everything we know about ourselves and our human nature confirms that we are hungry for the holy. Oh, we may not realize it’s the holy that we’re longing for; we may use different words. Or we may have no words for it at all, just a persistent, low-level ache for something more. We may try a thousand different things—or too much of one thing—to satisfy it: We travel the world. We keep buying things. We hop from one place or one relationship to another. We try on different religions like so many new outfits, looking for the one that fits us best.
Of course, we do!
We were made this way, after all: to long to rise above the mundane, to want that giddy, in-love feeling, to want to feel alive, and maybe even to shine. It is the God-given Spirit within us seeking kindred Spirit, our sense of the Holy wanting to connect with the holy within us, the love we were made for longing to find expression in love.
We want it and yet we fear it, too—knowing that it will change us, knowing that it will ask something of us, knowing that that something will be more than we think we can give. And so we try to protect ourselves: shutting down, closing our hearts, running away, maybe hiding who we really are, wearing a veil over our heart if not our face.
Some of you know that I am quite fond of quoting the writer Annie Dillard on this matter of longing and lack of control.
“I cannot cause light,” she says; “the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.”
Some of you know that I am fond of applying this metaphor to the spiritual life, that for me much of the spiritual life is all about finding ways to put myself in the path of God’s light, to put myself in the way of grace, to try to look for and listen to, enjoy and celebrate all the world’s wonder and love, and then to praise the Giver.
That is why I travel the world. That is why I spend time outside and with poetry and music and friends.
That is why I sometimes go on retreat, as I did last week. That is why, while I am on retreat, I leave my prayer cell to walk mile after mile on a long, open beach, breathing deeply of the salty air and letting the sun kiss my face. That is why, when I glance away from the waves for a moment and notice a strange shape atop a fence post on the dunes, I walk toward it. That is why, when I realize that the shape may be a living thing, my heart starts to race and I have to remember to move slowly. That is why, when I realize I am looking at a snowy owl, my heart skips a beat and I have to remind myself to breathe. That is why, when I’ve gone a step too far and that magnificent creature spreads its huge white wings and soars just a few feet above the sand, I fall on my knees in wonder and praise. And that is why, the next day and the next and the next, I am right back there in the way of the light, prepared to be awed, scanning the horizon for any sign of the owl, and then laughing with glee when that day’s grace is a fling of sandpipers darting and dashing and slicing through the air as one.
No, I cannot cause light, I cannot force grace, I cannot make magic, I cannot manufacture love, I cannot always feel God’s presence, I cannot schedule transfiguration or control what will come of it or even what will become of me.
But here’s the thing: Those mountaintop experiences, those fleeting moments of awe and wonder, those transformational journeys, are not simple matters of chance. They are grace, for sure. But God’s transfiguring, transformational grace is also a promise. It is what we were made for. It’s not a question of if we will experience it; it’s only a matter of how and when and where and how often. And part of that is up to us.
And that’s why, after more hurt and disappointment than I like to admit, I still try to open my heart to love.
That’s why I pray even when I don’t feel like it—sometimes, anyway.
That’s why I offer Blessings to Go.
That’s why I try to stay awake to wonder.
And that’s why I’m here with you this morning and every Sunday morning instead of out on a hiking trail or home in my jammies, enjoying a cup of tea and some poetry or the New York Times.
All we really know from these stories of singing light and dazzling transformation is that they happened when people spent time with God. Moses had been talking with God on the mountain for 40 days and nights. That the appearance of Jesus’ face changed and his clothes became dazzling white while he was praying. That the only reason Peter and James and John saw it all was that, even though they were tired, they stayed awake. They put themselves in, and stayed in, the path of the Light that is Jesus.
But Moses’ is not the only face that shines. Jesus is not the only one who dazzles; he is not the only chosen one. All of us are containers of Spirit, Paul says. Each one of us is being transformed by God’s love from one degree of glory to an even brighter form of fabulous. Each one of us is being transfigured from our fears and wants and wounds into the dazzling glory of who we really are, who we were made to be.
Your face, too, is shining with God’s love and power. You, too, are revealed in glory.
And that is why I sometimes need to wear sunglasses when I am with you [put on sunglasses]: so that all of us, with unveiled faces and unprotected hearts, might see God’s glory in ourselves and in one another. So that all of us might fall to our knees in joy and wonder. So that all of us, walking together in the path of the Light, might share that light with the world.
Alleluia and amen.