March 2, 2014
Have you noticed how the Bible keeps jerking us around? One moment Moses is taking care of his father in law’s sheep in the desert, then, suddenly, he’s standing by a burning bush talking to the Living God; then he’s back to earth leading the people through a painful journey through the desert, and then suddenly he’s on Mount Sinai, talking to God. The Bible repeatedly goes from ordinary to extraordinary and back again.
The Bible is trying to tell us something crucial here about our lives in God.
Whether we can get the message depends on our perspective.
If we view the world from the one-dimensional perspective of our ordinary lives, then we will assume the multi-dimensional world of the Bible is the product of primitive people who didn’t really have these experiences.
From that perspective Moses never talked with God and Jesus never did any miracles.
If, on the other hand, we view life from the perspective of the Biblical worldview, then we will assume we are living a flat and colorless life that is in need of healing.
Or to put it another way: If we see ourselves as fully alive human beings just as we are, then we must bring Jesus down to our level to conform to our reality.
But if we see Jesus as the fully alive human being, the ultimate prototype for every life, then we will want to move from being half-alive into being fully alive like him.
Peter wants to bring the transfiguration experience down to his level when he offers to construct three earthly tents to shelter the three heavenly figures. That would put Peter in charge of this God-event. Peter likes telling Jesus where to sit.
Matthew then says, “But while Peter is still speaking, suddenly [there’s that word again] a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When Peter and the others heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.”
Peter can no longer maintain the illusion that his perspective is correct for he has been undone by God.
Life is ordinary, prosaic, hard and challenging, then, boom!—God breaks through and everything changes.
Take any Bible figure and you’ll see this pattern—take Sarah, take one of the prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah, take Saint Paul or Mary Magdalene—the same pattern: the ordinary is suddenly transformed into a divine encounter that undoes them and then they are sent back to serve God and the people God loves—which is everyone.
I’ve known people who seek the mountain top experiences. They have a spiritual high at a conference and the first thing they do when they get home is sign up for another conference, so they can get a booster shot of spiritual power. I’ve done it myself.
Others say, “I’m a realist, I don’t believe all this mumbo jumbo about meeting God on the mountain. What I believe in is serving God’s people in the valley. So when such a person gets back from the mission trip she signs up for the next Habitat build so she can keep the service going.
Obviously there is something out of the Biblical balance here. What the Bible puts together we too often separate.
Some women have said to me: “Oh I’m a Martha, who likes to work behind the scenes; I couldn’t possibly learn to pray in public.”
Others have said, “I’m a Mary who loves to listen to Jesus teach, but I couldn’t actually eat at the same table with those people at the soup kitchen.”
What God has joined together we pull apart.
This is why Richard Rohr named his place in Albuquerque the Center for Action and Contemplation.
He’s gotten tired of dealing with burned out liberals who love working for peace, but who don’t have the peace of God in their own hearts.
And he’s gotten tired of the over-satisfied conservatives who love to go to Mass but not to jail or the hospital.
Action without the vision of God and Contemplation without action become just exercises of the ego.
The goal, according to the Bible, is to have the two experiences combined in the Spirit: so that talking with a homeless person in Harvard Square can become an epiphany of the Living Christ, and deep prayer after receiving communion can become a union with the suffering of your neighbor.
Amazing things happen when that healing comes. In his book, Descent into Death Howard Storm says he was a confirmed atheist, a professor of studio art at Northern Kentucky University, who had a near death experience but with a twist.
When he experienced separating from himself in a hospital in Paris, dying from a perforation in his small intestines, he didn’t float off into the light and the bliss of God. No, he went to a place of no love, no hope, and no light.
But then he cried out, “Help me Jesus!” and he was transported into the presence of God and the angels, and changed forever.
His reentry into ordinary life took some time.
One Sunday he decides to go to church for the first time since he was a child. Still recovering, he had to lean heavily on his wife to walk from the parking lot into church. He was “emaciated” with “jaundiced skin, yellow eyes…”
The opening hymn was still going as they walked inside. He looked up and said, “I saw on the ceiling of the church hundreds of angels basking in praise of God. They were a golden color and radiated golden light around them. The unexpected sight of the angels unleashed powerful emotions of awe of God inside me. I did the only thing I could do in that circumstance, which was to throw myself down on the floor. Prostate on the carpeted aisle, I thanked God and praised God profusely.
“Regrettably” he said, “we were not in a Pentecostal church, where this might have been acceptable behavior. My wife bent over me, concerned that I had collapsed. The ushers rushed to her aid, asking if they should call an ambulance. Then my wife realized that I was in religious ecstasy and became furious with me because of the commotion I was creating in the back of the church. She was yelling in my ear, ‘Get up! Get up! We will never come to church again!” I was content to lie face down on the floor and happily praise God. The ushers lifted me into the closest available pew, where I sat with my face in my hands weeping and thanking God and Jesus.” My Descent into Death, Howard Storm, p 112-3
Howard Storm is now pastor of Zion United Church of Christ in Cincinnati, Ohio. He writes: “the biggest challenge that I have found in pastoring a church has been raising the consciousness of the congregation toward compassion for people beyond the boundaries of the church. The work of the church is not simply to comfort the members of the church; rather the work of the church is to be like Christ to the world.” Ibid. Page 148
Peter, James, and John have their consciousness raised by the vision of the transfigured Christ. It would be raised again by seeing Christ hanging on the cross and then again encountering him on the Day of Resurrection.
Today we say good bye to Alleluia because on Wednesday we’ll be receiving ashes on our forehead and hearing the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
But really they go together: Alleluia and ashes, cross and resurrection, worship and action.
On the Mount of Transfiguration God says, “Stick with Jesus so he can put them together in you and make you fully alive in Christ.”