I am indebted to Diana Butler Bass and her book Grounded for giving me an entry into the Gospel on Transfiguration. She points out in her book “Grounded” that in 1962 someone decided to put a rather quirky and unexpected question on a Pew Research Poll on Religion in America. The question was this:
“Have you ever had a mystical or spiritual experience that has tra:at question that they had indeed had such an experience.
That’s not what is really interesting.
Here is what is really interesting as her book and remarks made me think about it.
1962 marked what some would call the relative height of the power of the Protestant Church in American. If you have been around a while, you know that this was the time of Church Mission Movements, social justice movements, and the beginning of civil rights. In our tribe as Lutherans we were talking about merger out of a sense of strength, what we could do together, which was planting the seeds for this place as St. James would come into being as Bethlehem and St. Timothy Lutheran from predecessor church bodies were combined and able to put up a brand new, bigger building. The question on many people’s mind was whether or not we could elect a Catholic to the office of the President, or would said president be too heavily influenced by the power of the Church, namely the Pope.
Religion was, in other words, booming in America and 22% of the population polled had experienced a mystical or spiritual life changing event.
Once a question makes it onto a Pew Research Poll, it tends to hang around because after all, the point to polling is to make observations about changes over time.
I don’t need to tell you what has happened to the church since the 1960’s. You can look around today and tell me that, those of you who recall this place teeming with children, having to set up extra chairs at Christmas and Easter. When did we last have to do that?
So if at the height of the church’s power and influence the number was 22%, how bad must the numbers be for mystical or spiritual experience now that no one is around the church?
But here is the fascinating thing, 1962 was actually the LOW point for the answer to that question with 22%!
In 2009 when asked the very same question, while attendance in the local church had plummeted and the institution of the church was scrambling for answers, Pew was recording that now 49% of respondents in America were recounting that they had had a life changing mystical or spiritual experience!
I have always approached the Transfiguration Event as something that is hard for people to understand, because I reasoned so few had ever had any kind of experience like that of Peter James, and John.
But now it appears that if I were to ask for a show of hands, fully one half of you might have a better idea about this kind of thing than I would have given you credit for!
What do we make of that?
The interesting thing about the Transfiguration is that those who experience it aren’t quite sure what to make of it either. It gets recorded in Matthew, Luke and Mark and each has a little different take on its meaning but all agree on this point, which is that Peter, James and John don’t know what to do with it at the time either but find it important to who they become.
So, have you had a life changing mystical or spiritual experience that you don’t know exactly what to do with? If you have, you’re in really good company. The company of James, John and Peter!
And something else that the story promises is that you will figure out why this is meaningful later on.
In Luke’s Gospel Jesus departs the mountain and is immediately caught up in this event of the child with a demon with which the disciples have no success. The events of the mountaintop are forgotten as Jesus does a little cursing at us, “How long must I bear with you and be with you, faithless and perverse generation?”
Ouch, it stings a bit, sorry we’re not up to the mountain anymore Jesus, the pinnacle of faith in you. But you see, we’ve had this experience, and we’re not really sure what to do with it!
We’ve seen you in your glory.
We’ve heard the voice of God booming from the mist and shroud of cloud that we should “listen to you.”
Before all of this we’ve seen and been present and participants in your miracles and teachings Jesus; but despite all the signs and wonders and visions and the mystical and spiritual experiences of the mountaintop, we still aren’t entirely sure what to do.
James, Peter and John model this for us.
They fumble and thrash about so even while they are with Jesus. Sometimes they become enamored with building projects, (Look at how great the stones are in the Temple, Jesus!)
Sometimes they area stymied by the magnitude of the need before them. (All we have are 5 barley loaves and 2 fishes, but what are they among so many?)
Sometimes they are afraid to engage with the powers that stand in opposition to God and God’s will in this world, like demons that frighten. (I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.)
I take all this as good news, for you see, like Peter, James and John, we may have felt the power of Jesus’ presence, time and again.
We may have known the depth of God’s love.
We may have heard the call to live as Jesus has shown us to live.
But as disciples, -as followers – even when given a great mystical or spiritual experience like Peter, James and John had on the mountaintop; we’re still not always sure exactly what to do with it all, or what exactly Jesus expects of us.
Perhaps this is the great take away from the Transfiguration story.
Jesus may have perfect clarity now in what he needs to do having conferred with Moses and Elijah, and yet even he still gets frustrated with the overwhelming and imposing needs of his world.
There is always another mouth to feed.
There is always another demon to address.
There is always another would-be disciple who needs a push in the right direction, or encouragement, or some gentle correction.
But having had this experience, even if you don’t know what to do with it in the moment, you will have eyes to recognize God when God shows up again, not on the mountain, but in the world you live in.
Peter, James and John will recall this moment when they begin to make sense of what it is that God calls them to do after Jesus has ascended, and given the task of spreading the good news to them.
This moment will be important, for it will mark coming of even more mystical and the spiritual moments for them as they move out into the world.
There will be the moment in the Garden for Mary, and the women.
There will be the moment along the road to Emmaus when the Risen Lord joins and opens the scriptures, and meets them in the breaking of the bread.
There will be the moment while Philip races along beside a Chariot to open the door to baptism for the Ethiopian Eunuch, and having baptized him, Philip finds himself now standing somewhere else, “How did I get here?”
The moment when Lydia is brought back from the dead, and the beggar is made to stand again by Peter who says, “Silver and gold have I none, but what I have, I give… rise and walk.”
This is the legacy of the Transfiguration. It’s not something we are meant to figure out, it is a sign of what’s to come. A sign of how God is going to one day pour out his spirit on all flesh, including us, and we will see visions and we will dream dreams… a lot of which we can’t for the life of us explain but spiritual and mystical moments when our lives are changed and we find purpose and meaning and direction to follow Jesus in new ways.
There will be in the future all those moments for us, after when something happens that we can’t quite explain or figure out but are suddenly, with great clarity, know that God is in our midst. We discover a God who is already here and already waiting for us, Just as God was for Peter, James and John; with more than one surprise along the way as they followed Jesus in their own particular imperfect ways.
So, as we move from the Transfiguration down into the valley today we are confronted by need right away… one more demon to cast out, and it’s frustrating having just thought we’d seen the height of faith to discover that the battle goes on… but it’s also exhilarating because God is not just loose on the mountain, but God is also loose down here as well, where we live our lives.
Diana Butler Bass in her new book “Grounded” speaks of how the dimension for faith has shifted as she quotes this Pew study.
No longer is God found only in the vertical relationship, the God of “high places.”
No, now God is the God on the horizon and at the margins, and we behold and experience God in the world in those places.
It is a God who has always been present in creation, and in the world, and in the neighbor. God is dwelling there still, and with those first disciples after Pentecost we are discovering more and more that God is to be found not just on the mountaintop, or in the sanctuary but also on the street corner, and the garden, and in nature, and in the midst of our communities.
I don’t know why this surprises us, for the scriptures are filled with the stories and allusion to a God who “tabernacles”, who lives with God’s people.
Transfiguration pushes us back down and out into the world, where that special moment that we don’t know what to do with at the time somehow begins to make more sense.
This is what God was pointing to all along. “This is my son, listen to him.”
Listen to him in the midst of everyday life, not just when you are up and away.
Listen to him in his own frustration, and in his blessing, and in his actions for others, and connections with others.
Listen when he engages with the undesirable, and the untouchable, and the un-likeable, and learn from him… that no one is beyond God’s reach, and that you will face nothing that you have to deal with that will be beyond the power of prayer.
49% are having spiritual and mystical life changing experiences while the church as an institution is in general decline.
God isn’t giving up on the world. God is moving into it, and so perhaps, should we.