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MYSTERIES AND MEANINGS
Post Presbyterian Church
February 18, 2007
The Bible is mostly the story of people living their lives, doing what people do, and dealing with what comes at them in life, day after day, year after year, century after century. And because it is mostly the story of people living their lives, the Bible has enough intrigue, love, hate, war, passion, sex and violence to rival our present-day movies, sitcoms, and reality television shows. But every now and then, the Bible steps back from the dramas, routines, and pettiness of every day life and reminds us once again of the element of mystery that encompasses all of life.
The two scriptures we just read are filled with great mystery and intrigue and they truly push the edges of believability. They both have to do with a mountain and the mysterious sense of God and God’s majesty and glory. As the Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “these passages are cracked doors between this world and some other, brighter place where God is no absentee landlord but a very real and palpable presence.”
The first story comes from edge of recorded history. The people of Israel have escaped from their captivity in Egypt and they have somehow managed to get away from the Egyptian army at the Red Sea. They are headed north but no one except Moses seems to know where they are headed or how long they will have to walk. They know there is a huge and forbidding wilderness in front of them and it is at this moment that the Bible says God invites Moses to a meeting on the mountain.
John Buchanan says, “The mountain in this story is Mt. Sinai and Moses goes alone. God has called this meeting and is in charge of the agenda. When Moses gets to the top of the mountain expecting that he’s going to see God, a very important thing happens. When Moses arrives at the summit, a cloud descends and Moses sits down and waits, in silence, for a week. And finally after a week of silence, God speaks and Moses enters the cloud, and Moses never really does see God.
A millennium and a half later, the Bible takes us up another mountain. This time it’s Jesus who does the inviting and is in charge of the agenda. Peter, James, and John are invited to the mountaintop and what happens up there again pushes the edges of believability. Matthew records that Jesus’ face shone like the sun, his clothes became dazzling and two figures out of the past appear. And suddenly, there is that cloud again and a voice and the disciples understandably have fallen to the ground in fear.”
The church’s word for what happened to Moses and to Jesus is transfiguration. While people who knew them both very well watched, they were changed into beings of light, as if their skin had become transparent for a moment and what had been inside them all along shone through for everyone to see. Barbara Brown Taylor said, “It was not anything either of them did. They did not change. Rather they had been changed by the God whose glory transfigures everyone it touches. It is light that cannot be captured or controlled, any more than God can be. It can only experienced, in ourselves or in another.”
As you have heard me speak about before, Rachel Remen is a medical doctor who has cared for people with chronic and terminal illnesses for the last twenty-five years. Her wonderful book, My Grandfather’s Blessings, is a collection of stories that celebrate life and chronicle how people have been changed by the presence of God and the mysteries of life. Dr. Remen relates the story of an encounter with the holy that she experienced at a seminar with other physicians.
“Recently during a physicians’ seminar on listening, we all took out our stethoscopes and spent several minutes listening to our own hearts. We are all middle-aged people and for the first little while everyone anxiously diagnosed themselves, fearful of hearing a split S1, a third heart sound, or perhaps the murmur of an atherosclerotic valve. But as time went on and we continued to listen to our hearts, we moved past all that and heard something steadfast in the midst of our lives that had been there always, even before we were fully human. Our lives and all other lives depended on it. It was a profound encounter with the mysterious that we were unable to describe or explain and most of us present that day were deeply moved. We had listened to hearts and diagnosed them for years, but none of us had ever experienced this before. In that moment we had glimpsed something beyond our habitual way of seeing and hearing and knew that what we work with every day is truly life itself.
Afterward there was a silence. Then one of the cardiologists present began to speak about his work and to wonder aloud how he could be so close to something holy and not know it. It reminded him, he said, of a prayer that he had heard some time back. Somewhat embarrassed, he began to recite it aloud:
Days pass and the years vanish and we walk sightless among the mysterious and the miraculous in our midst. Oh God, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing. Let there be moments when your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk. Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns, unconsumed. And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness and exclaim in wonder, ‘How filled with awe is this place and we did not know.’”
I believe that an awareness of the mystery and a reminder of the miraculous holy are important perspective for us to hold onto in the living of our days. In our ability to have so much of life under our control, we so often forget that our lives are lived out in the presence of that which is infinitely greater than life itself. We forget that we live in the midst of mystery and miracle and that there is more to our experience of life than we can ever touch, feel, know, or understand.
A few years ago (Feb. 2000) I had the privilege of hearing John Claypool speak at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Lubbock. One of the things he said in his first lecture was that we know so little about the mysteries of life and that any given moment in our lives, even at the end, it is much too early to tell how things will turn out. Claypool reminded us that the worst things in our lives will never be the last things and he asked us to think about the times when the Holy One has surprised us with new life and healing, as well as hope and strength beyond what we could muster for ourselves. He said we never know enough about the mysteries of God to be either despairing or smug about our circumstances.
Claypool said that one of his favorite stories is found in the book, Song of the Bird, by the Jesuit priest, Anthony deMello. The story beautifully illustrates the fact that at any given time in our lives, we never know enough about the mysteries of God to be either despairing or smug about our circumstances. The story goes that there was a farmer who lived in the interior of China and this farmer had a single horse on which he depended for everything. One afternoon a bee stung his horse and in fear, the horse fled from the farmer. The farmer went town and his friends said they were sorry for his bad luck and the farmer responded, “Good luck, bad luck, whose to say.” A few weeks later, the farmer’s horse found his way home and brought with him five wild horses for the farmer’s use. The farmer went to town and his friends said they were happy for his good luck and the farmer responded, “Good luck, bad luck, whose to say.” One day while the farmer and his son were breaking the wild horses, one of the horses threw the farmer’s son to the ground and broke his leg in several places. The farmer went to town and his friends said they were sorry for his bad luck and the farmer responded, “Good luck, bad luck, whose to say.” A few months later war broke out in the interior of China and the government called all able bodied young men to fight in the army and because of his broken leg, the farmer’s son was spared. The farmer went to town and his friends said they were happy for his good luck and the farmer responded, “Good luck, bad luck, whose to say.”
This story reminds us that we know so little about the prosperities and tragedies that visit us all in this precious and difficult life. At any given moment it is too early to tell what will come of our lives and we may never know or understand even partially God’s mysterious and miraculous ways in our lives.
I was watching the Today Show on Thursday morning (February 15, 2007) and had the chance to listen to Matt Lauer interview Jason McElwain, the 18 year old autistic boy, and his family about the amazing mountaintop experience Jason had a year ago when his coach put him in a high school basketball game and he scored 20 points in four minutes and his team won! The whole interview was an inspiration as his parents and brother talked about how one night totally transformed Jason’s life.
Jason was thrust into the spotlight when Greece Athena High School basketball coach, Jim Johnson decided to send him onto the floor for a little play in the team’s final regular season game against Spencerport on February 16, 2006. Jason had never made the team but stayed on as team manager, and Coach Johnson thought a little playing time would be a fitting show of gratitude for his dedication.
Jason set the crowd into a frenzy when, after missing his first shot, he sank six three-pointers and a jump shot in the final four minutes. His achievement, captured on videotape, made him a national sensation. Jason, known as “J-Mac” to his friends, made appearances at the ESPY awards, the NCAA Final Four, and the NBA finals. In addition to the president, he got to meet Oprah Winfrey, Peyton Manning and Jessica Simpson.
Letters still pour in from all over the world. People with autism write to thank Jason for serving as a beacon of hope for others. Jason’s mother said she hopes Jason’s story will encourage other families with autistic children to identify the symptoms early and get treatments designed to foster communication skills before it is too late.
Debbie McElwain said Jason was diagnosed with severe autism when he was 2 ½ years old and they never thought he would come this far; their hope early on was that he would be able to talk. It was just one hurdle after the next for Jason and his family as he was growing up and he hopes his story will inspire others to set goals and achieve their dreams.
At the end of the interview, Jason said, “I just hope more people are aware of autism, the disease autism, and that people know more about it and get the treatment they need with their children, early in life like my loving mother did for me.” (Story taken from article on msnbc.com, the Today Show Link for 2/15/07)
What a beautiful story of transfiguration and hope for us all! Thank goodness we don’t have total control of our lives and that every now and then we are able to catch glimpses of mysteries and miracles that brighten our days with wonder and joy. In the face of much mystery and miracle perhaps the best way for us to live is with a spirit of openness and humility. We can only hope that there will be moments when God, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk. We can only hope that every now and then, not at our initiative and not at all on our terms, we will be invited by God to some mountain top. We can only hope that there in the cloud of mystery with God we will be blessed with the faith, hope and love we need to deal with life in the valley. We pray that God’s presence with us will give us what we need to effectively deal with the demands of our growing families, our aging bodies, our problems at work, school, and home, our uncertain futures, our best friend’s sickness, and our own obvious mortality because as we all know, there are days in which the darkness invades our space, we forget the many blessings of our lives, and we are scared and hopeless.
You may have noticed in the story Luke told, that Peter wanted to stay up on the mountain. Peter wanted to build three buildings to nail the experience down and to make mystery and miracle and holiness permanent. Jesus doesn’t even acknowledge that suggestion and proceeds to lead his friends down from the mountain, back to the journey of life, a journey now blessed by the assurance that it is lived within the presence and love of a mysterious and miraculous God.
“When cures and healing are beyond our powers, when the shine on a loved ones face comes from tears in the fluorescent lights of intensive care, and when there is simply nothing of hope to say to some one in grief and pain, other than “I’m so sorry and I’m here,”---on such days it is good to be in this story, listening to the voice that urges us to follow on, for the Word shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (Christian Century, February 6, 2007, p. 16---Rev. Heidi Neumark)
God of mystery and miracle, we gather on this Sunday with our community of faith and give thanks for the gifts of both community and faith. We are aware of our great need to belong to others and to give of ourselves in ways that are affirmed and appreciated. We are also aware of our great need to have our souls nurtured in the living of our days and to experience every once in awhile a sense of the Holy and Generous One in our midst.
In the midst of our busy and chaotic lives we pause on this day to allow our souls to settle and to acknowledge the One who is infinitely greater than life itself. Because we have been blessed with so many resources and because we have so much of life under our control, we so often forget that our lives are lived out in the presence of that which is infinitely greater than life itself. We forget that we live in the midst of mystery and miracle and great possibility and that there is more to our experience of life than we can ever touch, taste, feel, know, or understand. When things seem to be going our way, it is easy for us to become smug and think we have life by the tail and we really have no need for God. And then when the bottom has fallen out from under us, it is so easy for us to become despairing and feel guilty for begging God to change our circumstances for us and be apart of our lives again. Remind us that at any given time we really know so little about the mysteries of God to be either smug or despairing. We pray for the humility and openness we need to live each day fully and to allow God’s presence in our midst to enable us to make the most of both the tragedies and prosperities that visit us all.
Sensitize us to the needs of those in our midst who are experiencing illness, grief, and difficult times and remind us that we are made more whole together as we help and serve each other. In our journey through the valleys of suffering, pain, and possibility, may we be blessed by the assurance that God loves us and goes with us opening our blind eyes, our broken hearts, and our hardened lives to the events of mystery and miracle in our midst. In the name of the One who showed us how to love and to live, let us pray, Our father…AMEN