“Mountaintops” Colchester Federated Church, February 11, 2018 (Mark 9:2-9) Transfiguration Sunday

Today is Transfiguration Sunday.  Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain apart, by themselves.  On that mountain, Jesus is transfigured before them.  His clothes becoming dazzling white and Elijah and Moses appear, talking to Jesus.  Peter responds to this miraculous moment by asking Jesus if they should make three dwellings—one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.  (Not really knowing what to say because they are terrified.)  Just then, to add to the drama and suspense, a cloud overshadows all of them and a voice proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  Then suddenly the three disciples look around and see only Jesus.  They come down the mountain and Jesus commands them to tell no one what they had just seen until after his Resurrection.[1]

There are many ways to explore this story—which we always hear the Sunday before Lent begins.  It’s a story that can give us courage to take the Lenten journey because we know that no matter what happens, Jesus is the light of the world.  One sermon I’ve certainly preached before is that Jesus declines Peter’s offer to build dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  Instead, Jesus goes down the mountain with his disciples and immediately begins to heal again.  In the Gospel of Mark specifically, Jesus gets right back to work healing a boy possessed by a spirit who had made him unable to speak.  So Jesus doesn’t stay in that safe and comfortable place up on the mountain.  Jesus knows that his work is in the world with God’s people who are in need of healing and wholeness.  That’s where we will find Jesus.

It’s not a bad way to explore the Transfiguration.  It’s a valid Biblical interpretation.  Though the Transfiguration is also about being on the mountaintop with Jesus and experiencing God to get the strength and courage to go out into the world.  That’s what we’ll explore today.  As Christians, we are called to be in the world and to work alongside Jesus, helping God to mend the world.  We are also called to be on the mountaintop and to experience God’s glory, so that we can hear the voice of God in our own lives.  You see, the top of that mountain (which may be Mount Tabor where the Church of the Transfiguration stands today in Israel) becomes a Thin Place.

We’ve maybe heard the term “Thin Place” before—the term has Celtic Christian origins.  The Celts believed that heaven and earth were only three feet apart.  Don’t ask me where this measurement came from.  Thin Places were believed to be special places where this distance is even shorter.  Presbyterian minister Reverend Mark Roberts in exploring the history and Biblical roots of Thin Places, defines them as “a physical place where human beings experience God more directly.  The metaphor assumes a worldview in which heaven and earth are, in general, separated by a considerable distance.  But some places on earth seem to be thin in the sense that the separation between heaven and earth is narrowed.  Thus, people sense God’s presence more readily in so-called thin places.”[2]

Thin Places are physical locations in Celtic spirituality.  We can point to them on a map and explain to a friend how to find them.  And mountaintops are often viewed as holy places in World Religions.  Look at all of the monasteries, churches, and temples that are built high atop mountains.  Though what’s really interesting is that the whole idea of Thin Places has actually transcended Christianity by now.  An excellent modern exploration of Thin Places was once in The New York Times Travel Section of all places!  Author Eric Weiner wrote, “I’m drawn to places that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again.  It turns out these destinations have a name: thin places.”[3]  Weiner goes on to write that in Thin Places we can catch a glimpse of the Divine.  He notes that traveling to Thin Places doesn’t necessarily lead to a spiritual breakthrough, “But it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones . . . we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world.”[4]

That is perhaps what the disciples experienced on top of Mount Tabor with Jesus, being jolted out of old ways of seeing the world.  No wonder it was frightening to them!  Thin Places can perhaps be physical locations (like Mount Tabor) or even moments in time (like the Transfiguration) where God bursts forth and breaks through whatever it is that separates us from God.  All of a sudden, the distance we sometimes may feel from God vanishes.  There are moments in time or special places where we may experience this reality and all of a sudden we are plunged into an encounter with the Divine.  So could that be what Peter, James, and John experienced with Jesus on the top of Mount Tabor—a real religious experience that we have come to call The Transfiguration?  Yes.  Because these types of experiences where we lose our bearings and find new ones still happen!

Though if we’re honest, sometimes it does feel like there’s a big distance between us and God.  Other times we may get the sense that God is as close to us as our next breath.  Celtic Christianity verbalizes the presence of God out in the world and also within us.  A prayer from the Iona Community in Scotland explains this well.  It goes, “You are above me O God.  You are beneath.  You are in air.  You are in earth.  You are beside me.  You are within.  O God of heaven, you have made your home on earth in the broken body of Creation.  Kindle within me a love for you in all things.”[5]  There is so much movement in this prayer from Iona—God above, beneath, beside, within, in the earth, in the air. But sometimes it may not feel like God is there for us in all those ways, which is all the more reason to appreciate Thin Places.  Those places where the distance between heaven and earth somehow lessens.

Maybe we need to accept that God breaks through to us in times and places in more subtle ways than we see this morning.  This morning’s Gospel story is dramatic.  Dazzling white clothes, figures appearing, a cloud, and God’s voice.  We may have jaw dropping religious experiences like that in our lives, and that’s awesome!  Though sometimes God works more subtly, with a bit of a nudge or a push in a particular direction.  If we train ourselves to listen to the still, small voice of God in our midst then sometimes transformative encounters happen.

Reverend Adam Hamilton who serves as the Senior Pastor of The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City (the largest Methodist Church in the world) once shared that he experiences God working in his life by feeling nudges from time to time.  He explained that one evening his wife was out of town and he decided to go out for dinner.  Heading toward a particular restaurant he all of a sudden felt a strong urge to turn around and go to a different restaurant.  Adam Hamilton followed that nudge, not really knowing if it was just a random thought or the nudging of God.  Walking into the restaurant, a woman sitting at the front table looked at him and her jaw dropped.  She exclaimed, “Pastor Adam, I can’t believe you’re here.  I’ve been going through a really tough time.  Not ten minutes ago I had been praying, ‘God, can you show me some kind of sign that you still remember I’m here?’ and then you walked in.”  We could pass this off as just a coincidence.  Or perhaps we could see that God was somehow at work here and speaking to both Reverend Adam Hamilton and this woman who was hurting.[6]

For my part, there was a Saturday morning in Lexington when I was out grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s and a parishioner popped into my head.  Her mother was home and nearing the end of her life.  When she popped into my head I made a note to call her later and kept shopping.  Then it happened again, and it felt more urgent somehow.  So I bought a bouquet of flowers, checked out, and drove directly to her home with groceries in the trunk of my car.  Didn’t call to set up an appointment, just drove right there.

The family was keeping vigil at the bedside of their mother and began to cry when I randomly showed up with flowers (wearing sweat pants and a hoodie!) on a Saturday morning and offered to say a prayer with them.  We held hands in a circle around their mother in her hospital bed in the living room and prayed together.  When we opened our eyes, their mother had died.  Some may say that this was just a coincidence or good timing.  We felt that God was at work here.  Not on a literal mountaintop or in a cloud or with a big booming voice.  But with a thought and a little nudge at the grocery store.

As Christians we can learn to pay attention to those moments where God may just be breaking through to us.  Where God needs us to go somewhere and do something, to be with someone who is hurting or even dying.  We can develop the eyes to see and the ears to hear.  God can use us to help God mend the world.

At the end of the day and as a pastor, my deep hope is that church and being together in worship can feel like a Thin Place.  Church can be a place and a time for us to recharge our batteries and reconnect to God and to one another.  Reinvigorating ourselves to go back out there and love folks into wholeness.  To train ourselves to respond to the nudges from God.  Because God won’t always speak to us on top of mountains in dramatic flashy ways like the disciples experienced with Jesus’ Transfiguration.  Sometimes God speaks to us while driving around wondering which restaurant we should go to.  Sometimes God speaks to us while grocery shopping on a Saturday morning.  When we listen and respond to God’s nudges we will find that God uses us to God’s glory.  It’s a reality that I know to be true.  May it be so with us, and thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Mark 9:2-9, NRSV.
[2] Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts, “Thin Places: A Biblical Investigation” Patheos. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/thin-places/
[3] Eric Weiner, “Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer,” in The New York Times, March 9, 2012,   http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/travel/thin-places-where-we-are-jolted-out-of-old-ways-of-seeing-the-world.html?_r=0
[4] Ibid.
[5] J. Philip Newell, Celtic Prayers from Iona, 44.
[6] Adam Hamilton, Half Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves and Other Things the Bible Doesn’t Say, 40-41.