Sharing the Glow

A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Claire Nevin-Field on the Feast of the Transfiguration

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How do we even begin to talk about the events of today’s Gospel narrative, known as the transfiguration? It is very clear that Jesus didn’t really want to talk about it—at least, not for a while. Despite what you might think human nature would dictate, evidently James, Peter and John managed to be pretty tight lipped about the whole thing. But eventually, of course, that remarkable event on the mountain top was let out of the bag and immediately everyone began to try and figure it all out. Right through to today when scholars dissect every word, looking for an explanation, looking for THE meaning of it all.

And really, as noted preacher Barbara Brown Taylor observes, that is what we do with experiences we just can’t explain. We pick them up and turn them over, examine them from every angle until, because we have handled them so much, they become safe.

What happened on that mountain? I don’t have a clue. Whatever it was, it was deeply personal, a private moment between Jesus and God. So intensely private it happened within a cloud so no one could see, and even if the cloud hadn’t been present, the 3 disciples were flat on their faces too terrified to look up until they were touched by Jesus and told it was OK to get up now.

Such uncommon experiences fascinate us—and the Bible really delivers on uncommon experiences. It is packed with stories of encounters, events that defy explanation. Moses wandered by a bush that caught fire and then talked to him, and when he wasn’t chatting with foliage he was wandering up and down the Holy Mountain with his face glowing-reflecting God’s glory all over the place. Jacob saw a ladder full of angels busily going up and down, to and from heaven. Job had his encounter with the voice in the whirlwind and so on. Whatever is going on in these stories it seems clear that these people were standing in places where, as poet Sharlande Sledge writes, “the door between this world and the next is cracked open for a moment and the light is not all on the other side. God shaped space. Holy.”

For whatever reasons, though, we tend to think that things don’t work the same way any more. It is certainly true that it is atypical to see a bush burning away, or hear voices in whirlwinds, and usually beings on ladders are quite human. I don’t know why this is, but I don’t think it is because God is AWOL, and I know many of us are still interested in God-there are still plenty of people trying to chase God down. We do all sorts of things to experience the holy; chant, sit in silence, fast, go to church, go to the mountains, go on retreats, on pilgrimages. On some level, we have had enough theology, enough dissection and explanation of God, enough trying to trap God in amber and keep the holy on the shelf in a safe place-we simply want to experience the holy. So we chase God down. The irony is that God is right here all the time, probably waving the divine arms and saying “Oy—look over here already”. And the truth is that many of us have actually found God, have experienced the holy. But, like Peter, James, and John may be a little shy talking about our experience. Maybe we don’t want to be seen as crazy or setting ourselves up as holier than others, maybe we are afraid that in the talking, the experience will lose its power, that inviting others in will take some of the luster off the glow, maybe it just doesn’t feel safe.

There are, throughout the world, what the Celts call thin places—places where the veil between worlds is sheer and the presence of the Holy palpable. Places where we see beyond what is seen to what is real. For the ancient Israelites Mt. Zion was one such place, for Christians Iona, off the west coast of Scotland is one, Jerusalem another, and Rome. For me, Lindisfarne, the Holy Island off the northeast coast of England is such a place. Stomping ground of the great Celtic saints Aidan and Cuthbert, who were responsible for the spread of Christianity into Scotland and northern England, the island is wild, raw and beautiful. Amid the roar of the North Sea, the call of sea birds and the barking of seals, the sun (on occasion!) glinting off the waves, the massive ancient rocks, and the ruins of a 7th century monastery founded by Aidan, the sense of being close to another world is inescapable. You may have your own thin place. The truth though, quite disappointingly, is that most of us live most of our lives not in thin places but in very thick places-places where the heaviness of life crowds in, where the anxiety and bustle of life makes the veil between worlds become opaque and God seem distant. Something we need to hunt down rather than One who comes to us.

Thank God, then, that in addition to thin places, I think there are thin spaces in life. Times when for reasons that may defy explanation, we are particularly open to the Holy. Such times may be induced by trauma or fear—God reaching out to hold our hand in the dark. Sometimes they just happen.

1999 was a year that in many ways I do not recall fondly. I had just recently successfully defeated malignant melanoma and so was devastated to learn, after ignoring symptoms for months like any self-respecting health professional, that I had a brain tumor. In the few days between “there’s something in your brain” and finding out exactly what that something was and that it was treatable, I was in a full out tailspin. I had always been afraid of the dark as a child, and I felt like I was wandering around in constant darkness, filled with fear. One evening, while my husband was out and my daughters were asleep, I lay down on my bed and thought “I just can’t do this, I need help”. I felt myself physically spinning, and in my minds eye I was being sucked down a dark whirlpool. And almost at once I felt, felt, hands underneath me lifting me up and out of that whirlpool. And a firm, but very gentle voice said loudly and clearly, “Do not be afraid of the dark for I am uncreated light. I am with you and I love you.”

What happened in that room? I haven’t a clue. But I know God was right smack in the middle of it, and I know that experience was a transformative moment, it changed me permanently. Where once I had a sense of God as a sort of kindly old uncle, vaguely benevolent towards the world, I now had a sense of God as an immediate presence, interested not just in the world in a vague way, but interested in me. That knowledge, that experience has carried me through many a dry, desert spell, many a dark night and many a fear.

I know that while my experience is my own and unique, that there are many, many unique stories in this room. Not all epiphanies are loud or tangible, some are simply moments when we are acutely aware of God’s presence. Sometimes it is only in hindsight that we can see clearly that God was all over an experience or event. There are as many epiphanies as there are people. Imagine the gift we would give each other if we could let go of our fear and talk about them, providing sacred stepping stones for each other on our journey. I know that Jesus counseled his friends not to talk about that particular mountaintop moment of God’s glory busting loose, but I tend to think it was not so much that Jesus didn’t want us to see and rejoice in God’s glory, but because he knew that his friends, hearing about this event, would spend all their time with him distracted and watching to see if light was going to shoot out of his pores or stream through the seams in his clothes rather than listening to what he said. But we are not in the same situation as the disciples-we are in a world both starved for contact with the holy and afraid to talk about holy moments when they happen. And the good news is that they do happen—I firmly believe that there is no shortage of epiphanies in this world. The light from another place still breaks through in God shaped beams, illuminating the darkness and breaking through the thick cloud, leaving our faces glowing. So, as the voice in the cloud said, listen to him, don’t be afraid, it is OK to get up now—share your story, glow, reflect that God given glory to the world, because frankly the world needs all the light it can get and who are you not to shine?

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The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field

The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field is the rector of St. Peter's Church.

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