March 6, 2011 The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
March 6, 2011
2 Peter 1:16-19 and Matthew 17:1-9
“Eyewitnesses of Christ’s Majesty”
We live lives of wonder, we live lives of monotony, we live them at the same time. We live regular lives, sometimes pierced by grief or new love or fear, things that break through the surface. Routine is not bad, in and of itself: it is good to work and good to learn and good to serve and good to read and to shop and to connect to others – the stuff of a routine day. When very bad news comes, we realize most deeply what a gift our routines really are.
There are people who fill our lives – colleagues and classmates and housemates and relatives and acquaintances. Sometimes, in what comes as quite a surprise, we find ourselves looking at one of those people in a new light – they become quite different to us. Perhaps we hear them give a formal talk, or we read something they’ve written, or we just hear another person singing their praise. “Oh!” we think. They seem a little different now. They’re accomplished, or they’re interesting, or they’re simply identifiable as people with whom we share mutual interests and concerns. There is no longer anything routine about them. Or it may not be a person but a place or project that didn’t particularly interest us earlier, but that we now see to be vital and even valuable. The town that we grew up in, the work that consumed those around us, we appreciate them now . Seeing things and people for what they are ; seeing what or who has really been in our midst all along for the deep value that they truly have.
The disciples Peter, James, and John, have just this kind of experience – someone who’s been in their midst the whole time - they suddenly understand as he truly is. They know him to be truly divine. A cloud covers them, just as a cloud covers Mt. Sinai when Moses receives the Ten Commandments – it means that God is present! Present in a very powerful way, for certainly God is present among us in all our routines and challenges. Just for a few seconds God gives them the ability to really see, to see just some of the mystery that surrounds them always. They see Jesus, their companion for some time now, for who he really is. They get it; they get him . It is a mystery – Jesus as man from Nazareth, Jesus as preacher, Jesus as healer, Jesus as Messiah – as Savior and Son of God! In this brief moment of revelation, they get it all. They have a vision of who this man really is. God gives them that ability, so briefly, to really understand Christ’s majesty in their midst. This story of the transfiguration of Jesus certainly concerns Jesus, but only in part – it’s also about what happened to Peter, James, and John – it’s about their transformation, their vision .
We have visions – sure we do. Over the years, I’ve heard and read of people’s visions of Christ appearing to them and I believe them. I particularly appreciate the story told by the writer Anne Lamott about her own conversion to Christianity. She was addicted to alcohol; she was sneaking into the back of a majority-black Presbyterian church that was meeting near the grounds of a weekend flea market by her home where she would spend her Sunday mornings and sober up. She sat in the back, next to the door, because (in my understanding) she didn’t want to make herself vulnerable either to the message being shared from the front or the spirit being embodied in the middle of the building – in that congregation. But a door into her hurting soul had been opened and one night, trying both to sleep and to keep the shards of her life together, she sensed Jesus lurking in the corners of her darkened bedroom, not sinister but attentive, caring for her, lurking like a cat (she says), and she decided to give up, and give over. This, she wryly describes with expletives, was her lovely conversion story. Surrender to a vision that some would think is nuts.
Many of us have visions of the divine – and they may not be like the disciples on Mt. Tabor or Anne Lamott in the corners of her old boathouse. They may be visions of Jesus, or they may be more broadly, visions of the divine – of the suffusing presence of God – in so many other forms, many of them very humble. Sometimes our eyes open and we simply understand the routine things before us to be the actual presence of the divine. There is holiness in them.
Perhaps you know the novel by Marilynne Robinson called Gilead. She describes at one point a vision that’s so simple and so profound – the kind we have. The voice – the narrator – is that of an elderly minister; he’s remembering when he looked, years and years ago, into the face of his newborn daughter (who, it turns out, would not live long). He says, “I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face… It has something to do with incarnation. You feel your obligation to a child when you have seen it and held it. Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it. But this is truest of the face of an infant. I consider that to be one kind of vision, as mystical as any.”
The mystical vision in the face of an infant, in the face of a colleague who, when we are most depressed, just shows us love; the vision of the holy that appears to us in a scene of natural beauty – as unnatural beauty, like when Route 1 appears to us to hold holy glimpses of human striving and ingenuity. There is the vision seen in a work of art or heard in a piece of music, when the soul is moved out of its bodily shell into something larger. Visions are when our understanding breaks its usual bonds and soars into realms we didn’t know existed – often not grandiose but so, so simple. When we understand the sacredness in the face of another – newborn, elderly, or anywhere in between - we take the revelations of mystery and the holy where we can get them, and when. What dry spells there are. Perhaps you are tempted to think now about when such a vision last – or ever – occurred to you.
The disciples were so much like us. They had the visions that come to routine lives just as we do – when they were lucky . It was truly a miracle to them to have a vision of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, to be eyewitnesses of his majesty. They were overwhelmed. They stammered out gibberish – ludicrous ideas – anything they could associate with the miraculous vision enfolding before their eyes. For us today, the question isn’t so much whether or not visions can happen to us (for as some of you have shared with me – yes, they can !) For all of us, the task is to be as open as possible to really seeing what’s in front of us for all its holy worth. The disciples had been accompanying Jesus for several years by the time of his transfiguration (or so it would seem in Matthew’s gospel); they just never really understood who it was that they were with ! They’d never really understood his majesty . The Messiah may not be among our personal companions today, but if we were suddenly to come to a full understanding of the holy value of everyone and everything around us, we may well be overwhelmed, too, by the close presence of the divine in our midst – right there in things and people that are routine to us – suffused with God ! Clouds may not descend from heaven today to surround us with the immediate presence of God, but God and Christ are still among us, waiting to be revealed in the things and places and people we think we know so well.
When God comes up close to – when God gets in the face of - the Hebrews at Sinai and the disciples on Mt. Tabor, the humble people who have experienced the close presence of the divine have a task – to listen . “Listen to him” says the voice on Mt. Tabor. When we’re realizing that we’re seeing something fully for the first time, when we know God is close, when we’re startled speechless by a vision, we’re in the perfect place to hear something new. God has got our attention, you might say! Once our eyes have been opened, we must open our ears, too. The vision is the gift, the listening is the response. New things have only begun to happen; but whether or not they continue will depend on us, on the extent to which we, newly awakened, tune our ears to new sounds and lessons and cries and entreaties. Having gotten our attention God will, through the divine voice or those of others, tell us what we need to know to live in response to the Presence; the holiness that we now know suffuses our lives.
Peter writes to the faithful, “be attentive… as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Look for the glow of the holy, especially if you’re sure that even the humblest of visions could never happen to you , or even if you’ve been praying and hoping for a vision for years and years. Be ever-vigilant for the Presence in our midst, the one that, as with the disciples, may live amongst us for years without our detecting it. It may not be a cloud descending upon and enveloping us – oh for so great a sign! It may be the smallest realization that Christ lurks like a cat in the corner of the darkened room in which we’re hiding from our problems and especially from our questions of faith. Our sign might be in the extraordinary, routine beauty in the face of someone next to us. Let us graciously accept the visions in any form, wherever we can get them. Let us pray for the discernment to see things and people as they really are , and then let us listen for the loud or whispering voice that tells us what to do! Let us have the courage indeed to be “eyewitnesses of Christ’s majesty.”