One of my favorite spots on the planet is Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County in the San Francisco Bay area. Karl and I were visiting the area one March, late afternoon—the time of day when most people have left the beach, and sometimes creatures are out to feed. It was a warm spring-like day. Whale migration was happening, and as we walked along the beach, we were looking for whale spouts. As we walked, something very black and white and dazzlingly shiny caught my eye. It was very near to the shore. I grabbed Karl’s arm and we stopped walking to stand still and look.
After a few minutes, suddenly, a black and white Orca suddenly popped its head out of the water, and looked directly at us. It must have only been about 200 yards away from us. (I’ve learned that this is called spy-hopping.) The orca looked at us and we looked at him: we were nearly eye-to-eye. It seemed like everything was on hold and silent for a few moments. Then the orca simply vanished. Vanished. I kept watching, but there were no spouts, no ripples. No breaching or spy-hopping. The orca simply vanished. I was thrilled! It was “close encounter” that left me breathless. From different worlds, we had seen one another. I still remember that moment. My world became brighter, clearer and more hopeful.
Poet John Ciardi once wrote that we shouldn’t ask “what does a poem mean?” but “how does a poem mean?” The concern is not to arrive at the definition of a poem, but to arrive at an experience. This scripture today—the story of the transfiguration of Jesus– is like that. As I wrestled with how to preach it, it came to me that I should not try to explain the meaning, (which is impossible) but to explore the wonder of it.
As we grow from children into adults, we lose many things. Sometimes, wonder is one of them. I heard recently of an author, Mike Gecan, who went into his child’s kindergarten class and saw a bulletin board illustrating what the students wanted to learn in school that year. Most of the statements were like “behave”; “learn to sit still,” “follow the rules” and “listen to the teacher better.” One child said “I want to know why the ocean shines like fire.” WOW! Now there’s a kid who has the gift of wonder and joy in all of God’s works. We can say a lot about the Transfiguration. But if there’s ever a “WOW” moment in Jesus’ earthly ministry, this is it.
Perhaps that is our invitation this Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday of Epiphany, and on the verge of Lent. We are to live like this: we’re to look around and search for those places and events where God reminds us of God’s power and glory and splendor. And it reminds us of our appropriate response: worship. Giving thanks and praise where it is due!
In the shining glory of seeing Jesus changed, transfigured, Peter quickly responded by thinking of a way to prolong the experience. “Lord, I will make three dwellings here. . .” Theologian Karl Barth, said, about Peter’s response is that in experiencing the Holy, the first impulse is to stabilize, to seal shut. But our living, mysterious and glorious God is dynamic, moving and won’t be contained. Can’t you just imagine the awe, confusion, fear those disciples must have felt in that bright cloud? And, their deeper fear as they heard Jesus words: “Tell no one about this vision until after I have been raised from the dead.” Change that would touch each of their lives in the most profound way.
Another reading for today, from 2 Peter 1, considered to be one of the last bits of the New Testament to be written, came to the Christian community that had been waiting two generations for Jesus’ second coming. Why was it taking so long? Change was happening, and the people were impatient and beginning to have doubts about their faith, because of the uncertain future. Here’s verse 18-20 “We ourselves heard this voice from heaven: “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased. . ..” So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
What about you, right now? And what about Westminster? How are we with change and uncertainty? Here’s the thing: change is always imminent. Life never stays the same for long. Will we embrace the beautiful, but reject the difficult? Or can we, during the difficult changes, to recall the beautiful? To remember the moments when God seemed close, when light invaded dimness, when some glimpse of what could be broke through the ordinary? Carl Jung said that “All true things must change and only that which changes remains true.” How do we recognize the signs God sends us? Like Jesus, bringing his close friends up the mountain with him, we need our friends to be a witness. To see the signs.
Two weeks ago, I spent eight days of continuing education time at a Presbyterian CREDO conference. Our focus was on assessing where we are at this point in our lives, vocationally, spiritually, physically and financially. We all wondered, before we gathered, what it would be like to explore these areas with 35 other pastors. We came with some fear about what might be revealed, what might change for us. The heart of it all, though, was in our small groups of four. Though we came from very different backgrounds, and viewpoints, we were able to listen carefully to one another. We practiced discernment: that is, we tried to recognize and understand the signs that God is sending us. We were able to see and hear for one another, things we might have missed, on our own. And there were moments, of clarity. Moments when the light dazzled. Moments when we could see a bigger and brighter picture.
I’ve read that in Africa, certain forms of greeting mean, literally “I see you.” This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, and with it the beginning of forty days of Lent. During this season, we hope that you will join one of our small groups that will meet in these days before Easter. It is our hope that in these groups you will “see” one another. Using the resource that David, Melissa and I have created, we hope that you will be able to tell your stories, to listen with the ears of our hearts, and to recognize the signs that God has sent.
I’d like to close with this blessing by John O’Donohue from his book “Anam Cara”, which means “soul-friend.” As we prepare ourselves for the Lord’s Supper, and as we prepare to gather in fellowship and worship, during Lent, I offer this as a blessing for each one of us:
A Friendship Blessing by John O’Donohue
May you be blessed with good friends. May you learn to be a good friend to yourself. May you be able to journey to that place in your soul where there is great love, warmth, feeling, and forgiveness. May this change you. May it transfigure that which is negative, distant or cold in you. May you be brought in to the real passion, kinship and affinity of belonging. May you treasure your friends. May you never be isolated. May you be good to them and may you be there for them; may they bring you all the blessings, challenges, truth and light that you need for your journey.