23 February 2009

Last After Epiphany - Transfiguration

Last Sunday after Epiphany - Mountaintop Experiences

St. Luke’s Burlington

22 February, 2009

A common characteristic of religious experiences is that the people experiencing them cannot find words to adequately describe the experience. It is ineffable. When one finds oneself in the presence of the divine, words stop. I think that is the reason that the story of Jesus’ transfiguration in the Gospel reading seems to fall unsatisfactorily short. The evangelist is trying to capture the experience in words, which can only point towards the experience, but can never capture it.

Because the story seems to fall short, it is too easy for us to dismiss the story as unrealistic or as only something which might have happened back then when Jesus walked the earth. The days of God’s visitation are over, many people think. People don’t really experience Divine things these days, they might think.

I think they are wrong. I think that what the Evangelist is describing and what the Disciples experienced was a classical religious experience. I also am sure that many people have these experiences today. Some of you here today have. All of you can.

It is no accident that Jesus and his disciples have to climb up a high mountain before they have their experience. One of the reasons why many people don’t seem to have mountaintop experiences is because they don’t climb mountains! Make no mistake, God sometimes does surprise people, coming like a bolt out of the blue, much like St. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus, but more often, I think, we need to position ourselves to be receptive to God.

When I was eighteen my parents moved to Colorado Springs for three years and my brother and I would visit them every Christmas and summer when we could get the chance. One of the most exciting features of Colorado Springs is its proximity to the Rocky Mountains and its most famous Peak is Pikes Peak. We used to call it our Peak, and, being Pikes, my brother and father and I just had to climb it. Of course you can get to the top by a cog railroad, or even by a dirt road, but what would be the fun in that?

To climb it you have to take the Barr trail which is 12 miles each way. Keep in mind that your altitude at the beginning of the trail is about one mile high and at the top of the trail you’re over 14 thousand feet high or at about 2.7 miles of altitude. About three quarters of the way up you reach the tree-line. No trees can grow above that point because there isn’t enough oxygen.It seems that the trees are bright enough not to go higher, but the humans are not! The last way up is a steep switchback which uses up your reserves.

I have climbed it six times and the most recent time was a couple of years ago when I brought my family all the way out to Colorado with our little tent-trailer to show them one of my previous haunts. I found out that it is much easier to climb Pikes Peak when you are twenty years younger! But each time that I climbed it I felt a sense of the awesome power of our creator. God is great. God made all the mountains, and God made me to experience this one!

There is a clarity which comes at the top of mountains. Your sense of proportion is shifted. I feel both so much more insignificant and so privileged at the same time. It is the sense of being exalted and humbled all at once.

I remember how one of my favourite movies  "Out of Africa" begins - Karen Von Blixen, remembering her time in Africa and giving thanks for the great gift that Dennis gave to her - to see the earth as God would see it. Dennis had taken her up in an airplane. From that vantage point Karen, with all the tragedy that she has had to suffer in her life, is able to see that, yes, it is good.

It is a feeling which you can have in other places as well. Many people feel this when they are experiencing nature. I think that is one of the reasons why Jesus often went out into the wilderness in order to pray. Jesus was positioning himself to speak with God.

Your hike up the mountain can a figurative as well as literal. You can be climbing that trail, positioning yourself to be receptive to God in a metaphorical sense as well. Taking some time apart. Practising a prayer discipline can be a way to climb the mountain.

This is the last Sunday before the season of Lent, which is forty days before Easter, when we are encouraged to take stock of where we are on our spiritual path. And to allow God to transform us. How have you grown spiritually over the last year? What can you give up or take on to be more receptive to God in your everyday life? How can you go out into the wilderness, as Jesus did? How can you climb your spiritual mountain?

One of the ways that we can start our lenten journey well is to go to our Ash Wednesday service, this Wednesday and to begin by wearing the ashes as a sign of our own frailty and our need for God to bring us into life. I invite you to keep a holy lent - to climb your mountain - and to seek for an experience of the Divine. Amen.

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