A Sermon for a Faith Grounded in Mystical Experience

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Augustana Lutheran Church
26 February 2017 + Transfiguration of Our Lord
Matthew 17.1-19
Vicar Josh Evans



I have a confession to make: I hate the Transfiguration. Or maybe more to the point, I hate it because it seems so hard to grasp and  to make any possible meaning out of it. But I love what the Transfiguration means. Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but bear with me.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain… Six days after what? In the preceding chapter in Matthew’s gospel, we encounter a memorable scene: Peter, who confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, is called “blessed” by Jesus and told he is the “rock” upon the church will be built. But lest Peter’s ego should get the best of him, only a few verses later, Jesus sharply rebukes him — “Get behind me, Satan!” — for his misunderstanding of what kind of Messiah Jesus was.

The details there are not important, but suffice it to say that it was probably a confusing, upsetting time for Peter. And so it’s not difficult to imagine why Peter is the one who, upon witnessing this strange and wonderful spectacle on the mountain, suggests they build tents and stay a while in this moment of glory and excitement.

So what happened on the mountain that was so awe-inspiring that left Peter grasping at the opportunity to make it last?

Karl Rahner, one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the 20th century, once argued for the rediscovery of the mystical foundations of Christianity as vital to the church’s survival — mystic, by one definition, meaning “one who has moved from mere belief systems…to actual inner experience.”

By that way of thinking, what happened on the mountain, all that was witnessed by Peter and the other two disciples, was a mystical experience — something so inexplicable and beyond comprehension that it simply had to be experienced.

I also suspect that these sorts of mystical moments often come to us in situations like the one Peter found himself in — in the midst of the turmoil and confusion of everyday life.

The closest thing I’ve ever had to a mystical experience happened a few years ago when I was at a small group leaders’ retreat with the church I used to attend. The retreat was designed for those, like me, who were about to embark on small group leadership, as well as a refresher course for seasoned leaders. It was those seasoned leaders I remember looking at, thinking how inadequate I seemed for this work compared to them.

At one point, we were given some free time to roam about the building for contemplation and prayer. Never having been great at spiritual practices which require me to sit in silence with nothing to do, I found an empty pew in the sanctuary, opened a bible to Exodus, and began to read, just to pass the time.

I was reading the familiar story of Moses encountering Yahweh, the Hebrew god, in the burning bush, giving excuse after excuse about what Yahweh has asked him to do. Who am I that I should go? Moses asks. Exactly! I thought. Who am I that should lead this group? Who do I think I am? And Yahweh answers Moses, I will be with you. It was as though those words were being spoken directly to me that day. I will be with you.

And they were overcome fear. Because sometimes mystical experiences can also be downright terrifying. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, found himself in a state of shock, doubt, and fear the night he received the first revelation of the Quran. According to tradition, he alternated between feeling that, at best, it was all a hallucination or, at worst, it had been a confrontation with an evil spirit.

Terrifying — because mystical experiences like Mohammed’s and the disciples’ and even my own mean something is changing. In Matthew’s gospel, the Transfiguration marks a decisive turning point from Jesus’s public ministry to what he will soon encounter in Jerusalem, events we too will soon recount as we inch closer to Holy Week. Peter and the other disciples, in this moment of change, need the memory of what is happening to stay with them because of what is about to happen.

Like Peter and the disciples, we constantly find ourselves in states of change — everything from job to family to personal transitions. They’re in between moments of both holding on and letting go, oftentimes at once excruciating and exciting.

And that, I suspect, is the whole point of the Transfiguration: permission to be in those in between moments of holding on and letting go. The Transfiguration as mystical experience acknowledges this tension, offering something to hold on to as we let go.

As they were coming down the mountain… The Transfiguration is more about the journey down the mountain than the mountaintop experience itself. Yes, it’s about coming down the mountain to the valley below, but let’s  also not overemphasize the destination at the expense of downplaying the journey.

With Transfiguration Sunday, we mark the turning toward our Lenten journey — a journey in which we call to mind the paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. But, as one theologian reminds us, “Until we have personally lost our own foundation and then experienced God upholding us so that we come out even more alive on the other side, the theological affirmation of the paschal mystery is little understood and not essentially transformative.” In other words, the journey is a thing to be personally experienced, even savored.

I don’t think that Peter and the other disciples could have ever conceived intellectually of what would happen on the mountaintop that day. It had to be experienced, and having been experienced, it changes them. The glory of the mountaintop moment, the mystical experience of God’s enduring presence, gives them strength for the journey ahead.

It gives strength for the moment, for moments of change, and for leaping into an unknown future, letting go of all control and certainty, while at once holding on to the  memory of what has been and looking to the hope of what can and what will be.

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A Sermon for the Salted and Unsalted

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Augustana Lutheran Church
5 February 2017 + Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Lectionary 5A)
Matthew 5.13-20


Now with video!


rhyjdghe-4pdYou are the light of the world! You are the salt of the earth! It’s almost impossible not to break into a song from Godspell when you hear these words. (It’s stuck in your head now, isn’t it?)

But for as peppy as Stephen Schwartz’s musical setting of the fifth chapter of Matthew is, I’ve also found myself asking: What happens when we don’t feel very much like the salt of the earth and the light of the world? What happens in those moments when we do indeed lose our saltiness?

I don’t think it’s much of stretch to call to mind those moments when we’re simply not feeling it, whatever “it” is: our jobs, our volunteering, our protesting, even our church-going. So when Jesus tells us, “You are the salt of the earth,” I suspect there are times when it’s easier to simply throw up our arms in despair or surrender.

Then there’s the metaphor of salt itself. Sort of an unusual choice for Jesus to pull out of thin air, isn’t it? The uses for the ubiquitous condiment that I’m guessing most, if not all, of us have in our kitchen cupboards are many. In fact, by one count, there are over 14,000 uses for salt, or so says Mark Kurlansky in his book Salt: A World History. Salt, too, he writes, even has ties to major events of world history—from the salt tax that inspired Gandhi’s movement for Indian independence to a salt shortage that helped fuel the American Revolution.

Salt, despite doctors’ and dietitians’ warnings, is also crucial for the human body to propel oxygen through our blood. Quite frankly, we simply cannot live without it. Likewise, a good chef will tell you that salt is crucial for cooking, bringing out and enhancing the other seasonings and flavors of a dish.

The ancient world, too, had an understanding of the multiple uses and connotations of salt—from sacrificial rites and a symbol of covenant faithfulness to food preservation and seasoning. Jesus’s saying would have evoked many of these layers of meaning among his listeners.

And yet, I think an equally crucial piece of this simple statement — You are the salt of the earth — is the first word: you. In translation, it’s impossible to notice, but in the original Greek of the New Testament, that you is plural (as in “you all”). And the very fact that the Greek text includes the pronoun itself is emphatic: Y’ALL are the salt of the earth.

Grammatical nuance taken together with all these layers of meaning, this passage might be rendered something like: You are all salt for each other, enhancing one another’s being, including and especially when you don’t feel very salty yourself. You are salt for each other when you carry one another’s burdens, tangibly reminding each other of God’s covenantal love for all people.

This back-and-forth of seasoning and being seasoned is part of the life of faith. Indeed, it goes without saying that life itself is full of ups and downs. Life is very rarely lived in a straight, uneventful line from point A to point B, but it probably looks a little more…chaotic. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing—but quite the opposite.

In her latest book, Lesley Hazleton poses the question, “What is so very wrong about losing one’s way?” She compares wandering through life to a physical journey or road trip. Sure, there’s a certain sense of security in knowing exactly where you are on your GPS screen, but it also precludes any chance of meandering off the main path. In other words, to avoid the chance of getting lost also eliminates the possibility of adventure or spontaneity. In so doing, Hazleton writes, “you leave no room for the original meaning of happiness… a variant of ‘hap,’ as in fortune or chance… a matter of openness—to the fortuitous, to the unexpected, to moments of grace.”

Moments we enter feeling less than salty but which we leave having been seasoned, enhanced, carried by another. You are salt for each other.

I’ll admit that the last few months haven’t left me feeling very much like the salt of the earth. The day after the election, we opened our doors at Augustana, offering our sanctuary as a safe space for those who might be feeling scared, angry, and vulnerable with the results.

That day, difficult as it was, seems to have paled in comparison to the past couple weeks of the new administration, where executive orders have threatened the healthcare of millions, the sacred lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and the safety of our refugee and immigrant populations. I didn’t feel very much like the salt of the earth this past week when one of the ESL teachers here asked me to photocopy some immigration paperwork for her students and I was suddenly confronted by the fact that the administration’s harmful new policy was affecting actual people that I see every day outside my office. It made me feel both angry and powerless.

But also this week, along with Pr. Jan and a handful of other Augustana folks and about 1500 others from across the city, we gathered on Tuesday night in Turner Park for a candlelight vigil to hear firsthand the stories of refugees and the witness of local religious leaders speaking out against unjust immigration policies and reminding us that our faith compels us to welcome the stranger. Peppered throughout the crowd were specks of light, whether from candles or cell phones, shining all the more brightly as the sun set. People literally holding light, being light.

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Candlelight vigil in Turner Park, January 31, 2016 (photo credit: Josh Evans)

It was a life-giving experience to be surrounded by that cloud of witnesses, being light and being salt for each other. And not only for each other but also as a witness for the city, for the country, for the world.

Amidst fearful times that threaten our most vulnerable communities, we hear Jesus’s words of promise that we are the salt of the earth, for the sake of each other, with the capacity to resist.