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 Transfiguration Sunday in Which I Quote Doctor Who

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Grace Lutheran Church
7 February 2016 + Transfiguration of Our Lord
Luke 9.28-43



After about a month and a half of vacation time, I am very pleased to be back among you this morning and preaching no less on this feast day of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. I spent most of the holiday season visiting family and friends in Michigan and Ohio, and on New Year’s Eve in particular, after a brisk walk at dusk through Cuyahoga Valley National Park, I spent a quiet evening at home eating dinner, drinking champagne, and watching Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.

Of course, the most notable feature of that evening in New York City is the Times Square 3onzqffdBall: an impressive 12 feet in diameter, covered in 2,688 Waterford crystal triangles, and illuminated by no less than 32,256 LED lights, beginning its descent just seconds before midnight to ring in the new year in all its splendor.

Meanwhile in Chicago, instead of a dropping ball, the Windy City’s inaugural Chi-Town Rising event ushered in 2016 with shooting stars and fireworks off the river. A spectacular event, I’m sure.

But I can’t help but wonder, as one headline dares to question, what does Chicago have to celebrate? This past year saw a city rocked by protests over police shootings, demonstrations that shut down the Magnificent Mile on Black Friday, and a budget stalemate in Springfield. With so much violence, inequality, and instability, Chi-Town Rising feels like false celebration.

I became poignantly aware of the state of inequality in Chicago whenever I would join South Loop Campus Ministry to deliver sack lunches to our neighbors experiencing homelessness. We would walk down stretches of Lower Wacker Drive, literally right below the Magnificent Mile, but so different that it felt like a strange, separate world. It’s the kind of place we’d rather not go to.

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South Loop Campus Ministry distributing sack lunches on Lower Wacker Drive

We’d much rather stay above ground—on spotless sidewalks, trimmed with impeccable landscaping down one side and store after brightly lit store on the other. Like Peter in our reading today, we’d much rather stay on the mountaintop where things are dazzling white and bright and clean and happy and safe. Because when you’re on the mountaintop, it’s easy to ignore what’s going on down below.

Even our lectionary (the cycle of readings we read every Sunday) would prefer to stay on the mountaintop and ignore the demon-possessed child in the narrative that immediately follows. If you look in the front of your hymnal, you’d see those verses in brackets, making that part optional. But it’s not optional because it’s there.


In the novel Howards End by E.M. Forster, one of the main characters, privileged by all accounts, remarks: “[We] stand upon money as upon islands. It is so firm beneath our feet that we forget its very existence. It’s only when we see someone near us tottering that we realize all that an independent income means.” In other words, when we’re one of the privileged, it’s easy to ignore what’s going on below us, until we’re confronted by it.

But Anglican priest and poet John Donne reminds us, as the poem famously begins:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
…any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.”

We don’t get to live in isolation by thinking our wellbeing isn’t connected to that ofeveryone else.orgslarge


51pr5yn2kol-_sy355_Shifting gears just a moment, if you’ll indulge my latest TV addiction, consider Doctor Who. For those of you who haven’t watched it: the series follows the time-traveling journey of “the Doctor” and his companion. In one episode, they find themselves in New York City in 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression. In the heart of Central Park, they encounter a group of people living in Hooverville, one of many colonies of down and out people so affected by the Depression they have nowhere else to go—the poorest of the poor. Looking up at the construction of the Empire State Building, Solomon, the leader of the group, remarks, “How come they can build that [pointing] and we got people starving in the heart of Manhattan?”

I wonder if maybe the demon-possessed child might have looked up that day at the mountain and caught a glimpse of the Transfiguration. “How can they experience that and I’m suffering down here?”

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A shack in the “Hooverville” shanty-town in Central Park, New York City, circa 1930 (image source here)

It’s a question that reorients our attention. As the text shifts from the mountaintop to the village below, I wonder if maybe the point of the Transfiguration narrative—the whole story—is to refocus our attention on the work of the kingdom of God, to the demands of a broken world in need of restoration.

In this way, the Transfiguration reminds us that we can’t always dwell in glory at the expense of ignoring suffering and injustice. It’s why Peter gets reprimanded for suggesting they stay and set up camp: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Listen to him as speaks of his departure, his exodus (as it says in Greek), his work of liberation, which he is about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Listen to him, and keep moving. Listen to him, because there’s work to be done.


fp3134-doctor-who-daleks-exterminateBack in the world of Doctor Who, sometime later in that same episode, Solomon encounters a Dalek for the first time (imagine an evil R2-D2 bent on killing everything and everyone that’s not like itself), and he remarks that the universe is much bigger than he realized, which terrifies him. But he goes on to say, “Surely it’s got to give me hope, hope that maybe together we can make a better tomorrow.”

In the scene that follows, we meet a rogue Dalek who has morphed into a half human breed and is beginning to exhibit signs of emotion. See, Daleks are by their nature emotionless (hence the mass killing), but this particular one who has gone his own way seeks to change that. About their emotionlessness he says, “It makes us lesser than our enemies. We must return to the flesh and also the heart.” “But you wouldn’t be the supreme beings anymore,” remarks the Doctor. And the Dalek replies, “And that is good.”

I think what this rogue Dalek is trying to get at is something that’s more universal than just part of the plot of a TV show. It’s not good to be the supreme beings, to be better, to be separated from other people. But returning to a state of community, of the heart, at the base of the mountain or in Hooverville, that is good.

The Christian journey, like Jesus’s journey, moves us toward this end, toward places of suffering. Not for its own sake but in order to confront it, stand in solidarity with those deeply affected by it, and ultimately bear witness to the fact that it doesn’t have the final word. As our liturgical life today moves us from Christmas and Epiphany (seasons of light) to Lent (a very different season), we’re reminded that we can’t always dwell in the light but must go to dark places too. It’s part of the life of Jesus, it’s part of the life of the church, it’s part of our lives.

But those places are exactly where Jesus is found. It’s precisely because of the Light that
was born in Bethlehem, and the Light that shines in glory on the mountaintop, that we are compelled and strengthened to go into the world, in all its
brokenness, to restore our

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“Transfiguration” by Jan Richardson

connection to our fellow human beings. The mystery of the incarnation we celebrate at Christmas—the Word made flesh and living among us—finds its fullness in the Transfiguration event, the whole event. Instead of being removed from it all and staying on the mountain, Jesus comes down to us, offering healing and wholeness. And the thing about healing is that it always happens in community.

That healing, life-giving community happens when we gather for fellowship over coffee and pastries before church every week and talk about our lives. It happens when we gather around this table for communion every week. It happens, more often than not, in ordinary places.

And it’s in those ordinary, everyday places, at the base of the mountain, where we have the promise of God’s presence, where we experience life in community, and where we begin to enact God’s justice for the sake of the whole world.


Such is where my sermon ended until 8 o’clock on Saturday night. But then a friend posted a poem by Jan Richardson, which was too perfect not to share. So I conclude with that, found here on Jan’s website. (Never mind the fact that I messed up the first line of the poem…but grace, right? 😊)