A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, February 26, 2017
It is good to be here. I feel that nearly every time I enter this place. I feel it even more strongly on Sunday mornings when we gather for worship and community. This is a place where good people gather to celebrate, learn about, and share what it means to be God’s people. This is a place where disciples gather to consider what it means to care for one another, our neighbors, and the earth, to serve and spread the good news of Jesus Christ, to deepen and broaden spiritual interconnectivity. This is also a place where the wider community gathers to teach, to sing, to dance, to eat, to heal, to work for peace and justice. On most days, this is a good place to be. The catch is: is it enough, is it ever enough?
Moses goes up on the mountain to encounter the Holy One in a more intimate manner than most people ever conceive of. He takes the time to sit patiently on that mountainside until God is ready to speak; then he takes the risk of entering into the glorious mystery, the shekinah, the cloud of unknowing, trusting that God has a word for him that he needs to hear, not just for himself, but for his people. How many of us would be willing to go that far for an encounter with the holy, for instruction on what it means to be both God’s person and God’s people, for a vision of righteousness and right-relationship?
It is no small thing to enter the presence of the living God. It is not such an easy setting in which to say, “It is good to be here.” Maybe, after having some time to process, we could acknowledge the inherent goodness of the situation, but it’s pretty challenging in the moment. I’ve mentioned before my fondness for the short-lived TV series “Joan of Arcadia,” in which a teenage girl, first to her disbelief, and then amazement, encounters God in the characters and events of her everyday life. Though never easy, these encounters become somewhat manageable by the end of the episode and Joan has learned a valuable lesson about life, especially life lived with an awareness of the constant presence of God.
The episode that sticks most insistently in my memory is one near the end of the series. Joan has now had two seasons of weekly encounters with God. In this particular episode, she pressures God to let her see the world as God sees it. Finally, God gives in to her persistence. Standing in the middle of an empty church, she is given a direct glimpse into the holy. As the viewer observes something slightly psychedelic on the small screen, Joan is overcome by the vision, knocked to the floor, temporarily unconscious. On coming to, she does not leap to her feet, proclaiming, “It is good to be here.” She’s shaken by the encounter, realizing it is no easy thing to come into the presence of the living God and to see creation – past, present, and future – as God sees it. It takes patience to prepare for and courage to engage in such an encounter. It is not likely to be comfortable.
In Matthew’s tale of the Transfiguration, Jesus actively seeks an encounter with the holy. One gets the sense that this is common practice for him. Only this time he takes three key disciples with him. It’s important to understand the context in which Matthew places this story. In the preceding chapter, Jesus has asked the disciples, “Who do people say I am?” Peter blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus blesses Peter’s response; then, rather strangely, instructs the disciples not tell anyone that he is the Messiah.
I suspect that this secrecy is largely because they do not have a grasp of what it means for him to be the Messiah, God’s Anointed One. Jesus proceeds to explain to the disciples that “he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Peter confirming the limitations of his understanding will have none of it. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Then comes Jesus’ painful rebuke, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matthew 16:21-23). Poor Peter goes from rock to rubble in record time.
So, you can guess that it is a chastened Peter who follows Jesus up the mountain to pray. Grateful to remain in the inner circle, he is hesitant to say anything as they climb. If Jesus’ teaching over the past several days has been strange, imagine what it must have been like to see Jesus transfigured, face shining like the sun, clothing dazzling white, deep in conversation with Moses and Elijah. Here the law and the prophets are joined in God’s living Word. Peter cannot keep quiet. “It is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Wondrous as it is, Peter does not seem to be intimidated by the scene. Perhaps he finds comfort in a vision that comes closer to his idea of the Messiah than what Jesus has been teaching.
But suddenly it all changes. The wind whips up. A thick cloud envelopes the mountain. Lightning flashes, thunder roars; then the indescribable voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” There they are, knocked to the ground, trembling, terrified. The warm touch, the familiar voice, “Get up and do not be afraid.” The vision has vanished and they are again just four figures perched on the mountainside, three shivering disciples alone with Jesus. Maybe that was enough.
So, how about now, Peter? Is it still good to be here? Or is it time to return to a more familiar environment to think things through? Have you had enough of the holy for one day? “This is my Beloved Son; listen to him.” Do you think Peter and the others got the message? They still had a lot of listening to do before they were ready to take on Jesus’ work – and that was what they’d been called to do. They had a lot to learn about what it really meant to be God’s people, to follow Christ faithfully, to take on the power of the Holy Spirit. There was a lot of spiritual practice that was needed before they would be ready for an intimate encounter with the living God.
And the learning was not exclusively spiritual, as it never is. The truly spiritual is always linked to the practical. In today’s Words of Preparation, Pope Francis teaches, “To put it simply: the Holy Spirit bothers us. Because [the Spirit] moves us…makes us walk…pushes the Church to go forward. And we are like Peter at the Transfiguration: ‘Ah, how wonderful it is to be here like this, all together!’” And don’t be mistaken, it is a good thing to be here all together like this – whether on the Mount of Transfiguration or here in our sanctuary on Sunday morning. At the same time, the Pope continues, “…don’t bother us. We want the Holy Spirit to doze off…we want to domesticate the Holy Spirit. And that’s no good. Because [the Spirit] is God…is that wind which comes and goes and you don’t know where. [The Spirit] is the power of God…the one who gives us consolation and strength to move forward. But: to move forward! And this bothers us. It’s so much nicer to be comfortable” (Pope Francis, Encountering Truth: Meeting God in the Everyday).
Or as Annie Dillard famously wrote about worship, “Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?…Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return” (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, pp. 40-41).
Now, be clear, friends, I do not see us as “cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute.” I meant it when I said that most of the time I believe with all my heart and feel it in my bones that it is good to be here. But do we get the big picture, the whole message? We have a lot of listening to do before we are ready to take on Jesus’ work – and that is what we’ve been called to do. We have a lot to learn about what it really means to be God’s people, to follow Christ faithfully, to take on the power of the Holy Spirit. There is a lot of spiritual practice that we need before we’re ready for an intimate encounter with the living God. I hope these are the very reasons we gather here on Sunday and throughout the week – because we have a lot of listening and learning and growing to do.
And that listening and learning and growing is not exclusively spiritual; it never is. The truly spiritual is always linked to the practical. The interplay between the Holy One and the Living Word always involves work and worship. Love God and love your neighbor. Moses, Jesus, Peter, James, John, Joan, you and I, all go up the mountain in search of the holy. The encounter may indeed knock us to the ground. We may feel overwhelmed. It may take time, perhaps a life time, to see and understand fully that it is good to be here.
Meanwhile, back down the mountain, there are hungry people to feed, imprisoned folk to visit, resources to be shared, refugees and immigrants to welcome, sanctuary to be provided, homeless souls to shelter, sick ones to heal, mourners to be comforted, enemies to be embraced, peace to be practiced, creation to be cared for. It’s a daunting responsibility. Somehow, somewhere along the way, we have to learn that “it is good to be here” is not the exclusive claim of the comfortable, those who don’t want to be bothered, who want the Holy Spirit to doze off, who want to domesticate God. Perhaps the day will yet come, when “…the waking [God will] draw us to where we can never return” and we will be able to say, “It is good to be here.” Amen.