Friday, February 28, 2014

A Life-Changing Event (The Transfiguration, March 2 2014)

Homily:  Yr A Epiphany Last, March 2 2014, St. Albans
Readings:  Ex 24.12-18, Ps 99, 2 Pet 1.16-21, Mt 17.1-9

“A Life-Changing Event”

“Jesus took with him Peter, John and James up the mountain.  And right before their very eyes he was transfigured, his face shining like the sun, his clothes becoming dazzling white and there appeared with him Moses and Elijah.”

Whatever it was that happened to Jesus on that mountain top, we know that for Peter, this was a life-changing event.  It was what we sometimes call a “mountain-top” or a “peak” experience, something that Peter would look back on as foundational for his life from that point on.  We know that it had this effect on Peter because in our reading from the letter of Peter, we hear the words that he spoke near the end of his life, a summing up of his experience for those who would carry on after him.  In those final words, Peter looks back to this event, to this moment when he heard the voice on the mountain, as the key, as the moment that transformed him, the moment he could look back on as the foundation for all that followed.

Have you ever had a moment like that?  How many of you have experienced a life changing event?  Perhaps it was what we might call a “mountain top experience”.  Perhaps it was more mundane, a joyful or a tragic event that shaped you into the person you are today.  Perhaps it was a simple moment of clarity.

About ten years ago, I was teaching a Sunday School class to a group of ten to twelve year olds.  In that Sunday School program we were using the Sunday readings each week, and this reading of the transfiguration from Matthew came up.  At first I didn’t know what to do with it.  Finally, as about 8 of us gathered together, I asked the youth the same question I just asked you.  Have you ever had a life changing event?  And then I was simply blown away as these young people, one after the other, shared the stories of their life changing moments.  There were tragic stories, stories of car accidents and family breakdown, and there were hopeful stories, stories of family gatherings and moments of joy.  But in each case the young people who spoke were able, like Peter, to remember particular moments that had transformed them into the people that they had become.

What were your life-changing moments?  How do you remember them?  How do you understand them?

There was a movie that came out in the 90’s called Pulp Fiction, about two mob hit men named Jules and Vincent.  It wasn’t a particularly uplifting film, not one I would normally use for sermon illustrations.  But near the end of the film, these two hit men are ambushed by one of their rivals, who shoots at them from point blank range.  Somehow all of the bullets miss them, and they survive.  That afternoon we find them in a diner, talking about what just happened.

Jules: Man, I just been sitting here thinking.
Vincent: About what?
Jules: About the miracle we just witnessed.
Vincent: The miracle you witnessed. I witnessed a freak occurrence.
Jules: What is a miracle, Vincent?
Vincent: An act of God.
Jules: And what's an act of God?
Vincent: When, um … God makes the impossible possible … but this morning I don't think it qualifies.
Jules: Hey, Vincent, don't you see? That stuff don't matter. You're judging this the wrong way. I mean, it could be that God stopped the bullets, or He changed Coke to Pepsi, or He found my car keys. You don't judge stuff like this based on merit. Now, whether or not what we experienced was an "according to Hoyle" miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt the touch of God. God got involved.

Both Vincent and Jules witnessed the same event, but their response to it was very different.  As a result of that event, Jules goes straight.  He gives up the life of a mob hit man.  Why?  Because in that life changing moment, he felt the touch of God, he sensed somehow that God got involved and that he was being called to something new.

What about you?  When these moments, these freak occurrences, happen in your life, do you feel the touch of God?  Are there times in your life when you sense that God got involved?

There was a survey done in Canada by sociologist Reginald Bibby of the University of Lethbridge.  In that survey, people were asked if they believed that they have experienced God’s presence.  43% of Canadians replied yes, they believe they have experienced God’s presence.

When I read that statistic the first time, it surprised me.  After all, only 20% of us go to religious services regularly, so having 43% say they have had a direct experience of God seems like a lot.  I think that the figure also surprised me because most people don’t talk about these things.  We tend to keep our “religious experiences” to ourselves, perhaps because we don’t have the words to describe them, perhaps because we’re afraid of how others might react.  Perhaps it’s also because these experiences can be disorienting and it can be difficult and take years to figure out what just happened.

We get a sense of this by observing Peter in today’s gospel.  When he sees Jesus transfigured on the mountain top, the dazzling clothes and brilliant face, and when he sees Moses and Elijah appear, his first reaction is to try to do something.  He tries to stabilize the situation, to control it, to fit it into his belief system.  “Good thing I’m here,” he says.  “I’ll make three little shelters here, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  And while he is still speaking, while Peter is babbling on about what he’s going to do, all of a sudden he’s overshadowed by a bright cloud and a voice interrupts him, as if to say “Peter, enough already, stop babbling.”  The voice interrupts all of Peter’s plots and plans and announces that Jesus is none other than God’s Beloved Son and what Peter really needs to do is to be quiet and listen to him.

Peter, overwhelmed to be in the powerful presence of the living God, does stop talking.  In fact he immediately collapses to the ground in fear. 

And then Jesus comes and touches him.  He says to him “do not fear”, and he raises him up.

There are moments in each of our lives when we are taken by surprise, moments of joy and moments of sadness, moments that comfort and moments that disorient.  Our first impulse in these moments is often like Peter’s, an attempt to re-assert our control over what’s happening, and to reconcile what we’re experiencing with our usual way of doing and thinking.  But when our experiences are too powerful to be tamed in this way, we can be overwhelmed.  Perhaps we fall like Peter.  And sometimes it’s at that moment that we feel God’s touch, it’s at that moment that God gets involved, tells us not to be afraid, and raises us up to something new.

Let me tell you about one of my life-changing moments.  Eight years ago, I spent a summer as a student chaplain in the Royal Ottawa Psychiatric Hospital, trying to learn to provide spiritual care to patients with severe mental illness.  It was a challenging time in my life.  There were some serious health issues in the family.  I had just finished my first year of seminary and was trying to figure out if I should continue on the path towards ordination.   In the hospital I encountered despair and darkness like I’d never seen before in the lives of many men and women, and most of the time there wasn’t much if anything that I could do to help them.  It was a time of waiting, a time of waiting for test results, a time of waiting for patients to stop their slide into despair.  It was a time of questioning, a time when I wondered if I “had what it takes” to become an ordained minister, a time when I questioned whether I was going down the right path.

On the floor where I was working, there was a woman who spent virtually the whole day moaning in a near catatonic state.  I had yet to go into her room, afraid I guess, that I wouldn’t be able to do anything for her.  One afternoon, for whatever reason, I decided to go into her room and I sat beside her.  I tried talking to her but that didn’t get me too far. I tried just sitting in silence.  No apparent awareness that I was there.  I was just about to give up and leave when the idea came to me that I could try humming.  So I hummed a few bars of Amazing Grace.  And to my amazement, the woman stopped moaning, straightened a bit and started singing Amazing Grace in a beautiful clear voice.

A few moments later, I was walking down the hall past the room of another woman who screamed non-stop.  Again, it was someone I’d never summoned up the courage to visit.  As I walked past, the screaming was particularly loud and agitated.  One of the nurses stormed out of the room, looked at me, and said “Go in there and do something.”  So, I walked through the doorway, glanced at the name on the way in, squatted down in front of the woman and said “Hi Angie.”  And again to my amazement, she stopped screaming, looked up at me and started talking to me calmly.  We talked a bit, and then I left.

That afternoon was a life-changing moment for me.  It was a moment for me when God got involved, when I felt God’s touch, when I was told to get up and not be afraid.  It was the moment that I realized that I didn’t have to worry about whether I had what it takes to minister in difficult situations, because it is God who raises us up for ministry.

Have you ever had a life-changing event?  And did you get the sense that God was involved?  Let’s talk about that in our open space together.


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