Encounters with the Holy

Sermon Preached on March 3, 2019–Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Transfiguration
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME

Exodus 34:29-35
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-43a
Psalm 99

Encounters with the Holy

Our last Sunday in this very long season after Epiphany is about paying attention, and spending time in intentional ways. It’s about those moments when we encounter God at work in our lives and are convinced we are being invited to respond, and that it will matter. Which sounds a lot like the conversations we’ve been having in our Way of Love course these past nine weeks. Each of us creating a rule of life based on the 7 practices: Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go and Rest. As we try to make room in our lives, to pay attention to what our soul needs, and how we might pattern our lives differently, intentionally walking the Way of Love with God.[1]

In our Gospel this morning, Jesus takes some time away from all that he is doing and goes up to Mount Tabor, a holy mountain, to pray. On top of the mountain Jesus is transfigured; he is visibly changed. And he is joined by those who have gone before him – Moses of the law, Elijah of the Prophets. Together they encounter God’s glory. From a cloud comes the voice of God, saying none too subtly: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Because it’s festival of booths, (I’ll give Peter that much) Peter has this great idea to memorialize this moment – to build a monument to it. But memorializing this moment is not the point.

Having a “mountaintop” experience means suddenly seeing things from a different perspective. When you have a real mountaintop experience, and encounter God, you are changed – you are never the same. Those numinous experiences, when we are filled with a sense of the presence of the holy, are not moments we talk about readily. (Even the disciples didn’t say anything to anyone.) And we live in a culture so deeply entrenched in scientific, proof-based reality, that anything that moves beyond the completely rational isn’t allowed.

But people have these moments when they know, absolutely know, that God is present with them. When God feels close enough to touch. And most of these moments tend to happen in places like mountaintops – or churches. When we have taken time away from the day to day, and are paying attention in a different way.

I had an encounter with the holy, a moment when I knew that God was physically present with me, standing with me. I felt physically different, connected to everything and yet out of time in a way. It was only a moment, happening in the midst of a Sunday morning worship service, at Otey Memorial Parish, in Sewanee. I was in discernment toward the priesthood and I wasn’t sure I should tell my rector, what would he think? When I did, he was quiet for a bit, then he cautiously asked me what I thought it meant, what I thought God might be trying to tell me? I exhaled, “Oh, just that God will be with me, no matter what happens with this discernment. That I am not alone in this, and I am supposed to walk this discernment path. There’s something I am supposed to learn or know or become through this.” My rector smiled and relaxed, and nodded. “Yes, I think that might be true.” Years later, he told me that since that conversation he too has experienced what I described, an encounter with the holy. And he thanked me for sharing that with him, not knowing how he would respond.

My questions this morning of the Transfiguration are personal. Have you had an encounter with the presence of God? A numinous moment when you were sure that God was present with you. And you wondered, is this really happening, and what does this mean? After all, encounters with the holy should have us asking questions – should have us wondering: What do I do now? How do I respond? Probably not by building a monument there – that’s pretty clear from our Gospel text. And you probably don’t tell everyone – that’s pretty clear from our culture.

So, when you have an encounter with the holy, what do you do? You respond – with wonder, with open heart and open mind, and ask: what am I to take from this experience? Ask God. Ask trusted members of your community. Ask your beloved. Ask yourself the deep questions we tend not to ask. What is worth my life? My time? My energy? How might I walk a faithful life? What does the expression of my inner faith look like, translated, transfigured into action? Into a response for the world? We ask and then we pay attention for the answer. If God is as subtle with you as God tends to be with me, you won’t have to wait long. Because it’s likely that God has been trying to tell you this for a while and you have been too busy, too wrapped up in the tasks at hand, to see or hear it. But when it becomes clear – and you check it with others, it will make sense in a way that you might have guessed, had you been thinking about it. Looking back at the path you’ve walked to get to this moment, it will suddenly look like a straight line, leading directly to this moment, this idea, this response.

Test every spirit certainly, but then, if this checks out with family and friends, respond as you are able. You might have to stretch to respond, you might have to change the plan you had for yourself, but if you can make the changes you feel called to make, you should. For some of us that is a call to ordained service, to live an avowed life. But not all of God’s calls are about that – really. Sometimes it’s a call to teach, to provide opportunities to children who wouldn’t get them otherwise: a chance to create, to act, to sing, to make music. Or a call to serve as a chaplain: maybe for emergency services, or at the hospital, or to volunteer at hospice. Or a call to feed the hungry at a soup kitchen, or food pantry. Or to be one of the evening volunteers at the shelter. Or volunteer with Wabanaki Reach, to help restore the dignity and wellbeing of our Wabanaki neighbors. Or to work with YCHI to welcome asylum seekers.

The calls are as varied as each individual who is called. But trust that when you encounter God, are transfigured, and are called to respond – that response will almost always be a call to serve people in need. An encounter with God’s glory and presence will send you still glowingly radiant out into the world, transfigured by God; ready to transform the world for God’s children. In Luke’s Gospel, almost immediately after Jesus comes down from the mountain, he is confronted with the needs of the world. A man begs that Jesus heal the man’s son, who has seizures. Jesus heals the child and restores him to his family. “And all were astounded at the greatness of God.” We, too, come down from our mountaintop experiences and head out into the world to make a difference. Following the way of Jesus, the way of love.

What most people don’t realize is that the person most affected by walking the way of love, and the work you are called to do, will be YOU. Responding to God’s call will change everything. It will be worth your life, it will bring meaning and purpose, deep satisfaction and joy; more than the accolades (or monuments) of the world could ever give.

As we come to the end of our season of Epiphany, and turn our faces toward Lent, I wish you a moment of holy encounter. Perhaps God’s voice will speak through the comment of an acquaintance. Or you will sense the presence of Christ in a moment when you extend yourself to help a stranger. Or you will find it simply happens – you are still and paying attention and suddenly you realize God has drawn very near to you. My hope for you is that you take it in, and give it a chance to be real for you. That you ask the questions you need to ask – of yourself and your life. And that you have the courage to respond, for the sake of your own transfiguration. That you engage this holy, sacred moment, between God and yourself, a revelation of relationship; and allow it to transform you into whom you were created to be. And then you go out into the world – transformed, and transformative for others. And all might be astounded at the greatness of God. May you have a truly Holy Lent. Amen.

[1] For more information on the Way of Love practices, and how you might get started see: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/way-of-love