A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, February 19, 2012
Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36
There are some religious sites around the world known as “thin places,” certain geographical places in the world where the earthly and Divine seem to come the closest. Now, thin places are to be differentiated from mountaintop experiences (as I will speak to momentarily), since “thin places” are actual geographical locations that have been experienced as such. Some of the most well-known thin places are in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. For some reason, thin places often are associated with wild and rugged landscapes. Ancient people, especially in Ireland and Britain, were forever designating spaces as sacred, marking them with giant stones and such with the connotation that “this is holy ground.” Thin places have been defined as “places where the veil between this world and the ‘other world’ is thin, hence the name “thin places.”1 A place where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the Sacred. There is a Celtic saying that “heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller.”
Then there is what is called a mountaintop religious experience – a spiritual experience we cannot explain or a moment in which we feel we are in the special presence of the Sacred. It can happen anywhere. I’ve had a few of those in my lifetime. One such time for me was my visit to the Holy Land in May 2000. I recall the early Sunday morning devotional service on the Sea of Galilee, with the waves gently lapping at the side of the boat and the morning sun gleaming on the water. That truly was a moving experience. I recall sitting under 2,000-year-old olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane on a beautiful, peaceful, May afternoon—the same trees tradition says Jesus could have prayed under on the night of his arrest. That, too, was a spiritual experience. I recall offering a silent prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City; and attending ministers’ conferences and spiritual retreats that were also small mountaintop experiences in their own right.
You, perhaps, could name your own spiritual experiences—a baptism, confirmation, being present at the birth of a baby, wedding ceremony, retreat, special worship service, vacation to the mountains, or some other occasion when you felt you were in the presence of something Sacred. It was a spiritual high for you, a mountaintop experience. There are those times every now and then when God seems to enter our lives and speak to us. As preacher Lucy Pratt puts it, these are “times that belong to the soul.”2 I find it interesting that Kimberly Perry, of the popular country group, The Band Perry, stated that the first time they played the Grand Ole Opry, it was a “holy experience.”
The two scripture readings I read today are accounts of such mountaintop experiences. Now, we are left wondering how much of these two stories we are to interpret literally and how much is symbolic. Though these two stories are separated by well over a thousand years, they have something in common at the core. The Exodus passage recounts one such mountaintop experience that Moses had. After leading the children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage, Moses felt called to climb Sinai, a mountain associated with God’s presence; seen as a “thin place,” perhaps, in that place and time. “The glory of the Lord,” the scripture says, “rested on Mount Sinai” (24:16). It was there, in the presence of God, tradition says, that Moses received the Law containing the Ten Commandments. When Moses came down from the mountain, it is said that his face was shining from being in the Divine presence. There was a certain glow about him that had not been there before. Moses was a changed man. This mountaintop experience of Moses that he shared with the Israelites was a turning point of sorts in Jewish history and theology. At this point began to develop monotheism, the worship of one God, a departure from the custom of that time and place. And at the same time, ethical religion began to take shape. The mountaintop experience was a pivotal point in his life and the life of his people.
Like Matthew and Mark, Luke recounts a similar experience that Jesus had. As they tell the story, not long before his death, Jesus took Peter, James and John upon a small mountain or hill where he was ‘transfigured’ before them. What really happened upon that mountain is hard to say. And, again, we are left wondering how much of it we are to take literally, and how much was meant to be symbolic. Since all three synoptic gospels include the story, there must have been some type of experience that proved to be a moving experience for those present. It is said that while Jesus was praying, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white,” reminiscent of the way the face of Moses had shone after coming down from the mountain (Luke 9:29). Part of the meaning to be drawn from this story, no doubt, has to do with its connection to the story of Moses and his mountaintop experience. In the eyes of the early disciples, Jesus was the new and better Moses. The introduction of Moses and Elijah in the story, who appear to be talking with Jesus, serve to link him with the Jewish Law and Prophets. At any rate, the experience of Jesus and his inner circle on the mountain became a special event for them that changed their perspective on Jesus and who he was to them.
Mountaintop experiences can become for us times of great personal change and inner growth, if not in fact a drastic turning point in life. But some may ask the question, “How do we know what is a true sacred experience and what is merely our interpretation that an experience is sacred?” I might think of a certain experience as being spiritual or Sacred, and you might not at all. Perhaps the answer is, “Does it really matter?” Because if an experience moves us, transforms us, enlivens us, and helps us feel a closer connection to the Mysterious Other or that Divine Energy at the center of life, isn’t that what makes it Sacred? Maybe a mountaintop experience is when we allow our minds and hearts to be hypersensitive, to let what is always there to intrude into our ordinary, everyday lives. And isn’t it so that the Sacred can intrude in normal, routine, run-of-the-mill moments of life, if we are open to it? Such as watching a red-bellied woodpecker feed outside your window, or looking at a full moon through the trees. As Joseph Campbell observes, “Any place where the Mystery breaks through into our consciousness is holy.” How many moments of grace, epiphanies, and spiritual insights are lost to us because we are in too much of a hurry to notice them?
But one danger of mountaintop experiences is that we may want to make them the norm. Caught up in a spirit of emotion and joy, Peter exclaimed, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Luke 9:33). We’ll just stay here forever. Peter didn’t want to come down. But they couldn’t stay up there on the mountaintop. And neither can we. Though all of us would like for those mountaintop experiences to last forever, we know that cannot be. If we had read further on in Luke, we would have seen that Jesus and his three disciples descended the mount of transfiguration and returned to a world of sickness and suffering. No sooner had Jesus stepped off the mountain than the father of a young boy who suffered from epilepsy came to him, begging him for a cure. The man had taken the boy to the other disciples who were unable to heal him. The disciples felt all too inadequate for the task. Moses, likewise, descended Mount Sinai and his religious experience and returned to a world of people and problems.
As did Moses and Jesus, we, too, must eventually leave those mountaintop experiences and return to the world where we encounter people and problems, the poor, lonely and forgotten. We must return to sick children, difficulties at work, and family disagreements. And sometimes we, like the disciples, may feel all too inadequate for the task. But the everyday world is where we are needed. We must come down and open our eyes and hearts to the sickness and distress around us. We, like Moses and Jesus and those first disciples, are needed in the real world, a world of poverty, problems and suffering. This is where God works through us to accomplish the divine purpose. Christian living doesn’t mean staying on the mountaintop. It means following, going on, being about living out our faith in the world. But perhaps spiritual experiences allow us to get back to the real world of demands, problems, and so on and make a greater connection with those around us with whom our lives are so entangled.
Yes, sometimes we are privileged to have brief spiritual highs where we feel we have touched or have been touched by something Sacred. We return from such an experience refreshed and renewed. And we can hold that experience in our hearts and be able to recall it in our minds. Those rare Sacred experiences and spiritual highs give us grace, strength and determination to do what life calls upon us to do. Amen.
1http://www.thinplaces.net. 2Ministers Manual for 2004.