Last Epiphany C, 2019: Cloud Dancing Without Wings

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Honestly, I am more of a rabbi than a priest,
although I wouldn’t stack up intellectually
with most of the rabbis I have known.

I say I am more rabbi than priest,
because I am much more interested
in juicing the gospel stories
for all their practical spiritual wisdom
than I am ogling at the splashy supernatural stuff.
I want to know what Jesus taught
and where he pointed for us to walk,
rather than be asked to believe events from 2000 years ago
that have never entered the purview of my own experience.
Sure, I can handle the little mystical moments:
the still small voice
and the glimpse of something
through the veil of insight.

But don’t ask me to pass judgment
on water-walking without skies
or cloud-dancing without wings.

I have known plenty of people
graced with the ability to accept such stories
with open arms
and open minds
and open hearts
and I have marveled that they could do so.
I wish that was me,
but I am an unrepentant Thomas
who believes it
only when my own fingers
have felt the slick, wet wounds
and seen the blood stains move.

I am so much more comfortable
with Marie Howe’s description of an inkling of something.
“Once or twice or three times, I saw something
rise from the dust in the yard, like the soul
of the field – rise and hover like a veil in the sun
billowing – as if I could see the wind itself.
I thought I did it – squinting – but I didn’t.
As if the edges of things blurred – so what was in
bled out, breathed up and mingled…I saw it.
It was thing and spirit both: the real
world: evident, invisible.”

I wish Luke had done that with his transfiguration story.
Imagine Luke telling the story
from the poet Marie Howe’s perspective:
“Oh, about eight days after Peter
had sort of, kind of,
acknowledged Jesus as the Christ,
Jesus took Peter, James, and John
and went up on the mountain to pray.

And while Jesus was praying,
the disciples slept, as was their preference.
Peter, slightly aroused by his own snoring,
squinted open the slits of his eyes ever-so-narrowly,
and for an instant, he thought he saw Jesus
with two other people standing in a fog.
‘Once or twice or three times, he saw something
rise from the cloud there on the mountain,
like the very soul of the rock – rise and hover like a veil
in the sun billowing – as if he could see the Almighty itself.
He thought he did – squinting – but he didn’t.’”

You see, if Luke had only written something like that,
it would have been left to our own imaginations.
If he had made it more like a abstract painting,
or a poem
or a song
we could really get into it
and talk about how to interpret it.
Instead, it is more like a coloring book
where we are left to color inside the lines,
and if we don’t, we appear to be woeful scribblers.

Maybe it is just me,
and not very many of you share my struggle.
If so, God bless you for your patience.
Now that I have gotten that off my chest though,
we can move on
and knock on the door these readings lead us to.

Clearly, Luke knows that Jesus
stands in the shadow of Moses
and his story let’s everyone know
that while Moses went up on the mountain with God,
so did Jesus.
While Moses shined with the light of God,
so did Jesus.
While Moses received the commandments from God
so Jesus received wisdom from on high.

Trust me, this parallelism is no coincidence.
All through the gospel stories,
from the birth narrative
to the Passion of his last week and death,
the parallelism between Jesus and Moses,
and Jesus and Elijah, (the other great prophet)
is granular and intentional.

That is because,
in those first generations after Jesus,
Moses and Elijah
were THE frame of reference.
That was the comparison that mattered.
To say Jesus was like Moses and Elijah
was to say the best thing possible about him.

But we do not get it,
because Christianity does not care
about Moses and Elijah
even though Jesus was deeply rooted in a reverence
for both of them.
We care about Paul,
and Augustine and Thomas Aquinas,
maybe even Richard Hooker and Karl Barth,
but we have nearly forgotten
Jesus’ frame of reference:
Exodus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Micah, Amos, and Jeremiah.

So, whatever else this story
about Jesus on the mountain tells us,
it is telling us
Jesus didn’t come out of nowhere,
and he wasn’t the first of his kind.

It is telling us, that what he taught
was wisdom with deep roots,
and points to the prophets that came before him.
That is the first thing that we need to recognize
in this story in front of us:
that Jesus is a continuation of a millennia
of sacred wisdom.

The other thing we might notice,
is the idea that sometimes,
in some places,
with some people
and for a special moment,
that veil
between the human and the holy

I’m not talking about cloud-dancing
or water-walking,
though maybe some of you have had such spectacular views.
I am talking about moments
when we imagine we saw something;
or suspect that the insight or inkling we’ve received
had a source beyond our own brain;
or interpreted a suddenly fortunate connection
or turn of events, as something more than serendipity.

I doubt any of us here
have ever been enclosed inside a cloud
on top of a mountain
within a whisper of Jesus, Moses and Elijah,
but it would not surprise me at all
to hear many of us have had mountaintop experiences
when a long-term fog dissipated
and suddenly we could see clearly again…and
finally, we could breathe deeply again.

Likewise, it seems doubtful
that any of us have been handed tablets of stone
that set down in no uncertain terms,
the boundaries on our choices and actions.
On the other hand, I would guess
that more than a few of us
have received stunningly clear guidance
when we had been lost and without a clue
as to how we should proceed.
Such an experience is even more astounding
if we didn’t really understand the wisdom at the time
we received it, but
only later, when we were looking back on it.

Most of us, I am guessing,
would be hesitant to report that God spoke to us directly –
in an audible voice,
from out of a cloud
or the back seat of a car.
Yet we may be more willing to share an experience or two
with a friend we trust,
about when God spoke to us with clarity
in the audible voice of another person;
or through the words of a prophet;
or even in the whisper of a dream
or an inner voice.

It would not surprise me at all, in fact,
if there was near universal consensus
about an experience of the sacred
appearing “once or twice or three times”
rising up like dew
in the field of awe
over some natural beauty
or nature’s exquisite symbiosis.

People of faith
are precisely people of faith
because we have been there
when the veil thinned
and something of the holy
leaked through.
It cannot be manufactured
and it cannot be sculpted or controlled,
it can only be witnessed
and experienced.
Most of the time
it cannot even be explained
or described very well.
And, truth be told,
the more dramatic we are in the description
the less likely we are
to convey it.

We should not look
to the bread and wine of communion
to thin that veil,
nor the music,
nor the prayers,
nor the beautiful bond of community,
nor even Exodus and Luke.
But if we come to them with open hearts and minds,
at least in my experience,
we will routinely receive reminders
of those times the veil thinned,
and hints about where to look next,
or a vision of what came through
at some past moment
when the veil thinned between us.

And sometimes, in spite of ourselves,
the liturgy and the bible and the sacraments
do become the vehicles that thinned that veil.

Truth is, unlike my dog, we human beings
rarely live in the moment.
So we need reminders
and encouragement
and rituals.
We even need those difficult stories
like Exodus and Luke today,
so that we struggle instead of get complacent.

But how lovely it is
when those moments arrive like the next tick of a clock
and we become suddenly aware
that something in the moment
has shifted,
and there with us in real time is a presence
or a wisdom
or “a thing and spirit both” –
and we know in our heart of hearts
we saw it or felt it or heard it
and recognized it before it was gone.