Sunday, February 19, 2012

God In A Human Touch

Our lessons about the Transfiguration say
what I believe about Jesus better
than most any other Scripture.
Some of you may not buy this. You don’t have to.
I didn’t buy it myself even when I was ordained.
But after a lot of years of Christian practice,
this seems true to me.

Jesus was a mountain man.
He led his disciples up there mountains
– the one where he taught them the Beatitudes
and to turn the other cheek
– the Mount of the Transfiguration
- and finally the Mount of Olives.

We can spend our whole lives climbing mountains
- the career mountain, the money mountain,
the mental health mountain,
the happy family mountain,
even the religion mountain.
There are so many mountains,
each with a prize on top.

Moses was a mountain man.
He climbed Mt. Sinai.
It had the law on top.
It had God’s moral standards.
Moses climbed the mountain of ethical living.

Elijah was a mountain man.
He climbed Mount Carmel.
It had prophesy on top,
the awesome silence of God’s voice,
the voice we hear in contemplation.
Elijah climbed the mountain of spiritual experience.

Figuratively speaking, St. Paul was a mountain man too.
He climbed both mountains – ethics and spirituality.
As a Pharisee he practiced the moral life to perfection.
As a Mer-kobah mystic, he experienced the most advanced
states of spiritual contemplation.

But one day Paul,
like the disciples on the Mount of the Transfiguration,
had a vision of light shining from Jesus
– and that vision changed everything.
20 years later, he remembered all his mountain climbing and said,
“Whatever gains I had, these I count as loss
because of the surpassing value of knowing
Christ Jesus my Lord.”
He no longer billed himself as a just man or a mystic.
He didn’t bill himself at all.
He said, “It is not ourselves that we proclaim.
We proclaim Christ Jesus as Lord and ourselves as your servants
for his sake.”

Paul tossed aside every prize he had claimed
at the top of every mountain and said,
“I’d rather have Jesus.”

The disciples in our Gospel lesson
had already left most things behind.
They’d given up homes, families, careers.
But they still had their religion.
They had the law of Moses and the spirituality of Elijah.
So when they saw their rabbi talking on a mountain top
with the father of ethical religion
and the father of Jewish spirituality,
it all came together.
And Peter said to Jesus, “Let’s build three dwellings here
– one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

He meant it as a compliment, to put Jesus on a par with those giants.
But Peter had missed the point.
So God showed up as a “bright cloud” and thundered,
“This is my beloved Son . . . . Listen to him.”
And the disciples were afraid.

They were afraid because they had rashly answered
life’s ultimate question
– the question of what really matters
– and they had gotten it wrong.
The pushed the existential Jeopardy buzzer too soon.

In a multiple choice question,
with the answers being morality, spirituality, and Jesus;
they’d answered “all of the above.”
But that wasn’t’ God’s answer.
They hadn’t grasped what blind Paul saw so clearly
– that the ultimate value of God’s own self
was fully present in this human person, Jesus.
All of morality and all of spirituality lead to this point,
what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called the Omega Point.
The notion that the final answer is not
the moral order or a transcendent experience
but a person – that’s a lot to swallow.
But it is the key to intimacy with God.

The story of the Transfiguration shows us why.
The disciples thought the terrifying cloud was the Epiphany.
They thought the voice from heaven was the divine revelation.
So they fell on the ground and hid their faces.

But the real epiphany was what happened next.
Matthew Chapter 17 tells us this same story
with a little more detail than Mark.
The real epiphany was Jesus.
It happened when he touched them and said,
“Get up and do not be afraid.”

God is most perfectly seen and heard not as a thundercloud
sending us diving to the dust in fear,
but as a brother saying “Get up and do not be afraid.”

John Calvin, a man who was so often wrong, got this right.
He said,
“(A)ll thinking of God, apart from Christ,
is a bottomless abyss
which utterly swallows up our senses . . . .
In Christ, God . . . makes himself little,
in order to lower himself to our capacity;
and Christ alone calms (us)
so that (we) . . . dare intimately approach God.”

Jesus makes it possible for us
to be intimate with God.
In Jesus, we can embrace the perfect value
from which all good things derive their value
as we might embrace a friend.

Jesus brings divine love into the flesh of human life.
God can touch us only with a human touch.

A surgeon named Richard Selzer tells a story
from his medical practice that I believe
explains what happens for us in Jesus.
He writes:
“I stand by the bed where a young woman lies
. . . her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish.
A . . . facial never has been severed . . .
(T)o remove the tumor in her cheek,
I had to cut the nerve.
“Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say, “It will because the nerve is cut.”
She nods and is silent,
but the young man smiles,
“I like it,” he says.
“It’s kind of cute.”

He bends to kiss her crooked mouth,
and I, so close I can see
how he twists his own lips to accommodate hers,
to show her that their kiss still works . . . .
(I) hold my breath . . . .”

Just so, “Jesus touched them, saying,
‘Get up and do not be afraid.’
And when they looked up,
they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.”