A Way of Seeing | Chris Walker
Scripture: Mark 8:27-9:8
This is a day of favorites. This morning at breakfast, Debbie and I heard one of our favorite birds, a redwing blackbird—the ﬁrst of the season. Arriving at church this morning, I saw my favorite dog—a basset hound.
And I’m up here this morning because full year ago, Pastor Joel preached on the Transﬁguration, I commented to him after worship that that was my favorite passage from the Gospels. Joel was curious why, and we talked a bit.
Fast forward eight months, to last October. I check my email, and there's a message from Joel. He says, “Hey, I’m wondering if you would be interested in preaching on February 11. It’s Transﬁguration Sunday. I think I remember you saying at one point that the Transﬁguration is your favorite gospel story, so, I mean, you can't really turn this down.”
And of course, I couldn’t. Anyway, thanks to Joel’s remarkable memory, I’m happy to be up here to share with you, today, what I told him a year ago. Which is basically three things.
First, in today's Gospel, Peter and James and John go up on the mountain with Jesus and they witness a stunning revelation, a magniﬁcent vision of the glory and nature and reality of God. I think that scene has some special appeal to those of us whose spiritual frequency is tuned to the Contemplative Channel. We who long to just bask in the radiance of God’s presence, manifested in whatever. Everything.
But what really strikes me about the story is Peter's reaction: “Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here; let’s make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Or maybe in 21st century English, “Wow, Lord. Can we just stay here?”
And the third thing? They couldn't stay. They had to follow Jesus back down the mountain. They had to follow him to Jerusalem. And the Jesus they had to follow to Jerusalem wasn’t the magniﬁcent dazzling white Jesus of the mountaintop. It was the ﬂesh-and-blood Jesus who would, just a few short weeks later, be brutally beaten, and tortured, and killed, in Jerusalem.
I’ll come back to Jerusalem in a minute. But let’s go back to the Transﬁguration. “Wow, Lord. Can we just stay here?”
Can you relate? I can. I crave those transﬁguration moments. Not the capital-T Transﬁguration of the Gospel, of course, but the small-t moments when the curtain of everyday life is pulled aside, maybe just a little, and the light ﬂoods in and we see just a ﬂeeting glimpse of the magniﬁcence of Being that is God. Some glimpse of the Unity that is all, contains all, creates all, receives all, and confers goodness and sanctity on every being and every moment. Those glimpses are transﬁguration moments. And they're not just for contemplatives or mystics--at least I hope not. I sincerely hope every one of you has had some pregnant moment of beauty or meaning or truth that makes you stop and pay attention, might even make you want to bow in reverence--or just say "Wow."
Like the Incarnation, the Transﬁguration is occurring all the time, continually--because God is eternally present with everything and in everything. Bidden or unbidden--God is there.
The Transﬁguration is simply a way of seeing.
The monk and author Thomas Merton had a transﬁguration moment on March 18,1958. Jacqui Hoke mentioned this in her call to worship just a few weeks ago. Merton was away from the Abbey of Gethsemani on some errand in Louisville when suddenly the curtain of the ordinary was pulled aside. Here’s how he wrote about it later:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of . . . self-isolation................................. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
In that moment, an ordinary street corner was transﬁgured and Merton got a ﬂeeting glimpse of the Incarnation, a revelation of God With Us and God In Us. It abected his spiritual outlook for the rest of his life.
But it’s not like he lived the next ten years of his life immune to the sorrows and stupidities of the world, as he put it. It's not like he kept seeing everyone shining like the sun. Merton’s journals have been published. In the 1960s he was frequently irritated with his abbot, chafed against the limitations of his religious tradition. He was restless, like most of us are.
So there's the rub. Those transﬁguration moments don’t last. The curtain doesn’t stay pulled aside for long. At least not in this earthly existence.
I was reminded of this when I had a little transﬁguration moment of my own this past October. I was out for a run on country roads outside the little hamlet of Quincy, north of where we live. It was one of those glorious fall days, blue sky, white clouds, and the trees were this tapestry of orange and yellow and warm brown. And it seemed the veneer of materiality was pulled aside and everything was just radiant with . . . I don’t know.
Sanctity? I don't know what else to say, except that everything--that branch, that glint, that wooly worm, that pickup truck and its driver--everything was extraordinarily beautiful and seemed to be charged with so much meaning and being. And in that transﬁguration moment, I had a Peter thought: “Why can’t I see it like this all the time?” Or, in other words, “Wow. Let’s just stay here.”
That was around mile 1 of my run. By mile 6, it was gone. I was no longer seeing it. I was back to what I do so often on runs: Thinking, just get to that mailbox up there. Good, now up to that bend in the road. Good. OK, there’s the ﬁnish up there, just get there. Good, done. OK, what’s next? I don’t recommend that way of living, but that's my mode of operation so often, and not just on runs. "What's next mode." When we operate that way, our eyes always ﬁxed on the next thing, we lose sight of the radiant sacred ground passing right beneath our feet.
I used to think that through disciplined spiritual practice, I might eventually be able to sustain that transﬁguration way of seeing. And then, I thought, I could just stay there. Or go hang out there whenever I wanted. But after that October run I realized, it’s all gift. It’s all grace. I can’t sustain that way of seeing through sheer will or practice. It's given, not bidden.
But here's a paradox. The wind of God’s grace is always blowing, but you have to set your sail. That was Ramakrisnha, a Hindu saint. "The wind of God's grace is always blowing, but you must set your sail."
Lovely. And true. To put that in the language of seeing, we have to keep our eyes open. Otherwise we’ll be blind to the gifts that are right there to see.
That gets me to Jerusalem. Peter, James, and John had to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, and they had reason to know what was in store there. Jesus told them bluntly what would happen.
What does Jerusalem look like to you? I mean the metaphorical Jerusalem, not the geopolitical one. I mean the place where we take up our cross daily and follow Jesus. A place of subering. What does Jerusalem look like to you? Is it a relationship? An inﬁrmity of body, or of mind, or of spirit? A loss? A fear? A bitterness that you can’t shake? A burden you have to bear?
As for myself, I’ve done a fair bit of business travel to Jerusalem. No frequent ﬂier bonuses on that airline. Seriously, my work as an environmental lawyer for the past 35 years has entailed regular bouts of suffering. And now, I’m on the threshold of retirement. O retirement, so long desired, so long awaited. But I am mindful of the words of yet another Thomas, Thomas a’Kempis, who wrote, “If you cast away one cross, you will certainly ﬁnd another, and perhaps a heavier.” I am under no illusions. What the apostles experienced in Jerusalem is the lot of all humanity: suffering, loss, fear, change, grief, death. No one is exempt.
So how then do we live, knowing we can't stay on the mountain and all earthly roads lead to Jerusalem? I think it's a way of seeing.
We could respond like the Apostle Thomas. In the Gospel of John, when the apostles hear that Jesus wants to go back to Judea, they say to him, "What??? They were just trying to stone you there, and you're going back??!" And Thomas mutters to those near him, “Great.. . . Let’s all go too, so that we can die there with him.”
But Thomas wasn’t on the mountaintop for the Transﬁguration. And he hadn't yet seen the ending of the Jerusalem story. "My Lord and my God." That ending.
We, on the other hand, know. We have heard the rest of the Gospel story, yeah. And if we've been paying attention to the transﬁguration moments that come our way, we also understand that what's behind the dark curtain is something unspeakably beautiful. That’s the rest of the Jerusalem story, right? We understand that behind the dark, there’s light, and love, and unspeakable beauty. So we can get on with the business of living and loving without fear, and with a sense of quiet, sober joy. It’s all a way of seeing.
And on that note, I will leave you with my favorite poem by my favorite poet. This is by my wife Debbie Walker, who many of you remember as Debbie Keene. What you might not know is that she is a poet. Here is one of hers.
we cannot see the stars.
No, only in some degree of darkness— when it seems the sun has turned away from our side of the world—
is their beauty opened to us. That is the order of things.
If I wait until dark, yes, but look out
from within my well-lit house, even my windows betray me— I see only myself,
my own little room gazing back.
No, to see the stars best I must leave the safe, the tidy enclosure,
and enter the darkness.
God bless you all.