Sermons

The Unanticipated Threshold, Rev. Dee Ledger, February 11, 2018

It started out as a hike, six days after Jesus has told his disciples that the Son of Man will suffer greatly, be rejected, and killed.  When Peter says “no, no, this won’t happen to you,” Jesus rebukes him.   Six days later, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain, and not just any mountain—but one of the sacred mountains, likely Mount Hermon.  It was a symbolic threshold between worlds and understandings, between what Jesus felt called by God to be and do in his mission and ministry and what his disciples misunderstood a Messiah to be and do.

So it started out as a hike, but ends with Jesus somehow transformed and Peter wondering what just happened, even though he saw the glory of God transfigure Jesus right before his eyes.    Jesus’ clothes begin glowing and he seems purer somehow, without the troubling stains of sin or error.  And then there appeared Moses and Elijah—two long dead prophets who suddenly converse with Jesus, as if this were a summit of holy prophets and these three disciples—James, John, and Peter– have a box seat at the heavenly Olympiad.

We really can’t blame Peter for getting all befuddled.  At first, he is so excited that he figures, “let’s make a tent or something” and capture all this glory before it disappears, or it dissipates, or goes back to wherever it came from.  He wants to capture the moment, freeze it for all eternity.  “Let us make three dwellings,” he tells Jesus, “One for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  That’s his first response: to want to freeze the moment.

Which is really quite understandable—that is, if your leader has just told you, less than a week earlier, that he will suffer and die.  You would want to freeze time, capture the present moment, the nowness of the now.  Those who have had to be particularly cognizant of time will recognize the desire to somehow slow the good moments down, even though they are so transient.  You want to capture your child’s face all full of innocence and wonder; or that magical evening with your beloved, or perhaps the moment that someone finally says those words or thoughts that you are especially longing to hear.  Those who are facing terminal diagnoses are particularly knowledgeable about the preciousness of time and the desire to expand exponentially the good seasons, the beautiful moments, and those times of good health.

But Jesus may have wanted to take Peter, James, and John on that hike to help them get some badly needed perspective.  If you’ve ever stood at the edge of the ocean, or flown above the clouds, or stood on a cliff overlooking some kind of valley, you might find your perspective changes.  We are reminded of our incompleteness and the vastness of the world.  Carl Sagan once said,

“The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light…Once we overcome our fear of being tiny, we find ourselves on the threshold of a vast and awesome Universe that utterly dwarfs–in time, in space, and in potential–the tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors.” [1]

Furthermore, when we stand looking at the surf or the valley, or the clouds below us, our small and often petty disagreements are subsumed by the sheer expanse of the horizon before us.  Perhaps that is what Jesus wanted to give to these three disciples.  A sense of a mission that transcended them and transcended even Jesus’s unique part, important though it was.

What happened on that mountaintop—the radiance, the changed appearance, the conversation with past prophets, and the illumination of the holy—could not have been anticipated by Peter or the others.  I don’t imagine that Peter had any inkling that Jesus would be transformed before his eyes, having just had a bitter and terse standoff with him earlier that week.  The experience on the mountaintop was a threshold to something different, yes.  But it was an unanticipated threshold that caught Peter off-guard.  He responds first by wanting to freeze the moment, but then he is quite simply terrified.  He doesn’t know what to say and he doesn’t really know what to do.  They hear a Voice from a cloud urging them to listen to Jesus—“This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him”—which should remind us of Jesus’ baptism and the voice-in-a-cloud who gave Moses the Ten Commandments.  All signs point to revelation, but Peter and the other disciples aren’t really prepared for what will happen next on this journey.  They don’t understand even though Jesus has warned them.  What they do know if that their friend isn’t just their friend anymore.  He has changed.  He’s gotten bigger, brighter, and more charged somehow.  And what does that mean for each of them? Are they now on a threshold too?

What do we do with the unanticipated thresholds in our lives?  Many of us clearly anticipate thresholds—the birth of a grandchild, a marriage, the approach of retirement, beginning a different career, or moving to a different location.  To some degree, we can prepare for these thresholds; indeed there are rituals that help us to move from point A to point B.  We can hire the realtor and show the house.  We can have baby showers, or marriage ceremonies, retirement parties, or home blessings.  But the unanticipated threshold is harder to plan for, and sometimes much harder to acknowledge even when we are on the hinge of one.  An example might be a parting of spouses, or the blending of two households.  There can be a sudden change in financial well-being, or even the often abrupt changes in one’s health or internal sense of contentment.  We might wake up one morning sensing something is clearly out of whack with our lives or have a bizarre sense of foreboding that comes upon us unawares and lingers.  There is also the unexpected fire that purges us—whether it’s a real fire or the fire of the heart.  A friend of mine had neighbors who returned to their townhome in Silver Spring only to find everything they owned up in flame.  She found herself unexpectedly consoling her adjacent neighbors.  We might, like Peter, become dumbfounded with fear, our “fight” or “flight” response triggered without warning.  There are times, yes, when we might stand on a threshold glowing from head to toe like Jesus, but there are also thresholds that bring more fear than delight, more questions than answers, and more clinging than release.

But for those happy times—when we are on the hinge of something new and different, filled with both excitement and foreboding simultaneously, as if our very hearts might burst with possibility or terror, we might—like Peter—be stilled into silence.  Or we might be tempted to retreat from the threshold or hesitate altogether in crossing or in deciding to move forward.  For these times, the poet Mary Oliver reminds us *not* to hesitate.

She writes:

“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate.  Give in to it.  There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be.  We are not wise, and not very often kind.  And much can never be redeemed.  Still, life has some possibility left.  Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world.  It could be anything but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins.  Anyway, that’s often the case.  Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.”[2]

Even so, this joy on the mountain has a sense of foreboding for the disciples too.  We attend and appreciate better those things we are called to leave soon.  Even while Peter is contemplating making a couple of monuments to preserve and honor all the glory flying ‘round, Jesus focuses on going back down the mountain.  Did he realize then, like Moses, that the people would prefer idols to following God’s way?  Did he know, like Elijah, that the battered mantle of justice would pass to future generations and future prophets to wear as he looked to the heavens and to the ebbing years of his life?  Did he feel, like Moses, like he was being granted a vision of the Promised Kin-dom, but would be prevented from fully entering it by those who sought its destruction?

Thresholds are recognized in many cultures.  In Buddhism, a Bodhisattva is anyone who, motivated by compassion, intentionally steps away from the threshold of enlightenment in order to help all sentient beings realize enlightenment as well.  Likewise, Jesus realized that basking in glory on the mountain was not the point or the purpose.  In Philippians 2, we read, that Jesus

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
     he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.[3]

 

Our call is to hike back down the mountain and to continue helping to make manifest the realm of God.  At some point, the glow subsides, revelations will end, and action must begin.  To remain on the mountaintop and to fixate on capturing the transcendent can keep us spiritually stuck, expecting our journey to be full of vistas and never valleys, desiring spiritual feel-good moments and never spiritual challenge, and forgetting that spiritual consolations are best used as fuel to help us in times of desolation and injustice as we struggle to enact God’s vision for community.

I leave you with this poem by John O’Donohue:

 

For the Time of Necessary Decision

 

The mind of time is hard to read.

We can never predict what it will bring,

Nor even from all that is already gone

Can we say what form it finally takes;

For time gathers its moments secretly.

Often we only know it’s time to change

When a force has built inside the heart

That leaves us uneasy as we are.

 

Perhaps the work we do has lost its soul

Or the love where we once belonged

Calls nothing alive in us anymore.

 

We drift through this gray, increasing nowhere

Until we stand before a threshold we know

We have to cross to come alive once more.

 

May we have the courage to take the step

Into the unknown that beckons us;

Trust that a richer life awaits us there,

That we will lose nothing

But what has already died;

Feel the deeper knowing in us sure

Of all that is about to be born beyond

The pale frames where we stayed confined,

Not realizing how such vacant endurance

Was bleaching our soul’s desire.[4]

 

 

 

[1] Carl Sagan, excerpted from a commencement address delivered May 11, 1996…and excerpt from The Pale Blue Dot, p.53-54.

[2] Mary Oliver, “Don’t Hesitate,” Devotions (New York: Penguin Press, 2017) 61.

[3] Philippians 2:5-8

[4] John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008) 143,