This is a sermon I preached at Clackamas United Church of Christ, in Milwaukie, Oregon. The text was Mark 9:2-10, the mystical story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. You can read the text or watch the sermon below.
What matters to you most in this life? What do you live for? What is really real for you?
I didn’t take these questions seriously until a few years ago when I became a chaplain intern at a hospital. This may sound a little morbid at first, but it was there that I came face to face with death. Isn’t it weird that it often takes an experience with death to make you wonder what it is you are actually living for? What truly matters?
There was a saint in the sixth century named Benedict. St. Benedict wrote a rulebook with the very creative title “The Rule of St. Benedict.” And in his rulebook, Benedict taught people to “Keep death daily before your eyes.”
Again, it might sound morbid, but I think there’s a lot of wisdom in Benedict’s teaching. Because once you realize that death is inevitable, once you realize your mortality, you begin to take seriously how you want to live. You begin to differentiate between what really matters and what doesn’t.
I realized this as a chaplain intern after talking with a patient who had a mystical near-death experience. He had a life-threatening infection that put him in a coma. When I entered his room, he told me he shouldn’t be alive. Then he described a dream he had. He was traveling through space as he sat on a mandala, a Hindu and Buddhist circular pattern that represents the universe. And as he traveled through the universe on this mandala, he passed by many people from his past. Past loves. Past family members. And he saw people from his present, in particular, he saw his children.
He said that he felt a deep sense of calm and peace. A gentle spirit and a welcoming light propelled him forward into some clouds.
He desperately wanted to go to the clouds, but he heard a voice that said, “You aren’t done yet. You have work to do. You have to go back.”
Now, I don’t know what to make of near-death experiences. I’ve never had one. And I’m a product of our modern world that wants to tell us that mystical experiences aren’t real. The modern world emphasizes the material world and says the spiritual is a figment of our imagination.
But I think our modern world is missing something. From the way he talked about it, I knew that this experience was real for him. In fact, for him, it was what some mystics call “The really Real.”* It’s capital “R” real. And so I knew that it wasn’t my place to judge the truth of his experience. Rather, it was my place to help him explore the meaning behind it.
His dream told him he had work to do. So I asked him, “What work do you have to do?” He told me that while he loved his children, he made a lot of mistakes. He cried as he told me he’s been estranged from his children for many years. He hadn’t talked with one child in decades.
“My dream,” he told me, “Means that I need to try to heal my relationship with my children.”
One of the things I didn’t like about chaplaincy was that people were often discharged to go home before I could hear the end of their stories. I’ll never know what happened to that man. Whether or not he was able to reconcile with his children will always be a mystery to me.
But there’s something I know for sure. That dream was true. His near-death experience told him something that was really Real about his life. It told him what was important. It told him he couldn’t stay in a place of peace. Rather, in the name of love, he had more to do. He had to take some risks by reaching out to his children. Would his children accept him? Or would they slam the door in his face? He didn’t know. But in order to pursue reconciliation, sometimes you have to come back down to earth. Sometimes in our pursuit of living into the Kingdom of God, we have to get our hands dirty. We have to risk conflict and pain and trials in order to transform the broken world and our broken selves into a more just and loving and merciful place of possible reconciliation.
Because a more just and loving and merciful world is what’s really Real.
I think that man’s mystical near-death experience is a good illustration of our Gospel passage. His dream was like the mystical vision of Jesus and the great prophets Moses and Elijah that helped the disciples realize what really mattered in their lives. Their vision of Jesus transfigured left them confused, but it also gave them meaning and purpose. And, like the man in the hospital, their experience was connected with death. For the story ends with Jesus talking about his death and resurrection.
The story begins with Jesus inviting his disciples Peter, James, and John up a mountain. The mountain is an important detail, because mountains are thin and mystical places in the Bible. Today, many people hike mountains for a mystical experience to become one with nature or with God. There’s something powerful and majestic about mountains. And our ancient ancestors felt the same way. In fact, Mountains are where Moses and Elijah met God, too.
And so Jesus, Peter, James, and John hike up a mountain. And while there, the disciples see Jesus transfigured, a word that means transformed, but in a deeply spiritual sense. Jesus’s clothes were gleaming white as he talked with Moses and Elijah.
Like the man in the hospital wanted to continue his mystical experience by moving toward the peace and the light of the clouds, Peter wanted to hold on to this mystical experience. He offered to build a house for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Peter wanted to contain the fascinating spiritual experience with Jesus and two of his spiritual heroes.
And, like the man in the hospital was told that he couldn’t stay in his vision because he had work to do, Jesus told Peter that they couldn’t stay on the mountain. They had work to do. They had to go down the mountain to work for more love and mercy and reconciliation in the world.
And then they heard a voice from heaven saying, “This is my son. Listen to him.”
Interestingly, the voice doesn’t say, “Listen to Moses and Elijah and Jesus.” It says listen to my son Jesus. Why doesn’t the voice say to listen to Jesus, Moses and Elijah? After all, Moses and Elijah were great prophets. They healed a lot of people. And they both had mountaintop experiences. Moses went up the mountain to meet God and receive the ten commandments. But do you remember what Charlton Heston did when he came down the mountain? The Bible says the Hebrews were worshipping a Golden Calf. This didn’t make God or Moses or Charlton Heston very happy, so Moses and some friends took their swords and killed 3,000 people who worshipped the golden calf. And Elijah’s most famous story was also about a mountain. He single-handedly defeated 450 prophets of Baal. Then he came down the mountain, gathered all 450 and killed each one. You see, Moses and Elijah kept death before them by killing others in the name of God.
The voice told the disciples to listen to Jesus because on the way back down the mountain, Jesus was radically different from Moses and Elijah. Jesus didn’t come down the mountain to kill anyone. He refused to lift the sword against enemies. But as our story ends, Jesus says he will rise from the dead.
Like Moses and Elijah, Jesus’s story is marked by death. But it wasn’t the death of others. Jesus kept death before him, but it was his own death.
But Jesus didn’t have a masochistic death wish. He kept his own death before him so that he could live for what really mattered. He lived for his mission, which was to reveal to us the universal and unconditional love of God, even to those we call our enemies. By going to the cross, Jesus revealed that those ancient stories that associated violence with God were wrong. Jesus reveals there is no violence within God. For even when we kill God in Jesus, Jesus offers us forgiveness and reconciliation on the cross, and peace in the resurrection.
The man’s dream in the hospital and the experience of the Transfiguration were mystical experiences that were really Real. But how do we know what is really Real? I think we listen to Jesus. Which is hard, because there are so many competing voices. There’s the voice that sounds very religious and spiritual, but that leads us to violence over and against others. And then there’s the voice of Jesus, who reveals that the really Real is God’s universal love, and he calls us to work for more justice, love, mercy, and reconciliation in the world.
I’m reminded of Martin Luther King Jr. Near the end of his life, King gave what’s known as his Mountain Top speech. As he used nonviolent love to fight the injustices of racism and militarism and economic classism, he kept death before him as he proclaimed, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord!”
It was on the mountaintop that King and Peter and James and John saw the mystical glory of the Lord Transfigured before them. They came down the mountain with death before them, too. But they knew there was something bigger than their life and bigger than their death. They knew what was really Real. And that’s God’s glorious love. Yes, death was there. In fact, King was killed the day after he delivered that speech. But because he knew death was always in front of him, he knew what was important in his life – to listen to Jesus as he followed him in nonviolently working for more justice and love and mercy in the world.
So may we keep death before us so that we know what’s important to live for.
May we climb the mountains in our lives and bring the glory of God with us on our way down as we come back to the world.
And may we know what’s really Real as we get our hands and feet dirty in the mission for justice, love and mercy.
*See Bernard McGinn, The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, pg 15.