Sermon, 12/14/21. True or False: Shape-shifters Are Real?

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Last Epiphany

Psalm 50:1 – 6  ; II Kings 2:1 – 12; II Corinthians 4:3 – 6; Mark 9:2 – 9

He [Peter] did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Mark 9:6

During this seemingly never-ending period of “lockdown” due to the Coronavirus pandemic, I, like many of you, have had—enjoyed actually—long hours of quiet time, time during which I have been able to reflect on what matters to me and those whom I love, time during which I have been able to recall people, events and occasions that have influenced my life in the past and even now going forward.  I have renewed contact even with some of those individuals.  I share with you today some of those reflections.

Always curious about the earth, on which we move and live and have our beings, I have always wondered about the possibility of other worlds in the universe.  Fuel was added to that imagination by the television series ROSWELL (1999 – 2002), a science fiction tale of three young other-worldly beings who found themselves on earth and assumed outwardly the form and attributes of humans.  They were shape-shifters.  They were transfigured.  They had been ferried, i.e. sent to earth, as the remnant of a world, of a civilization, that had been attacked by a negative force.  Their task was to survive in order to, eventually, return home and restore their world.  In the meantime, they were to bring peace to earth, our world.

What the three teenagers revealed, the two boys and one girl, was that each of them was unique.  I thought of this TV series, as I reread the biblical account of the Transfiguration of Jesus of Nazareth on the mountaintop, as appointed for this last Sunday of Epiphany.  Each of us is unique in style of personality.  So, too, are we each unique when it comes to living in and expressing our spirituality.  Some of us are relatively steady, with no dramatic variations from day to day in how we experience our relationship with God.  Some of us seem to be inclined [to] experience major vacillations.  For such, their spiritual lives, rather than resembling a drive across the beautiful but level Great Plains, resemble more closely a journey through mountains where the paths may be narrow and steep, such as are found in the Green Mountains of Vermont.

Great is the temptation to portray one expression as interesting and, therefore, good, and the other as boring and potentially bad.  This is not so!  So, I reminisce.  For example, I had once a student who came from Colorado.  Serendipity had it that we met and would often take a meal together in one of the college’s dining halls.  This student was bright, felt fulfilled by the challenge in his studies, but ultimately not at ease in Geneva, New York, the small upstate town where the college is located.  He missed the mountains.  At the end of his first semester, apologizing to me, he packed his belonging and returned to the mountains from which he would write me dutifully once a year to give me an update of his studies and eventual successes.  And I responded each time.  Upon his graduation from college, I wrote to wish him well in what lay ahead.

I had another student who informed me, upon my asking, that she was from California, had never experienced the four seasons as we know them in the North East, and had chosen Upstate New York because of its lake and its small city atmosphere.  There were others who came from the openness of the Dakota prairies and were exhilarated by them—prairies that free their spirits—and would feel hemmed in and even claustrophobic by mountains.  For them, they viewed the seemingly infinite miles of flat grasslands as a kind of earthen sea, and it had on them the ocean’s hypnotic and deeply spiritual effect that the Atlantic has on us.  But they, too, placed before them a challenge to be open to other possibilities.

Each style, mountainous or flatlands, has spiritual integrity.  Neither is better, nor worse.  Indeed, there is much to be learned from both.  And, in fact, so I propose, are inner landscapes in each of us, probably yet unexplored.  We may be more aware of one or the other, but within each of us is a full globe of diversity just waiting to be discovered.  There is within each of us the possibility of becoming a shape-shifter.

Today’s gospel, the periscope we have come to call “the Transfiguration,” offers a word of instruction for the spiritual journeyer’s first [confrontation with] a new terrain.  That day, Peter, James, and John had a mountaintop spiritual experience as never before.  They literally went up the mountain with Jesus and, after finally shaking off their dullness of their spiritual senses (the text says their eyes were heavy with slumber), they became spiritually alert and could discern the powerful mystical event that was displayed before them.

They were given eyes to see that which may occur frequently in day-to-day life, but which they in their human form did not—and which we in ours usually do not have the spiritual sensitivity to observe. That is, [they saw] the possibility of a world—not some TV fantasy, but a way of living—beyond the range of our usual five senses and three dimensions.  Those three witnessed a revelation beyond their (and our) usual understanding of time and space as Elisha and Moses came to Jesus to affirm his lineage and uniqueness.  Something happened to them that day.  Their spirits were captivated by the pure energy of [the] wholeness of and intimacy with God’s Spirit.  And, being made aware by this one transforming event of innumerable possibilities, they displayed their humanity to the fullest.   “[They] did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”

And after fear, what was their further response?  Their first inclination, it would seem, was also a natural, human one—namely, to figure out a way to capture the experience.  Almost immediately, Peter came up with a plan to build three booths, to assemble three boxes, if you will, in order to capture the experience, to preserve it for all times.  In other words, they sought desperately a way to hang on to the spiritual high by placing God in a locale and form that God has always refused.  Neither could the Golden calf display, nor booths contain, the magnificence and magnanimity of God.

Peter was human, and his reaction was understandably human, i.e., limited and limiting.  Since creation, that is precisely what we humans have attempted—namely, to tame God, wrap our minds around the great mystery, and put it in a manageable container.  So, we try to reduce it all to four spiritual laws, or to capture it within a creed.  Like Hansel and Gretel, we leave trails of breadcrumbs in the forest so that we can get back to that special moment. 

However, Hansel and Gretel, who wanted that safe passage to a more familiar place, had their breadcrumbs eaten by birds; so [it is] with us.  Life continues to evolve and to revolve and we must seek our way back to God, even as the world turns.  I would be so bold as to believe that Jesus’ refusal of a booth in his name signaled his understanding of human nature and our inclination to limit the greatness of our Creator God. The booths become too small to contain the experience.  And another generation would require its own form that would capture and illustrate that transformative experience.

We return, as we must, to daily life on the plains and in the mountains of human experience, while longing for the exquisite high places.  But we must remember:  each of our inner spiritual landscapes is diverse.  I go one step further—to imagine a transfiguring world embedded in each of us, complete with craggy cliffs and flat terrains and seas.  With reflection, we may discover the beauty of the full range of our spiritual geographies.  No doubt, we will always retain a natural preference for one terrain over another.  However, we must not insist on any one landscape.  Rather, we must allow God to be God, to be the untamed Spirit of life, the wind that blows where it will.  And we must be willing to follow God’s guidance, even when it takes us into the scary new terrain of the inner or outer landscape, even when it takes us way outside of our dominant spiritual style. 

The Transfiguration was and is not a one-time event, just for Peter and James and John.  We have a chance at it as well.  As we make our way to that time of reflection, Lent, may we shake off the slumber of our spirits, and see the vistas that God offers us.  Whether we are plains people, first glimpsing the exhilaration of the high places, or mountain people, first coming to appreciate the vastness of the oceans and Great Lakes, our pathways to the Divine Being may be as diverse as we are, but they are not limited.  They, like the spokes of a wagon wheel, emanate from the center of all being and are secured by Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of God.   Amen