Rev. Danielle K Bartz February 11, 2024
Mark 9:2-9 “Dwell Amongst the Stars”
When I was an adolescent, I asked my mother to drive me around one evening in her little red convertible (which she has long insisted every woman needs at some point in her life) with the top down, so I could lay in the back seat and look at the stars. Amazingly, she complied. I remember, quite distinctly, we were somewhere on the outskirts of Rochester and I saw my first shooting star. I was thrilled and I have looked up into the night sky every chance I could get since, trying to glimpse one.
But, I have most of my life in lived in places with light pollution, so seeing one again has been rare. Which is why, last summer when I was out near the Teton Mountains, I got up at 4am to watch the pre-dawn sky for the Perseids – a yearly meteor shower that was timed last year just right to occur during a new moon, when the sky would be the darkest. Out near the mountains, far away from any significant light pollution, I saw probably a dozen or more streaks of light across the sky in the ten minutes or so I was out there – I would have stayed longer, but it was chilly and I had a lingering unease about bears.
But not even that compared to last December during the peak of the Ursids meteor shower. I keep track of when these showers will happen, though I didn’t expect to see any here in town. But, one evening when I was taking my dog out, I glanced up and saw the brightest shooting star I have ever seen. Its tail was tremendously long, meaning I got to watch it travel across the sky, not just momentarily appear and then fade. I was startled and deeply in awe. I had read all about how the Ursids would likely be brighter and have long tails because of the elements that make up the meteors. I also knew that what I was watching was nothing bigger than a pebble. But, standing there, I didn’t care about any of that science. What I saw was a shooting star, something magical. A gift from God that I didn’t need to understand, rather I just wanted to revel in. I have come to believe sometimes that is just what we need – to give ourselves over to the magic of something rather than get caught up in the how of it. To let our heads be in the clouds.
This tends not to be a habit often celebrated by people other than artists and mystics. To tell someone, “your head is in the clouds” is usually a criticism. We want people to focus on the here and now, whatever is right in front of them: the problem of the moment, the task list to complete. To spend too much time dreaming is often considered a waste of time in a world that equates productivity with value.
And I wonder if that is why the story of the Transfiguration, the scripture we read this morning, can be a hard one to deal with. It is certainly mystical, other-worldly, shrouded in Divine mystery. What’s the lesson, the point, the task that was accomplished, we wonder. As a preacher, I sigh in frustration when I read in this story that Jesus was talking with Moses and Elijah – but the writer of the Gospel doesn’t share what they were talking about. Of all the random details recorded in the Gospels, couldn’t they have given us a clue about this conversation? Christians are left with this story that provokes far more questions than it does answers. There is clearly meaning and significance, but it is so other-worldly, we struggle to understand just what that is.
Over the centuries, the Transfiguration has steadily accumulated meanings — most of them densely theological. In seminary, I was taught that the Transfiguration is important because it does the following: it reveals Christ’s divine nature, confirms he is God’s chosen son, foreshadows his death, secures his place in the stream of Israel’s salvific history, places him above the Law as shown with the presence of Moses and the Prophets – with Elijah, and anticipates his Resurrection. All of that from seven verses – evidence of humanity’s need to not spend too much time in the clouds, but rather in the valleys of human need. Unlike the disciple Peter, who wanted to set up house-keeping on the mountaintop, we prefer to head right back down into the valley of humanity. We prefer to spend our time around that which we can grasp and understand, rather than with the holy mysteries that challenge and confound us.
In fact, a few years ago, that is exactly what I told you to do. On Transfiguration Sunday of 2019, I spent most of my time talking about the story that comes after the Transfiguration – a story of a young boy in need of healing. Don’t spend too much time on the mountain, I told you, because there is work that needs to be done below. If we spend all our time staring at the stars, staring at the mystery, staring at the vastness of God – then we may miss the needs of people around us. I might as well have told you to get your head out of the clouds and focus on your to do list.
I regret that now. I regret diminishing the importance of the mountaintop, the mystical, the poetic, the artistry. I regret too quickly turning your attention away from the bright light and voice of God. I regret that we didn’t spend time wondering together about what we experience during our own mountaintop experiences. I failed to notice something when I read of Jesus’ admonishment of Peter, who, as I said, wanted to stay up on the mountain forever. Yes, Jesus made sure to return to the valleys, to the people, to the community in need. But, first, Jesus invited a few of his disciples to go up to the mountain with him. If mystical and awe-inspiring mountaintop experiences, those moments when God’s voice can be clearly heard, if those moments were only for the likes of Jesus, Elijah, and Moses – then the three disciples would not have been invited to witness it. It would have been a time set apart just for Jesus – much like it was for Moses, who in the Exodus story journeyed to the top of the mountain alone to get instructions from God.
But that is not what we hear in the story of the Transfiguration. That moment was meant for humanity as well. Peter, James, and John were welcomed into that moment – those imperfect followers of Jesus. Therefore, we are welcomed into that moment as well. We are encouraged to spend some time on the mountains, with our heads in the clouds, and our eyes on the stars – we are invited, for a time anyway, to set aside our to do lists, our questions, and our need for answers – and instead just listen for the voice of God and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the grandness of God and God’s creation. Its true that as followers of Christ we cannot get stuck up there. There is too much need around us, too much work to do down in the valley. But, just because we cannot stay on the mountain, does not mean we are not welcome to rest there for a bit.
So, for a little while at least, lets all spend some time being dazzled and over-whelmed by God. Let’s spend some time with those scriptures that reveal the mystery of God. Read the Psalms and be in awe of their emotion. Read the Prophets and sit with their wisdom, accepting the fact that you will never fully understand it all. Read poetry, stare at art, listen to music. Walk in the woods or try to trace the patterns of the stars in your mind. Imagine the conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Have pity for Peter who just wants to sit there and take it all in. The great theologian, Mr. Rogers said it best: “Our society is much more interested in information than wonder, in noise rather than silence…And I feel that we need a lot more wonder and a lot more silence in our lives.”
We won’t stay too long up on our mountains, we all know there is work to be done in the valleys. But, it’s the moments of awe that fill us up for whatever awaits us in our valleys. God’s creation is vast and glorious – and it is a gift for us. It is a gift that is meant to fill us up, give us strength and resilience. We all need our mountains – so don’t feel guilty for spending time up there. I stare at the stars at night – what do you do to take advantage of God’s gift for each of us? What mountains do you linger on? Amen.
Holy and loving God – whose nature and ways are far beyond our understanding, we thank you for the gift of your Creation. And though we can never fully grasp it all, we are so grateful for those moments when we can bask in its glory and wonder. It is in that spirit of gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
God – help us to give ourselves permission to linger on your mystery rather than too quickly seeking out answers that can fit our human limitations. When our heads are in the clouds, make us feel welcome. When we are staring at the stars, help us to see you in them. And when it is time, and we are filled up with your awe-inspiring presence, settle us back into the valleys so we can do the work you call us to do.
One of the ways we can linger with your mystery is in times of intentional prayers for ourselves and those around us. In these moments of silence, help us listen for your voice…
Give us all, God, a greater love of your holiness, a greater delight in your mystery, and a greater joy in seeking your presence. We ask it through Christ Jesus, who revealed your will to us and who taught us to pray to you as one family, saying Our Father….