The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 13
August 6th, 2017
The Rev. Shannon Preston
(Church of the Good Shepherd, Austin, TX)
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
The beauty of the whole mountain
On Thursday of this week, I visited the Galleria Borghese. It had been recommended to me by many people – on this side of the Atlantic and the other. Admittedly, I went in ignorance with little knowledge of what would be inside. Upon entering, I was transported to a realm of ideals and perfections, of symbol and messages. I was amazed by the sculpture, mosaics, the paintings and building itself. Like so many remarkable museums of art, this was one where a lifetime would barely provide enough time to take in all that is there.
This city, Rome, is one of abundant beauty. The churches, the fountains, architecture, ruins, lights — art everywhere. And art and design, music and beauty are meant to transport us to a different way of seeing, being, feeling, believing in the world. Aesthetic theology is the field of theology that looks at art, music and beauty as it relates to God. And, for centuries, especially in the church there has been a battle with beauty. Aware of its great power, people have taken different views of the role it can play in our lives. Some have tried to control or tame, even eliminate beauty it in some circumstances. Some fear it and its ability to make us feel no longer in control, to tempt us towards something unvirtuous. But, at its best, it’s meant to transport us, connect us, as Dostoyevsky says, “save us”, and show us the transcendent.
Beauty, at its best, can show us something of God, the beauty of Christ, the goodness of life.
We celebrate today those moments when we are transported, transformed, lead nearer to God. It is the Feast of the Transfiguration and in two of our lessons we are told of mountaintop experiences. Moses climbs and descends Sanai with a face that shines so brightly from encountering God that people cannot look at him. Jesus, up his mountain encounters Moses and Elijah and is transfigured into “dazzling white.” His face changes. The encounter, the closeness of God changes how they look, how they live, for a time. Presumably, in encountering God, they are elevated to another realm of existence—filled only with light and the presence of God. Today is a feast where we give thanks for these moments, for these mountaintop experiences when Jesus and Moses meet God, know God, are filled or reconnected with God.
We all need moments like this — perhaps it does not look for you or for me — like going up a mountain and meeting God face-to-face, we are not Moses or Jesus — but we all need moments like this — when we are filled in some way with the sense, the spirit of light, hope, peace or beauty and it transports us, for a time, to something that is better, or more loving. Whatever they look like in our own lives, there are times when, in some way, we encounter God and we are changed.
As important as these encounters are — Moses on Sanai, Jesus on the mountaintop, a great work by Bernini or Botticelli — we cannot realistically expect to live on of these mountaintop experiences. I am familiar with poets or mystics who say this is the spiritual journey, to find that just right balance so that you never fall off the tip of the mountain — that tip where you dwell fully with God always, that the ideal is achievable — but, for many of us, there are times when we fall off the tip of the mountain–whether of our own choice and volition or by circumstances that are out of control.
It is important we remember and give thanks for the mountaintop moments of our lives but that is not where God means most of us to live. Our lessons provide no expectation that the mountaintop is where we are meant to stay.
Moses goes up to receive commandments he then shares with his people. Jesus goes up and speaks to Elijah and Moses to “about his departure, what he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem,” his death, his suffering and sacrifice. The mountaintop is not where we are meant to remain, it is meant to provide us nourishment for the calling at hand, the very ordinary or even the suffering we will endure. Perhaps, this is not the case for you but for most people I know our lives are, on the whole, rather more ordinary than the mountaintop. That the day-to-day does not seem quite comparable to Moses or Jesus or even Peter, John or James who witness Jesus.
But, it is good to remember and give thanks for these mountaintop moments that remind us that God is the most wonderful being, that God loves us so closely and greatly, and hold onto them — because the ordinary, even suffering, will come. Without the bulwark, the foundation, of knowing God’s presence, God’s closeness and love for us that is greater than anything else — it can be easy for us to dismiss God when things are hard or bad, sad or just boring and seem so far away from the mountaintop.
Even on this day, celebrating the wonders of the Transfiguration, our faith does not pretend, does not try to erase that things will be hard, painful, or sad and boring. Amazingly, even here in church, as we gather to rejoice and praise, you or the person next to you, may have something that has happened, a sadness that lingers and has been for years, an ache emotional or physical that does not go away–and even here in church those are present. As lovely and beautiful as this place is, as these churches are—what elevates their beauty even more than the colors and lights, the tiling and artistry, is knowing that it is not just the tip of the mountain that all of this exalts, that this Christian faith exalts. The magnificent beauty of Christ, reaches into every part of our life—the mountaintop and the stunning, the ordinary and the mundane, and the painful and the difficult. The mountaintop beauty and wonder of Christ is not a place where pain or the ordinary is unaccepted, rather it is precisely the hurting and mundane we experience that we need to open to the delight and beauty, the wonder and glory of God. Our faith is not about escaping from the actual lives we live but rather that we learn to allow the shining face, the radiant beauty of God to enter the darkest and dullest places in us.
We rejoice today in the brightness of Christ after his encounter with God, with Moses and Elijah. We rejoice today that God is good and wonderful and transfigures Moses and Jesus into radiance, into beauty and light. And we rejoice in that from wherever we are, however we actually are—whether it be sadness, exhaustion, pain or even doubt.
Beauty meets us everywhere, on the mountaintop but can surprise us also in places we would not expect…including the very most ordinary. God is there, too. God is on the mountaintop and God is at the bottom of the mountain and everywhere else in between and around it. It is for us to let Christ in—wherever we are and have faith that wherever we are—the radiant beauty of Christ—waits to enter in.