Smoke and Mirrors

February 3, 2008




© Rev. Dr. Gary Blaine

University Congregational Church

February 3, 2008

Reading: Exodus 24: 12-18

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.

Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

Matthew 17: 1-9 (Good News for Modern Man)
Six days later Jesus took with him Peter, and the brothers James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. As they looked on, a change came over him: his face became as bright as the sun, and his clothes as white as light. Then the three disciples saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. So Peter spoke up and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is a good thing that we are here; if you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

While he was talking, a shining cloud came over them and a voice said from the cloud: “This is my own dear Son, with whom I am well pleased – listen to him!”

When the disciples heard the voice they were so terrified that they threw themselves face down on the ground. Jesus came to them and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid!” So they looked up and saw no one except Jesus only.

As they came down the mountain Jesus ordered them: “Don’t tell anyone about this vision you have seen until the Son of Man has been raised from death.”

Once there was a priest who really loved to play golf. He awoke one Sunday morning to a beautiful sunny day and simply could not resist the temptation to play a round of golf.

He called the assistant priest and told him that he was ill and asked the assistant to lead the Sunday service for him. The assistant priest agreed and the priest snuck out the back door of the vicarage with his golf bag.

An angel in heaven was watching all of this, went to God and said, “It isn’t right for a priest to forsake his sacramental duties to play golf. What is worse, he lied about it. He should be punished!” God replied that He would keep an eye on the situation.

In the meantime, the priest had driven to a golf course that he thought was far enough away to avoid meeting one of his parishioners. On the first tee the priest swung at the golf ball and made a hole-in-one. As he was dancing around celebrating his skill the angel went to God and complained:

“God, I am surprised at you. A hole-in-one does not seem like much of a punishment to me!”

God replied, “Yeah, but who is he going to tell?”

How often in life have you had an experience that you really could not tell anyone about? And if you did, who would believe you? Perhaps it was a hole-in-one; or the fish that got away; or the most amazing thing that came from the lips of your child. Or, perhaps it was a vision of someone who is long dead and you are certain that his or her presence was palpable. They touched you and were as alive as your own heartbeat. Maybe you had an experience of the sacred and there simply are no words that can adequately convey to others the depth of meaning or bliss that you encountered. Such experiences might suggest that you are hallucinating and some might question your mental stability.

This is made far more difficult for Congregationalists because we are very suspicious of religious enthusiasm. The “Old Light” Congregationalists distrusted the “Great Awakening” that was sweeping through the colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, believing that evangelists such as George Whitfield elevated religious fervor and artificial piety. They worried that sound doctrine would be toppled by human feelings, often the source of temptation for the soul. But even in our lifetime we have watched religious leaders manipulate people out of sound religious thinking into pulpy emotional sop. Working on the tender and unsuspecting hearts of people who desperately want hope, preachers have robbed people of their minds, their money, and their lives. Think of the social battles that we are fighting today because some boneheaded preachers forsook reason and determined that evolution or the rights of women was somehow an affront to God. Think of the people who lost their retirement investments because evangelists like Jim and Tammy Faye Baker plucked a few heartstrings and cried a river of mascara. Think of the women, men, and children who drank the cup of death, filled with the poison of Jim Jones’ paranoia and delusions of grandeur. We have very good reason to cherish suspicion when our faith traditions ask us to suspend reason.

Now the danger, of course, is that we become cynical to the point of denying the reality that human beings often make decisions on the basis of desire, fear, or anger. We seldom buy a house because we have done structural analyses or financial projections that would make such a decision reasonable. We buy houses because of the style, or setting, or some fantasy that the house engenders in our minds. We do not pick a mate on the basis of reason. We do not ask to see their DNA to determine possible health risks; their IQ to estimate the intelligence of offspring; or their teeth and bone structure to determine longevity or child bearing capabilities. We are far more practical when we have a horse vetted for possible purchase than when we choose a life partner. No, human beings are not as reasonable as we might hope. Indeed, one of the most unreasonable ideas that we might carry with us is that human beings act on the basis of reason. How do we account then for the religious affections, aspiration and inspiration, mystery and sacred encounter?

Such is the dilemma we encounter when read these stories from Exodus and Matthew. The so-called “transfiguration” of Jesus is the most difficult to comprehend. Part of the problem is that the story is presented to us as part of Matthew’s narrative, giving it the tone of historicity. I am sure there are many people who will take it on face value. I cannot. Some would rather argue that the story is offered as an affirmation of Jesus as Messiah to the Jewish community, especially given the presence of Moses and Elijah. The Exodus story is a little more persuasive. One can imagine a leader like Moses being called away from the daily struggle of leading a people who are not certain about the whole Exodus affair in the first place, whining and complaining travelers, and prone to religious excesses. They constantly grumbled, “We’ve never done it that way before. Take us back to Egypt.” Like many ministers, Moses is in need of a sabbatical. He needs to spend some time thinking rethinking his calling. He wonders about the characteristics that hallmark a free people. How do free people live with each other? What are the benchmarks of a people who once were enslaved but now are free? He takes a mountain retreat and cannot be seen or communicated with forty days. No computer or cell phones. He is not even allowed a legal pad and ballpoint pen. A toothbrush and change of underwear is as much as Moses is allowed to take with him. Moses is immediately lost in the clouds of the mountain. It takes him six days to clear his head so that he can think straight. You know that feeling when you go on vacation, especially in a remote area. It takes several days for your mind and body to adjust out of the rigors of home and office. Only then can you begin to relax and encounter your new surroundings. Only in foggy silence and rest can Moses hear a sacred word about the values that sustain the faithful community. When he comes down the mountain he is carrying with him the law that would forever define Judaism. In the Jewish tradition the word of God or law is the real source of authority. The sacred word is more persuasive than the vision that produced it. In Jewish biblical tradition, God’s will is most often communicated by God’s word rather than by mystical experience.[1] This is why, in Matthew’s gospel, a voice from heaven commands the disciples, “This is my divine Son, listen to him.” Pay attention to his words; his teachings, his stories, his parables. Paul will later insist that this is a New Covenant or new law for God’s people.

Now the question is, what are we going to do with these two stories? They are filled with smoke, clouds, fire, thunder, light, and visions of the dead. I propose to you that these fantastic images are nothing less than smoke and mirrors. The real task of the religious community is to cut through the fantasy, burn off the smoke and discern the truth. Is there any truth that either of these stories presents us with?

I think that both stories are pointing us to two important truths. The first is that authentic religious experience must finally result in a logical moral lesson that will guide the faithful. The second and related truth is that religious experience must also be translated into service for human kind.

Moses comes off of the mountain with a new law that will guide the Hebrew people. I asked earlier, what are the benchmarks of a free people? The answer is that free people do not steal, do not lie, honor their forebears, do not kill, and so on. In Matthew’s story the disciples are making all kinds of plans to honor Moses and Elijah. They missed the point and a voice breaks from heaven telling them to listen to Jesus. Pay attention to his lessons. Appropriate the beatitudes into your relationships with other human beings – those qualities of mercy, humility, forgiveness, and peacemaking. The test of any mystical experience is the quality of our lives that follow it.

The real testimony of our walk with God is how we walk with others thereafter. How does sacred encounter reform our moral agency?

I fear that we are too much like the 98-year-old Methodist woman. She was sitting in church one Sunday morning. About half way through the service none other than Satan himself appeared in the middle of the sanctuary. The preacher jumped out of the pulpit and through a window. The choir rushed out the sacristy doors. The rest of the congregation fled through every available exit. Soon none were left but Satan and the old woman.

He stood menacingly over her. His eyes glared and his red skin radiated heat and sulfur. Smoke fumed from his nostrils as his pointed tail swished impatiently on the floor. The old woman looked up and said, “Oh, Mr. Devil, I was baptized into this church at the age of fourteen and have been a member my entire life. I taught the junior high boys Sunday school since I was twenty-two years old. I sang in the choir for 57 years. I have been a member of the Ladies Guild for 76 years. But I just want you to know, I’ve been on your side the whole time.”

It is tempting for us to be persuaded in the flush of awe, in the flood of feelings that sometimes overwhelm us when we have discovered a deeper reality. Like Peter we are ready to pitch our tents on the mountain of enthusiasm and stake our claim on God’s attention. Sadly that often leaves us disillusioned, even to the point of fanaticism. C. S. Lewis warned that against the presumptions of zeal:

“Our real protection is to be sought elsewhere: in common Christian usage, in moral theology, in steady rational thinking, in the advice of good friends and good books, and (if need be) in a skilled spiritual director.”[2]

Every religious experience must be forged on the anvil of moral reason. Whatever happened on Mt. Sinai, Moses came down from the mountain with a moral code that would shape two major religions of the world with profound impact on all of Western society. Now I do not expect that my religious experience will have such an impact on history. But I understand that every sacred image in my soul has one primary purpose – to recalibrate my moral compass. I must come down from the mountain with a reformation of my relationships with my neighbors.

The second truth that must come down from the mountain is that it must come down from the mountain. A sanctified moment is only finally realized when it is brought back to human suffering. Moses had to return to his people and sort out the mess of fear and greed that haunt every community. Jesus had to face his disciples toward Jerusalem. It was great to have an afternoon picnic with Moses and Elijah, but now on to the cross.

We all thrill from a weekend retreat with inspired speakers, spirited music, fresh air, and warm campfires. But we must return home to the reality of work schedules, less than perfect families, and houses that always need repair. Extraordinary experiences serve ordinary lives. One of the great mystics of the 20th century was Evelyn Underhill who wrote:

“Our place is not the auditorium but the stage – or, as the case may be, the field, workshop, study, laboratory – because we ourselves form part of the creative apparatus of God, or at least are meant to form part of the creative apparatus of God. He made us in order to use us, and use us in the most profitable way; for his purpose is not ours. To live a spiritual life means subordinating all other interests to that single fact. Sometimes our position seems to be that of tools; taken up when wanted, used in ways which we had not expected for an object on which our opinion was not asked, and then laid down. Sometimes we are the currency used in some great operation, of which the purpose is not revealed to us. Sometimes we are servants, left year in, year out to the same monotonous job.”[3]

In other words, whatever marvelous experience we may have had, it is not ours to keep. We are meant to serve God with it. Whatever gifts or wisdom God has given to us they are not our possession. They are not meant for hoarding – they are meant for sharing.

This truth is captured in a Zoroastrian prayer:

With bended knees,

with hands outstretched,

do I yearn for the effective expression

of the holy spirit working within me:

for this love and understanding,

truth and justice:

for wisdom to know the apparent

from the real that I might alleviate

the sufferings of people on earth…

God is love, understanding,

wisdom and virtue.

Let us love one another,

let us practice mercy and forgiveness,

let us have peace,

born of fellow-feeling…

Let my joy be of altruistic living,

of doing good to others.

happiness is unto the one

from whom happiness proceeds

to any other human being.

We will practice what we profess.[4]

Imagine that – when we are filled with God’s Holy Spirit our prayer is doing good works on behalf others, securing their wholeness, and practicing what we profess. That is the outcome of every sacred encounter, however humble our service may be.

I have a friend in Toledo who also served as the Commissioned Lay Leader in my church there. Dr. Rudolph is emeritus professor of English literature at the University of Toledo. Obviously, he holds a Ph. D. He is a very fine Chaucer scholar and I love to hear him read Chaucer in Old English. I think Bob always felt called to the ministry but circumstances never gave him that opportunity. As a Commissioned Lay Leader he and I had a very collegial relationship that continues to this day. He served as liturgist every Sunday, except when he was away preaching at some tiny congregation in the Netherlands. Bob was a tremendous help to me in terms of pastoral care, especially to long-term shut-ins with whom he had a standing relationship. He was a faithful member of the choir, which his wife, Gladys directed. But aside from the very public roles that he played in the life of the church you were very often likely to find Bob changing light bulbs in the sanctuary; cleaning toilets, trimming the hedges; dusting; and hauling stuff from the back steps where deliveries were made to their appropriate location in that sprawling building. Bob was also the one that the security company called at three o’clock in the morning when somebody left the building and forgot to set the alarm.

Bob is truly a child of the church, and I think has been an active churchman all of his life. He is a very sensitive, caring, and generous man. I think of him as a very spiritual man who hungers for truth and meaning. And because of this Bob is willing to take on any responsibility that comes his way. His doctorate does not shield him from overflow toilets or dying persons. Quite the opposite, it is one more reason to serve them. His retirement status is not an excuse to avoid the difficult and tragic circumstances of life. Rather, he sees it as experience that might be helpful to others who are suffering or lost. I don’t know what mountains Bob has climbed. He seldom talks about it. He always wonders and questions its authenticity. But I know he serves the valley ever so well.

St. Paul kept trying to teach the church at Corinth that spiritual power is best manifested in love and compassion. You know people have been to mountain because their love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud; love is not ill mannered or selfish or irritable. Love is happy with the truth. Love reaches out to touch others with faith, hope, and patience.

Don’t be fooled by smoke and mirrors – the preacher’s lavish lifestyle; worship services that entertain but do not instill wisdom; manipulated “faith healings,” or visions of Jesus who promises money or expects more in return. Keep your eyes and ears open for the word of truth that guides the human family and enters into its suffering. Finis

[1] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), p. 200.

[2] C. S. Lewis, “A Slip of the Tongue,” The Weight of Glory (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001), p. 189.

[3] Evelyn Underhill, The Spiritual Life as quoted in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants; Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck, eds. (Nashville: Upper Room, 1983), pp. 85-86.

[4] Prayers for the Common Good; edited by A. Jean Lesher (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1998), pp. 87-88.