First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
February 11, 2018
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
“Love someone,” they said. It’ll be fun. It’ll make your life complete. It will reveal your better self. You’ll never be the same again.
“Go to camp,” they said. It’ll be fun. It’ll change your life.
“Start a family,” they said. It’ll be easy. It’ll make your life complete.
“Go to college,” they said. It’ll be easy. You’ll get scholarships. It’ll be fun.
“Buy the pony,” they said. It’ll be fun. You’ll love it. It won’t cost much.
Statements that are all true. But statements that are only half true.
There comes a time in everyone’s life where we are faced with these, or similar, life-altering decision. Choices. One minute we’re single and the next we’re engaged to be married and before too long, sitting next to the person we have vowed to love forever and we start to wonder if we can actually pull it off. Will they really be able to put up with me that long? Is now the time I should tell them about my unmentionable habit or let them discover on their own that they are bound for life to someone who…… You fill in the blank…..
Starting a family? One minute we’re childless, footloose and fancy free and a few months later, we’re holding the little bundle of joy that changes everything. Every. Thing. Who, before having a baby, would have ever thought that they would be making googely eyes and chirpy-funny noises while cleaning poo off of the bum of another human being? I swear, it’s a good thing babies don’t remember these things as they grow older. My children have enough insider information about me as it is. I don’t need to know that they could be holding the diaper-changing antics over my head when it’s time to move me into a nursing home.
College…. And the scholarship thing…. If there are so many scholarships out there, why do we collectively owe over 1.4 trillion dollars in student loans?[i]
And the pony…. Let’s talk about buying the pony…. Fun? Yes. Loving it?…. Most the time. Remember how cold it was over Christmas? The pony has to be fed….. twice a day. And the cost? Buying the beast is the cheapest part of the whole deal.
There’s this magic moment between being faced with a decision and moving into the decision you’ve made. It’s a crossing point—a threshold. On one side is life one way. Cross the threshold and everything changes. From single-ness to partnered for life. Add children into that mix and your life and the world is totally, forever altered. From always wanting to have a horse to never again going to have extra cash on hand. Just about every change in life can be marked by a threshold.
Thresholds are those marking places, those thin lines between what was to what is; from what is to what will be. It’s those lines that mark the difference between inside and outside; between employed and unemployed and vise versa; between living with parents and living on your own; between living independently to getting a little help now and then, and then more and then more. Sometimes the thresholds we cross in life are not of our choosing. They are marked with rituals like funerals and estate sales.
In Celtic spirituality, thresholds are sacred spaces because they are the places where transformation from one state of being crosses over into another way of being. Thresholds mark transformation from one status to another. Thresholds are places of vulnerability where we transition from one place to another, one foot held in the air and slightly, ever so slightly off balance as we let our weight move us across, shifting our weight from one foot to the other. As we step across a threshold, we leave something behind and enter something new.
They are also sacred spaces because they mark a thin place where we can get a glimpse of heaven. Where the Holy Spirit of God is known more deeply, more clearly. When we step across a threshold of grief, that thin place allows us to know God’s compassion more clearly. When we step across a threshold of transition from youth to adulthood, that thin place challenges us to lean more deeply into trust and faith. When we step across a threshold where our relationships with others changes status, that thin place opens up so we can share our faith in the divine as part of the deepening nature of our human connections.
The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is just one of the many thresholds in the story of Jesus. It’s a thin place where the glory of God shines through Jesus in bold ways. Before this, Peter, James and John had known Jesus to be a wise one, a faithful one, a healer and teacher. They were so inspired by his presence that they themselves crossed thresholds and left their work and their families to follow him. And, on the mountainside one day, when Jesus had taken them away from the others, they experienced something that would take them across another threshold. It was a voice. A voice from the clouds declaring the divine and beloved nature of Jesus. It was a voice uttering the same words that were spoken at his baptism that Mark’s gospel tells us were spoken only to him. Now, the voice itself crosses a threshold and proclaims Jesus’ divine son-ship to others.
And it’s a grand time, or they want it to be. They want to stay there and hang out on the threshold. They want to create a space where Moses and Elijah, the guests of honor, can sit and stay for a while. We kind of like hanging here in mid-air, all awe-inspired and bathed in bright light and rubbing elbows with people who have done amazing things and shaped our world.
I once had lunch with some church members who were friends with Letty Russell, a very well-known and prominent feminist theologian back in the 80’s. Not only did I have lunch with these church members one day but Letty herself was there. In the midst of these classy women talking about their children and grandchildren and the issues of the day, I was stunned. I was like a little league baseball player sitting in the dugout at the world series. All I remember is sitting there realizing that I was in the presence of someone who had shaped my world and I couldn’t think of a thing to say. Oh how I would like to go back and build a booth to sit in with Letty and these amazing women again.
But thresholds are not staying places. They are crossing over places and Jesus and the disciples could have no more stayed on that mountain than I could have stayed in Marion’s living room with Letty and their friends. Thresholds are sacred spaces because they are not places where you hang out forever. But they mark the places where you move from one way of hanging out to another. You don’t hang out in the decision to get married. You move on to fulfill that decision. You don’t hang out in the choice to leave your parent’s home to be on your own. You move on and grow up and deal with the consequences and the blessings of adult life.
The smart and faithful people that put the lectionary together put the story of the transfiguration at the end of the season of Epiphany and the beginning of the season of Lent. Epiphany is that short season after Christmas where we get the stories about Jesus being revealed as the Messiah, God’s anointed one. It begins with the story of the magi coming from the east to pay homage to Jesus. It ends with the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. Everything is all glorious and amazing and hard to comprehend but really worth trying. And then we are dumped into 40 days of Lent, beginning with remembering Jesus’ journey into the wilderness where his divine nature is secured and we are reminded of our mortality.
Epiphany and Lent are the parts of a journey of faith that lie on either side of a threshold, a crossing from glory to repentance, from miracles to mortality, from eagerness to follow in the way of Jesus to the acceptance of the cost of doing so. Today, today is the threshold between the two if we choose to take the journey. Oh, we can stick around in Epiphany if we want with it’s magi and miracles and calling of disciples. But there’s more to be had on the other side of this threshold. There’s temptation and trials and ashes and mortality. There’s betrayal and death. There’s glimpses of Jesus walking through the things we do throughout our own lives. As we look even deeper, there’s crucifixion and death on the other side of this threshold. At first glimpse, it would be easy to choose to stay in the star-light of Epiphany. But look further. Look down the road a bit. Look beyond all that for, there, in the distance, is an empty tomb and life.
So, go on. Step across this threshold, this sacred place, this thin place. “Step into Lent,” they say. It will be hard. It will be unsettling. It will be challenging. And it will be worth it.