A sermon[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Transfiguration Sunday, February 7, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 9:28-43a
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown.  None of the presidential candidates came town this week and that helped.  The primaries are on Tuesday, so that’s a bit of a surprise.  Usually at least one of them will swing by the Chowder House to do some glad-handing.

There was an incident at the Chowder House on Wednesday.  Patty was quietly minding her own business, eating her soup alone in her booth, when a voice startled her from the booth behind.  “Not so loud!” the guy said.

“What?” Patty questioned, as she took another spoonful of soup.

“I said, ‘Not so loud!’” was his muffled reply.

Embarrassed at being told she was slurping her soup, she pushed away her bowl and started her grilled cheese sandwich.

“How was your day?” questioned the man from behind once again.

“Pretty good” responded Patty, confused that this stranger would care.

“Did you pass the exam?” came the next question from behind.

“I don’t know, I didn’t get my grade yet,” replied a thoroughly bewildered Patty.

“I’ll have to call you back when I’m out of here”, came the voice from behind once again.  “Some nut job is answering every question I ask you!”[2]

I’d say the weather is much nuttier than Patty.  A few weeks ago, everywhere between Delaware and Kentucky was buried in snow and that same storm system dropped not one snowflake in Mount William.  It’s been in the 40s and 50s this past week, though the temperature has dropped down to the teen this weekend.  Freezing – warm – freezing – warm.  No one has been able to do any ice fishing at all, and winter only has a few weeks left.  It snowed in Rhode Island and on up to Boston on Friday, but only a dusting fell in Mount William.

My goddaughter is grousing because, for the past five years, she and a group of here crazy friends have gone snow camping over Presidents Day weekend and it doesn’t look like they’ll be able to this year.  They would have to go to the White Mountains, and then they’d have to climb up to four or five thousand feet to get into deep enough snow – and at those elevations, the igloo they’d build would be for survival, not for camping.  Not quite the same things as driving their snowmobiles up Mount William along the old logging road turned snowmobile trail, then off the trail to a spot where one of them would say, “Here.  Let’s camp here.”

I called her and asked why this tradition is so important to her.  Her Presidents Day weekend sojourns (or snojourns, as I like to call them) are a strange combination of adventure and independence mixed with dependence and risk.  There’s the exhilaration of driving the snowmobiles up into the woods, the roar of the engines, the sense of power.  There’s the planning that’s needed to get away from the parents and the cooperation that’s needed to build the shelters.  There’s the challenge of getting a fire going.  And then, at night, in the cold, there is a stillness, a quiet that is deeper than most quiets because sounds are absorbed by the snow.  This quiet, she said, makes her feel both so small and so connected to the universe at the same time.

She didn’t use the word “awe,” but I think that’s what she’s getting at.  She didn’t use the word “holy,” but I think that’s what she experiences, what she’s afraid she will miss this year.  On a clear, quiet night, when the moon is out, the snow is a different kind of white, a holy kind of white, and the sky is a different kind of black, a holy kind of black, and they conspire to transfigure the bare tree branches and the evergreens and puffs of moisture that ascend with each exhalation.

As she told me about the teenage adventure she would miss this month, memories of feeling like my toes had frozen and broken off when I went cross-country skiing with my church youth group a hundred years ago flooded back.  Truly, the best part of winter is watching it from California.  But as her voice quieted, and she spoke of the quiet that descends at night, I thought about how it is in silence that I can most often hear God.

Maybe it was talk of being up on Mount William that brought back another memory.  Maybe it was thinking about God.  Maybe both combined, but when I got off the phone, I remembered an experience when God transfigured my sense of time as I walked in the mountains of the other side of the continent.

I know I’ve told this story before, so excuse me if you remember it.  The fact is that this experience from fifteen years ago remains one of those mountaintop experiences, one of those transcendent experiences that mark my spiritual journey.

I was up in the north Cascades at a Lutheran retreat center.[3]  One of the afternoon workshops offered that day was on meditative walking and it, logically, ended with a meditative walk.  The walk was along one of the more level trails that ran along the side of the mountains on one side of a canyon.  Praying ourselves into readiness and quiet, one at a time, we started walking down the trail.  After walking for several minutes, I came to a large boulder, maybe the size of a VW bus that had been taken off its wheels.  The boulder sat there on a shelf, the mountain raising steeply on my left and falling steeply on my right, beyond this shelf and the boulder.  It was obvious that this boulder had been there a long time.  Trees had grown around it and mosses were growing on decayed leaves and pine needles that had accumulated on the boulder over the years.

The boulder had been witness to much and so I approached it reverently.  I placed a hand on it, to honor it, and as I touched it, it was as if the boulder spoke.  “I’m moving,” it said.  This massive piece of granite (at least I think it was granite; I’m not a geologist) that had rested on this shelf for decades, perhaps centuries or longer, told me that it was moving.  And in that moment, my sense of time shifted.  Suddenly, instead of minutes or months or decades, I sense time at a geologic pace – and what the boulder said to me made sense.  From a geologic sense of time, this firm, steady boulder was falling down the mountain.  This experience of time transfigured lasted only a moment, but the memory of this mystical experience has never gone away.

Those mystical, transcendent moments, if we’re lucky enough to have them, never go away – even if we wish the would.  I remember another mystical moment when all around me was transfigured and I realized with painful clarity that I was being a selfish buffoon.  I think this was also the moment I began to grow up.

Began to grow up, mind you.  It took me at least another decade to finish, and probably more, if I’ve made it there at all.

It must have been a Sunday afternoon because my parents and younger sister were at the family room table drinking tea and my father was working on the crossword puzzle in the Sunday New York Times magazine.  I had joined them, taking a break from the homework I needed to get finished so I could go off to youth group that evening.  My mother mentioned casually that something was planned for the next Sunday – I couldn’t tell you what it was.

I shoved my chair back and whined and snarled and complained.  I believe this had something to do with some vague plans of my own that were probably only half hatched and that I had, of course, told no one else about.

My father said something calm and reasonable.  I said something rude.  My mother gave me the sharp, cutting look that only a mother can do.  I said something breathtakingly selfish.  My sister said something conciliatory.  I said something sneering and angry.  And my mother put down her tea.  I can tell you exactly what happened, for time slowed down and everything was transfigured.  Steam rolled off the tea in the gray-blue tea mug with a handle of two circles, each one big enough for a finger.  As it lowered toward the round, white table, I became aware of the forsythia outside; I could see it through the windows in the door.  Its bright yellow blossoms radiated, pulsing.  I knew that when the tea reached the table, she would say something calm and blunt to me and cut the moment before it spun out of control.  And in that moment of the cup descending, I saw myself and realized I was being a fool.

It wasn’t a trumpet blast, there wasn’t a voice speaking from the clouds, but it was a clarity that was as shocking as my behavior – maybe more so.  It wasn’t that I was embarrassed (though I was embarrassed later).  It was that I saw who I actually was rather than who I thought I was, or wanted to be, or wanted other people to think I was.  I understood, in that moment – and I believe for the first time in my life – that I was being a fool.

I kept right on being a fool, of course.  You cannot escape yourself that quickly, not as a teenager, or later either, it turns out.  Often you keep playing the bad hand even when you know it’s a terrible hand and you should laugh and throw down your cards and say something self-deprecating and apologize and tiptoe into the next moment.  Often you stay inside the prison of your confidence and mock dignity even as you peer through the bars, mortified.

As I remember, I stormed off and the world spun on relentlessly through the stars and whatever was planned happened and we all grew older.  And eventually, the house was sold and God knows where that table is now (someone stole it out of my sister’s garage years ago).  Who knows?  It might be sitting in some family room and there might be a seething teenager sitting at it right now, facing a forsythia or some other bush, seeing a hint of who they might grow up to be, if they can stop being the fool.  With all my heart, I wish them well.

That’s the news from Mount William, where all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.

[1] The last third of this sermon is based on “A Fool’s Awakening,” by Brian Doyle, printed in the 19 February 2014 edition of Christian Century, p. 12.
[2] This joke was adapted from a joke on Family Friend Jokes, http://www.familyfriendjokes.com/jokes/jokes-for-the-teen/teenager/ (accessed 6 February 2016).
[3] The retreat center is Holden Village, a former mining town that is off the grid.  This past summer, Holden Village was surrounded by the Wolverine Creek Fire and, while the village was spared, much of the forest, the roads, and the trails were damaged.  I wonder what it will look like next time I go there.
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