Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 7, 2016
[sermon begins after Bible reading]
Luke 9:28-36 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
What is it you seek? What is the thing you are sure would make you solidly more you in the world? The situation or the feeling or the skill that would make your life complete. For you it might look like finding a life partner. Or dead-lifting your next PR. Or that ACT score. Or that next job. Or that next exotic destination. Do you dress up the thing you seek in noble terms? Do you pursue peace? Wisdom? Happiness? Love? Or maybe, just maybe, do you even seek faith? Faith…noble seeking, indeed.
One such noble seeker was Thomas Merton. He lived as a Trappist Monk for almost thirty years in the middle decades of the 1900s. His raucous younger years ended in his 20s when he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani – a strict, ascetic monastic order. Brother Merton traveled all of the world to speak. He wrote over 60 books as well as poems and articles. He’s known for seeking world peace and civil rights. His biography is compared to Augustine’s Confessions. He’s also known for seeking God. One writer defines Brother Merton as a “spiritual seeker” rather than a spiritual “settler.”
A few years ago, my third father, Larry, gave me Brother Merton’s book, A Dialogue with Silence, published almost three decades after he died. The book is filled with Brother Merton’s personal prayers and drawings. Each time I pray these prayers, I’m struck by the longing in his seeking. The longing to find. The longing to find God. The longing to find faith. The longing to find himself by finding God. The first prayer in the book prays this way:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I’m following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does I hope in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.” 
Brother Merton’s prayers are a seeker’s prayers. He is looking, longing for something. Part of his looking and longing takes shape in following. Following the rules of the monastic order. Following Jesus through prayer.
Peter, John, and James also find themselves following Jesus through prayer. The mountain-high praying expedition comes eight days after Jesus talks to them about his death and resurrection. Up the mountain they go, feeling more than a bit tired by the time Jesus’ starts praying. “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep.” Through the haze of heavy eyes comes the dazzling, beacon of Jesus. His ancestor friends Moses and Elijah join him appearing “in glory.” A surreal, dazzling flashpoint that embodies the law, prophets, and grace in a single moment. A Judean who’s-who that highlights the what’s-what for the Jesus. His disciples are merely sleepy bystanders who witness it.
So much for witnesses. Bagging the peak, kneeling in prayer, and dazzling the disciples, ends in their silence about Jesus’ transfiguration. We’re told the disciples keep silent in those days. Their silence begs a question. For whom does the light show take place? It’s easy to make this about the disciples. Their experience. Their clarity about the Messiah. Perhaps that is a happy side effect. There may be more.
I know there are some of us in the congregation who can speak to having had or witnessed a mysterious experience. Some of you tell me about them. The conversation often begins hesitantly and very often happens at a bedside of someone who is dying. The person who is within a few days of dying begins talking to people who have died before them. Sometimes it’s a full conversation between the person dying and the one who has already died. Sometimes people point. Sometimes people will ask if you can see them too.
These conversations between the dead and dying have happened often enough in my hospice and pastoral work that I will give families a heads up so that they are prepared if it happens. These conversations between the dead and the dying are inexplicable. Those of us still living have no idea what it means although it’s tempting to try and explain the experience.
The 18th century Enlightenment of Western thought opened up the possibility of explanation for experience. 19th century Modernity promised that human ingenuity would result in inalienable truth and certainty. Neurological and psychological explanations get trotted out to try and explain phenomena like the one experienced by people who are dying. The 21st century shift towards Postmodernity is disillusioned with the modern promise, having experienced the limits and the threats of human understanding. The timeline is not as tidy as this brief history of Western thought would make it seem. Postmodern mystery is in tension with modern certainty as evidenced daily in the public square.
I, for one, am delighted to be a student of scripture in the postmodern context. You see, modernity trains all of us to be good scientists. To make a hypothesis and see if enough evidence stacks up in support of it so that it can be true. Postmodernism often leaves an open question with just a bit more room for the transcendent, for mystery.
One example of making room for mystery comes by way of Jesus’ transfiguration. A modern might try to come up with an explanation of what happened or ask whether it did happen. A postmodern revels in its transcendence – allowing for possibilities
A colleague of mine was in Augustana’s sanctuary and made the comment that its architecture communicates the transcendent even as is grounded by human experience. From the long aisle that moves through the worshipers on a level floor to the stairs that go up to the first landing of the chancel to more stairs that go up to the communion table to the cross moving the eyes up to the high ceiling. There is a sense of connection to the transcendent but also a sense of the limits of understanding it.
Peter, John, and James’ are connected to the transcendent with very little ability to understand it. They witness the razzle, dazzle Jesus and his two long ago dead ancestors in the faith. Jesus is a dead-man walking at this point in the story. He’s just about to enter his last human days. He starts talking to people who have died before him. What if this dazzling moment is about Jesus and for Jesus in his few remaining human days? What if it has nothing to do with his disciples or with us?
One of the charges of pastoral ordination from First Corinthians goes like this, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” Another charge is to not give “false security or illusory hope.” These may as well be charges to the priesthood of all believers. All Christians. There are times when what happens in Jesus is just simply not about us, our experience, or what we make of it. It’s about Jesus for Jesus’ sake. The disciples on the mountain with him are disoriented in a cloud of silence. From the cloud comes God’s voice, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” The disciples listen and remain silent.
In the words of preacher Gerhard Forde, “For who has heard of such a thing—that one is made right with God just by stopping all activity, being still and listening? What the words say to us, really, is that for once in your life you must just shut up and listen to God, listen to the announcement: You are just before God for Jesus sake!”
Pastor Forde’s point, that we are justified for Jesus’ sake, raises more questions than answers. One big question is, “Why?” Scripture asserts that Jesus’s death on the cross is for you and for all. Today, the mystery of the transfiguration seems to be about Jesus.
Christian mystics are a postmodern thread throughout history. Perhaps these mystics are helpful conversation partners for us now. The mystics, who have died before us, are in conversation with us through their writings today. Brother Merton is one of them. He listened to God in silence. He prayed in silence. Here is one more of his prayers:
“…I feel as if everything has been unreal. It is as if the past has never existed. The things I thought were so important – because of the effort I put into them – have turned out to be of small value. The things I never thought about, the things I was never able either to measure or to expect, they were the things that mattered. But in this darkness I would not be able to say, for certain, what is was that mattered. That, perhaps is part of Your unanswerable question!”
For today, let’s turn Jesus’ shiny moment over to him. Let it be for his sake. And, for today, let Jesus be for you…for his sake. Alleluia and amen.
 Thomas Merton Biography. The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. http://merton.org/chrono.aspx
 Anthony E. Clark. “Can You Trust Thomas Merton?” Catholic Answers Magazine: http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/can-you-trust-thomas-merton
 Thomas Merton. Dialogues with Silence. (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), vii.
 Luke 9:21-22
 Clint Schnekloth. “How I Learned to Be a (post)Lutheran.” October 28, 2015. http://www.clintschnekloth.com/how-i-learned-to-be-a-postlutheran/
 Merton, 77.