February 19 2023 “Praying for a Vision”
Today is the last Sunday before Lent, that great 40-day pilgrimage of the church in which we seek to re-align ourselves with the will of God for love and healing. But we aren’t there yet. We are at the end of the season of Epiphany, of revelation and of light. And on this Sunday, we always have the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration on the mountain.
This is a strange, almost otherworldly story. Whether the disciples saw Jesus shining with dazzling light with their physical eyes or in a kind of spiritual vision, this can be a hard story to relate to, at first glance. But actually, if we are honest, I think we have all had experiences of God in one form or another. Every Tuesday at 12:15 at St. John’s we have a beautiful, informal service of Holy Eucharist in the chapel. We sit in a circle and we discuss the scripture for the coming Sunday. This past Tuesday, we talked about how in our culture, we are not encouraged to talk about experiences of God. The perception seems to be that it is private at best, and weird or crazy at worst. But when I invited people during that service to share an experience of God they had had, people had so much to share we had to cut the conversation short so we could end the service on time for the people who had to get back to work. The kinds of experiences people shared were as varied as the kinds of people we had in the room. There were concrete thinkers, medical people, artists and mystics, lawyers and retired folks. But everyone had something to say, and we found we were eager to share.
Over and over in scripture, many kinds of people have visions of God. It turns out God is a God who seems to want to be known. In Jesus’ final night with his disciples, he prays that they would all be one with God. In another passage Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).
I recently spoke with a woman who had had a terrible childhood. She ran away from home at age 11, and when given the choice to live with her mother or go to foster care, she chose foster care. She told me that one day she wound up going to an Episcopal church. There was a kind priest there named Father Bill. She said he approached her and welcomed her, spoke with her, listened to her. She said it was the first time in her entire life anyone had ever really seen her. That there was no judgment or expectation; his care was unconditional. She said that whenever she thinks about Jesus, she imagines he is something like Father Bill. As she was telling me this story, when she mentioned Father Bill, her face lit up into a beautiful smile. All these decades later, the experience of God she had through his gentle welcome still filled her face with light.
Last week in the cottage dinner lovingly hosted by Peter and Caron Stebinger, I was speaking with Linda McKee who gave me permission to share this story. She was talking about how much she absolutely loved being a grandmother. She said that for whatever reason, as a child she hadn’t imagined living past the age of 50. But when she was 50 years old, her first grandchild was born. And then others. And then she became a great grandmother. Describing them and her relationship with them, her whole face lit up with joy. I think her cheeks must almost have hurt she was smiling so much.
Our faces are like mirrors. You can tell what someone is looking at or feeling by what shows up in their face. And so in today’s gospel reading, when the disciples saw Jesus’ face, and indeed his whole body, shining like the sun, they knew he was like a mirror reflecting the unfathomable light and beauty and mystery of God. All three of the disciples saw this, and they also all saw Moses and Elijah, the two greatest prophets of Israel, and heard the voice of God telling them to listen to Jesus. Jesus was getting closer to the time he would experience the ultimate suffering, his trial, betrayal and abandonment, torture and death. Both he and the disciples needed a vision of this magnitude to sustain them through what was to come.
Even though this is such a strange story, let’s imagine it as an invitation to call to mind our experiences of God, and be deeply nourished by them. This is a call to pray to God for a vision, if you will, to ask humbly for the encounter of God in a way that we can recognize, as different as we all are, whether that ends up being through your interaction with another human being, or a crow or an ash tree or in your prayer or service at Urban Homeworks or First Nations Kitchen or Circle of the Beloved. These experiences of God are not just private moments of joy or healing or beauty. They also give us the strength to live differently. In my own life my experiences of God have helped me with mundane things like caring better for my family and my house and our cats and our garden. They have helped me approach someone who had hurt me to seek reconciliation, and they help me today seeking to discern what future God wants to birth among us at St. John’s.
God wants to be known. Jesus shows us what the face of God looks like: someone who loves, who gets close to people who are suffering to heal them without judgment, someone who speaks truth to power and offers a non-violent way to live one’s life and heal the world. If God is like Jesus, then we can have hope that if we seek God we will find her.
In case you didn’t realize this, between the services we discuss the sermon. It is so much better when this is an actual conversation and not just a monologue. Sometimes this conversation happens in the library and sometimes in the chapel, and today it’s in the chapel. So I’d invite you to go get some coffee from the Parish Hall, then make your way to the chapel so we can talk about experiences of God. Even if you aren’t ready to share your own experience of God, or if you don’t think you have one to share, consider coming to talk more about what it really means to ask for an encounter of God, not just in the realm of ideas and thinking and belief, but in the realm of experience.
And even if you don’t come to the chapel today, I’d invite you this week to make some time, in your own way, given your personality and life experience, to ask God as you understand God to become close to you. To pray for a vision, if you will—for spiritual guidance and nourishment, for help and the deep inner experience of being known, accompanied, and loved.
You may wonder two things about the experience of God. First: how do you really know it is an experience of God and not just the product of your imagination? And second, why does this really matter?
On the first question, how you identify something as an experience of God as you understand God, I think the answer is fairly simple. As the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, kindness, patience, endurance, and similar characteristics. As Jesus says, you shall know them by their fruits. If you are becoming more generous, more aware of and caring about other people and life forms, this is the best kind of evidence that you are encountering God in a real way, even if God is working through your imagination. And the answer to the second question is really tied up in the first. Why does it matter that we encounter God? Because it transforms us. In our own strength, in our usual everyday mindset, we can’t even follow the simplest ethical rules let alone live in a way that heals the world around us. Encountering God is not only for our own joy and healing, though that would be enough. It is also so we can walk Jesus’ Way of Love together. It is so that we can embody love for other people and for this planet. May it be so. Amen.