When Ginger started her Transfiguration sermon this morning by talking about those who are attracted to the more mystical elements of our faith and those who steer towards the more practical, I thought about Bob Wiley’s words in the movie What About Bob? when his psychiatrist asked him why he got divorced:
“Well, there are two kinds of people in this world: those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t.”
I’m one of the ones who is pulled by the story of Jesus and Moses and Elijah standing on the top of the mountain with the kind of cosmic backlighting that would blow your mind. From a storytelling standpoint the scene is rich, packed full of emotion, metaphor, history, hope, faith, and confusion. There are lots of things to take from the story as we come back down the mountain.
The first reference to the Transfiguration that I remember was at a church youth camp back when I was a camper and not the youth minister. As the week drew to a close, the camp pastor used the story as a way to prepare us for going back to life as we had left it. We were the ones on the mountaintop. We were the ones who had had a special encounter with God. Now we were the ones going back down the hill to where people had been going about their lives without thinking of the mountaintop. How, he asked, would we tell people what had happened to us and invite them to share in it?
That was the first time I noticed Jesus saying, “Don’t tell anyone what happened here until after I’ve come back from the dead.”
At some point along the way, it dawned on me that Jesus was standing with the two prophets who had “seen” God. When Moses asked to see God’s glory in Exodus 33, God makes him wait until God has passed by so Moses can see only God going away:
When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.
God also sent Elijah into a cave to wait God’s appearance, which began with storms and winds and earthquakes and ended with an audible silence that was the very appearance of God, who asked one question:
What are you doing here, Elijah?
So Peter, James, and John get up to the top of the mountain and the next thing they know they see Moses and Elijah (who had seen God) and Jesus (who was God with skin on) chatting in the midst of brilliant light and God talking over them. When the spectacle ceases, Peter is ready to build monuments, tabernacles, houses, and souvenir shops; why would they ever want to leave?
What struck me this morning as Ginger was preaching was something I hadn’t seen before in the story. I’ve been thinking about it most of the day (exzcept for the part where I watched the Superbowl – sigh) and I’m still pulled by this thought: we, as humans, are not built to handle anything but small doses of unmitigated joy.
One of the things I’ve learned about in cooking is an emulsion. Here’s the definition from Epicurious:
A mixture of one liquid with another with which it cannot normally combine smoothly — oil and water being the classic example. Emulsifying is done by slowly (sometimes drop-by-drop) adding one ingredient to another while at the same time mixing rapidly. This disperses and suspends minute droplets of one liquid throughout the other. Emulsified mixtures are usually thick and satiny in texture. Mayonnaise (an uncooked combination of oil, egg yolks and vinegar or lemon juice) and HOLLANDAISE SAUCE (a cooked mixture of butter, egg yolks and vinegar or lemon juice) are two of the best-known emulsions.
Might we not see the Transfiguration as an attempt at theological mayonnaise: a spiritual emulsion? Moses only saw God’s hindquarters because his encounter with God’s glory needed to be mixed with what the prophet was missing in the passing by. Jesus — the living, breathing, emulsion that is the Incarnation – spent his life titrating the now and the not yet, calling his disciples to live in the tension, in the swirl, in the paradox that is God’s Emulsion of Eternity, showing them both the unbearable lightness of being on the mountaintop and the unbearable heaviness of the same once they got down among those who were desperate and hurting and looked so much like themselves and who could not all be helped and healed.
When one is cooking and trying to make an emulsion, sometimes the sauce “breaks,” as we say, and the two liquids don’t hold together. I don’t understand the chemistry behind it all, but I know Hollandaise is damn hard to make and takes a lot of patience and sometimes several attempts. Sometimes our attempts to emulsify the highs and lows of living break as well, leaving us to try again to find the how we hold together who we are, who we have been, and who we are becoming and how we mix the rest we crave with the tenacity demanded, the light we need with the darkness that surrounds, our essential hope with our inevitable despair, grace freely given with shame so costly carried.
Ginger asked me to lead the congregational prayer of confession this morning and then said, “I didn’t print the words of assurance; say whatever you feel led to say.” The words of Paul I was led to then come back to me now:
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.