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"Can You Hear Me Now?"

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Feb 07

Texts: Exodus 34:29-35 and Luke 9:28-36

Have you ever left the house in the morning without your cell phone, felt totally naked, and wondered how you were going to make it through the day?  Have you found yourself at the airport, crouching next to a support pillar between gates 35 and 37, trying to recharge your laptop?  You need a full charge before that long flight and this is your last chance.  Have you watched as people cruise the gate area for a free outlet?  

Do any of you have a friend, a teenager, or maybe a spouse, who always lets their cell phone die?  You’re counting on being able to reach them—to know what time they need a ride, to decide what to have for dinner, to arrange plans with friends—and you can’t reach them because they have no bars?  How irritating is that?

Or this: have you ever had to pull off the interstate highway at a rest area to recharge a cell phone?  This has happened to me.  (Mind you, it was not my cell phone that needed recharging!) We live in an age of connectivity—we’re fairly obsessed with immediate, clear, and constant connectivity.

For millennia, people have believed that there are certain places that bring us into closer connection with God. Perhaps, even, that certain places are more sacred than others—architectural spaces or geographical locations.  Think of the great Cathedral of Chartres, or the Bronze Age stone circle in Kenmare, Ireland—a ring of boulders, 50 feet in diameter—erected 4,000 year ago for some mysterious purpose.   

Or the sixth century Celtic monks who built a monastery of stone huts on Skellig Michael—a rugged island off the southwest coast of Ireland.  (If you’ve seen the new Star Wars movie, you’ve seen footage of the Skelligs.)  For the monks, Skellig Michael was the most remote location they could find—far offshore, at the ends of the known universe—and as close to God as they could get on this planet.  The Irish call these places of sacred connection “thin places.”  They are liminal spaces, places where the veil between heaven and earth is very thin.

Mountaintops are often such places in the stories of our faith. We read two such stories this morning.  From Exodus, the account of Moses going up Mount Sinai, to talk with God and to receive the law, or  “The Ten Words” as they are called in the Hebrew scriptures.  
The encounter is so potent that Moses’ face radiates afterward, and for many days when he goes into the Tent of Meeting to pray his face radiates so brightly that people are afraid, and he covers his face with a veil.  

We also read Luke’s story of Jesus’ transfiguration, an event so mysterious that we can hardly begin to make sense of it. Jesus summits a mountain, taking with him three disciples: Peter, John and James. None of our gospel accounts give a name to this mountain, but scholars think it may have been Mount Hermon, near Caesarea Philippi. What happens there is inexplicable. Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white.  Moses and Elijah appear and are talking to Jesus.   

Jesus’ face is shining—the Greek word is doxa—meaning glory. It’s the same root from which we get the word doxology.  (We’ll sing a doxology later in the service.)  It’s that same doxa that occurs when the shepherds see the angels in Luke’s story of the nativity: "the glory of the Lord [δόζα Ḳυρίου] shone round about them" (Luke 2:9)

This doxa, or its Hebrew counterpart—kabod (which shows up in the Exodus story)—is a sign of God’s glory—a dazzling radiance—but it also has weighty importance and a terrifying, incomprehensible aspect.  You’ll recall the shepherds’ reaction when this glory appears: They were sore afraid!  So, too, in the transfiguration story, after the brilliant reveal, a cloud descends and Peter, John, and James are terrified.  One can imagine them crashing through underbrush, running headlong down the mountainside, to get to safety and normalcy at a lower elevation.  

Peter had wanted to stay and bask in the glow of this divine revelation.  He even suggested building some booths—or dwellings—to mark the moment and to honor these luminaries—Moses, Elijah, Jesus.  But this is not a warm fuzzy mountaintop experience, the trite stuff of hallmark cards.  No golden sunsets or warm fuzzies.  It is a supercharged moment.

We need the connection with God that occurs in these liminal moments.  A glimpse of something greater than ourselves.  Moments that provide context and proportion to our ordinary lives.  We need to be grounded in what is holy, to open ourselves to inspiration and awe that come when we encounter the sacred.  There’s power in these encounters.  Sometimes overwhelming power, and we need to access it in ways we can integrate into our daily lives.

This past Friday night during the snow storm, just as I was pulling biscuits from the oven and ready to ladle out some soup for dinner, our power went out. It stayed off for the duration of a candle-lit meal. When it flickered back on, I felt grateful to be living in a first world country with a reliable electrical grid!  

Saturday morning following the power outage, I got a robo-call from our service provider, NStar, stating that all power in the region had been restored and explaining that the reason for the outage was “downed tree limbs coming into contact with an electrical source.”

Direct contact with a power source.  Let’s put that in the “not so good” column.  

How many of you grew up in a time or place with electricity, but before electrical outlet covers were a routine part of child-rearing?  Have you ever put your finger in an electrical socket—just to see what happens?  I tried that once, as a very small child.  I ever-so-gently touched a tiny electrical socket in the dollhouse my dad had made.  Tiny bulb, tiny socket.  Curious child.  Bzzzt!  That’s one way to learn about power!  

Don’t try this at home.  I repeat, Do not try this at home!  This goes in the “not so good column.”

Many of us long for intensity, inspiration, peak experiences. Think of high performance athletes, adrenaline sports, horror films.  Part of what we’re searching for is experiences that make us feel deeply alive and deeply connected.  Our tradition tells us that God is present always and everywhere, inviting that deep connection.   

But perhaps we’re a little like the Verizon Guy from those old TV ads: constantly putting ourselves just out of range, and hoping for a connection. You remember: the Verizon Guy is in the Mohave Desert.  He’s in a redwood forest.  He’s in Times Square, testing, always testing. He asks, “Can you hear me now?”   

Oh, the things we do and the places we go that put us just out of range of hearing God’s word. The issue is not whether God is present to us—seeking connection, but whether we are present to God—open, receptive, looking, listening.

We gather here to “tune in” to God’s presence. In worship we set up conditions that invite us to be truly present. An hour apart.  A beautiful, light-filled space. Gorgeous music that speaks to our hearts.  Through our liturgy, we signal—not that God has come to be with us—but that we have come to be with God. This is a time to see where heaven and earth shall meet.  

I’ve spoken so much today about a vertical connection, with a God who is powerful, awesome, and other.  Thoughts conjured by the mountaintop journeys of Moses and Jesus, who encounter the shining glory of God.  But there is another dimension and another way of connecting with God—a horizontal axis (if you will)—God among us.  

We gather here to pay attention to God “above” but also to God within each of us and in the space between us. We come, to see God’s face in each other; to remember our neighbor; to connect our hearts with a broken and hurting world—Flint, Aleppo, Nigeria, Brazil.  We come to acknowledge that we are connected to each other in the most elemental ways.

We are all connected.  When we welcome new members to this covenant community, people often ask what covenant means to us in the Congregational, UCC tradition.  Here’s a tiny glimpse from the world of nature.   

Last week I read a remarkable piece in The New York Times about the research of German Forest Ranger, Peter Wohlleben. He’s the author of the best selling book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World.  Wohlleben “found that, in nature, trees operate less like individuals and more as communal beings…working together in networks and sharing resources.”

He writes, “Trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the Wood Wide Web.” That’s pretty great, right?  (The pun, for sure!)  But did you know that trees communicate with each other through their root systems?  Wohlleben writes, “for reasons unknown, [trees also] keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.”

Perhaps God-in-community is a little bit like this.  We lift up the deep recognition that we are all connected in important and sometimes invisible ways.  There’s a sense of being “in it together.”  What impacts one of us impacts all of us. We who now in love are brought together—share a sense of mutual responsibility, accountability, and affection.  A mutual commitment to find God’s glory in one another’s faces.  

In a moment we will share the Feast of Life.  A joyous meal that connects us with an amazing and awesome God— here, connected to this community of believers, seekers and fellow-travellers.  

Here is a place where the sacred and the ordinary come together; a place where heaven and earth shall meet.

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