Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sacred Places...

I remember when I use to drive to and from work when I had an office in Johnson City, how there were some days when the vista in front of me was truly breathtaking and awe inspiring. But on most days, I would drive to and from work and not really take notice of the mountains or the scenery. And sometimes, on very rare occasions, I would feel something a little deeper; a spiritual connection, if you will, when I did take notice of the beauty in front of me. I do live in a truly beautiful part of the country. I would like think that most people like to see these mountains as special places – places where we go to seek renewal through visits, vacations or summer homes. There is a hint of sacredness about being in the mountains. When you visit some of the local sights close to where I live, like Roan Mountain, Mt. Mitchell or Clingman’s Dome you just somehow feel closer to heaven. Whenever I have hiked along some of these high ridges of the Black Mountains or Smokey Mountains, there has nearly always been this sense of awe and a feeling of being in the presence of God; a sense of being in the presence of something greater than myself.
The geographical region of the country in which I live, called Appalachia, stretches from Northern Alabama and Mississippi all the way to Southern New York State. Geographically, these mountains are considered the oldest in the world. There is a culture and heritage present in Appalachia that is very rich. Many of us place a high value on the arts and crafts of the mountain people; the quilts, the bluegrass music, the dance forms, and the literature from Appalachia that enrich our American experience. But despite the rich culture, arts, music, natural beauty and abundance of natural resources, the Appalachian region remains as one of the most poverty stricken regions of our country. There are many contradictions in how we view these beautiful mountains and the people who live there. We allow the natural beauty of the mountains to be destroyed by such practices as mountaintop removal mining and the clear cutting of forests. The stereotype of the “Appalachian Hillbilly” is still present. Even in my own community, you do not have to go far to find people who speak with a distinctive Southern Appalachian accent and somehow come across as lacking any sort of formal education. Most folks have tendency to devalue people like these by making them the butt of a thousand jokes about laziness, ignorance, and incest. And, as we well know, Jesus calls us to respond in a much different way.
The culture and people of Appalachia are unique and our ability to minister to the needs of these, our neighbors, has to be much more hands-on. The good news is that there are numerous ministries and programs reaching out to the folks of Appalachia. One of which is Episcopal Appalachian Ministries. Episcopal Appalachian Ministries, or EAM, is an organization within the Episcopal Church that is a coalition of dioceses that serve the Appalachian region. EAM’s mission is to support those doing ministry in Appalachia, both urban and rural, through a broad program of education, advocacy and mission. It serves as a clearinghouse for those seeking mission opportunities in the region. EAM is funded by the National Episcopal Church, but also by the member dioceses and individual donations. The ministries supported by EAM are grassroots and hands-on.
The lectionary readings for the Last Sunday of Epiphany (Feb. 14, 2010) takes us into the mountains to some sacred places where we encounter some very mysterious and “other worldly’ events. The Old Testament Lesson (Exodus 34:29-35) is the story of Moses, after receiving the Ten Commandments, coming down from the mountain with the skin of his face shining because he has been in the presence of God. There was no question that Moses had been changed by his mountain top experience.
In the Gospel reading for the Last Sunday of Epiphany (Luke 9: 28-36), we see an event that very much parallels the Moses’ story on Mount Sinai. Jesus too, is on a mountain top and has a change of appearance in front of his disciples. We call this the Transfiguration, although the reading from Luke does not use the word “transfigured”. But we do see that word used in the other two synoptic Gospels; Matthew and Mark both say, Jesus was “transfigured”. When I think about the meaning of the word transfigured, my mind immediately has thoughts of some sort of science fiction movie where seemingly ordinary people morph into some sort of space alien. But, I doubt seriously that is what happened here…
Another way to think about the word “transfiguration” is in terms of the word “transformation”. It is interesting to note that transfiguration and transformation come from the same Middle English root meaning “to change shape.” Transformation, however, from a linguistic approach, can mean “the process by which deep structures are converted into surface structures.” And if we really think about it, that does fit. The depth of who Jesus is, is brought to the surface during the Transfiguration – his face, appearance, and clothes are transformed. Jesus’ face shines, and in Luke’s words, “They saw his glory.” Jesus is transfigured, that is, transformed showing the truth of who he is with a heavenly voice underscoring the visible evidence that Jesus is God’s son and that we are to listen to him.
The transfiguration of Jesus is perhaps the ultimate mountaintop experience. Here on the top of a mountain, Peter, James, and John are left with no doubt as to Jesus’ divinity. I think that this might just be the big take home point about the transfiguration story. We are to be left with no doubt about who Jesus is and the fact that he was both human and divine. But another part of the story that I think is just as noteworthy is that this story takes place on a mountain top and in a way that hints of what it is like to truly encounter God.
In the verses immediately preceding the Transfiguration story of Luke, Jesus says to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me…” Immediately following this invitation by Jesus to become active participants in his ministry, we have the account of the transfiguration, with God telling the disciples to “listen to him!” We heard these same words from God following Jesus’ Baptism, “listen to him”! Through our own Baptismal Covenant we not only accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, we also say that we will “listen to him.” We say that we will seek and serve Christ in ALL persons and strive for justice and peace among all people.
We are all called to seek out the transfigured Christ in the world; we are all called to visit the sacred places. But we are also called to “listen” and to respond with a servant’s heart and in humility. We are called to listen when those living in our midst who are suffering, when they are in need, when they are disenfranchised and subject to injustices. We are called to listen not only as individuals but also as a community, as part of the body of Christ. As a community, we respond by entering into relationships with those that are different than ourselves; those folks that speak with a distinct drawl or don’t have a place to call home; those people that under normal circumstances we would have no relationship. By doing this, we are entering a sacred place; we are standing on Holy Ground.
In a few more days we will enter into Lent and a season of penitence and self-reflection. On Ash Wednesday we will place ashes on our foreheads with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. There is no distinction here… we are all dust. In the eyes of God we are all equal. We are all part of the Body of Christ regardless of how we speak, where we live or how we dress. God calls us into to respond with love and humility.
Soon the cold of winter will pass, and we will be able to return to those sacred places, both on the mountain tops and in the hollers of these beautiful Appalachian Mountains. And as we return to these sacred places, we might just experience a voice that says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Let us continue to revel in the presence of the Transfigured Christ in those sacred places … And more importantly, as we enter into the session of Lent and our thoughts turn inward, pay attention to how we are called to respond to those around us. By responding out of love and compassion to these very people, right here in Appalachia, we might just witness a Transfiguration… the appearance of those faces might just change... and their clothes become dazzling white.