Several years ago, one of the Public Opinion companies, it was probably Gallup, did a survey of Americans and asked a very interesting question. They asked several thousand people whether they had ever had what they would call "a religious experience," a personal experience of whatever sort, that brought them somehow into the presence of God. The survey also asked several other questions, including whether the people went to church and what each person's denomination was.
Now, how do you think we Episcopalians came out in terms of having religious experiences? No, we weren't last. We weren't next to last. In fact, we were at the very top of the mainline denominations. Somewhere between 70 and 80% of the Episcopalians surveyed said that they had, at least one time in their life, had some sort of religious experience. That's a lot. And yet we seem to be like the disciples after the Transfiguration, who kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. There are a lot of people out there who have some really important things happen to them; but who have never had a chance to talk about that, or to locate that in terms of the rest of their lives. Yet this is very real. God is real, and God sometimes makes that quite clear. So today I want to say just a few things about religious experiences, about experiences of the presence and reality of God, whatever those may be like-however quiet or loud, however big or little, however rare or frequent.
Today is a good day for that kind of discussion. Every seven years or so August 6 comes on Sunday, and we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration twice-because this story is always read the last Sunday after Epiphany. And when it comes to religious experiences, this one was a beauty. I want to look at some of that story in the light of how it can help us understand our own experiences of the presence of God.
The first thing to notice is that not everybody went up on the mountain. In fact, Jesus asked only three of the twelve to be with him. The rest stayed behind and waited. (It seems that Episcopalians have a better percentage than disciples.) It has always been true that not everyone has the kind of experience that Jesus shared here. No one has to; there is no necessity. Such things are gifts that are given at the unfathomable whimsey of God, and it is both useless and misguided to be proud of what we are given or to envy what others have and we do not. It is simply a gift.
At the same time, it is real. Peter, James, and John were not suffering from overactive imaginations or too much pizza at bedtime. The glimpse of glory they were given was truly of God, and it spoke truly about who God is. To be sure, not everyone who hops around saying they have had a vision has really had a vision; not by a long shot. But such moments are real, and they are wonderful, and there is nothing else quite like it.
What the disciples saw at the Transfiguration was Jesus glorified-Jesus as he would be when all things were complete, when all the roads had been walked, when the struggle was finally over. What they saw was not the way things really were then, and what they saw was not even the way things were supposed to be, then. What they saw was a glimpse ahead, a peek at the goal and the fulfillment.
That's where Peter got messed up, and where it is so easy for us to get messed up. Peter wanted to make his moment of glory, his great vision of Jesus, permanent, or at least repeatable. He wanted to build a shrine and nail everything down so he could have his vision right there. He wanted to make it like that all of the time. Luke tells us that Peter didn't know what he was talking about.
After all, the whole point of an extraordinary moment is that it isn't ordinary. As wonderful as it can be, it cannot be that way all of the time. To demand that, or to want that and to crave that, is futile. It is also one of the great dangers of such a gift. Peter's misguided desire to build booths is repeated every time anyone insists of God, (or of another person, for that matter) that things be all of the time the way they were that glorious instant when everything was perfect, or seemed perfect. Such experiences are supposed to go away. Things are supposed to return to "normal," and life is supposed to continue, pretty much the way it was before. That's just how it works.
You see, there are really two reasons for such gifts-the little reason and the big reason. The little reason is that a moment of glory is given to be enjoyed, to be rejoiced in, and to be relished. There is really nothing else like it. That is a part of it.
Peter himself finally figured out the other reason, the big reason, for such things. Our second lesson is by Peter, and was written many years after the Transfiguration. Peter speaks of that event, and says that the moment on the holy mountain is to be "like a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns." These moments are not given to take the place of the rest of life. They are not given so that we may build booths and put the experience, as it were, in a zoo. They are given to remind us, in the midst of our real lives, that there is more out there than we realize, that there is a goal, that there is hope, and that what you see is, thanks be to God, not all that you get.
Immediately after the Transfiguration Jesus led Peter and the rest down the mountain, and the long journey to Jerusalem began. The vision on the mountain top did not take the place of that journey. The vision on the mountain top did not keep returning every time things got a little bumpy. And it did not take the place of the cross.
But those who were there were different. They could remember what happened, if they chose to, and in remembering they would know that there was more ahead than they could ever imagine; and they could find in that knowledge both hope and direction.
So it is with us. The gifts of glory, the moments of the presence of God, the special times, whatever they may be, are given to us as a light on the road. They are given to us to help when things get dark, or perhaps worse, when things get ordinary and dull and we seem right back where we started.
For God is real, and from time to time we may be asked to go up to the mountain top with Jesus. But, whether we are one of those who are taken to the mountain top, or whether we are one of those who stays behind and waits, we are all called to the same road, and the same journey. And we are not alone.