Embracing the Mystery of the Incomprehensible

Sermon for Sunday, August 7th, 2015 ||  The Feast of the Transfiguration, Year C ||  Exodus 34: 29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1: 13-21; Luke 9: 28-36 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield 

The Transfiguration is one of those wonderful gospel stories that are so totally fantastical that it stretches our credulity to the breaking point. Believing stories about Jesus defying the laws of nature, performing miraculous healings, and casting out demons can be challenging enough. But accounts of him glowing with a supernatural light so white that it’s blinding, conversing with long-dead prophetic heroes of Judaism’s past, and hearing God’s voice booming from a cloud…Well, in terms of plausibility it’s right up there with the Virgin Birth, Jesus’ bodily Resurrection, and the whole idea of life after death.

Which is exactly why it’s one of my favorite stories in scripture.  I love these stories that absolutely demand that we let go of almighty reason to embrace instead the mystery of the incomprehensible!

These stories convey truths and realities that our reason cannot grasp, that archaeologists cannot excavate, that historians cannot empirically prove. Yet they convey truths and realities about God’s glory and Jesus’ divinity that are nothing short of life-saving. Truths and realities that make all the difference in how we position ourselves in the universe and how we engage the world, how we find meaning in our lives and how we approach our loved ones’ deaths. Truths and realities that can be our salvation.

The tough part is that before we can embrace the mystery or the majesty of the miraculous, we have to let go. We have to let go of what Dr. Stephen Gunter at Duke once called the “…assumption that true and intellectually respectable knowledge can only be known by scientific paradigms…”

In other words, the old notion that the only legitimate way of coming to know reality is through empirical and scientific proof is painfully outdated. Tacit knowledge, experiential knowledge, imaginative and intuitive knowledge—to name but a few–are all equally valid ways of knowing. The Age of Enlightenment is officially over! Some of you may remember me telling Phyllis Tickle’s story about the young man who didn’t understand why all the older adults at one of her talks were arguing about the story of the Virgin Birth.   “It’s just so beautiful,” this Millennial said to Tickle, “it has to be true whether it happened or not.”

Yet for many of us, letting go of the need for things that are as tangible and controllable as evidence and proof is still scary. We like the familiar ground of our intellectual landscapes. When we enter the mysterious we are entering uncharted territory. Mystery is by definition puzzling and uncertain, not easily controlled or manipulated. And the rational brain argues vehemently against it.

But that’s the beauty of it! That tyrant known as human reason can be put in its proper place, along side of—instead of lording over—the many other gifts with which we humans have been blessed. We can choose to suspend logic, choose to reject the limitations of such a narrowly defined idea of knowledge, and choose instead to live into the enormity of a world filled with miracle and mystery far beyond our understanding. A world of God’s making, not ours.  A world so much bigger than we can even dare to imagine, much less comprehend! As Shakespeare’s Hamlet famously said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than ever dreamt of in your philosophy.” A lot more things. And they’re life-giving, meaning-making, hope-bearing things!

And really, who are we to say it’s not possible that Jesus shone with God’s glory as his mission was confirmed on the mountain that day? Who are we to say that his spiritual forebears weren’t there to prepare him for what was to come? Or that the disciples didn’t hear God say, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”

So I invite you to approach this story—and all that the life of faith has to offer—with your whole self, not just one very limited part of your brain. Be open. Expand your mind. Suspend judgment. Entertain the impossible. Respect your imagination. Trust your intuition. I’m not suggesting you turn off your brain, but that you engage other equally important and under-utilized parts of it.

Embrace the mystery of the incomprehensible. And then watch the miracle happen. Amen.

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