Some of you may know that in the hills and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains that cover parts of Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and north Alabama, there are a few small churches that maintain the strange practice of handling deadly snakes. This is based on a few verses in one of the endings of Mark's gospel: " And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." (Mark 16.17-18)
Several years ago the minister of one of these churches was accused of trying to kill his wife by having her handle a rattle snake and was put on trial. The New York Times asked Birmingham journalist Dennis Covington to cover this case.
While covering the story, Covington found himself strangely drawn to the preacher's snake-handling cult. On about four occasions, Covington picked up a rattler himself. In a National Public Radio interview, Covington described his snake-handling experience in this way:
"The preacher laid the snake in my hands, I turned to face the congregation. Everything kind of disappeared -- the preacher, the congregation, the photographer who had come with me. It all faded to white. It was just me and this rattlesnake. I felt as if I were disappearing, too. I couldn't hear anything. Everything just faded into this whiteness. There came a point when it all came back to me. I realized that this loud shouting I was hearing came from my own mouth."
A bizarre story. But is it any more bizarre than the story of three Palestinian peasants who accompany their Teacher to the top of a high mountain and suddenly behold him glowing with an unearthly light and chatting with prophets long dead, while a voice from heaven says, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him".
Dennis Covington's story of handling snakes and the story of the Transfiguration have this in common: Both are instances in which ordinary people have extraordinary experiences. Both are stories of moments of transcendence.
Now, at this point I should probably pause and ask you not to call or write the bishop tomorrow morning and tell him that I said that you should try snake handling. Episcopalians don't do that, and that isn't my point.
I must also confess to you that I have never had such a moment. I've never seen the heavens opened and angels ascending and descending between earth and heaven. I've never heard the archangels chanting the praises of God. I've never had an out-of-body experience. And I've never seen the mysterious light reported by those who've come close to death.
And I have to admit that I don't have a strong desire to have any of those experiences!
But both Covington's story and the stories of Jesus' transfiguration in the gospels beg the question: What is transfiguration? What happened to Jesus? What happened to Peter, James, and John?
One important clue to the meaning of the story is in the first two words of the gospel story: "Six days..." Matthew tells us that the transfiguration of Jesus took place six days after Peter had acknowledged that Jesus was both the Messiah and the Son of God. Notice that the divine summit conference between God and Moses also took place six days after Moses ascended Mt Sinai.
In other words, both events took place on the seventh day, the Sabbath, the day of worship. In Judaism, the Sabbath is not just the day of worship. The Sabbath is the summit of creation. The hymns of Judaism celebrate the Sabbath as a bride. Jews welcome the Sabbath as a bride coming to meet her husband. The Sabbath is the joining of the human and the divine, the heavenly and the earthly.
The story of the Transfiguration is about a moment of worship, a moment when the disciples saw Jesus for who he really was, a moment when the veil separating earth and heaven opened.
Why, then, is our worship so mundane? Is worship for us a moment when the veil between heaven and earth is opened? Is time is suspended and do we feel ourselves to be in the presence of the eternal? Probably for most of us, most of the time, that does not happen.
Several years ago I heard the author Phyllis Tickle, who has written extensively about spirituality and the so-called "emerging church", speak to a group clergy. Someone asked her why people were turning away from the church and embracing the practices of eastern religions - meditation, silence, chanting mantras, and so on. She said it was because the western churches did not have a deep spirituality.
I thought she was wrong then, and I still think she is wrong. There is a deep spirituality in both the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. But I do believe that western Christianity has put the emphasis more on the intellectual than on the experiential. We express our spirituality in ways that are more rational than mystical.
Having traveled many times to the Middle East, it is always interesting for me to observe the reactions of Protestants when they encounter the worship and spirituality of the Eastern Orthodox churches.
Orthodox churches, especially the older ones, tend to be dark. Western Christians feel crowded, almost suffocated by the proliferation of icons. In some Orthodox churches, it seems that almost every available space is covered with icons. The air is thick with incense. There are candles everywhere. Every word of the service is sung or chanted.
We western Christians like our worship to be calm, rational, and orderly. We want it to begin promptly at 7.45 or 10.45 and end no more than and hour and 15 minutes later (a little shorter, if possible, please). And no more than a 12 minute sermon, thank you very much.
Now, there's nothing at all wrong with that. But spirituality and mysticism are not calm, orderly, and rational things. They require that we loosen our hold on this world just a little. They ask us to give up our need to control. They tell us that we must open ourselves up to experience the disorderly, the irrational, even the fearful and bizarre.
Can that happen to us here at Christ Church, Las Vegas? Can it happen in a seventy five minute sequence of scripture, hymn, sermon, and sacrament? I think it can, and I think it does more often than we think.
I love Christ Church. I began to fall in love with it the first time I came here. I love it because it has been a place of transcendence and transfiguration for so many of you.
It is a place of transcendence and transfiguration because of the many times that extraordinary things have happened to you here. It is where many of you were baptized or had your children baptized. It is where you were married or saw your children married. It is where you said good by to your loved ones when they had died and may even be the place where they rest eternally in our columbarium.
If you'll allow me to coin a paradoxical phrase, this is a place where "extraordinary ordinary" moments take place. Baptisms, weddings, funerals, midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and Easter day celebrations are to the outward eye ordinary things, but to many of us, to many of you, they are also extraordinary. They are times when heaven and earth meet, when the human and divine come together, when the veil between the earthly and heavenly is lifted.
We may not experience them to be extraordinary when we are going through them, but in reflection, in memory, in the eye of the mind and the heart, they become extraordinary. This is a place we treasure, cherish, and hold sacred.
I hope it will always be such a place. My sincere hope and prayer is that Christ Church will be a place of extraordinary ordinary moments for years and generations to come. And that is why I work so hard to keep this place alive and vital.
Many of you have been here for years. Some of you have been here for a lifetime or close to it. I have only been here a year. But it has been a marvelous year for me, and I have loved just about every minute of it.
In my first year as your rector, I have learned just how special this place is for you, and it has become just as special to me.
I want to share with you a few of the things I have learned in my first year:
- First, Christ Church needs your presence and your prayers. I urge you to come to worship here as frequently as possible, and I want you to pray for Christ Church every day.
- Second, Christ Church also needs you to let go of old patterns of conflict. When Bishop Dan came here last year, someone asked him what he thought our greatest challenge was, and he said that we need to learn to deal with conflict in a healthy way. The healthy way to deal with conflict is to bring it out into the open. Gossip and rumors flourish in the dark, and they are deadly to a church. Just this last week I have heard two absolutely ridiculous rumors - one about me and one about another employee of this church. You can kill rumors and gossip by refusing to repeat them and by asking for evidence.
- Third, Christ Church needs your financial support. This is an exceptionally generous community, and for that I am grateful. But we need your continued financial support, and if possible, we need you to increase your financial support.
I want to point out one more thing about the stories of the Transfiguration in the gospels. The most important thing we can learn about theses stories is that Jesus is at their center. The disciples experienced the transfiguration because they were with Jesus. They saw Jesus glowing with an unearthly light. They heard the voice of God telling them that God was pleased with Jesus and that they were to listen to him.
Sisters and brothers, when we come together in this place for worship. Jesus is with us, and in this place and among these people, Jesus speaks to us. "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them..." (Matt. 18.20)
The world needs Jesus. The world needs God. That is why Christ Church is here: to invite the world to experience the transfiguring power of God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. I will work as hard as I can to keep Christ Church alive and vital so that we can carry out that mission, and I invite you to join me in doing that.