Several years ago one of the public opinion companies, probably Gallup, did a survey of Americans and asked a very interesting question. They asked several thousand people if they had ever had what they would call a religious experience, a personal transforming experience--one that brought them somehow into the presence of God. Other questions such as church attendance and denominations were included in their questioning. How do you think we Episcopalians came out in terms of having religious experiences? Well, we werent last. We werent even next to last. In fact, we were at the very top of the mainline denominations.
Somewhere between seventy and eighty percent of all Episcopalians surveyed said they had at least one some sort of a religious experience. Yet we seem much to be like Peter, James, and John after the transfiguration. We tend to keep silent and tell no one. We, like they, most often dont understand or are frightened by what we have seen and begin to look for familiar containers or ways to classify the experience in ways that we do understand. I believe that, like Peter, we want to build booths to nail those moments down when, in fact, in todays Gospel, we heard that the moment on the holy mountain is to be like a light shining in a dark place until the day dawns. These moments then, are Gods gifts. Gods gift given to remind us that in the midst of our real and sometimes painful lives, God is real and present in a particular moment and sends light so powerful that it becomes abundantly clear that he is present in ways that change us forever.
Today I want to tell a story, a story I am compelled to tell. It was toward the end of my training in Clinical Pastoral Education at Sewanee, otherwise known as CPE. I thought that there was little left undone and little I had not experienced in the way of pastoral care during my hospice chaplaincy. Then one morning, a hospice nurse asked me to accompany her on a visit to a woman well call Mattie. There was nothing out of the ordinary about this request. It was just that the medical team had suggested that I accompany her because the woman, who was literally at deaths door, was quite agitated and without any sense of the kind of peace so commonly experienced by those at deaths door. We arrived at this little house back in the hills of middle Tennessee, a shack, really. One like we are all too familiar with here in the South. The missing boards on the listing porch, and the black paper spaces between the boards on the outside prepared me for the lack of sanitary circumstances, but in no way was I prepared for what actually transpired.
There were no lights, no fans and no running water. The only light in the room came from a small window over the bed of this tiny, blind, dying woman. The aura here was exacerbated by the flies that swarmed around her bed. Her care was limited to that of an old, ailing brother and the hospice nurse who was managing her pain care. On the drive out, the nurse had told me that this person had repeatedly expressed her wish to die, and medically they were perplexed that she hadnt; something was keeping her from doing that.
I came into the room, and she asked me to pull her out to the porch. I was literally afraid to do that. She was so thin, so frail, but we made it. She then turned to me and said, "Ive called out to your God all night long to take me, but he dont want me." I cannot tell you what a state I was in. I wanted to run. I was almost overcome with revulsion. Compassion was replaced by thoughts that all centered on myself, and any thoughts of servanthood had entirely vanished. I managed to suggest that we get back to her bed, not sure that I could even re-enter that room. I did. I walked her in, and as she sat, she patted her bed, looked at me, and said, "Sit down."
I sat. She
fell into my chest. Then she turned her face to me and repeated, "He
dont want me." Then, the extraordinary. From my lips somehow
came these words for which I cannot take credit. I said, "Do you
remember Jesus death? Do you remember how he felt abandoned? Do
you remember him crying out to God?" She said, "Uh-huh."
I said, "Well, then, he wants you."
Well, thanks be to God, I called my CPE supervisor instead of my Bishop. I was so emotional when I told him what happened and about the deplorable conditions under which this woman was spending her last days. With a raised voice I said, "Where was the church? Where are we? It was not there!" And my supervisor responded, "Marianne, who are you?" "Well, I was a coward. You dont understand. I wanted to run," I said. "Did you?" "No." "Do you believe that Gods grace and courage come only in the comfortable? God was speaking to you through the words you spoke to her."
That night the nurse called me to tell me that Mattie had died. I knew then in a new way that in Gods presence we are brought to new life and new understanding, and by his grace are changed forever. Jesus was transformed by God, but it was working through the presence of Moses and Elijah. Such transformation awaits us, too. If we are the comforters, I believe that transfiguration comes when we openly and honestly acknowledge our own suffering, our own confusion, even our own terror. If we are the afflicted, the transfiguration awaits us when we seek the presence of those who have traveled the way of suffering before us.
Each of us is a vessel that, if cleansed, can in some measure reveal the same light, but our light must be transfigured. Our perceptions altered. We must learn to see what is truly present. God is with us, whatever the circumstance. Today we are transfigured as we seek the presence of Christ here and at our altar. I believe that all of us are called, some to a mountaintop at Horeb, some to a little mountainous place in middle Tennessee. Sometimes we are called to stay behind, to wait, but we are all called to the journey, and none of us is ever alone.
I felt compelled to tell, a kind of legacy for Mattie and for us. A legacy
that says, God wants you. Now, as Peter said to Jesus in todays
scripture, "Lord, its good to be here."
Copyright 2001 Calvary Episcopal Church
Gospel: Luke 12:13-21