Faith Becomes Food

Transfiguration A-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

500 years before Christ, Rabbis called Mount Tabor “the navel of the world.”  The peak rises abruptly, yet gently, from the plain like the belly of a pregnant woman. It is modest, covered in pine, about 11 miles west of the Sea of Galilee. It rises almost 2,000 feet above sea level. Today, a modest hiking trail winds three miles to the top—about an hour’s walk. It would have been an obvious and inviting choice for Jesus’ early-morning climb.

 Jesus and the disciples had been walking for six days, nearly a week. They are moving south from Galilee, through soft, shallow hills that mark the beginning of the slow, steady climb to Jerusalem and the cross. Jesus left before breakfast. He took with him Peter, James, and John. On top of Mt. Tabor, Jesus’ face shone like the sun!

From Christ’s holy mountain, heaven and earth are laid out at our feet. The barrier between the visible and invisible is broken. Now we see the two are woven of the same fabric. The light God pours into all things shines out from Jesus.

We modern people, I think, can be too quick to turn away from this gospel. Many cultures, like that of Native American peoples, by contrast, are more welcoming of the nourishing everyday reality of mystery and awe. In our scientific worldview this story does not compute. Mystical experiences, like that recorded in today’s gospel, must be set aside to get at the facts. Yet a new science of human emotion is beginning to come around. The human experience of awe, they proclaim, is powerfully good for you.

From on top the navel of the world Jesus’ transfiguration is a vision pregnant with opportunity for our own transformation. What science took away, now, science has begun to return. ‘Experiences we call spiritual — are now being taken seriously by science as intelligence — as elements of human wholeness.  Most surprising, they say, such moments of awe and wonder which stretch imagination beyond our understanding are common in human life. Everywhere around the globe awe is measurably health-giving, immunity-boosting, creativity enhancing, and community building. Feelings of wonder bring our nervous system and heartbeat and breath into sync. Shared experiences of awe bring our bodies into sync with other bodies around us.’ (Krista Tippet, “The Thrilling New Science of Awe,” On Being, 2/03/23)

Yes. This gospel is about discipleship. Yes. It is about the journey downward from the mountaintop to the valleys, from the glow of a spiritual high to the places where people are suffering, from union with Christ to the cross. Yet, as we journey from Epiphany into Lent, we must not leave the mountaintop empty handed but learn the lesson Jesus taught us there. Find awe as your ancestors in the desert went out and found their daily bread, manna, to sustain them. Learn to find awe so your heart and mind may be continually refreshed as you walk through the valley of life’s many struggles and sorrows.

Awe is powerfully protective and overflows with meaning. Growing up, Jennifer Baily—Reverend Baily, as she is known today—first felt the effects of racism when she was five.  As she was jumping off a slide in a park, a classmate asked: “Why is your face dirty?”  She ran into Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and felt embraced in the quiet of that space. Years later, in the same church, listening to the organ wraps her in sound like a warm blanket. There, slowly, she awakened to a big idea: “I am beloved in the eyes of God.” (Dacher Keltner Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It can Transform Your Life, Penguin Press, 2023 p. 193-195)

When asked where she finds mystical awe, her answer comes easily. She draws inspiration from the strength and courage of African American women.  Her grandmothers fled the terrorism, lynchings, and segregated spaces of the Jim Crow South of the 1950’s.  Her mother, raised in Chicago, was a student in the first integrated high school class of the 1960s. She expresses reverence for how African American women from the past and present overcome. They do so, she says, in spirit. Spirit they find in the kitchen. In telling stories, laughing, singing, and dancing.  And in church. As Reverend Jen makes her way through the story of her life, she says something surprising, “I guess I am composting religion.” (p. 194-195)

Could finding awe be how we metabolize faith like food? Composting is thousands of years old. When we compost, we gather raw materials—food scraps, grasses, leaves, manure—and let them decay together. Over time, microorganisms, bacteria, fungi, and worms break down the raw materials, consuming what is toxic and distilling a humus, an amorphous, sweet-smelling, jellylike black mixture of plant, animal, and microbial origin.  The nitrogen of humus is absorbed by the roots of plants, nourishing life. Through mystical awe Pastor Jen breaks down the sexist and colonialist, and patriarchal strains of Christianity, distilling a spirit found in the faith of African American women along with others as fuel for ministry.

Most miraculous, far from being rare, scientists say people can find awe almost anywhere. You’ve heard about the eight wonders of the world—amazing buildings, erected mostly, or entirely, as monuments to the coercive power of empires. Dacher Keltner, scientist of human emotion at Berkely, suggests what’s more amazing are the eight wonders of life where people find awe. Awe comes from 1) witnessing the strength, courage, and kindness of others; and 2) from activities like dance or sports; and 3) from nature; and 4) music; and 5) art or visual design; and 6) religion; and 7) from encounter with life and death; and 8) with sudden big ideas or epiphanies. Awe makes the hair on our neck rise, our bodies tingle, our eyes widen and shed tears of joy.

The wisdom and gift of Christian worship wraps many of these sources of awe together. To be a Christian, by definition, is to encounter the living God in the face, life, and character of Jesus and his cross. Our personal revelation need not be so dramatic as what Peter, James, and John experienced on Mt. Tabor. Yet faith in Christ Jesus begins with our own personal brand of epiphany breaking within us little by little and sometimes all at once. God’s still, small, and majestic voice declares to us as to the disciples, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” In Christian community we must assist one another to find awe.

St. Paul writes God dwells in “unapproachable light” (1 timothy 6:16). It is this light which illuminates the darkness of human minds. To the Romans Paul wrote: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God –what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).  To siblings in Corinth he explained, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Here is food for the journey. Here is manna, our daily bread. ‘Oh, wonderous image. Oh, vision fair, by grace we see Christ’s glory face to face’ (ELW #316).