Encountering Radiance

Cat Goodrich
Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
February 27, 2022

Encountering Radiance
Exodus 34:29-35

When I moved to Boston for seminary, a whole world of possibilities opened up to me. Not just new and challenging academic frontiers, a new city and culture to explore – but also a wide expanse of new outdoor adventures, thanks in part to Dary: the White Mountains and Presidential range in New Hampshire; the foothills of the Catskills out in Western Mass, and of course – endless wilderness in Maine to paddle, camp, and hike through. I was used to well marked, well trodden trails in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge, with clear blazes, relatively safe ascents and gradual descents. So I was surprised to find myself clinging to metal rungs on the side of a mountain, ducking through caves, balancing on a knife’s edge, trying not to look down. New England introduced me to a different kind of hiking. I’m still shocked by how cold and windy it can be above the treeline, on top of a mountain– Dary always packs a fleece, sometimes even a hat and gloves for the summit, even in summer. I remember huddling next to him, buffeted by wind and freezing in shorts on Doubletop mountain in Baxter State Park, looking over at Katahdin, and thinking, without the right gear, this could be dangerous.

As, of course, it is. Any search and rescue team can tell you that – you all probably have a few tales of your own to tell about being caught out in the elements.

I can remember gazing out at the landscape with awe – torn between not wanting the moment to end, but feeling eager to dash back down the mountain to warm up, or at least to the safety of tree cover.

The mountaintop is often a beautiful place, with stunning views – but it is never a fully safe place to be. There’s always a risk up there – you might fall, get lost, or suffer from hypothermia, windburn, sunburn, exposure. Psychological risks, too: it changes you to actually see yourself in proper proportion to the rest of the world – tiny, and maybe even meaningless in the grand scheme of things. It’s magnificent, yes- but it isn’t safe.

Moses certainly discovered this to be true. Peter, John, and James did, too. The mountaintop proved to be a revealing place for all of them. Transformational. A little frightening. Moses met God up there, as he was pleading for guidance and mercy for his wayward people. This wasn’t Moses’ first mountaintop encounter with the deity – and this time, Moses was so changed by his time in God’s presence, he came down glowing. His face was shining with the splendor of the divine, and as you might imagine, it was terrifying. His own brother couldn’t even look at him – maybe because it was so strange, maybe because to look at Moses was to be reminded of their own betrayal, worshipping the idol of the golden calf which is what sent Moses back up to the top of Sinai to bargain with God in the first place.

On the front of the bulletin is Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses – can you see he has horns? There are several classical images of Moses with horns, and the tradition comes from a fourth century mistranslation of this passage! The word for shining could also mean horn – and so we find these images of a truly terrifying leader. Some scholars wonder if there wasn’t some intention to this wordplay – drawing a parallel to the golden calf, such that to look at Moses was to be reminded of your own disobedience.

So Moses wore a veil, the text tells us, covering his face when he was out and about doing his day-to-day tasks, removing it only when he was praying, or speaking God’s word to the people. Strange, isn’t it. To be able to continue with his daily life, he had to hide his light…for those who were just in the Forum conversation – he had to assimilate.

Radiance is one of the most common descriptions of God – so bright, it’s like looking at the sun. Surely we’ve all seen someone we describe as radiant – people filled with joy, unself-conscious, beaming. A mother holding her newborn baby. A teacher teaching a topic they’re particularly passionate about. A child filled with pride upon learning a new skill, coming alive in a new way. Old friends, laughing out loud together.

Dorothy Day wrote about riding a city bus: a mundane, necessary task but rarely pleasant experience. She remembers suddenly noticing that all of the other riders were shimmering with the light of transcendence, beautiful, precious and beloved children of God. She was filled with love for them, in their ordinary-ness, the mother with the squalling baby, the rowdy teenagers in their awkwardness, the weary workers heading home. Radiance can find us anywhere, if we have eyes to see it.

Today is transfiguration Sunday, the end of the season of Epiphany and turn toward the season of Lent. Today is when we remember the revelation of Christ on the mountaintop, the transformation of Moses, too, and ask – What are we to make of these strange scenes? What do they tell us about God? What do they reveal about us?

One truth these stories show us that the life of faith moves between the mountaintop and the valley. We are always moving between encounters with the radiance and transcendence of God and the hard work to which God calls us, between the broad perspective we get from being high up and the day-to-day work down in the weeds. Between the clarity of vision we have at 9000 feet and the veiled memory of that vision that carries us through each day. Between the certainty of faith and the reality of doubt. It’s a cycle – up, then down, again and again.

In some ways, and maybe for some of us more than others, weekly worship reflects this cycle – we come, seeking God’s presence. Some weeks, in prayer and silence and scripture and song, we find it. Then, we step outside, back to the street…hopefully fortified, refreshed, and ready for the week ahead, confident of who and whose we are, clear about what God is calling us to do. We come back again, to be reminded.

We learn something of God in these passages – Moses’s second trip up Sinai finds God frustrated with the people for their disobedience, but willing to forgive…it’s where we find the language, God is patient and kind, slow to anger and abounding with steadfast love. Through Moses, God gives the Israelites law to live by, to guide them through the wilderness, to govern daily life. And it changes Moses to encounter God’s love and forgiveness, and to then share that with his people.

And so it is for us – when we encounter and experience the love and forgiveness and goodness of God, our hearts, our lives, are transformed, too.

Last night, as I tucked my girls into bed, I couldn’t help but think of Ukrainians huddled in subways and other shelters to sleep, seeking shelter from the Russian missiles that are bombarding their cities. The reality of war has gripped their country, as Putin grasps for power like a madman. I heard a story last week where mothers were stitching labels into their children’s clothing before sending them to school, labels with their child’s name and blood type in case they were to be injured in an attack. Unfathomable. And for what? Control of a piece of land? Access to natural resources? Bragging rights?

I’m reminded of the image of earth taken by the Voyager spacecraft before it left radio contact with us. Before it hurtled out to parts unknown, father than any other man-made object ever, it turned around to take a picture. Earth is just like a speck of dust in a sunbeam, suspended in space. Carl Sagan, the astrophysicist who worked on the project, says, look at that dot:

That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. … Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.  …To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known. (Carl Sagan, The Blue Dot, 1990)

My prayer for us this week is that we remember the perspective granted to us from our mountaintop experiences. That we are called to be peacemakers, to love one another as God has loved us, to resist the powers of evil and violence that threaten to undo us. It begins with us, with the transformation of our hearts, such that we shine with love, and can notice the shimmer of transcendence wherever we go.