Edgar Allan Poe in his short story, Purloined Letter tells us of two men who were sitting in an apartment in Paris enjoying each other’s company. One of the two is a brilliant detective. A police inspector drops by to seek their help. A thief has stolen a letter from an aristocratic woman. If the thief were to expose the contents of the letter, the woman would be ruined. She knows who stole the letter. The woman asked the police inspector to retrieve the letter. In desperation, the inspector has come to the brilliant detective and his friend.
The two men gave some suggestions. The inspector has examined every brick in the yard of the man’s apartment. He has examined every furniture. He has turned each page of every book in the thief’s private library. But the inspector has come away empty-handed.
A month later, the inspector returns to the apartment of the two friends if they have come up with any new ideas. The detective asks nonchalantly how much of a reward the inspector would offer for the recovery of the letter. He blurts out the sum of 50,000 francs.
With that offer on the table, the brilliant detective replies to the effect that he would like that amount in a check! He then hands the precious letter to the inspector.
At first, the inspector is speechless, but then he stumbles out the door in what Poe calls, “a perfect agony of joy”.
The letter was where the detective had spied it on a previous visit: right out in plain sight. The thief had marked the letter up a bit, torn the envelope, put a few smudges on it, so that it looked like an ordinary letter to the unobservant eye. Dupin recognized that the letter looked too worn, too dirty, compared with the other articles in the card rack where the thief had kept the letter. The letter had been there the whole time, but the inspector did not have eyes to see it.
In our gospel lesson, Jesus leads the three of his disciples up a high mountain. Just from making the climb, they know something is about to happen. And when they were there, Jesus’ face shone like the sun, and his clothes turned dazzling white. Moses and Elijah show up. The presence of Moses and Elijah meant that the law and the prophets were represented. Even the cloud that surrounded the three startled disciples was a sign of God’s presence. Here on this mountain, as terrified as they were, the three disciples saw all the evidence they needed that God was working through Jesus. God’s presence could not have been more obvious.
The impetuous Peter right away suggested that they build three huts for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. However, Jesus said, they have to go down the valley as there were people waiting for them.
I think for most of us, we would like to experience the presence of God in our lives. We envy people who tell us they had seen and talked with God. It is our prayer that God will come to us so we could also experience the exhilarating presence of God. Even if this vision of God terrifies us, it would be worth it, just to know that God is there, and what God wants from us.
This passage tells us that we can experience God on the mountaintop. I think for many, it is easy to experience the presence of God when we are on top of the mountain – both literally and figuratively.
I remember of a time when I was still in high school. We attended a young people’s conference in a remote barrio of Jimenez. On the last day, we woke up early to climb up a hill where we were to hold our closing worship. When we were on top of the hill watching the sunrise, I felt God was very near.
Some pastors of Central Mindanao Conference told me that they decided to go into full time pastoral ministry after attending a youth conference, where there was this pastor whose preaching was so moving that they felt God was calling them.
I hope also that when we come to worship, it can be an experience when we feel God being present in our midst.
As we sing our hymns or listen to the choir sing; when we listen to the Word read and preached; or when we say our prayers; or when we partake of the broken bread and drink from the cup, you, too, can hear God’s voice talking to you.
Or it can also be those times when you hear some good news, like passing the board exams, or celebrating certain mile posts and accomplishments, or being with a friend can be an experience with God.
Those are the times when we know that God is not dead. Those are the times when we can say that God transformed us, and we are never the same again. And like Peter, we would want to stay there forever, never to come down to the valleys.
But you know, there are times when we, too, can feel God’s presence in the valleys. It may not be as obvious as when we are on the mountaintop. But I believe that if we have the eyes to see, just like the brilliant detective in Edgar Allan Poe’s story, we, too, can see God.
You may ask, “Where is God in the brutality of war in Egypt, Afghanistan, or in some parts of Mindanao? Where is God in the political corruption everywhere we look, that even the military, whom we look up to for protection, is not exempted from? Where is God when typhoons, earthquakes, landslides, volcanoes erupt, wiping out hundreds of lives overnight? Where is God with all of the competing religions, each claiming to hold the truth? Where is God in the everyday dreariness of life when we feel empty? Where is God in our personal grief that never makes it to the headlines? Where is God when a young person kills herself because she sees no more hope?”
One time I was in the emergency room waiting for the doctor. As I looked at the others in the waiting area, also feeling miserable, doubts and insecurities started creeping in my mind. I sat there cursing the pain, blaming the doctor for not being there right away, and looking for God who seemed so remote.
As I look back to that experience and read this passage, I say to myself that God must be present even in the valleys. In the story, we are told that Jesus was there healing the sick and sharing the Good News.
We must look for God’s presence in what appears to be something ordinary, or even in those times when we think that God is so far away. If we cannot understand how God is present in a world full of violence, maybe we can see God in the people of quiet courage who try to make peace in the midst of war, violence, bombs and abductions for money.
If we cannot find God in a world with typhoons, landslides, earthquakes, maybe we can see God in the people who reach out in love to those who have lost everything.
If we cannot find God in a world where children die of cancer, maybe we can see God in the courage those children often show.
If we cannot find God in a world of competing religions, maybe we can see God in those who choose dialogue to find wisdom in other faith traditions.
If we cannot see God because of our own individual pain, maybe we can find God in those who care for us and keep our hopes up. These experiences help us see God’s grace and power shining through the darkness of the world.
Thus, as we worship and come around the Lord’s Table, I pray that this can be an experience of transfiguration. I pray that in our caring for one another, we can reveal God more clearly to a world that is searching for God.
Poe’s inspector had nearly given up looking for the stolen letter. Most likely, so many have given up hope of finding God even here on our campus.
May this church reveal God to those who cannot see God through the fog of their pain. For those who have known only a distorted view of God as too judgmental, too punitive; may this church reveal a God who loves us in spite of who we are. For those who think they have no need of God, who think they can get by without God, may this church reveal God as the Shepherd who looks for the lost.
Let us reveal enough of God for people to begin their journey of faith. Let us go out into the world, and be the agents of their transfiguration because we, too, have been transfigured because of God’s presence in our lives.