Many of you know this already, but this Sunday is called Transfiguration Sunday because of the Gospel reading – Jesus goes up to the top of a mountain with his friends Peter, James and John, and all of a sudden bright and beautiful rays of light begin to shine from Jesus – he is transformed – transfigured. And then some old time prophets appear on the mountain with them – Moses and Elijah – and Jesus speaks with them. Then a cloud overshadows them, and a voice says, Listen to my son! Some people say the Transfiguration is a pivotal moment, and the setting on the mountain is presented as the point where human nature meets God: the meeting place of the temporal and the eternal, with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as the bridge between heaven and earth.
Transfiguration Sunday is a threshold day. We stand at the end of Epiphany. We stand just before the beginning of Lent. We stand at the edge of our seasons turning from winter into spring. Let’s start our journey up the mountain top, across the threshold of holiness, and then back down with a blessing
Dazzling —Jan Richardson
Believe me, I know
how tempting it is
to remain inside this blessing,
to linger where everything
We could build walls
around this blessing,
put a roof over it.
We could bring in
a table, chairs,
have the most amazing meals.
We could make a home.
We could stay.
But this blessing
is built for leaving.
is made for coming down
wants to be in motion,
to travel with you
as you return
to level ground.
It will seem strange
how quiet this blessing becomes
when it returns to earth.
It is not shy.
It is not afraid.
It simply knows
how to bide its time,
to watch and wait,
to discern and pray
until the moment comes
when it will reveal
everything it knows,
when it will shine forth
with all it has seen,
when it will dazzle
with the unforgettable light
you have carried
all this way.
For me – the transfiguration story, as well as the earlier passage we read today, where we heard the story of how Elijah was carried into heaven by a chariot of fire, up into a whirlwind of clouds, leaving his servant and friend Elisha crying and alone on earth – both of those stories really resonate with me, and bring up something that I think we all struggle with in life – how to be present in the current moment.
I make THE BEST plans. I plan big things, I plan little things, I plan for the short term, and I plan for the long term. I day-dream plan, I reality plan, I have plans where I write it down, I have plans that I keep in my heart and tell no one. I have four notebooks for different kinds of plans. I like to lay it all out. I like to know what’s gonna happen. And then what happens? You all know what happens to the best laid plans. We get to have a good laugh at our plans. But here’s the thing – what else are we supposed to do, but plan?
I mean I really think that God asks us to hold a creative tension here. It’s like a conversation between you and God, your plans, and then the way that life takes our plans and makes them into something we don’t necessarily recognize that is … our life.
It’s so obvious to me that our lives are a creative process between us and God that is happening in every moment. We claim our lives, and we live into a vision – that’s our planning – but at the same time, we have to hold open the very real possibility that surprises are going to be happening. So we work for days, and weeks and months, and sometimes even years on our plans – we show up, and we tend our visions like they are gardens or like they are children, or like they are a work of art that we are painting. Then suddenly there is a shift of some kind. We see things in a new way, we know something we didn’t know before. Our hard work ends up changing us. We only think we have control of the mosaic of moments that is our life. Or even worse, we don’t really pay attention, and miss the chance to create something beautiful with God.
Let me read a short passage from A tree full of Angels by Macrina Weiderkehr that explains paying attention: We stand in the midst of nourishment and we starve. We dwell in the land of plenty, yet we persist in going hungry. Not only do we dwell in the land of plenty; we have the capacity to be filled with the utter fullness of God. In the light of such possibility, what happens? Why do we drag our hearts? Lock up our souls? Why do we limp? Why do we straddle the issues? Why do we live so feebly, so dimly? Why aren’t we saints?
Each of us could come up with individual answers to all these questions, but I want to suggest here a common cause. The reason we live life so dimly and with such divided hearts is we have never really learned how to be present – with quality – to God, to self, to others, to experiences and events, to all created things. We have never learned to gather up the crumbs of whatever appears in our path at every moment. We meet all these lovely gifts only half there. Presence is what we are all starving for. Real Presence! We are too busy to be present, too blind to see nourishment and salvation in the crumbs of life, the experiences of each moment. Yet, the secret of daily life is this: There are no leftovers!
There is nothing – no thing, no person, no experience, no thought, no joy or pain that cannot be harvested and used for our journey to God.
So that’s what stirs up in me when I think about the three disciples who followed Jesus up the mountain, and then had to follow him back down again and go on to live their lives. Life can cause us, in sometimes very painful or vivid ways, to have to release things that we have counted on the most. To be transfigured. We feel like Elisha when Elijah was whisked up into heaven and there he was standing on the ground. People, don’t tell me that this thing or this person I love is going to be taken away from me, as Elisha says, “yes, I know this bad thing is going to happen. Keep silent.” For us, some of our chances are gone, and some of our beloved people have died, and here we are. The chariot has gone in a whirlwind up to heaven and we are here, in this moment. Down from the mountain. Facing our life. Ripping our clothes in agony.
It’s easy to want to stay on the mountaintop when we know great things are there, and not so great things are waiting for us on the ground. So what about that mountaintop? Oh that glorious mountaintop! Sweet Peter, up on that mountain, sees the most amazing thing of his life and what does he do? Something transformative happens and we want to cling to it. Let me build something so that this is a tangible thing I can hold onto. But as he suggests that, a cloud comes out of nowhere, it overshadows them, and speaks – Listen to my son! And Jesus walks them down the mountain, and there’s no more talk about building anything.
God doesn’t want us to build house for the holy, the man-made structures, the architecture that we create in God’s name. All of that is very cool, and wondrous, but usually when God shows up, it is through other people. We are God’s architecture. We’re the buildings God loves the most. Not the monuments we’ve built to God.
And then as they walk back down the mountain, Jesus tells them not to talk about it. Not to talk about his transfiguration. To wait, to reflect, to carry it with them in their heart, to ponder it. Like Mary pondering the birth of Jesus. We experience transformative things, and then sometimes we create stories about what we experience – like a physical building, we build a story around our life that we tell other people about who we are.
Nothing is the same for the disciples – they witnessed something dazzling, and they turn back to the rhythms of their lives, but they cannot forget what they have seen. It’s changed them. It’s changed everything. Why did Jesus tell them not to talk about it? Maybe it was too soon. There’s a time and place to share about the transfigurations of your life. There’s also times when pondering in your heart is the better course. Our experiences dwell in our stories, and our stories change our experiences if we let them, especially if we try to define a transfiguration when it is still happening.
Because we are at the end of Epiphany, let me ask you – So what about you? Have you ever been to the mountain top?
Think back. When was the last time you had a revelation about God? When did you understand something completely new about yourself and about your faith? Last week Martin said in his homily that God can be found anywhere. Everywhere. I love it, and I agree with it. And that’s what I’m asking you about. Can you think back to the last exciting Epiphany that you had about the nature of God? Where were you? Go back in your mind to that moment.
We have these mountain top moments, and then we go back down and return to the real world. Because this story is not just about learning to come down from the mountain top, and it’s not just about learning to let go of plans so we are hearing God’s plans with us. It’s also not just about learning that building monuments does not help us to keep going. here’s what I think it’s about, more than those things.
I think it’s about opening our eyes. Open your eyes and see the glory that’s around you. Let that glory into your bones. Open your very soul to it. Allow glory to move you. Allow it to affect you on a deep level. Give yourself permission to walk where the glory of God leads you. Have courage to trust what you have seen on the mountaintop. Trust what you know from God. Because it goes back down the mountain with you, even if it doesn’t feel like it. The gifts you receive on the mountain top are still real at the ground level. And even more than that, they are still with you even when you walk in the valley of the shadow.
Don’t you think these are great passages to lead us into Lent? We are about to spend forty days examining what we cling to, and what we need to let go of, in order that we may know more fully how Christ is in our lives. But don’t jump ahead, because Lent will be here soon enough. we are here with Peter, John and James right now, and they are asking you – how does their story, and their journey down the mountain connect with your own? Where do we reach that beautiful, creative conversation where God and each of us are playing out the vision for our lives?