The mountain is one of those places where the real and the metaphorical intersect. You climb towards the summit, sometimes the switchbacks taking you back and forth, sometimes the path leading you straight up, the rocks and the dirt skating under your feet. With every step you get a little higher and the valley and the daily life that it holds moves a little further away. If you want food, you must carry it with you. If you want sunscreen, you must carry it with you. If you want a change of clothes, you must carry them with you. With the exception of the occasional ski chalet, the mountaintop is a place that Starbucks and Target have yet to conquer.
Eventually, if the mountain is tall enough, you reach what is called the tree line. This is the altitude above which the trees do not, cannot grow: the air is too thin or too cold, the birds and bugs and worms that make a forest possible too far away. Often, but not always, the tree line is also where the snow begins. Even in the summer, there it lies, white, still, dangerous, and beautiful on the rock. In a pinch, the snow can turn into water for you to drink: manna from heaven. But it can also be what sends your feet shooting out from underneath you, so that you land hard and start to slide.
On somewhere other than the mountain, this much rock and this few trees would mean that everything would be loud. The hard surface would take the sounds of cars and machinery and voices on mobile phones and slap them back at you. But on the mountain, all of that is gone. And the rock is quiet but for crunch of your boots and the panting of your breath and the lonely song of the wind.
At a certain point, the summit comes into sight. Almost there, you say, and even though your calves are burning, you push on. This is the part of the climb when you sometimes actually start exhorting your legs to lift your boots off the ground: Come on. Come on. You are almost there.
Except that you aren’t almost there. On the mountain there is an illusion whereby the peak looks to be 500 yards away and so you climb 500 yards and you discover that the peak remains 500 yards away. This experience is strange and exasperating and it repeats more than once.
You remember being a child in a car: Are we there yet? You remember that in movies and comic books and the old stories, the mountaintop is where you will find the guru or the dragon or the mysterious monastery within which Bruce Wayne will become Batman. And you understand why. The training, the discipline, the answer to the question, the thing that will change you has begun even before you reach the summit.
And then at last, you are there. The peak, the summit, the mountaintop. Way back when, before the airplane and the hot air balloon and Google earth, the summit was as high as a human being could get. Icarus and the guys who built the tower of Babel maybe got higher. But things didn’t work out well for them. For most of human history, the only solid thing that can get you this high and safely back again was put there by God.
On the mountaintop, if the day is clear and the mountain high enough, you can see.
You can see.
You can see so much and so far. Over other mountains, maybe over multiple other mountains. And down. Sometimes, impossibly, what you are looking down on are clouds – clouds being things that you always look up to see. You squint to see if angels are visible standing upon them. Down still further are the places that we call civilization.
You look at the houses, the cars, the roads. And from up here, maybe, your taxes don’t seem that important, your conflict with your coworker doesn’t seem that important, the way that the person with whom you live rolls their eyes doesn’t seem that important. In the old stories, the gods look upon from a place like this. And on the mountaintop, it makes sense that they do.
Is there clarity on this summit? Maybe even healing on this summit? Do you understand things that you didn’t or couldn’t down below? The psychologist Abraham Maslow spoke of this place, of the mountaintop, when talking about certain moments of joy and connectivity.
A peak experience.
A peak experience is when you understand something about eternity, something about God. In Maslow’s words, here at the summit you are, “simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than [you ever were] before.” This too makes a kind of sense.
The mountain, the place where the real and the metaphorical meet: this is where Jesus takes his closest friends as his journey to Jerusalem and journey to the cross nears. Peter and John and James follow Jesus, breathing hard as they climb towards their moment of power and helplessness. For the three of them, this moment will look like watching Jesus as he face starts to shine, the way that Moses’ face shone when he talked to God all of those years ago. It will look like watching as Jesus’ clothes shine. In the inimitable words of the King James version:
And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them.
And then it will look like watching as Jesus, whose ministry in many ways has been one long conversation with Moses and Elijah, one long amplification of and argument with the two old prophets, is suddenly talking with the two men. The text doesn’t say how John and Peter and James recognise Moses and Elijah – there are no photographs of them. They just know.
And then it looks like the heavens speaking, a cloud repeating the words of Jesus’ baptism:
This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.
Listen to him.
And John and James and Peter fall down then. They fall down on the mountain. Because, well, what else can they do?
But Jesus touches them. And his touch, it always brings healing.
Get up and do not be afraid.
And when they look around and Moses and Elijah are gone and the sky is quiet.
One of the things that you forget when you are climbing and even when you are at the summit is that going down, it too is a journey. By halfway down, your knees are screaming. And notwithstanding bags of ice and trips to the hot tub, it will be days before they stop telling the story of the mountain.
It is on the way back down that Jesus says to his friends, Don’t tell anyone about this until after the cross, until after the tomb, until after you see me again. And maybe, as you descend, you get why he says this. Because the mountaintop, what you see there, you can’t really tell anyone that experience to anyone, at least not in a way that makes sense. If you are to understand God’s mountain, you must climb it and see for yourself.
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?
Today we have the Transfiguration of Jesus. The event is remembered on a beautiful mountain top at Mt. Tabor between Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. There is a beautiful view of the valley below and a beautiful church with magnificent art.
Who are the people, such as Peter, Andrew in today’s story. As well as all the people in the Gospels? They are Jewish followers of Jesus who have been raised with the stories of Moses and the Law.
What we have in the Gospel of Matthew is a very special attempt to address that Jewish audience Jesus spoke to with the interpretation that Jesus is the new Moses. If you read Matthew as a 1st century Jew, you will hear all the ways that Matthew attempts to tell you that Jesus is the new Moses. Jesus is the Messiah they have been expecting. Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel takes on the role of a new Moses.
Matthew opens his Gospel with a reference to the generations that takes us back to Abraham as he speaks of Jesus’ birth. And the birth of Jesus including Joseph, the dreamer of dreams, who can be compared to Joseph in the Old Testament who is also a dreamer of dreams and Joseph takes Jesus to Egypt so that he like Moses can come out of Egypt. Moses came out of Egypt and so does Jesus.
Matthew has the wonderful story of Jesus in the wilderness for forty days, tempted as the Israelites were in the desert for 40 years.
Those Jewish readers of Matthew in the 1st century would see the connection. And then the Sermon on the Mount. Similar to Moses bringing the 10 Commandments and the law from Mt. Sinai. Just as Moses gives the law from Sinai. Jesus gives the new law with the Sermon on the Mount.
You have heard it said by men of old
But I say to you
12 Tribes of Israel
Symbols of the past bearing fruit as to the future generations. This is my son “listen to him”.
Transfiguration – from the old ways to the new ways. Jesus was a transforming person in the 1st century – listen to him. And after his death and resurrection something of a religious revolution occurred that we are sorting it out even today.
Transfiguration – what does it mean? What did it mean?
For the Jewish culture of the 1st century it was a confusing moment. Was Jesus authentic as a reflection of the living God or was he a fake?
Paul was to be the instrument of God, who after trying to wipe out the early Christians, found his conversion on the way to Damascus and realized out of that conversion that the message of Jesus was not only for Jews but for all people. Talk about transforming. And turning into a new way of thinking and being. The Church was born in turmoil.
I would like to relate the Transfiguration in a way that is quite different from our traditional western theology. In fact, I would like to challenge it.
In 1967, I was the Curate here at Grace Memorial. Duane Alvord was the Rector. I was also City Missioner for the Diocese of Oregon which meant that I went in all directions at the Bishop’s bidding and whatever was happening ecumenically. I found a need that was not being addressed by any of the churches. It was the urban Indian population in Portland and I felt called on to enter into ministry with them because of not only our lack of knowledge of their culture but their lack of knowledge of our culture.
I had been raised in West Texas and New Mexico and became acquainted with how the Roman Catholic Church had come to our region well before the Pilgrims and those who founded Jamestown. In fact, there is an article this month in Archeology Today that talks about the 1st American Revolution happening in the 1580’s when the Pueblo Indians in Arizona and New Mexico rose up against the Spaniards and forced the military and the church to leave the area for 10 years. Why?
Because of the oppression, and lack of being able to work with another culture. Christianity was forced upon them. There was an arrogance and cruelty built into the system of converting the Indian population to Christianity. They were literally slaves for purposes of their Spanish masters.
“This is my son. Listen to him” was turned into a mockery. What about the Indian people and their own relationship to God, to the sacred land?
The transfiguration did not include the Pueblo Indians in their rich history as a people including their own rich religious heritage. We are only now beginning to recognize what has been lost in our inability to listen and learn from others and hear their voices as part of listening to the voice of Jesus in another time and culture.
As City Missioner from 1967-1970, based here at Grace Memorial, our National Church helped in the funding of two important American Indian programs. One was the American Indian Action Center, which at the time was located near Good Samaritan Hospital. The other was the Native American Rehabilitation Association for Indians suffering from alcohol abuse. It is still in existence.
When I left Grace Memorial in 1970, I was honored here on a Sunday worship. I wore an Indian headdress and celebrated communion. I was given a Sioux name of Spotted Eagle. The Peace Pipe was offered to the 4 Winds by Chief White Buffalo Man, Grandson of Sitting Bull. He also gave the sermon. I have the entire sermon but here is an excerpt. The title of his sermon was “How it feels to be an Indian in a White man’s world.” In the old days the Indians taught that we must love each other. Our belief is that this love was established here on earth by the Great Spirit. This brought us unity, and unity brought us brotherhood. We didn’t know what a dollar was. But we knew there was a God. And we kept this sacred. My father said, “This is sacred – keep it such.” We became Christians. The Indian religion and the Christian religion fit together. We wanted to keep some of our old ceremonies. When we pray we don’t read from a book. We don’t read prayers. It comes from our hearts. But the government outlawed some of our old worship. Like the Sun Dance. So we had to do our ceremonies secretly back in the hills where we wouldn’t be caught. That made us feel bad. It was like the early Christians who had to worship secretly. So I used to live two lives. One, Indian religion and one, as a Christian…..In our church, behind the altar, we have the tepee design. In our Christian ceremonials we use the pipe. We see there is no clash. After all these years it comes together. Now I live only one way. I can be free in what I tell and what I do. And that is the way it is.” I believe that the voice of Jesus, the presents of God is heard in the words of Chief White Buffalo Man. The words of many cultures, religions and languages are reflected in his words. The Church throughout the world reflects that voice.
So much of our history as a nation has been one of broken treaties and not honoring those who were here when we came here as immigrants.
It was almost comical if it wasn’t so tragic that in the Malheur takeover last year the people who did that had no understanding of the land as to where it came from. The American Indian was not a part of their thinking and the issues of the Standing Rock Reservation represent another chapter in the long history of taking advantage of Indian treaties.
We have a long history in Christianity of being very much the opposite of what Jesus’ teaching and witness was in the 1st century.
But guess what, we receive the word of God as it comes to each of us and we have the opportunity to respond “yes” or “no”.
Our transformation is one of unique individuality because each of us is an unique human being.
We are transformed in our own time just as the disciples of the 1st century were transformed for the purposes of God.
Not as it has been defined in the past
But as the voice of Jesus is revealed NOW.
And we ourselves have the opportunity
To hear and receive the Good News
“This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him.”