“It is by sharing ourselves, our holy experiences, that we have a chance to usher in God’s love.”
[“Transfiguration” Mosaic in basilica of St. Peter, Vatican. (from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville. Rich Gipson)]
Six days later….six days later our gospel begins today…
six days after what? You might wonder.
For two weeks we’ve been reading passages out of the same Gospel—
We’ve heard Matthew’s telling of the sermon on the Mount.
Rachel in her preaching walked us through Jesus’ teaching of the law,
Jesus giving us a recipe for discipleship;
How Jesus wants us to follow,
not the letter of the law, but the heart of God’s law.
Today’s gospel passage doesn’t follow on the heels of these passages,
it is not six days after the sermon on the mount…
our lectionary has skipped ahead.
Six days later is actually 12 chapters later in Matthew
Much has happened in the meantime,
but as we are ending the season of Epiphany,
and entering Lent in three days, we must push on.
(We’ll come back to these chapters later, don’t you worry.)
Six days later begins the dramatic turn in Jesus’ and his followers’ lives.
Peter and the rest of the disciples
have just spent time with Jesus in Caesarea Philippi,
a resting place, away from the crowds.
Caesarea Philippi is a green, luscious place north of the sea of Galilee,
Where the water flows freely along walking paths and feeds lovely gardens.
It is there that the disciples and Jesus get a chance to talk, maybe even relax.
Peter answers Jesus’ question: Who do people say that I am?
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
And Jesus affirms Peter,
calls him the Rock on which God will build the Church.
Then Jesus tells his followers that they must go on to Jerusalem,
where Jesus must die, and Peter argues back: No, he says, “God forbid!”
Jesus tells him not to be a blockhead,
Well really, he says Peter, you are a “stumbling block”
“you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Six days later, they have that divine experience.
Jesus takes Peter, James and John to a high mountain.
What occurs there is something unexplainable, unearthly if you will.
Jesus is transfigured, his clothes become dazzling white.
Two figures appear, Moses and Elijah, the GREAT ones of their faith.
Moses, the giver of the law, who himself faced God on a mountain
and came down with a face shining so bright the Israelites were afraid of him.
Elijah, the great prophet who God sent to the Israelites
to deliver them from their suffering and corruption, and who at the end of his life was mystifyingly taken up to heaven in a whirlwind.
Peter is elated at first…we see our lovable disciple’s excitement
when he proposes his idea, to build 3 shelters/dwellings,
one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for you, Jesus,
as you are as great as these great men of our faith.
Sweet Peter, six days earlier he’d just said you are the Messiah,
and yet we see that he didn’t get quite get what he was saying.
Peter didn’t even know how confused he was.
Let’s stay here, see, it’s like I suggested we don’t have to go to Jerusalem.
I’m pretty sure I would be on Peter’s side,
wanting to save Jesus and myself from what lies ahead,
And like the disciples, I’m sure I’d have fallen to the ground terrified
when I heard a voice from the cloud, “This is my son, Listen to him.”
The encounter on the mountain is frightening and bewildering.
The cloud that shadows the disciples and Jesus, is so bright,
the disciples are overwhelmed.
They are overcome by fear.
Then as quickly as the vision and the cloud had come, it is gone.
Jesus comes to his scared friends and touches them—
get up, he says, do not be afraid.
We have to go now, down the mountain.
The disciples’ mountain top experience is over.
Jesus is transfigured before them, and they are not sure what just happened.
They were both terrified and comforted,
both blinded by the light and at the same time,
sure they saw something special.
For the disciples, the transfiguration was a mystical experience.
It was ethereal– as if time meant nothing or was non-existent.
This moment enabled the disciples to face many directions at once—
Back to God’s calling their people God’s own,
through the law and the prophets,
To the present, now, imagine the joy and the apprehension you might feel
comprehending you are in the presence of God.
They finally realize Jesus true identity.
In this experience they were pulled forward as well,
to see the hope of humankind in the person of Jesus
The transfiguration created a bridge/a conduit for the disciples.
A thin place we might call it–where the Creator and creation touch.
And the moment quickly dissipated—like when we try to grab a snowflake out of the air with our bare hands and it melts on our warm skin.
I’ve climbed a few mountains in my time—I’ve even been to Mount Tabor,
one of the places where tradition says the transfiguration
could have taken place.
I studied on a mountain, too, Sewanee mountain,
which many experience as a thin place.
I’m sure many of you have stories of mountain top experiences—
a place where the light of God illumined you.
One of my earliest experiences of enlightenment—being in a thin space
was not on a mountain though, unless you call
the banks of Clear Creek a kind of mountain.
To a child, it can certainly seem like one.
Most summers of my childhood and teen years,
I spent time at Camp McDowell.
I loved camp for so many reasons….hiking over the swinging bridge to St. Christopher’s pond or all the way to Tiller’s where we’d swim and slide down the wet rocks, and then pick the leeches off of us afterwards; my first few years of camp were in the ‘70’s, when there were fewer rules and less fear of liability than now, so we were able to go rock climbing on the cliffs that overlooked Clear Creek—that was cool! Once I took the all-day canoe trip to Smith Lake from below the dam at camp—proudly coming back to camp that night, nursing the blisters on my hands and with very, very, red, sunburnt shoulders that burnt like fire the rest of camp. I didn’t do that ever again.
If you’ve ever been to Camp McDowell, though, you probably know, you don’t choose this camp because of its array of activities. Frankly, you could easily find other camps around with more exciting activities, like horseback riding, zip lining, and kayaking.
What Camp McDowell offers, or at least what it offered me, is experience living into myself as a child of God.
A glimpse of the sacred gift of living in human community, as God’s own people.
My mom and dad both loved and were wearied by my “mountain top” experiences each summer at camp.
They were rid of me for one or two weeks of the summer
But they had to put up with me and my after-camp blues the rest of the summer.
I clearly remember, and am embarrassed, to be truthful, the many rides home from camp, where I sat moping in the seat next to mom, refusing to share all about my experiences at camp.
She would never get it anyway. You had to be there.
And, by the way, she was the one taking me away.
Away from all that I’d shared at camp, the friends, the boyfriends, the long talks in small groups, the singing and the dancing,
and the feeling that God is truly in this place.
Camp transformed me. It allowed me to grow, and be loved even when I wasn’t deserving of it.
Like Peter, I did not want to leave that place.
I did not want to go back to the real world, where people don’t get it,
where the love of Christ is misinterpreted
as only available to certain people,
or where Christ’s love means obedience to archaic laws
rather than about building what God intends for us,
a caring, healing, inclusive community.
But that is what we must do, walk down the mountain with Jesus,
Not as grumpy teens, but as people illumined by Christ’s grace,
even in our broken selves, perhaps, particularly as a broken people.
It is only by sharing ourselves, our holy experiences,
that we have a chance to usher in God’s love.
I wonder what Jesus, Peter, James, and John talked about
as they left this special place.
Or was it quiet?
I picture the four friends walking down the mountain,
in the words of the song artist Bebo Norman, with their hearts held high, having seen the very face of God
They would undoubtedly now, Follow in the footsteps of their maker.
If you offer up your broken cup
You will taste the meaning of this life.
(Listen to the song here: Walk Down this Mountain)