NRSV LUKE 9:28-43a
28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”–not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38 Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39 Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40 I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” 42 While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43 And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
He hasn’t been here very often, certainly not often enough for you all to get to know him very well. But our son Peter knows all about mountaintop experiences.
He is a rocket engineer who has spent the last five years in California – that is up until a month ago, but that is getting ahead of my story. He shares his father’s fascination with space exploration, though thankfully he does not share his Dad’s dumbness in math. Thanks be to God he and his sister got their Mother’s math genes.
He does share something else with me that I am proud to claim, and that is a fascination with mountains. It started early with all four of us walking with a church group up the hills of southwestern Pennsylvania, when he could barely walk. He’s been walking up and down hills ever since.
While out in California he decided to take on the highest mountain in the contiguous United States – Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada range. There were a lot of hoops to jump through before he could start climbing: he had to submit an application just to walk up the mountain. He had to go through some pretty rigorous training – after all, it is over 14,500 feet up. He had to take all of his supplies with him; you have to cart everything – and I mean everything – up, and everything down. Nothing is to be left on the mountain. But as is usual with him he took them all on and made it to the top.
He sent us some pictures after the all-day-plus hike. It is a rather nondescript mountain – it doesn’t have a nice neat peak to it; it is just one of a series of ridges, higher than the others, of course. Nothing like the majestic Mount Rainier in Washington. But it was still an arduous hike. Along the way he got to know some folks climbing with him. When he got up there he took a 360-degree shot of the top of the mountain, with his fellow climbers all around. There was a place up there for you to inscribe something that you would like to leave to prosperity, so he inscribed: God is good.
Pete had a mountaintop experience. But lest you think that is all fuzzy and nice and feel good stuff, let me tell you that it was just about the hardest thing he has ever done in his life, and he has done some pretty strenuous things. But it also did something else for him, something that mountaintop experiences will do to any of us: It changed him.
Or maybe it confirmed something he already suspected. He had been contemplating this for a while but his hike up Mount Whitney seemed to accept the reality that he is not a California guy. It helped him to see that he is a Midwest guy, and proud to be so. So a little over a month ago he made the move from sunny southern California to frigid Madison, Wisconsin; yes, in the middle of that Polar Vortex that hit in late January. He went through a temperature differential of 100 degrees in five days. But he is where he wants to be, something his mountaintop experience taught him.
His mountaintop experience was a lot different than mine, which I have recounted to you all a few times, always during this particular Sunday. It was when I was at a conference in Colorado and was invited to go up a mountain with one of the leaders of the conference. While up there we got separated because I couldn’t keep up with him, and was faced with the daunting prospect of having to hike down the mountain with storm clouds coming up at me. It is a very disorienting experience, I can tell you, to see clouds coming up at you as opposed to coming down at you. I had seen that all the time. Never had I ever witnessed clouds coming up at me, clouds that were a tipoff that a major thunderstorm was developing. It was a very scary experience.
My mountain top experience gave me a lot of compassion for those disciples of old, especially Peter. We give him a bad time over his impetuousness, like being on the mountain and Jesus being transfigured, talking with the great spiritual giants of Hebrew history, Moses and Elijah; Mr. Law and Mr. Prophet themselves, long dead but very much alive and talking with Jesus on the mountain. And there is Peter wanting to do something familiar, something comfortable, something he could tangibly do in the face of such an other-worldly experience. I can remember making fun of Peter in many a Transfiguration Sunday sermon over the silliness of building tents, dwellings, for Jesus and the others. Of Peter wanting to keep his mountaintop experience in a dwelling. All of a sudden, Peter didn’t look so silly. In my time on that mountain, with so many different threatening, thrilling and disorienting experiences, I really wanted something familiar and comfortable, too.
Mountaintop experiences will do that to you, you know. You don’t have to climb a physical mountain to have a mountaintop experience. You can have one in the kitchen, on the porch, driving to the bank; you can have one while you are in bed, in the hazy existence between wakefulness and sleep. You can even have one in church. It is any time where the distance between you and heaven, between you and God, seems to be very thin – a thin place, the mystics called it. It is not all nice and sweet. It is scary stuff. It is the place where you see things differently. You see yourself differently. You see why you were put on this earth, and how you can make a difference. It will probably scare you to death because it brings you back to life, the only real life that matters. Because it is the life you were meant to live.
Yes, these may be nice experiences in which we feel the love of God in a special way, and that may stir within us a desire to share it with everybody. But there is also this about mountaintop experiences: they will change you. They will transfigure you. They may even take everything you have ever known and turned it upside down and inside out, if they don’t trash them altogether. They may give you a completely new insight, one you never had before. They may teach you how to deal with fear, but they may also give you a new kind of fear.
But this you cannot do with a mountaintop experience: You cannot stay there. Always you have to come down off the mountain. And sometimes when you come down off the mountain, you will be surprised at how quickly you will need every part of that glorious and challenging experience to get you through.
The whole account starts off with Jesus walking with his disciples through the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asks them: “Who do people say that I am?” Then the clincher – “Who do you say that I am?” Peter comes forward with the answer, “The Messiah (The Chosen) of God.” But they have all kinds of ideas of what that meant, so he laid out for them all that he would have to go through – the suffering, rejection, death, being raised back to life. Still, they didn’t get it, not completely.
So when the Transfiguration occurs, not only do Moses and Elijah show up, but they talk to Jesus. And what they talk about is something that is in Luke and nowhere else: His departure, his exodus. That is a loaded phrase. They are talking about his departure to Jerusalem, his departure from all that was familiar and safe, his departure from life. His departure, his exodus, which even more than the other exodus, would be a departure for newness of life and salvation for all. But like that other exodus, it would require the loss of the life of a son.
Then comes the silly request to build a dwelling, followed by a cloud that covers them all, making a disorienting experience even more so. Then, a voice, with words that sounded so much like the words from Jesus’ baptism three years before but with one important caveat: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” With that, the cloud evaporates, and they head down the mountain.
But it is not so easy as that.
As with every other mountaintop experience, eventually you have to come down off the mountain, and when you do, life happens. Life hits you in the face. In this case, it is the face of a demon-possessed boy, and a father who has struggled with his behavior, maybe for days, maybe for years. The disciples who had been left behind can’t help him, and we who are parents can only imagine the father’s frustrations. These frustrations aren’t shown here, but they are in Mark’s account of this event, where the father offers up the ageless cry of all of us in the face of human ineptitude and seeming Divine indifference: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”
I have to admit I didn’t really want to read these last few verses. They are just add-ons, verses in parentheses. But something compelled me, and I hope compels you, to hear this story. It is the story of Jesus being transfigured, and rather than having that experience take Jesus out of the world it plunges him back into the middle of it, with all of its brokenness, all of its faithlessness, all of its perversity. But he still comes to that brokenness and heals, and restores, and reconciles. He does all of that to this father and this boy. And I dare say he still does it.
We are in the end of the season of Epiphany, the season of making Christ known in the world. On Wednesday some of us will put on ashes, reminding us of our mortality, and then we will spend the next six weeks reflecting on what it means to be human, and how that humanity with all of its messed up tendencies can still, by the grace of God, be instruments of God’s peace and love – and healing – in the world.
Over the last week we have witnessed two sister Christian denominations go through a time of turmoil – the Roman Catholic Church as it comes to terms with years of clergy sexual abuse of parishioners; and the United Methodist Church as it struggles, like this denomination has, over the issue of gay and lesbian ordination. The Methodist struggle has been especially compelling, being a sister Protestant denomination, and with how close our churches are, not just in proximity but in the ways we seek to minister to community as well as parish. We see so many of the struggles going on with them that have gone on with us, and it would well behoove us to keep them in prayer as they work their way through this. We could get giddy and say, “oh boy, maybe some of their frustrated people will come here,” but that is not what the Transfigured Christ would call on us to do. We are called to draw close, to lift them up in prayer, to seek God’s Presence in a loving and reconciling way. We do this because the One who was transfigured on the mountaintop and then moved into the valley of suffering calls on us to do likewise; to experience Jesus’ glorified Presence, and then take that experience to enlighten our ministries in this church, in this community, with our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ, and to a world that needs its own mountaintop experiences and its own transfiguration. Amen.