One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor
once opened a sermon on this text with a fair question:
“Who can talk about the Transfiguration?”[i]
“Jesus certainly did not talk about it” she noted.
“Neither did the three disciples who were with him.”
You find this story, the shimmering glowing transmorphing of Jesus’s appearance
in Matthew and Mark and Luke, all three.
But, Matthew tells us that Jesus ordered them
“Tell no one about the vision”
that is, “until AFTER the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
And Luke’s version of this story doesn’t even have THAT qualification:
“They kept silent” Luke says
“and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.”
One wonders how Luke or Matthew or Mark ever heard about it themselves,
or whether they questioned the wisdom of writing it down.
But the moment they did, the EXPERIENCE became public property.
All kinds of people started pawing through it, looking for significance,
explaining why so-and-so was there,
why such-and-such said this-or-that,
wondering which of the possible mountains could be
THE site for THE mountaintop experience.
All trying, through their labor, to get beyond the “What you See”
to find the “What you Get”
But I guess that’s all we know how to do with an experience, any experience,
that does not really FIT any of our normal categories.
We just keep HANDLING it
until we WEAR IT DOWN to where it feels safe, managable.
We just keep ANALYZING it
until we can say SOMETHING, anything, intelligent about it.
As if coming to certainty about what Moses and Elijah represent
Or whether Jesus’ face looked more like-a-ghost or more like-he-had-a-sunburn
Would enable us to grasp what the heck was going on here.
Don’t get me wrong, trying to figure out these things in scripture isn’t a bad thing.
Its just that the truth of this matter is going to be elusive.
Luke has presented us
with an intensely INTIMATE moment between Jesus and God.
So INTIMATE that much of it happened in a cloud, away from view.
There are witnesses, true enough,
But in spite of all the fantastic things going on
THEY couldn’t figure out what was happening.
Luke even tells us they struggled to stay awake,
As if God herself had sprinkled sleeping powder over their heads
To protect them from things they were not equipped to see.
And what they did see, they initially misunderstood,
and what they not only SAW but HEARD,
confused them, and maybe even terrified them.
So I cannot really talk about it, not in the sense of trying to EXPLAIN it.
It seems somehow disingenuous to say
that anyone has some special insight into this event,
insights that neither Peter nor James nor John could fully grasp.
Yes, we could expound upon how Moses represents the Law
and Elijah the prophets. There’s a sermon there, somewhere.
We could explore the parallels between this mountaintop experience
and others, like the one from Exodus we just heard
We could speculate about what kind of wood Peter wanted to use
To build the booths for them to camp for the night.
We could ask whether the voice from the cloud SHOOK THE MOUNTAIN
Or was a still, soft voice that, nevertheless, touched their very core.
Would all that ACTIVITY get us anywhere, though? Perhaps.
Maybe what we SHOULD explore, though, is our preoccupation
at trying to EXPLAIN away mystery,
And even more importantly
how God keeps beckoning US to EXPERIENCE something divine,
something holy in moments like this.
The gospel writers, whoever they were,
thought this story of Jesus’ transfiguration was rather important.
Matthew and Luke,
when they sat down to write their own stories of Jesus’ life
for their own particular communities
both chose to tell this tale pretty much like Mark did.
Sure, there are slight changes of emphasis here and there.
We already noted that Luke says these three disciples needed more coffee.
Matthew has Peter calling Jesus “Lord”
compared to Luke’s “Master” and Mark’s “Rabbi.”
I’ve sat through BORING sermons on just that distinction.
There is some debate among the gospels whether it was a mountain
or a HIGH mountain.
Whether the order is Moses-and-Elijah, or Elijah-and-Moses.
And only Matthew relays to us,
in the midst of a very transcendent and mystical VISION
this very HUMAN act of Jesus
coming to the disciples in their fear and TOUCHING them, saying
“Get up and do not be afraid.”
But for the most part this account is pretty much the same in each gospel.
And if any of them had any doubt about
putting this INTIMATE affair down on parchment, we don’t see it.
Well, if its good enough for them to brave talking about it,
it ought be good enough for us, I suppose.
This is the last Sunday before Lent,
which we usher in with Ash Wednesday
and maybe some of us with a Marty Gras party or two on Tuesday night.
Pancakes for sure, today after worship.
It feels early this year, doesn’t it, the start of this season
of meditation and contemplation on the way to the cross.
But the season is indeed upon us, and each year
before we tarry with Jesus towards Jerusalem
we encounter Jesus up here on this mountain,
shining, glittery, transformed before his disciples.
A pastor friend of mine who has been preaching for almost thirty-five years
lamented to me last week how this was the thirty-fifth time
he had to try to preach about this story
that he didn’t really get.
Maybe, the problem is
All this talk about trying to get our minds around the DETAILS
of this amazing event.
Are we really looking in the right place for God’s word for us this morning?
As usual, Frank had gotten there early.[ii]
He endured that mess in the parking lot,
though he was farther from the terminal than he would have wanted to be.
He made it through security without arguing very much with the ticket agent.
He even tried to be friendly to her, but she gave him back only a weary look.
And at least the checkpoints were smooth sailing this time.
He was able to keep his shoes on. Yay for TSA Pre Check.
Now he was on the plane waiting to take off.
Frank was in seat 14D. The woman next to him sat in 14E.
No two seat-mates could have been more different.
From her dress you might have guessed that she was far from sophisticated,
While his finely pressed suit and sparkling shoes
Quite literally oozed affluence and sophistication.
From her talk you could tell that she was a plainspoken woman, from the country.
And he sat there with his aluminum briefcase and laptop,
while she tried to shove sacks and bundles under the seat in front of her.
It was obvious to him that she had never been on a plane before.
“I don’t do this much,” she grinned. “Do you?”
He nodded a yes, and she said “Oh, that must be a lot of fun.”
Frank groaned silently. This was going to be a long flight.
She volunteered that she was going to Dallas to see her son.
And she filled in ALL the blanks:
He was her only son,
the boy had the flu, you see
he had a black Lab,
the dog’s name was Wilbur.
Wilbur only had one good eye.
Have you ever seen a dog with only one good eye?
As the plane climbed, she looked out the window:
“Ooooo—just look at the trees; they look just like peat moss.”
She was a little loud. People turned around and STARED at her.
Frank wanted to crawl under the seat.
The flight attendant came by asking what they’d like to drink.
Frank asked for a Coke.
His seatmate asked for a second time about the choices.
When her drink came
she said she didn’t know that apple juice came in cans, but my it was delicious.
And when the sandwich came by she said, too loudly: “Why, there’s even mayonnaise in there.”
This went on the whole flight. She missed nothing.
Frank noticed that the man in the row in front of them
was discussing a business trip to Japan.
The fellow behind them kept ordering beers—two at a time.
The woman to his right had important-looking papers stacked all around her.
He himself cracked open his laptop and began to work.
It occurred to him that the only person on the entire plane enjoying the trip
was the woman sitting next to him in seat 14E.
When the plane finally landed, she turned and said:
“Now, wasn’t that a fun trip?”
And as he watched her head MERCIFULLY down the aisle and leave the plane,
the question finally hit him:
What was it that she had
that he didn’t have?
What was it that she knew
that he didn’t know?
Why had she enjoyed the whole trip from beginning to end
While he was miserable?
There is something about the WONDER OF THE NEW
that keeps us fresh and engaged, I think.
Able to sit back and absorb it all
To EXPERIENCE fully
And to SEE things differently, anew
even if we don’t fully UNDERSTAND.
I’ve had two flights this year already.
I was thinking about this story this week as I flew home from Louisville
and you can see a sort of weariness on so many fliers
numbed from the work.
And its not just travel. It can be like that in all of our experiences
in our office, at our schools, in our retirement.
HOW can we enter into a more open, fresh, lively attitude?
Luke tells us this morning that Jesus
took three disciples to the top of a mountain.
It was midpoint in Jesus’ journey, and the clouds were hanging low over his ministry.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were making it increasingly difficult for him.
His disciples bickered continually.
And Jesus began to talk to them about suffering, Jerusalem, and the cross.
He talked about saving one’s life by losing it.
And then Jesus took the leaders of the disciple band,
Peter, James, and John,
away from the others
Up the winding trail to the top of the mountain
where SOMETHING happened.
The SOMETHING turned them inside out.
SOMETHING changed their lives and they were never quite the same again.
Peter wanted to stay there forever, but Jesus shook his head.
God interrupted him, in fact, when he proposed the notion.
The vision faded.
Moses and Elijah left as quickly as they came,
and Jesus and the three disciples
made the winding trip back down the mountain,
back down to the dusty ministry
of healing and feeding and proclaiming.
towards the events of passion week and Jesus’ death.
There comes a time when we have to DISENGAGE.
Where our ACTIVITY can make us BLIND to what is there to EXPERIENCE.
From time to time we active do-ers need to stop, and look, and listen
To quit our DOING and just stand there.
If I’m honest, I’ll admit to you: That’s a hard thing for me.
I often think I have to be DOING something all the time.
PLANNING all the time.
GOING all the time.
But up on that mountain, SOMETHING HAPPENED
that just had to be experienced.
Up on that airplane, I think that Frank MISSED the entire journey
because he was immersed in his busyness.
The woman was able to focus on the moment by letting herself JUST BE there,
and in it became ALIVE to the experience.
And I doubt she could EXPLAIN it to you, even if she wanted to.
I’m not really sure exactly why Jesus took those three disciples up on the mountain,
And frankly I don’t UNDERSTAND everything that took place up there.
But I am sure that part of the point was to give them a place,
an experience of disengagement from their normal routine
to prepare them to understand the journey to Jerusalem that was to follow.
Another way to put this is that God called Peter, James and John to a retreat.
The transfiguration of Jesus, that event, for the disciples is a retreat-moment.
Not the kind of retreats we have where we try to get-something-done
But the kind of retreat where we just LISTEN, EXPERIENCE.
On a meditation over the Exodus passage Don read this morning,
Tom Ehrich draws some interesting parallels
between what we call a retreat
and what God was doing with Moses on Mount Sinai.
“Moses didn’t go on retreat with an agenda,
such as a set of issues to work on,
a book to read,
or some silence to attain.
Moses went because God said ‘Come up to Me on the Mountain’
God called this retreat, not Moses.
…Moses entrusted his normal duties to others.
As it turned out, they violated his trust, (they made that Golden Calf)
which is a constant worry for retreatants.
Nevertheless, God required this time away.
…The mountain was a scary place, covered with a cloud.
I suspect that every retreat starts in some apprehension. If not, why be there?
…The agenda belongs to God.
Both retreat leader and retreatant need to know that.
In Moses’ case, God left Moses alone in the cloud
for six days – as in the six days of creation –
before calling out to him on the seventh day.
…The retreat didn’t end when the glory moment occurred.
No final round of hugs and head back to town.
The seventh day is when the retreat truly commenced.
…What began then? Forty days inside a cloud with God.
During that time, God taught Moses how he and his people ought to live.
As with the forty years that the Hebrews spent in the wilderness
and the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness,
this was a time of re-formation:
new insights into the challenges ahead,
and a new trust in God.
Why is such an arduous task necessary?
Because the forces arrayed against us are truly overwhelming.
They always are.
Truth and lie are always at war.
Justice and injustice,
kindness and cruelty,
sacrifice and greed,
tolerance and intolerance,
peace and strife –
always competing for our loyalty,
always threatening to corrupt our lives.
That’s why God calls people on retreat.
If it were easier and less hazardous, God could just send a manual.
Assemble the parts,
read the instructions,
and use in peace.
Not so. These are dangerous times.
We are each at risk, and we are each part of the problem.
God needs to get us into that cloud,
where we can stop talking,
stop planning, stop arming, stop building,
and just listen to God.”[iii]
There’s plenty of work to do down here in the valley, here at The Kirk.
But without moments of retreat up to the mountaintop,
We just won’t be able to do them.
I was doing some reading this week for Black History Month,
and I saw something about Ossie Davis, who died in February eleven years ago.
I knew him mainly from his acting in the Spike Lee joints
Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever,
But Davis had a long and honorable vocation
as an actor, writer, playwright, and civil rights activist.
Ossie was friends with and supported the work of
Martin Luther King Jr,
Fanny Lou Hamer.
Ossie delivered the Eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X,
and helped organize the 1963 March on Washington,
where he was the Emcee with his wife Ruby Dee.
When it comes to DOING God’s work in the valley, Ossie was a GIANT.
Ossie’s last interview was broadcast on February 21st, 2005
the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X,
on the PBS show “Tavis Smiley.”
In that interview, Smiley asked Davis how he prepared himself
to deliver eulogies for people like Malcolm X.
He thought for a good long time, and then answered:
“The first thing, I should think,
would be to sit quietly for as long as it takes
and think long thoughts about the subject.”[iv]
To gain the strength and wisdom he needed, Ossie Davis would go on retreat.
There is some real value in taking a breath,
and allowing yourself, spiritually, to go on retreat every now and then.
And, I’ve got some good news for you:
If you want to call it that, the retreat called Lent starts in just a few days.
God is calling us to EXPERIENCE the holy of the season
To SEE what God is calling us to BE and DO and FEEL
To RECHARGE our batteries for the journey
And thus be alive, really ALIVE, in an EASTER world.
Maybe it makes all the sense in the world to look at the Transfiguration
right before we enter into that holy season, that holy time.
My prayer is that we might have the patience
to STOP what we’re doing, and EXPERIENCE what God is offering to us.
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Thin Places” from Home By another Way (Cambridge, MA: Cowley), 1999 This introduction is indebted to her sermon.
[ii] Story from Roger Lovette in Pulpit Resource, February 6, 2005.
[iv] “Ossie Davis, Actor, Writer, and Eloquent Champion of Racial Justice, Dies at 87” The New York Times, February 5, 2005.