You Can’t Stay on the Mountaintop.
Anyone going to be watching the Oscars tonight?
Our family makes a night of it, usually.
We fill out ballots for who is going to win the various awards
I sometimes guess right for best original screenplay or sound editing
Or best cinematography, the spectacle of a movie.
I’m lucky, though, if I ever get more than five or six guesses right
And never win the grand prize: some leftover valentines chocolate.
It helps if I’ve watched the movies, of course.
I can’t always do that, and this year I’ve only seen four of the nine
Nominees for best motion picture
So I’m winging it, again, this year with my ballot guesses.
Movies are magical, but also deeply moving.
They invite us into a story in a uniquely powerful way,
Helping paint a picture so vivid that they can stay with you
And shape you
And maybe even guide you.
Good stories, well told, can do that.
They can inspire, and surprise, and teach you something about yourselves.
Today we have a story that itself is quite theatrical,
something like a Hollywood spectacle.
If it’s never been a seen in a move, then it ought to be.
The special effects alone would be worthy of a JJ Abrams
or a Stephen Spielberg.
As Matthew tells it in our Gospel reading,
Jesus goes up an unnamed mountain
With Peter, James, and John,
cloaked in mystery.
While on the mountaintop, the disciples are stunned
when Jesus begins to glow a dazzling white,
his face like the sun,
his clothes bright and blinding.
Suddenly Moses and Elijah appear with him and also shimmer in brilliance.
They’re talking, but we aren’t told what about.
Peter wants to construct little houses, more likely tents, you know
An effort to CONTAIN and CAPTURE the special experience they are having.
Peter wants to stay up there on the mountain,
To be removed from the world and to enjoy this holy entourage
And not to have to go back down there with the others
Back down to the world
And its issues
It is good for us to be HERE, Peter says.
Implying that it is better to be up HERE than down THERE.
But then a cloud,
And God’s voice
(I imagine that it is Morgan Freeman, though James Earl Jones would work)
And God’s voice speaks through the mountaintop mist:
“THIS IS MY SON, THE BELOVED. LISTEN TO HIM!”
And, as quickly as it all began, it is over.
Moses and Elijah disappear,
and Jesus leads the three disciples back DOWN the mountain.
First up the mountain to this, this spectacle. Then down again.
We call it the Transfiguration.
As one Bible scholar writes of these verses:
“for a moment the curtain…is drawn aside”
and the disciples catch a glimpse “in Jesus…of the glory of God.”[i]
Then, almost as suddenly at it appears,
the curtain drops
and the special effects are gone
and we are rushed from the scene.
It’s a fascinating tale. Lots of room for CGI movie magic.
If they can bring Carrie Fisher back for the next two Star Wars movies
Surely Elijah and Moses will be no problem, right?
But those are the movies.
This is something much more personal, much more real for us
As people of faith
Who are trying to get our heads around these kinds of stories
The strong temptation is to want to cut to the chase:
to clear away the fluff and the extraneous bits
and to zoom in to find the heart of the story.
Lets get rid of the hocus-pocus
and find the ethical heart-of-the-matter, shall we?
Well, there are so many parts of scripture for which that impulse is true for me.
The parables of Jesus, those stories where Christ uses allegory or metaphor
to illustrate his point:
a great banquet, for example, becomes a story about the realm of God
a businessman and his field laborers
or a wandering son and his dutiful brother, characters in
the great drama of humanity
trying to figure out how to live faithfully…
These parables of Jesus that leave us wondering:
which character is God, exactly?
which character is our neighbor
and, lets be clear about why we are really asking,
which one is US?
Or then the resurrection narratives, Jesus cooking fish on a lakeshore
or showing up to mediate a dispirited spat
on the road to Emmaus
How, exactly does this dead, quite dead Jesus come to us?
He appears and disappears among them,
but has flesh and bone
and wounds and hunger?
…I hunger…for clarity. It is what my rational side aches for.
It would be so much easier to cut to the chase.
I want clear answers to my questions.
I want someone to explain them for me so that I can understand.
I want to see clearly while I’m in a cloud.
But here’s the thing: these mountaintop stories aren’t meant for that.
And maybe you’re hoping that I will explain these passages for you.
That I will wrap them up in nice little packages that “make sense”
so we can go on our way,
secure in the illusion that things are supposed to make sense.
But sometimes mystery screams to be left alone,
to let mystery be mystery.
Sometimes the best movies don’t tie up all the narrative elements
Into a clear and satisfying ending, but leave it open,
Because the future itself IS open.
My friend, Marci Glass, in a helpful sermon on the Transfiguration
put it this way:
“I won’t try to explain them.
Each time I think I get a grasp on them,
they slip through my fingers,
escaping my preconceived fist.
These texts are about mystery.
They don’t want to be explained.
Right before we enter the season of Lent,
as we’ll prepare for the mystery of Easter,
these texts stand at the entrance
and remind us that God
is not to be easily understood or categorized.”[ii]
Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you yearn for clarity.
But sometimes the best story invites us to rest in the mysterious for just a bit longer.
Maybe God is urging us to be more comfortable with holy mystery.
Some of the most sacred moments we experience
are surrounded with mystery.
When I was a child, I remember a seminarian, a student preacher
at our church talking to us about a visit she made
to an older woman near to death.
In their quiet conversation the woman spoke from her hospital bed
about her lifelong faith in God and her readiness to die.
After a while, the seminary student prayed with the woman
and got up to go,
gently saying her farewell.
At the door she turned to look back at the woman, now resting
with her eyes closed,
and she noticed that she seemed to be…GLOWING,
radiant in anticipation of eternal life.
God was NEAR in that moment.
It was a close encounter with the Almighty,
and the light of God’s presence shone in her face.
I remember that story often, these days.
When I visit friends who are sick, or just hang out with a friend who is hurting.
How many times have I felt that myself, each time I’ve had the privilege
of being with someone during the moments before their final breath.
The holy moment of close-encounter with God.
How have you experienced a close encounter with the divine?
But this transfiguration, and this Jesus who is on the mountain…
One major key to the Transfiguration
is the Hebrew notion of kavod, or which we translate as GLORY.
In the Bible, God’s presence is GLORY.
That word Glory, This Kavod
describes the ineffable, indescribable experience of light.
The mystery, the astonishment of light, you might say.
God’s glory on that mountaintop sets Jesus to shining,
and the three disciples,
like the seminarian-preacher in the hospital room,
are bathed in the light of God’s presence.
The Poet Edwin Muir captures what might have been the astonishment
of the disciple-witnesses on that mountaintop:
We would have thrown our clothes away for lightness,
But that even they, though sour and travel stained,
Seemed, like our flesh,
made of immortal substance,
And the soiled flax and wool lay light upon us
Like friendly wonders…
Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
The same transfiguring light appears in other biblical accounts.
The story of Moses we heard read today
the second version of the gift of the Torah, the law of God
begins with Moses going up Mount Sinai.
In the text from Exodus this morning, Moses goes up onto Mount Sinai
for forty days and forty nights—
a numerical symmetry repeated often in the scriptures—
for instance in Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness.
And then ten chapters later, that’s Chapter 34, if you’re counting
A long time later, in biblical written space
Moses comes down the mountain,
you know, with the stone tablets of the Torah with him
Moses didn’t stay up on the mountaintop.
He is different now.
Here’s how Exodus puts it:
Moses came down from Mount Sinai.
As he came down from the mountain
with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand,
Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone
[shone] because he had been talking with God….[iv]
On Mount Sinai, Moses’ face, like Jesus’ face in our Gospel reading,
picks up a glow from contact with the Shekinah,
the Divine Presence.
God’s glory STICKS to him.
I had the chance to hold an infant a few weeks ago,
something I don’t get to do much anymore.
Have you held an infant lately, or just hung out with one?
His mother was feeding him
and wanted me to hold him for a moment.
It reminded me of our own girls, when they were tiny.
The bananas and pears and other foods
we were starting to feed our girls.
Days later, I’d find a bit of it behind an ear, or elbow.
You just couldn’t get it off. It got everywhere… Stuck to them.
The Glory of God STICKS to Moses. And he doesn’t even know it at first…
Moses so clearly has had a close encounter with God
that the Hebrew people
cannot even look at him when he descends from the peak.
Its too bright, too awesome. To them, too fearsome to behold…
Exodus even tells us that
He takes to wearing a mask or veil to cut down the glare from the GLORY,
the kavod, that shines in his face.
I think I mentioned this once before, but I was thinking again about
hot summer nights, when I was growing up,
and how we used to go out into the backyard and catch fireflies.
I remember the first time I accidentally smashed a lightening bug,
and its fluorescence blurred across my hand.
I stood there, transfixed in the darkness,
staring at my skin still glowing from the little streak of glory
left by that firefly.
Something like that is
what I imagine must have happened to Moses and to Jesus.
They got close to God’s glory, brushed up against it, and it smeared onto them.
They came away GLOWING. It STUCK to them, so others could see.
But its not just for them.
Its not just about Moses, or about Jesus, or those disciples.
Our encounter with God ought to DO something to us,
ought to CHANGE us somehow.
And the amazing thing is, that when we let it
Our faith does just that.
We go to school: and our relationships with our friends
Are filtered by the glow of God we’ve experienced
And the assurance that God walks with us
As we learn and grow
We go to work: and we see opportunities
to treat colleagues and customers as Children of God
We give of our time: to go to Center school to help the families there grow
Or to Cherith Brook to help with the homeless.
We call our friends: knowing that friendship is the bond of love
That can inspire us to work together, to collaborate, for great things.
We read the paper, and we learn about good things happening
In our neighborhood that we want to support
Like childhood learning opportunities or
Ways to help people feel welcome
Or we hear about horrible acts of hatred and racism and xenophobia
A shooting in an Olathe bar
And we see that God’s heart broke that day
Just broke apart
For Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who died
And for his wife Sunayana
And for the other two injured
And we resolve to be the sort of people
Who do what we can to make our neighborhood
A place not just of peace but of welcome.
We do these things, because of Jesus.
Because we’ve encountered Jesus, and Jesus has rubbed off on us.
Something of Jesus’ glory shines on me
And on you, every time we turn to him and seek to be like him
Every moment of our lives.
So Peter, James and John
Were up on that mountain
Ordinary people. Fishermen who are following their rabbi
Hoping to learn about God
and not quite sure what they’ve gotten themselves into.
They know he’s unique, that he is special, this Jesus.
That he heals and teaches and shows a new way to love,
A love that is broader than family or clan
A love that crosses boarders and braves
Disrupting the leaders
Of both church and state
As they heal the hurting
And feed the hungry
And welcome the stranger
But they didn’t know, maybe, that he had Moses and Elijah’s digits
And that they’d be there watching them TALK.
They want to stay there, right there, up on the mountain.
They want to enjoy that experience of being close to something amazing
Something powerful and something true
The symbols of God’s powerful exodus and piercing prophecy
Moses and Elijah, in the flesh.
But Jesus shows that an encounter with the Glory of God isn’t meant
To be kept under wraps
But is a light that must illumine the world
Must rub off on us so that it can rub off on others
That the movement of God cannot be contained
up there on that mountain
but must come down so that it can be shared.
Some people have called these days we’re in dark days.
I don’t know, are they? Perhaps. Hard to tell.
But you can see those fireflies only when night falls.
They’re there, during the day, doing their firefly thing
But its particularly when dusk comes that they shine, and shine bright.
So maybe the days are growing a bit dark
But that’s more opportunity, for us,
To come down off the mountaintop
To go out into the world
And to be people transformed, transfigured,
By the love of God in Christ Jesus.
[i] Eduard Schweitzer, quoted in Phyllis Kersten, in “Off the Mountain”, The Christian Century, February 7-14, 2001; p. 13
[ii] From Marci Glass’ sermon “Transfiguration 2013” accessed on February 23, 2017: http://marciglass.com/2013/02/10/transfiguration-2013/
[iii] Edwin Muir [1887-1959], poem entitled, The Transfiguration.
[iv] Exodus 34:29