Message by Rev. Jenny Carter
March 3, 2019
(Based on Exodus 34:29-35, Luke 9:28-36)
What goes around comes around. True in life, and true in Bible stories. Because three out of four gospel writers (all except John) tell the story of a mountain top encounter with God, we get to hear this story every year. Centuries ago, the church in her wisdom, decided to even set aside the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent so that we could contemplate what it means to encounter God face to face – what the story of Jesus being transfigured (or changed) in front of his friends might mean for us. And again, showing how wise the church is, decided to name the Sunday where we think about Jesus’ transfiguration as transfiguration Sunday.
Many of us are really familiar with this story. How could we not be? It keeps coming around and again and again. Jesus and three of his friends go up a mountain to pray and Jesus is transfigured – he becomes a bright and shining figure – and as his friends share this vision of God’s glory in front of them – they see Moses and Elijah standing with Jesus (if even for a mere instant) and then it is over as quickly as it began. Yet that mountain top encounter changes the disciples – changes not only how they see Jesus, but changes absolutely everything,
Maybe this story has moved you in years past – maybe it has caused you to think about your own encounters with God as you go through your own life. Perhaps this is the first time in a long time that you heard the story read and it feels unbelievable – too big to contemplate. Or maybe this story has become so familiar to you that you don’t think much about it at all. What goes around comes around, and when a story comes around so often, the power of its message can diminish over time. Regardless of where we are in our reaction to this story, one thing is for certain, we have heard it preached on a lot over the years.
While your experience may differ, most of the sermons I have read, heard, or preached on the transfiguration have taken one of two directions. On direction focuses on the event itself – the great mystery at the heart of the story. As Jesus is transfigured in front of his friends and becomes dazzlingly radiant, we hear or speak about how this particular encounter demonstrates that Jesus is the embodiment of God – and how when you encounter God face to face, it changes you. Another approach, equally faithful and theologically true to the text, has its focus on the valley, and how each one of us (once we see the light, so to speak) are to go back down from the mountain and begin to meet the valley of need that awaits. We are called, like Jesus and the disciples were called, to meet the needs of people and the world, through loving and just actions. Very much a, “when you see the light, you need to become the light.”
Yet today I want to take a different approach to the story. Still theologically sound, but a view of the story of the transfiguration from a different angle. For me, the power of our faith stories, the power of the stories in scripture, is only unleashed and felt by us all, when the stories converge with our own lived experiences. There are many sacred texts that speak of mountains as holy spaces where one might encounter the living God, and almost all of them speak of experiences on those mountains, and finishes off with what happens when we make our way down the mountain. But few speak above a whisper about the ascent. Which leaves me wondering, what about the trek up the mountain?
I am drawn to reflect upon the hike up the mountain – not so much to the clouds and the light and the mystery of the summit, as central as they are to the story, nor to the descent at the other end of the experience, as important as that is to Christian discipleship. I am drawn to reflect upon the climb itself as a way of talking about our approach to the experience of God.
But first, a disclaimer. I have never climbed a great big mountain. You will never see me with climbing gear – no ropes or little axes – no climbing a sheer rock face for me. Yet I have hiked in the hills often, I have seen the movie “Wild” starring Reese Witherspoon, and since the hills around Galilee don’t look a lot different than the ones around here (and I have been to Galilee) – I have some thoughts about climbing. I also have lots of thoughts about how climbing is such an appropriate metaphor when it comes to our lives of faith and our search for God.
So, if our search for an encounter with God was like a climbing expedition, the first thing we would notice is how heavy our backpacks were. Even before setting out, we, and other helpful people, have filled our back packs with a lot of heavy stuff – most of which we don’t need for the climb up the mountain. If we looked we would see it crammed full with all manner of things that are going to make the climb almost impossible. Things like other people’s experiences of the holy, where we take their experiences as somehow definitive, and discount our own, and then we spend years carrying around the expectation that our experiences should look just like theirs, and begin to feel unfaithful or unworthy, if they don’t. We should take that out of our pack.
We might also find in there all manner of social and familial labels that have been stuck to us like 20 pound weights. Labels like “black sheep” or “golden child” or unworthy, or less than, or better than, or clueless, or weird or any of the other labels that people want to place upon us. We are not any of those things. We are humans. We are unique (which is what society and families often turn into a negative, when really it is a positive). It is incredibly freeing to throw out any label that has been stamped upon us, and which we internalize as “truth.” It’s not true. The labels are not helpful. We need to take those out of our backpack.
The other thing about our climb up the mountain in search of an encounter with God, is that we tend to underestimate how hard that climb can be. The terrain, which is our life, can be filled with rocky paths, and sore feet, and tired legs. That is why, from time to time, it is important to stop, take a breath, turn around, and see how far we have come up the mountain. We know that this is not a place to pitch our tent, it is simply a rest along the way, and as we rest we look out over new vistas, new sights, and things we would never have seen if we hadn’t embarked on this climb.
Theologians call this a hermeneutic – a coming back round to our lives and how through the simple act of living a life of faith, the simple act of living changes us. Life is not a circle, it is a spiral. We may encounter the same kind of events over and over, but we change as people in between the events, so there is no starting over at the same place. We always start over slightly ahead of where we were. So, it is good from time to time, to pause, take a breath, and reflect on how the climb has already changed us. To look and see those moments of change as places where we have already encountered God, even if we were unaware of the encounter.
While I could go on all day with this metaphor, I shall end with this one. Shoes. It’s important to have the right shoes. And as much as it breaks my heart to say this, they need to be practical. So in terms of our metaphor, the shoes on our feet need to keep us grounded in the things Jesus said were important – things like love, forgiveness, justice, mercy, compassion, simple kindness, and most definitely community. Community, that place where we seek to know others, and let them get to know us, so that we might support, encourage, and celebrate with one another.
And here’s the thing about hiking shoes. They always start out comfortable, but you walk long enough they are going to begin to pinch your feet. So take Band-Aids along with you. Living in families, living in community, as we do, pinches from time to time, and blisters can form. So we need to be prepared for that event. Not by giving up the hike up the mountain, but by tending to our injuries.
Here is another thing about our faith journeys, we don’t have to wait to get to the mountain top to experience the incarnate Christ – which is what the story of the transfiguration is all about. The incarnation – is a call into being real – a call to embracing our own humanity, and the humanity of others. It’s not about perfection in our beliefs, words, or deeds – it’s about seeking to be the best humans we can be. And for those times we fail to do that, to know that in Christ we are free to try again – to know that tomorrow is another day. That if we get tired, it’s okay to rest. If we get discouraged, it’s okay to sit down and wait for fellow climbers to come help. That no matter the hurt, healing is possible.
You see, it is in the climbing that we encounter the living God. So my friends, let us continue to climb and continue to trust, and continue to look for God among us – because God is always beside us as we climb.