Last Sunday after Epiphany A Exodus 24:12-18
March 2, 2014 Psalm 2
The Rev. Dcn. Meredith Pech 2 Peter 1:16-21
In the name of God, creator, Christ Jesus, redeemer, and the Holy Spirit, sanctifier. Amen.
As we round the arc of our liturgical year with Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent stretching out before us, today, on this last Sunday after the Epiphany, we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. Our readings are at the very heart of Christian belief, full of connections between the Old Testament and the New Testament, answering the question that Christ Jesus asks Peter and each of us, “Who do you say that I am?” Today our alleluias rise high as God’s glory is revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ. When our Lenten journeys begin on Ash Wednesday, our alleluias will be replaced by silence as we wind our way through the valleys that lead us to Jerusalem, Good Friday lying ahead. But today, we are on the mountaintop. Alleluia.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain, most commonly considered to be Mount Tabor, which is in the Galilee. Like Rev. Anne, I have been blessed to spend some time in the Galilee. Way back in 1969 I spent a summer there, working on kibbutz Chulata, located north of the Sea of Galilee, beneath the Golan Heights, right on the banks of the Jordan River. The Galilee is a sparkling jewel of a valley amidst barren desert hills. Mount Tabor is conspicuous throughout the valley, surrounded by fields of wheat, orchards, vineyards and villages. It’s one of those hills that rises as a lone sentinel in the middle of a valley, lying between Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. It is not a wilderness mount, like those in Judea or the Sinai, but it stands apart, in contrast to the busy-ness and productivity of the valley that surrounds it. It was to this “away” place that Jesus takes his closest disciples.
No doubt they all need a break, a little time alone with their beloved teacher, time to reflect on all that has happened since they so abruptly left their nets by the Sea of Galilee to follow this Jesus of Nazareth. They have journeyed with Jesus as he taught and healed and performed miracles, they have ventured out on their own missionary journeys. Most recently while in Caesarea Philippi Jesus has asked his disciples the question that echoes down through the millennia, “Who do you say I am?” and Peter has answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Having warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah, God’s anointed one, the long awaited deliverer of the nation Israel, he then gives them some bad news, some really bad news, news which no doubt rocked the disciples to their very cores.
Now, although God’s people had long anticipated the Messiah, the nature of that expected Messiah was varied. Many Hebrews looked for a savior who would overturn the occupying Romans and immediately restore Israel to the independence and the glory of the Kingdom of David. But no sooner does Jesus acknowledges his kingship to his inner circle, when he goes on to tell them that his kingship is in the Hebrew tradition of the suffering servant rather than the in tradition of a victorious military king. He tells them that he will suffer and die. When Peter objects, Jesus rebukes him sternly. Like it or not, believe it or not, their beloved friend and teacher is facing what is in effect a terminal condition.
It’s hard to imagine the turmoil in the minds of Peter, James and John as they ascended that mount with Jesus, or the heaviness of their hearts. Perhaps they consoled themselves by remembering all they had seen and experienced on the plains below them, making small talk, recalling the details of their meals, the weather, swapping stories of homes they had visited and people they had met on their journeys. Perhaps they walked in silence, despondent , each pondering, each privately wondering if he had made a mistake to give up everything to follow this itinerant teacher. If he is to suffer and die, then how will the Kingdom of God that Jesus, the Messiah, has been proclaiming is at hand—how will it come into being? Perhaps they hope that Jesus will soon tell them that what he had said about suffering and dying was just to test them somehow and isn’t really what will happen. Suddenly, the crestfallen disciples reach the top of the mountain and they see that which is usually the unseen; Jesus is transfigured before them, full of the radiance and glory of God, of one being with the Father.
Peter responds as so many of us do when we have had some really bad news, and he goes immediately into denial– his impulse to build dwelling places for Moses and Elijah is an attempt to bring permanency to this sacred moment, to fix it in time and place, much like we want to hang on to the present when we know that the suffering and death of a loved one lies ahead of us. The disciples want to forget what Jesus has told them must take place, to forget that they themselves are called to deny themselves and take up the cross. Peter is in mid-sentence, making his very human construction plans, when “a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.’” And the disciples fall to the ground, overcome by fear.
One of the things I do in preparation for a sermon is to find art that depicts the lectionary readings. I especially love the pictures of the transfiguration, always aglow with the light of Christ, luminous and transcendent with Moses and Elijah usually a bit smaller, a little less bright. Almost always, at the bottom edges of the scene, down below the transcendent figures, are the disciples looking totally undone. They have been hurtled to the ground; limbs askew, clothing catawampus. They are portrayed as being literally turned upside down by this experience, usually shielding their eyes from the intense light. Exodus says of Moses’ encounter with God, “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain.” And Jesus comes to them, touches them, and tells them to “Get up and do not be afraid.” The disciples look up, and Jesus appears as the human being they are accustomed to, and together, they start down the mountain. Jesus admonishes them to tell no one until “the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Peter, James and John prepare to walk hand in hand with Christ Jesus as he journeys to Jerusalem, to suffering and death, but we know that it will not be without great faltering along the way. There will be desertion, denial, betrayal.
With Russ Otte’s permission, I’m going to share a story with you of an experience I had almost 20 years ago with my friend and sister in Christ Rose Otte. It’s a story I’ve only told one or two people, because it almost seems like telling it will somehow diminish the experience Rose and I shared. But, here I go.
As I was completing my studies for the diaconate, Rose was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It was devastating not only to her family, but to those of us who were blessed to call her friend. Like the disciples, I was reeling with this news, deeply saddened, wanting to deny the reality of her diagnosis. I did not want to lose my friend. Rose and I made a sacred pact to walk hand in hand through this experience, she offering me this profound gift as I prepared for ordained ministry.
We decided that in order to prepare ourselves for what lay ahead, we should spend a weekend in retreat together. Rose borrowed a friend’s house at the coast and we took off for a weekend of prayer and meditation. We arrived in the afternoon, and decided to talk a walk down to the beach. When we went to leave through the door that had quick access to the water, we found that it was not only locked, but it seemed to be sealed in place so that no matter how we turned locks and pushed and pulled, we were unable to make it budge. So we used the other door, the one we knew worked because we had come in that way! After returning to the house, we decided to go to town to have a bite to eat. From the other room Rose called to me to get the key. I grabbed the key and dropped it in my pocket as Rose locked the door from the inside and pulled it shut. We were on our way.
It was dark and rainy when we got back, and much to our horror, when we went to let ourselves in, the key didn’t work. It became obvious that I had grabbed the wrong key. By now it was getting dark, it was raining, and we had no way to get in. Hope against hope we tried the key in the other door, but, of course, it didn’t work. We were beginning to wonder if this retreat had been such a good idea. I felt protective of Rose because she was ill, and I felt responsible because I was the one who picked up the wrong key. We tried windows, but they were all locked. As we tried to figure out what to do, conscious that this was not our house, but one borrowed from a friend, we decided we would have to find a way to break in. I knew that would be no easy task and would leave damage, so in desperation I went around the house one more time, trying each window again. When I came to the door that didn’t work, I made one more quick, perfunctory turn of the knob, already knowing that the door was not only locked, but hopelessly jammed or something. But grace upon grace, the knob turned with ease and the door opened effortlessly.
Rose and I were dumbfounded. At that moment we knew that God was there with us, watching over us, and that all was well. In the months that followed, as we walked hand in hand to her death, Rose and I never doubted that God was with us, holding us in the palm of his hand. Through the dark and difficult days, we were sustained by that experience, one we knew in the depths of our being to be a theophany, a manifestation of God’s presence. It was a gift from our loving God.
I think this is a little like the experience of Peter, James and John up on the mountain. The disciples respond to the news that Jesus has given them, that he will suffer and die, with shock, disbelief and denial like most of us do when facing an impending, untimely death. Yet surely having seen the glory of the living God, having been face to face with God, they will be sustained in the dark days that lay before them.
Jan Richardson has written a poem entitled “When Glory; a Blessing for Transfiguration Sunday.”
That when glory comes
We will open our eyes
To see it.
That when glory shows up
We will let ourselves
Not by fear
But by the love it bears.
That when glory shines
We will bring it
Back with us
All the way
All the way
All the way down.
Sisters and brothers, we are descending the mountaintop of Epiphany, a joyous liturgical season in which the fullness of the glory of Christ Jesus is revealed. We must journey all the way down, through Lent, a liturgical season of suffering and death. We join the disciples to walk hand and hand with Christ Jesus, down from the mountaintop, on to Jerusalem, to suffering and death. As Jesus surrenders his life to God’s will, so are we to do. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” We are to take up our crosses and follow our Lord, through the valleys, through hardship and conflict, through sadness and desolation, hopelessness and even to death so that we, too, may know the glory of the Risen Lord. May our Lenten journeys bring us each closer to God and to his will for us, and may we be transfigured so that the light of Christ shines in us, around us and through us.