This sermon is about the story that is traditionally called Transfiguration of our Lord. You will hopefully be able to see in the following story how accurate I find that title. I had a lot of fun with this sermon and I preached it at the Apache Junction Campus which sits square in a suburban neighborhood with a bright, clear view of Superstition Mountain.
The text is: Matthew 17:1-9 you can click to read it.
I am the child of two worlds…. Now you’re probably all thinking that I mean that in some really deep metaphorical way… maybe something like the world of light and the world of dark, or the world of heaven and the world of… the world… and while those might be actually true in some deep theological way, this time all I mean is that my Mom is from the Midwest, Missouri specifically, and my Dad is from Colorado. But truly, when you’re only 6 years old and it takes forever just to get to the grocery store and back, Missouri and Colorado with the 600 some miles between them really do feel worlds apart. Now, what the meant for me as a child was that, by the time I was about 6 I was pretty familiar with that stretch of I-70 between Denver and Kansas City and I got used to that feeling of hours and hours of flat, straight highway surrounded by fields of corn or wheat stretching on to the horizon. When I was a little older and driving myself to and from college in Decorah, IA I got used to that stretch of I-80 across Nebraska and Iowa, a whole new interstate, a whole new state, and the same old view…. Miles and miles of Eisenhower’s interstate system, straight enough to land the space shuttle on. And nothing against the fine states of Nebraska and Kansas, but there is not much to look at when you’re driving through them. Those long car trips were a test of my tolerance for consistency because there was a rhythm to those trips and it was easily to get in tune with it, the steady beat of the cracks in the road, the hum of the engine running so consistently, the steady drone of the wind running past the windows, the miles are like days, one after the other just rolling on by, different in small little ways, but mostly the same…. And then everything changes…
Everything changes because when you’re driving West on I-70, across Kansas, there is a point in the road where you climb a slow gentle hill and as you get toward the crest of that hill the road turns to the left, and if you started from Kansas city early in the morning wanting to avoid driving in the dark, then right as you make that left turn the world opens up in front of you and the whole glory of the Rocky Mountains is lit on fire by the sun setting right among them. It is a very dramatic point in any journey. Whether it is the first time your eyes have seen a mountain range, or just the first time in awhile, whether it was the symbol of new adventures and a new place to live, or just the sign that I was almost home.
When you’re talking about Mountains you don’t need to use metaphors because for anything you would want to say about them, a Mountain is probably the number one symbol to use. Mountains are immense, and powerful, and calm, and nurturing and eternal… And I don’t need to explain to you about that because here in this valley we are surrounded by mountains, and they might not rise as dramatically as the Rocky Mountains from the Great Plains but it is easy to look up at the Superstition Mountains and feel at once comforted by and in awe of how big and powerful and stirring they are.
This, then, is the stage for today’s Gospel. And this is not a coincidence or just a casual reference to Exodus. Today’s Gospel takes place on the mountain because the mountain is where these kinds of things happen. These kinds of revolutionary, transforming moments happen on mountains. You can see an example of that in today’s reading from Exodus, and you’ve been hearing these past weeks from the Sermon on the mount… the mountain is the place where God is met, where the steady rhythm of our daily lives is broken by the brilliant light of God’s immediate presence. And these don’t always have to be literal mountaintops. These experiences of the presence of God are not reserved for those that have had the particular opportunity to climb to the top of a mountain.
These experiences can happen at the top of any mountain, any place where something is achieved, a pinnacle of insight perhaps, the end (The ‘Summit’) of a period of struggle, even a moment that is unremarkable in any other way becomes a mountain when we are able to perceive God’s presence in the world in that moment.
So just like Peter does, we experience the wonder and brilliance of God. But the question I have for you today is this: what do you do when you have that experience? How do you react?
Peter’s reaction to his own moment is well-known. How often has his foolishness been mocked? Oh silly, Peter! You just don’t get it. The point is not to build a shelter so that Jesus can stay here in comfort… the ministry must continue down among the people! And perhaps we even roll our eyes at Peter and the disciples as they cower in fear, faces to the ground, terrified of the presence of God. And we might think to ourselves: “Come on you guys!” This is God, this is Jesus’ Dad, your buddy, you of all people should know that you don’t need to be afraid of this!
But I’m not sure that we wouldn’t just act the same way. I’ll tell you a story about this: I spent 5 summers of my life working at Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp and in that time I spent many days hiking through the forests around streams and lakes, and up and down mountains. The very last summer I was there I was leading a group of kids up Eagle Peak along with a few fellow staff members. Now this was probably sometime in late July and if you know anything about Mountain weather, at least in this particular part of Colorado, you know that when Monsoon season rolls around, which is right about late July, the weather gets significantly more exciting and significantly less predictable. So we left camp at about 7:30 one late July morning and began the seven-mile, 5,000 ft elevation gain hike toward the peak of the mountain. The morning passed easily and we made our way up the mountain under a clear blue sky and bright warm sun. Then at sometime just before noon we got to tree-line and sat down for lunch. At this point the sun was still warm and the sky was only slightly more obscured than it had been and only by those innocuous white fluffy clouds. And so with our backs to the peak (and any approaching weather) we ate happily, thinking we had plenty of time to get to the peak before anything bad happened. There is a picture of us in that meadow just as we’re finishing lunch with the gathering clouds behind us and you can see the innocence in our faces… the blissful ignorance of what was happening. Because you see Monsoon season in Colorado brings moisture and when that warm late July sun heats the air, and heats the air, and heats the air all morning long …. The energy starts to build and it reaches a kind of tipping point where all of the sudden the sky can no longer hold the moisture and, in a matter of minutes, a blue sky full of white clouds turns into dark gray menacing power. And perhaps because we had done it so many times before, or perhaps because it was late in the summer, my fellow staff members and I just didn’t really notice those first signs of creeping gray and so as we packed up our lunch to continue up the mountain, away from the protection of the trees… I thought to myself… well it’s a little gray but it’ll probably be fine for a little while….
Well it was not fine for a little while… in a few short minutes the sky opened up with rain and hail and thunder all from clouds the seemed just barely above our heads. And I remember as I barked out orders to get the middle school aged youth back to the safety of the trees, being more than just a little afraid, and it wasn’t until I was two thousand feet lower, muddy, soaked to the bone and more than a little frazzled and after I had counted several times to make sure I had the same number of people that I had left camp with that morning , that I finally was able to relax and marvel in the tremendous power that I had just experienced.
God is powerful and the powers of God that we experience in the world can easily shake us to our core. It is no wonder that the disciples fell to their faces, trembling in fear, they were hearing the very voice of God, not just some silly little thunder storm.
But when we have some distance from the raw power that sparks our fears and we are able to appreciate how mighty is our God, isn’t it easy, too, to imagine that we would want to preserve that feeling. That we would want to remain there in the presence of that pure and Good power for as long as we possibly could? Of course… think about those times when you have been in the presence of that power… Maybe it was the birth of a child, or looking into the eyes of a loved one, maybe it was that time when all the world seemed to be moving just for you, maybe it was sitting on a mountain peak looking out over a wide, open valley, with the warm sun easily shining through the thin air and a brisk breeze flowing from a whole world away.
Of course we want this moment to last forever… we want to feel that sun on our backs all the time. But just as the light that shone in Jesus face dimmed slightly and Moses and Elijah faded away… so too must our mountaintops remain just distinct moments in our lives. They cannot extend to fill the empty spaces… because that is not the nature of mountaintops. Think of incredible and inspiring it is to stand on the top of a mountain and yet, how incredibly inhospitable it would be to try to live your life there… it just doesn’t work that way… And such is the nature of our world. We are blessed with long rolling plains of lives that are interrupted by the glory of a mountain rising in front of the setting sun, and we are further blessed with the chance to stand at the top of that mountain.
But… do not be disappointed; do not despair, because the glory and power of that mountain remains as long as the mountain does… and mountains measure their lives in ages and eras and millions and millions of years. That power will remain and if it has touched you… it has changed you… Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of all of us that have been moved by the power of God. Peter encountered that power just as you and I have in our own ways, but Peter didn’t know what to do about it… Peter for all his good intentions tried to hold on to the moment that changed him and he could not. But if we let our mountains change us than we will recognize that we are not changed so that we might sit forever on that mountain side but so that we might bring that brilliant light, that shining sun, that powerful hope… that light of the world… to all those who haven’t yet climbed their mountain… or have forgotten what it felt like. And so, just like that our Epiphany season is over… the light that shines in the darkness is now moving towards the cross… Do not forget about the light, do not let this mountain top pass by, Live as if you have seen the Glory of God, because as clearly as you can right now see Superstition Mountain in the morning sun… You have.