The Scripture Reading this Sunday, the last Sunday in Epiphany, comes from the Gospel of Mark Chapter 9 verses 2 – 9. We began the Season of Epiphany, five weeks ago, at the very beginning of Mark’s gospel with Jesus’ Baptism. As Jesus came up from the water he saw the Heavens torn apart and the Spirit descended on him like a dove. A voice came from Heaven declaring, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And throughout Epiphany we’ve stuck right in chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel. Jesus has begun his ministry, proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He has called the disciples. He has preached a sermon, healed the sick, and cast out demons and unclean spirits.
But today we’re making a big leap forward, skipping eight whole chapters. We should remember that in those 8 chapters Jesus has not only healed the sick, but now even raised the dead. He has traveled all over Galilee and taught in parables about the Kingdom of God. He has calmed a storm, he has walked on water, and twice he has fed thousands with nothing but a few fish and a couple loaves of bread.
You’ll notice our reading this evening begins with the words, “Six days later…” Well, six days later than what? This is the most important piece of context I’ll offer you this evening. A week earlier, in chapter 8, the word “Christ” is used for the first time when the disciple Peter declares his belief that Jesus is the Messiah. And Jesus responds by, for the first time, predicting his own death. Peter freaks out about this prediction, he argues with Jesus, and rebukes him. Jesus rebukes Peter right back, saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” And Jesus tells Peter that he has set his mind not on divine things, but on human things.
The next we hear, it’s suddenly six days later. Jesus takes Peter (and James and John) UP a mountain, where they will experience something very similar to what Jesus experienced when he rose UP out of the waters of his baptism. Only this time the atmosphere is a little darker – the Heaven’s will not be torn apart, but overcast. This time the visitors are a little spookier – instead of a pretty dove floating down, it’s two guys who have been dead for centuries. This time, for those experiencing it, it’s terrifying.
Let’s leave the world down here behind for a little while and brave a journey UP with Jesus to experience what happens when “divine things” and their meaning and purpose break, with physical power, into the world of “human things.”
Let us now hear the Word of God:
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Please pray with me. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. AMEN.
In 2004 I hiked the entire Appalachian Trail from the top of Springer Mountain in Georgia to the peak of Mount Katahdin in Maine. The AT is the longest continuously marked footpath in the world – every few hundred feet or so, the trail is marked on a tree or a rock or a fence post by an iconic, white, rectangular blaze.
Another unique characteristic of the AT is that these white blazes lead you up and over the top of every single hill and mountain that gets in your way along the entire 2,200 mile route. If you add up all the uphill climbs on the trail, it comes to 89 miles of total elevation gain. On the AT you’re always taking the high road – it’s a part of the challenge, the beauty, and the charm of the journey. If the Appalachian Trail was a 2,000-mile-long flat walk, you’d’ve never heard of it and I’d’ve never hiked it.
Now, there are alternatives to the white blazes of the “pure” Appalachian Trail. There are these side trails marked with blue blazes that generally go around the mountains and meet back up with the trail on the other side. Among those purists hiking the entire AT, those hikers who skip sections of the trail on these blue-marked side trails are known, somewhat pejoratively, as “blue-blazers.”
To be fair, there are plenty of reasons to blue-blaze – to stick to the ground and go around – the weather might be turning, you might need to get into town before dark, maybe you just loaded up on supplies and your pack is heavy, or you might be running behind where you’re “supposed” to be and you’re in need of catching up with your timeline. So, you skip the cloudy peak, the steep climb, the long winding route and instead just push on.
As I’m getting to know you, Beloved Broadway, I’m discovering that we have some amazing leadership here – on our staff and also sitting out there in the pews. We have great people directing our course in adult education, and on our finance teams, in our choir, on our board and executive committee, and – as you’re going to vote on later this evening – on our search committee to find your next settled Senior Pastor. We take church seriously. Our heads are not lost in the clouds. And we ain’t gonna let nobody turn us ‘round. We’ve got stuff that needs doin’.
And after all isn’t that what Peter really learns at the top the mountain? You can’t pitch a tent UP there in la-la-land forever! You have to be ready to roll up your sleeves and head back down into “real” life, into Lent, into Jerusalem to face the cross, into this transition period between pastors with all its sense of loss and opportunity, into committee meetings, and into the long list of things that need to get done around here in the life and mission of our church.
But, of course, before Jesus leads the disciples down, he first leads them UP the mountain. And while I know that we’re selflessly pushing ourselves to meet our obligations down here and because I know that the needs down here are real and pressing, I wonder, are we taking the opportunities God offers us to go UP the mountain?
Have you been to the peak and, like Peter, desired to dwell up there with God and the freaky mysteries of that experience forever? Or do we too often skip going UP at all because we’ve got so much to do down here and, well, up there it’s weird, impossible, and downright terrifying? Do we sometimes blue-blaze around the Transfiguration that God is offering to us?
“Why do we need to go up the mountain, when the Good Book tells us that the Transfiguration has already happened?” our religious mind asks. “And, wouldn’t we look foolish, climbing up a mountain to experience what is so clearly an embellished story, a symbolic retelling of important spiritual truths, a Christian myth that teaches us meaning, but doesn’t describe ‘real’ events,” adds our rational mind.
For the disciples, I can imagine that going up the mountain really was necessary. Keep in mind that for them this revelation about Jesus being the Christ and about what would happen to him on the cross was neither orthodox nor rational. Peter argued with him. “What do you mean you’re going to die? That’s not the way it’s supposed to go! You are of the House of David. You are to lead us in victory over our enemies as our anointed King – the Christ, the Messiah! How can your death lead to the coming of the Kingdom you have told us about? How can being crucified by Rome, the Empire that represents almost everything we struggle against, bring about the victory of God? Jesus, you’re talking like a heretic! You’re talking crazy! I’m not going to listen to this!”
Sometimes, it takes a miracle, another way of seeing and experiencing the truth of things, a Divine way – deeper than what culture and experience – human things – have allowed us to believe to be possible.
Maybe a miracle, a revelation, or a transfiguration is a moment in which the potency of meaning and truth locked in a sacred instant or event breaks out of symbolic reality and into physical reality. Maybe the truth of Jesus’ identity and Jesus’ path could not be merely told to the disciples, maybe it had to be experienced by them. Maybe the meaning and the truth that Peter had been contemplating for six days finally broke through the spiritual world and into the physical world on that mountaintop and through the change in perspective that occurred upon it.
I’m reminded of a bumper sticker I saw once in a church parking lot. It said, “Miracles Happen” playing off a more vulgar and more famous bumper sticker about what also happens.
But maybe miracles, unlike other stuff, don’t just happen. Maybe in some real sense Peter had to climb UP to Transfiguration, symbolically and physically. What if miracles and transformation don’t just happen, but depend in some deep way on the lenses through which we view the world – on our perspectives. Maybe if we’re prepared to stare into the terrifying mystery of the Transfiguration, only if we have become ready and open to experiencing it and the meaning locked up in it, are we able to perceive it being translated from myth and symbol into living, physical, possible, miraculous, revelatory reality.
A few years ago for the seven weeks of Lent I read Steven Covey’s classic, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s a book that has meant a lot to my personal development – many of you have probably read it too. For those of you who don’t know it, let me tell you that it is not a book about miracles, it’s a bestselling Business (and Life) management book on being effective in attaining goals by aligning ourselves with proper principles. It’s not a book of mysteries but of solid techniques and experience.
Yet, in the opening pages of his introduction to the book, Covey writes about the importance of our perspectives. He tells the story of raising one of his sons. His son’s performance was poor academically, socially, and athletically. He was unable to follow instructions on tests, embarrassed those around him with his immaturity, and was uncoordinated. Covey and his wife felt that they had to succeed in helping their son and so they did everything they could to psych him up, give him positive feedback, and protect him from the ridicule and scorn of others. Things only seemed to get worse for the boy.
After much study and soul-searching the Coveys realized that they perceived their son to be basically inadequate. They began to realize that they had to shift their perceptions of him. They decided to stop worrying about him. They decided that their value as people was not connected to his socially acceptable behavior and neither was his value as a developing person. They began to enjoy rather than judge him. They stopped trying to protect him because they saw him as fully capable of dealing with life.
It was a change in perspective – a reinterpretation of the world through a new lens – that led to actual, physical manifestations in their son. He began to blossom at his own speed, gained confidence in who he was, and and was soon seen as an academically, socially, and athletically outstanding young person. Basically, Covey had discovered for himself that our perceptions shape our interpretation of reality and that our interpretation of reality – of what is possible and what is not possible – feeds back into the world as it is. We see the world not as it is, but as we are, and the way we interpret the meaning in the world influences the world itself.
So, then, if we decide that we are going to be open to going UP more often and if we decide that we are going to be open to all the revelations and mysteries and transformations that happen while we are UP, what are some ways we might shift our perspectives to be more open to the miraculous experience of God breaking into our lives, breaking into our church, breaking into even the physical world around us? I’d like to suggest a few shifts in perspective that have been helpful in my own experience of God.
The first is imagination. This is different than “imaginary.” I’m not saying that if you climb a mountain expecting to see Moses that you’ll imagine that you see him. What I mean is that if the lens of our faith is powered by an Transfiguring imagination that is able to go beyond what is – beyond materialism and belief, beyond the rationally possible and the delimitations of dogma – then perhaps when we least expect it, we may be led UP and meaning may break into our lives and our church in ways that may be terrifying and inspiring.
Imagination helps us to understand that Transfiguration is not just an event in the past and that it’s not just about Jesus. Imagination lets us know that one day we may be witnesses to all of our history showing up to bless our future, inspiring us to go back down the mountain not just to get things done, but to transform the world for the better.
The second is to be expressive – in communication with God, with yourself, and with your community. After all, it was a disagreement with Jesus – doubt – that eventually led Peter up the mountain to the Transfiguration. If it is perhaps true that the miraculous and the revelatory are moments of meaning breaking into us and our world – then that meaning and that miracle is dependent upon our ability to perceive it or to interpret it. When we begin to talk with one another about the ways that God may or may not seem to be working in our lives and in our church, when we interpret together the meaning of our faith, when we open up about our revelations and our miracles, our hopes and our dreams, to one another, we are preparing ourselves and our community to be open to the real possibility of God bursting in at any moment.
The third is to be passionate – to live and love with the self-emptying abandon that Jesus did. The Transfiguration teaches us that this is a way of living and loving that can lead to the cross. In fact, the word “Passion” first came into the English language to describe Jesus’ suffering on the cross. When we empty ourselves of judgment, of fear, of the need to be victorious, the need to be in control, we will be better able to fall absolutely in love with the world and to give ourselves to one another.
Maybe a shift in imagination, in communication, and in passion could reveal to us that in some sense we’re always on the mountaintop. Maybe Transfiguration and maybe change are always happening and the true miracle is to notice it, to let the terror become a dream, and to sit and chat with the possibilities for a little while.
It’s true we can’t stay on the mountaintop forever. Eventually we will be expected to turn some piece of the dream into a reality. But when we are given an opportunity to journey into a new vision with God, before heading back down, will we remember the embarrassingly simple, but undeniably true words that Peter found in the face of God’s Glory? “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”