A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
Transfiguration Sunday, March 3, 2019
Welcome to Transfiguration Sunday, the day we ponder the experience the disciples have, and the experiences we have, on the mountain tops of our life. Some of you have heard 11 years of Transfiguration sermons from me, and luckily for all of us, the Holy Spirit shows me new things in familiar and favorite texts. And this time, more than the mountain top experience, I’m aware of our reluctance to leave the mountain top, our desire to stay in the place where Moses and Elijah show up, where God’s voice is easily heard.
The story of Transfiguration is one of preparing people for the journey off the mountain. We’ll begin a metaphorical journey this week on Ash Wednesday, with our 40 day Lenten journey to the crucifixion of Jesus.
Listen to Matt 16:21-25, right before our passage began this morning:
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
This was not the news they wanted to hear. In no possible way were the disciples following Jesus because they imagined an ending like this. No matter how different Jesus and his message might be, they weren’t expecting news about suffering, persecution, death, and cross carrying.
And, I suspect, they skipped right over the phrase about “on the third day be raised”. How could any one, before the resurrection, possibly make sense of that claim?
Jesus’ rebuke of Peter—get behind me Satan!—seems unnecessarily harsh to our ears. Perhaps that is what Jesus needed to say to really get their full attention. To help them wake up to the reality of their situation. He speaks a Truth that they’d just as soon not hear, and says it in very strong language. Imagine being in Peter’s shoes after receiving that comment.
But this is where I love Peter the most. Remember— immediately after the “get behind me, Satan” comment, Peter is still there. He doesn’t slink away in shame and defeat. He still travels up the mountainside with Jesus.
And if there is a character who knows he isn’t there because of his own actions, because of his own merits, it has to be Peter. I admire this emptied, grace receiving man, taking a day trip with the person he loves the most, who also just spoke the harshest truth to him.
And then we get the Transfiguration.
The Transfiguration is a pastoral response to the bad news they’d just heard. Jesus takes the disciples, including Peter, up on the mountain. He is transfigured before them. Then God’s voice appears out of the heavens and they fall to the ground, overcome with fear.
Jesus reaches out a hand, touches them, and says, “do not be afraid.”
In that divine, transfigured touch, I wonder if the disciples began to understand in a new way what it meant to call Jesus “Immanuel”—God with us. It is going to be a rocky journey down the mountain, and they likely didn’t pack the right gear or hiking boots. They are going to need to rely on God to make the journey.
The disciples saw God face to face in the person of Jesus Christ. They felt God’s hand on their shoulder, and heard God say to them, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
The incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is offered as gift to us. And in the Transfiguration, the gift is one of comfort, encouragement, and preparation for the journey ahead—the journey to the cross, where their friend will be tortured, suffer, and die.
This gift of Transfiguration doesn’t mean that they are any more inclined to make the journey. Peter offers to build some dwellings there on the mountain, presumably so they can stay there and not continue down the mountain to the cross. But Jesus reaches out and touches them, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
While most of us are not likely to have stood on a mountaintop in quite the same way as the disciples have, I suspect that all of us have had, or will have, such a moment. We tend to only think of “mountain top experiences” as good moments, highlight moments.
But the mountaintop might also appear to be a cliff edge. It may be a place where we try to stay because we can’t see where the path goes or what the path will look like. We see the bottom of the valley, way below our perch on the crumbling mountain side, and we know Jesus wants us to follow him down there. But we don’t want to go.
Like Peter, we decide we’d just as soon not journey down that path. We want to pitch tents and stay right there on the mountainside of denial, hoping that a new highway will be built to keep us from having to take the road indicated on our map of bad news. We hope maybe a gondola will be built so we can enjoy the views and avoid the hardscrabble nature of the journey.
This past week, our friends in the Methodist Church held a difficult vote about the future of their fellowship together. And the vote tally came down on the side of exclusion. We Presbyterians know what that feels like in our own, not that distant past. We remember what it was like to struggle down the mountainside, to engage in difficult conversations, to lose churches and relationships.
We also remember what it was like AFTER the journey, to gain new members, to be able to welcome people in new ways, to be able to celebrate sacraments without condition, restriction, or limits.
My heart breaks for our Methodist siblings, because I remember the blisters and the bruises from the journey. I find myself wanting to pave the path for them, to save them from what we went through. I know that’s not how it works. The best we can do is meet them on their trail, perhaps with an aid station, offering them gatorade and cookies, accompanying them as they keep at their journey down the mountain.
And they will keep at it, I’m sure. Because down the mountain is where God calls us, no matter how the church might vote to stay on the mountain, building tents to our comfort and tradition.
Here’s what Bobby Williamson—the author of the book we’re reading at Men’s Breakfast says about this text:
“It seems to me that the white church, like Peter, has likewise gotten confused about where we are supposed to be. We climbed the mountain, seeking to dwell with God. And once we got to the mountaintop, we didn’t want to come back down.
And so we stayed. We tarried on the mountain until we thought we belonged there. We lingered in the rarified air until we couldn’t imagine ourselves anywhere else. We pitched our tents, then built our houses, then erected our churches, then installed our alarm systems—so far above the struggle that it seemed to no longer affect us.
Racism did not affect us. Misogyny did not affect us. Poverty did not affect us. Environmental devastation did not affect us. So high up on the mountain, we felt we were above it all. We became the power brokers. We became the authorities. We became so deeply invested in the structures that kept us above the fray that we could no longer fathom descending the mountain to risk our institutional lives (let alone our physical lives) in the struggle against the powers of death running rampant in the world.”
Williamson’s words convict me.
Pick a topic
—the environmental threat from unaddressed climate change,
—growing racism and xenophobia,
—the rising gulf between rich and poor
—add your own
There are so many ways we have stayed too long on the mountain.
This journey down from the mountain top is how I’d sum up my growing awareness of the way systemic racism has permeated my life. Watching my black friends face overt and horrible racism this winter on my preacher cruise, as I’ve talked about earlier, made me realize that their experience wasn’t what was new. None of them were surprised by the treatment that appalled me. The only thing that was different was that I had eyes to see it now. I had hidden myself in a tent on a mountain for so many years, unwilling to journey down to join my siblings who were in pain.
Thanks to the grace of good friends who have helped me learn what I did not know, I now can see the signs I couldn’t see before.
(Watch this short video if you aren’t sure how racism permeates our culture)
Signs are complicated. We can see the same things, but take away different meaning from it. The disciples saw Moses and Elijah, saw Jesus transfigured, and they still mis-read the sign. After today’s verses, Jesus tells the disciples not to talk about the signs they had seen until after he was dead.
“As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’ And the disciples asked him, ‘Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ He replied, ‘Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased.”
We are people who do not recognize the signs. If it is any comfort, the disciples weren’t much better at it, and one could argue their sign was even clearer. If we are like the disciples with Jesus who were able to hear God’s voice on the mountaintop, I feel like we’ve tried to keep the sign for ourselves.
How will people who haven’t been up on the mountain know about what we’ve experienced up there if we hide it from them? If we offer them judgment when we’ve received grace?
John Alan Turner said this week:
We will enter Lent Wednesday as we mark our foreheads with ash, and I invite you to consider what kind of journey God is calling you to take these 40 days. What have you been hiding from, up on the mountain, that is waiting for you down in the valleys? Is there a lenten practice you could take on that would give you clearer understandings of the signs before us?
Reading about racism and educating yourself and your friends about the ways we benefit from a system that we have not explored?
Reducing your use of single use plastics or other recyclable materials?
Testifying at the state house about issues that matter to you, lending your voice to bigger causes?
Getting more involved in local community service opportunities so that we can build relationships here in our neighborhood?
Whatever it is, we do not need to fear the journey. It is a journey to the cross, but after the cross will come resurrection.
Jesus comes to us and tells us “Get up and do not be afraid.”
He does not say that the journey won’t be exactly as hard as we fear it will be. He also doesn’t say the path ahead will be clear and easy to navigate.
In Jesus’ presence, in his transfigured, bright, shiny glory, we are reminded that we are not alone. That the very presence of God is with us on the journey. The journey to the cross is one we only take in the presence of God.
In the Transfiguration, we remember we are not alone as we make the journey.
God’s presence in our lives gets us through it and then opens us up to beauty and grace, giving us new paths on which we journey together.
A large part of our life together is celebration and joy—classes where we learn together, or Chili Cook off, all church camp, Easter, Christmas, and weekly worship and fellowship.
But a part of our life together is also the journey to the cross. Our life together is also Holy Week. It is struggling against the injustices and pain of the world that would tell people they do not belong to God. It is gathering together for funerals, and sitting with each other in hospital waiting rooms. Our life together is sharing our difficult news with each other, trusting that sharing the burden will make the journey less lonely. Our life together is taking casseroles to those who mourn and praying for each other in difficult times.
In our life of discipleship, we are called to be present together through it all, and to help each other hear the transfigured Jesus’ voice saying, “get up and do not be afraid”.
Let us journey together. It’s time to come down from the mountain. Amen.