(A sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, Year C February 14, 2010 Luke 9:28-36)
Do you believe in love at first sight?
In the way of the modern world, my husband, Don, and I met on an arranged date, two divorced people in our late thirties. We had exchanged emails; he had even sent me stories he had written, and an essay about the meaning of life. I still remember the first glimpse I caught of him as I pulled into the parking lot, from the driver’s side mirror, a very, very, very tall man with long red hair pulled back into a ponytail.
I almost drove away, feeling a mixture of excitement and overwhelm I can’t quite put into words, that rush of adrenaline we get when faced with the unexpected. No photograph could have prepared me for who he really was.
He showed up at the Village Café wearing a t-shirt that said “Martha’s Vineyard,” and I suppose the rest is history.
Or maybe mystery.
Of course there was more to him than met the eye: a family history and life experiences and thoughts about the world and the universe and the meaning of life that did not match mine entirely. There was more to me, too. He remembers I hardly said a word at dinner that night! Only later would he see me as I usually am.
Not long after we met, we saw a car with one of those bumper stickers that proudly claimed the car had been to the top of Mt. Washington. He snorted. This led to a terrible admission. Before I knew him, I had hardly been to the top of a mountain *except* in a car—well, other than Bradbury Mountain—and the one time I could remember was many years before.
That had to change, of course, but to someone who doesn’t walk uphill very often, there is no way to explain how hard it is to hike up a mountain. I had only the vaguest memories. I had forgotten how your knees feel and, omigosh, what work it is for your lungs!
Knowing that from personal experience, I feel the pain and the exhaustion of Peter and James and John after their long hike with Jesus, the tired you get when you’ve been using every muscle and sinew to pull yourself uphill.
We don’t know for certain which mountain they climbed; maybe Mount Tabor, which is about 1800 feet, or possibly Mount Hermon, a giant mountain that rises to 9230 feet above sea level. What we do know is that in the first century, when people understood the earth to be flat and God to be in the sky, going up a mountain meant getting closer to God. But I wonder if Peter and James and John could have ever expected to get this close? In their faith, you were supposed to find God in the Temple.
On that day, on top of the mountain, they got the proof that there was more to their friend than met the eye, when they saw him flanked by two of the most famous figures of their faith, Moses who represents the Law, and Elijah who represents the Prophets. Jesus talks with them and his face changes and his clothes gleam white.
I wonder though, is he really changed, or do they just see him as he is for the first time? We’ve gotten the clue from Luke already in the use of the phrase in last week’s gospel lesson, “Do not be afraid.” Luke gives Jesus words usually spoken by angels and classifies Jesus as other than human. He’s not really one of us for Luke.
We believe the authors of Matthew and of Luke leaned heavily on Mark’s gospel for their stories, but there are small changes that illustrate Luke’s different perspective on what it means for Jesus to be God. The story of the Transfiguration appears in all three, with the same sort of beginning, that after certain things had been said, Jesus went up onto the mountain. The sayings that have just been spoken are mostly the same, the conversation in which Jesus asks his disciples who people think he is, and pushes on to ask who they think he is. One of the prophets, people think, but Peter declares Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus goes on to tell them that following him will mean carrying a cross. He warns them that he will die.
But Luke both elaborates on Mark’s version and adds a detail that may seem small, one that tells us how Luke sees Jesus. We hear that Jesus and Moses and Elijah discuss what will happen to Jesus. They don’t speak of the death he is to suffer but of the departure he will accomplish. To the disciples he put it in earthly terms; they needed to understand there would be an arrest and death. But with Moses and Elijah, with these apparitions of two famous prophets, Jesus can be Christ. They already know him as God.
So who is transformed?
For Luke, I don’t believe it is Jesus, even though he looks different to his friends. Jesus is already Christ as he stands on the mountaintop, already Christ, when he calls the disciples, already Christ when John baptizes him in the Jordan. He’s fully Mary’s son and God, from the beginning. It’s just that up on the mountain, Peter and James and John get a glimpse of more than they usually see. They finally realize there’s more to Jesus than meets the eye.
I want to think they are on the larger mountain, Mount Hermon, when I read the next part, because I have to believe Peter is suffering from altitude sickness or perhaps dehydration when he begins his monologue about setting up camp with Jesus and the ghostly prophets.
My own experience of altitude sickness came on a trip out West with Don, on our first day of hiking. We didn’t climb anything much to take the trail to Delicate Arch, but it became clear I did not have my high altitude brain yet when I offered pleasantly that I would like to sink into the warm rock I stood against. “Sit down,” commanded a voice from on high, and I sat obediently and drank the Gatorade he pressed into my hand.
We climb this mountain every year with Jesus and Peter and James and John. We climb it and hear the story of Moses and Elijah and the booths Peter wanted to build, and the way they kept it a secret after they came back down the mountain.
Mystical experiences can be hard to describe, except perhaps in the lives of saints and the work of poets. And much of the time, we wonder if they aren’t a little crazy. But poets and saints understand the power of connection between the material world and the transcendent unseen. We mere mortals may get a glimpse, if we are lucky. We may get a glimpse or hear a note or feel a breeze or catch a whiff of something beyond the ordinary.
We may realize there is more going on than meets the eye.
Two years after I met my hiker, we climbed Mount Chocorua with my children and some friends. Some of you may know it, a good-sized mountain in New Hampshire with a 360-degree view at its Alpine peak, above the tree line. It was an overcast day, and the mountains around us looked like islands in the clouds. Standing there in the mist on the flat peak, we exchanged rings and promises, above the world.
I understand why Peter wanted to stay at the top of the mountain, why he wanted to hold onto the mystical moment. It’s hard to go back to the real world when you’ve seen how shiny things can really be. At the bottom of the mountain people didn’t understand Jesus. They knew him only as Jesus, that man from Nazareth with the dangerous ideas. They could not see more. They would not see more.
We live in a time when people describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” What they’re saying, I think, is that they are looking for the kind of direct experience Peter and James and John had, but they don’t expect to find it in church. That’s uncomfortable for those of us who have loved and maintained the church Peter founded and all its descendants. But it’s important for us to remember that when he went to the synagogue, people wanted to run him out of town and off a
cliff. It’s important for us to remember that to shine in his full light, Christ went to the mountaintop. We may find him here, but this is not the only place God’s Spirit lives.
In the coming weeks, as we observe Lent, we’ll follow Jesus’ journey toward the accomplishment of his departure. As we walk that road, we talk about giving things up and taking things on; it’s a season when even the religious try to become more spiritual. In the Spirit of God’s love and in the light of Jesus Christ, may we be open to see more than meets the eye. Amen.