A Sermon for the Plymouth Church of Framingham, UCC
March 3, 2019
Audio File (Sermon Only):
28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire and enlighten us with your celestial fire for if you are with us then nothing else matters. And if you are not with us, then nothing else matters. Be with us, we pray in the name your Beloved, Amen. (A prayer often offered by Barbara Brown Taylor before her sermons)
When I was 19, I had a religious experience.
The very first night I was back on my college campus, a wild storm came up of the sort that only happens in summer, in flat lands, prairie and big sky places, such as southern Minnesota. I lived that year in a dorm that overlooked the soccer fields, and beyond them, the Carleton Arboretum. The storm rolled slowly and mightily across the sky, lightning building and flashing in small pockets of mile-wide clouds, thunder almost continuously booming. I have never before or since seen a storm like that one. Even so I have no excuse for my completely stupid action: I ran out into the storm. I stumbled down the hill and out to the middle of the soccer fields, which I had entirely to myself, and I laid down on the field and watched the sky and I jumped up and danced in the rain. I was sure I could touch heaven. And I could see the dazzling glory of God.
I came back into the dorm, soaked, amazed. My roommate gave me a talking to as only a Texan with her back up can do, and I never ever again danced in the thunderstorm, so please do not hear this story as advice for experiencing the presence of the divine.
But, let me tell you, God’s surprising and awe-invoking presence in that one stunning moment helped carry me through a very tough year.
At the top of the mountain, Jesus was at the pivot point of his life. Born for a purpose, baptized with water and Spirit, he had been teaching and healing all around Galilee. His close friend Peter had seen him, seen his true nature: not just a prophet, but the Messiah. And for the Messiah, there was more to do than preach. So now, Jesus had turned his focus toward Jerusalem.
Imagine, what this moment was like for Jesus.
Maybe, just maybe he wasn’t so sure of himself. Look at the people that gathered close to him. They were confused. They made odd choices. Peter, sweet Peter, bless his heart, he could see Jesus was the Messiah but he didn’t know what it meant. And there were James and John, who wanted to be first more than they wanted to serve. And as many people who were healed, just as many rejected Jesus. Maybe Jesus was doubting that he could make it to Jerusalem. Maybe he, fully human we are told, did not feel strong enough. Maybe he got like we do, so deep within the day to do that he needed perspective.
So, he went up the mountain.
Jesus had a prayer practice made plain by Luke’s gospel. He went away to pray. Sometimes alone, sometimes in a boat, sometimes with friends, sometimes up a mountain.
This mountain, traditionally thought to be Mount Tabor – is 1886 feet high, is in Lower Galilee and stands above everything around it. From it Jesus could see clearly the flat lands nearby. But he could not see to Jerusalem, so far to the south. He could not see all the way to the Mount of Olives, his next mountain. So he prayed.
And the text tells us he was transfigured, he became dazzling.
What a gift God gave to Jesus that day, to surround Her son with such a glory.
To put next to him two ancestors who had followed their own challenging calls.
To confirm his power and his path. To give him strength for the journey to the next mountain.
Jesus could remember the words the dove whispered in his ear or roared from the sky on the day of his baptism, you are my beloved son.
And now the cloud enclosed them, and the voice, “This is my son, my chosen! Listen to him!”
Yes, it was for Peter and James and John, a call to follow.
But for Jesus, heart already turning toward Jerusalem, what must it have meant, to hear one more time:
My Son. My beloved. My chosen. The one I have sent. The one to listen to. You are my son. My beloved. My chosen.
On the mountain, a soul revived & sent.
It turns out, dazzling and glorious mountaintop moments are rare. We can’t force them to occur. The most dramatic ones are once in a lifetime gifts. But, encountering God’s loving presence does not have to be so rare.
Our own experience of transcendence begins
with pausing to pray,
climbing the mountain,
retreating from the crowd,
gathering our friends,
Maybe it is simply
breath caught again after racing,
clarity of reflection,
an opening to gratitude,
a feeling of belovedness,
a strengthening of resolve,
a quiet rest,
a glimpse of glory,
the peace which passes all understanding.
Or maybe it is a dazzling mystery that astonishes us. That could happen, too.
Often it is the end of this passage that we focus on – when Jesus and his friends came down the mountain to continue preaching, healing, and calling for justice. We are indeed called down from the mountain to minister in his name. But today I want to invite you to be open to encounters with the holy, to holy and mysterious moments. To be open to mountaintop moments.
We go up the mountain for perspective and vision. We go up the mountain so we can believe, when we are in the valley, that the world might not be completely stuck, unchangeable, doomed. Moments of glory strengthen us – in a letter ascribed to Peter himself, we are told: “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Peter 1:19) Holy moments make it more possible that we can believe that there is a power outside of ourselves, shining in glory, speaking to us Her children: you are chosen, but you are not sent alone. She is strengthening the world for change. And we do not carry the world alone on our shoulders. We go up the mountain to witness the glory of the Lord, so that we may know we are not alone. We live in God’s world.
So that we may know: we are not alone. We live in God’s world.
This week, pouring over the this scriptural piece of mystery and wonder, I have also been praying for our neighbors in the United Methodist Church. It is the denomination of my childhood and I feel deep ties to its theology and worship and great love for many friends who are hurting over a decision against LGBT inclusion in the global United Methodist Church. We would say these words regularly in the church of my childhood: We are not alone. We live in God’s world. My prayer for queer and ally members of the UMC is that in this hard moment, they have some mountaintop moment to draw strength from. Holy and divine moments in which they tangibly experienced God’s glory and God’s love. Transformative times with courageous mentors and lifegiving partners. I pray they remember hearing God saying to them: You are my chosen, my beloved. I give thanks for the UMC pastors, congregations and seminaries that are saying so clearly: You are not alone. You live in God’s world. You are beloved, and chosen.
This is my prayer for you, as well:
Whatever strength you need for the journey;
Whatever moment of transformation and wholeness you need to get through the tough times;
Whatever religious experience you need to get through Lent,
May it be yours this Transfiguration Sunday.
radiant with the holiness of God
transfigured by the glory of Jesus Christ
shining with the exuberance of the Holy Spirit
and strengthened for the Lenten Journey ahead. Amen