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Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

(Sermon 2/22/09, Mark 9:2-9)


Today is Transfiguration Sunday. I’m betting most of you are not even sure what Transfiguration Sunday is, and that’s hardly a surprise – it’s not really ‘up there’ with Advent and Lent, and it isn’t really part of any season, just the last Sunday in this ambiguous time that we call the Season after the Epiphany. It’s a last stop before Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday. That’s where it falls in the calendar. But what is Transfiguration Sunday about exactly? What does it celebrate? Well, the answer to this question you might not find particularly compelling either – at first. But I hope to change that, at least a little, by the end of this sermon!

Transfiguration Sunday celebrates the transfiguration of Jesus. And the transfiguration itself is hard to describe, but we might understand it as Jesus’ true nature – all his divinity, his godliness – momentarily being seen while he still walked on earth with us, revealed to Peter, James, and John. For a brief moment, Jesus is transfigured, or transformed, and his holiness is unveiled in a sense, and three of his closest disciples witness it. To be honest, this probably still doesn’t sound very exciting to us, does it? Maybe just more confusing than anything. And indeed, I don’t think reading about it will ever convey to us exactly what happened on that day, or what Peter, James, and John actually saw and felt. But I think we can study this passage and get a better sense of things, and learn to relate to their experience – and I think that’s what’s key for us.

Just before our passage today, Peter made an important declaration. Jesus asked who people were saying Jesus was – and the disciples told Jesus – a prophet, John the Baptist resurrected, Elijah come again. But then Jesus asked who Peter said Jesus was. Who do we say Jesus is? That will become an important question for us in the season of Lent. Peter answers that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, and it is the first time he makes that claim. But then Jesus goes on to start talking about the suffering and death he must undergo, and challenges the disciples that to truly be named disciples, we have to take up a cross and follow the same path. This is no doubt a tense conversation – Jesus is laying it on the line, and letting the disciples know exactly what is required to follow him – which is simply everything. And so our text opens today, not even quite a week after he’s said these things, and apparently, none of the disciples have decided to leave Jesus. Jesus takes three who have been so close to him – and goes up a mountain with them, and is transfigured – changed, unveiled – before them. Elijah and Moses appear and speak with Jesus – they represent the prophets and the law – the two pieces of God’s revelation thus far – and Jesus with them seems to represent a fulfillment of things. Peter, who sometimes has the bad luck of being portrayed as a bumbling fool of a disciple, doesn’t know what to do or say, and the three disciples are simply terrified by what they see. So Peter for some reason offers to build three dwellings for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses. He says it is good for them to be there. Peter’s ready to make it possible to stay – just remain there on the mountaintop, settle in, and stay in this very holy, if also very scary, place. But then a cloud overshadows them, and they hear God’s voice as was heard at Jesus’ baptism saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And then the moment is over, and they are alone with Jesus again, and he orders them, as they come down the mountain, not to tell what they experienced until after the resurrection.

This whole passage is no doubt strange to us. But to me, a few things here are important for us to take away: first, the disciples experienced this as an extremely holy moment, where they felt like they were closer to God, and seeing more of God in Jesus, than perhaps they ever had before. Mountaintops in the scriptures are often places where people meet God, and it is from these encounters that we develop the phrase “mountaintop experiences” when we’re trying to describe an overwhelmingly awesome experience. This, even if we don’t understand it, is what the disciples have had at the Transfiguration. And second, they want to try to stay there, remain there in that moment, prolong that time on the mountain, rather than returning to life on the ground.

We can probably relate to both of those pieces of the Transfiguration. We’ve had mountaintop experiences in our lives, I hope. Spiritual peaks or highs, moments where things seem to fall into place and we understand or experience God in a way we normally don’t, times where everything seems so good and right and meaningful. And we’ve also experienced, I’m betting, wanting to stay in that place – stay on the mountaintop, prolong an experience where we knew the time was limited, where we knew we simply could not stay forever.

For me, when I was younger, going to church camp every summer at Camp Aldersgate was my mountaintop place. I used to say that there were just a two seasons that mapped out the year for me. The Christmas season, and camping season. As soon as Christmas was over, I would begin to wait anxiously for the arrival of the camping brochure, the list of all the camps available at Aldersgate that coming summer. Once the brochure arrived, and camps were selected, waiting ‘til summer and camp week was the difficult task at hand. I even used to start packing ridiculously early - making lists of what to bring, what shirt to wear with what shorts, and tucking things away in the back of my closet, all ready for the week of camp to arrive.

And then, in a flash, it would be time - time to take the trip to Aldersgate, a trip that seemed a million hours long at the time, instead of a short hour away. During one short week at camp, it seemed so much could happen. You would meet so many people, experience so many new things, and think about and talk about your faith in a way that rarely happened in other settings, especially as a young person. And then, in another flash, it was all over. The week ended, camp ended, and being in that special place, set apart, was over for another whole year.

At first coming home from a week of camp, it was so hard to get back into things, into the normal routine, and so hard to think about waiting a whole long year to be able to go to camp again. When I was a little older, I got to work on staff at Camp Aldersgate, and I got to prolong that feeling I got from camp for a whole summer. In fact, I enjoyed that special time, that special place, that special connection with other people and with God so much that for some time I confused God's call to ordained ministry for a call to the camping ministry. When I got home from my summer on staff, I had an extremely hard time adjusting back to high-school life, to the point that I seriously looked into how I could graduate early so I could move on and be doing what I thought God was calling me to. I didn't want my mountaintop time to end. I wanted it to be camping season all the time. I wanted to hold on to the connection I felt with God, to the wholeness I could feel at camp, to the connectedness to the world around me.

I felt some of these same things at the Youth Retreat I led this weekend – young people who feel so close to God during the three days we spend together, who find themselves seeing God in new ways, and find that they’re afraid they won’t ever feel so close to God when they return home, and continue on with their lives. For young people who find high school to be an increasingly hostile environment for young Christians trying to express their faith, a retreat time can be a precious and rare space. Added on to this usual feeling of being on the mountaintop is an extra layer this year – this retreat was probably the last one of its kind. As some of you have heard me talk about before, my home conference, NCNY, is merging with three other annual conferences, so that soon the conferences will include all of New York State except the downstate area. This means youth events are about to become much larger, less intimate, and include hundreds of more young people. There are some real opportunities for new ministry with youth – but the youth I’ve worked with also know they’re letting something precious and special go – the event they love will never be quite the same again, and they wanted to stay in that place just as long as they could.

Our keynote speaker at the event shared with us a video clip from Dan Kimball, a pastor who authored a book called They Like Jesus But Not the Church. In the book, Kimball writes about research results that show people outside of the church have a great opinion of Jesus, his life, and his message. They just have a bad opinion – a very bad opinion – of Christians, finding them to be: hypocritical, homophobic, judgmental, and sheltered. Kimball theorizes about why this is – why do people see Christians so negatively? He concludes that without even meaning to, Christians are like pretty scenes trapped in a beautiful snow globe – we live in a bubble, and we like it there, and want to stay there. We tend to mostly interact with, live near, and spend time with people who are like us and share our beliefs. Instead of being the church, the body of Christ, we focus on the church as a place, where we might invite people to come, but we’re unlikely to bring church – to bring Christ – to them. And so it is hard to reach others or be reached from inside the bubble.

Can you relate to this image at all? I found it helpful and challenging. When we think about the Transfiguration, we can see that Peter’s immediate impulse was to create a bubble – to take this extremely holy experience and trap it, keep it, stay there and dwell in it. And we can hardly blame him. Why would he want such a profound experience to end, even if he couldn’t understand it completely? But at the same time, we have to wonder: what if Jesus had stayed up on the mountain with the disciples? What if Moses couldn’t stop basking in the wonder of the burning bush? What if Mary Magdalene stayed at the tomb with Jesus and never went to share the news? What if the shepherds and the Magi couldn’t tear themselves away from the Christ-child? What if I’d never been able to move on from summer camp? What if my youth couldn’t ever handle the merging conferences, and couldn’t handle going back to school? The holy places in our lives are so precious. But we’re not called to bottle them up, or put ourselves in a bubble with them – we’re called to take the holy with us as we go. That’s why when we talk about our faith lives, we usually talk not about a static place, but about faith as a journey. Faith doesn’t stand still, but moves and grows, or our faith is dead. And we worship a God who is named I AM – a living God, an active God, a God always doing a new thing. And that’s why when Jesus calls us to a path of discipleship, he calls us using a word of movement – we’re to take up a cross and follow – being a disciple is an active job, that never leaves us where we are.

Perhaps, in the midst of this time of transition for us – for me and for us – we can particularly relate to this text, to this idea of wanting to stay in one place, but being called, or being compelled to move to another. Certainly I’m not saying the time of me being here as your pastor is necessarily a mountaintop experience for you! But I can agree that it is so much easier sometimes to stay in the same place than it is to move – literally and figuratively. What we know is this: God isn’t leaving us where we are. The question we have to answer is what we will do about it, and where we will go, and whether or not we will follow. Today we receive the gift of seeing Christ transfigured, dazzling white, with God's clear voice speaking to us from the mountain, a holy place. But even this week, we come down from the mountain, into the valley, and begin to walk with Christ to Jerusalem, to the cross, to his death. What happens, then, after the Transfiguration? That is the journey of faith that we take, the unfolding of our lives, as we take up a cross, and follow.



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