The challenge of preaching sometimes is taking a text that was explicitly theological for the early gospel writers and finding the “relevant 21st century take-home nugget” that’s present in the narrative. For the Church the Feast of the Transfiguration stands as the book end to the Feast of the Epiphany—making a pointed transition to the season of Jesus’ life that moves quickly to the Cross. On one side you have the Transfiguration closing out the season of Epiphany as that last shining revelation of God through Jesus, and on the other side you have the Transfiguration as that last mountaintop moment of, and with, Jesus before he leads the Church into the valley of Lent—the Church’s season of repentance, of re-orienting our lives to be more like Jesus, of walking through his last week of suffering and death. This is the moment where, with Peter, James and John, we see Jesus as the clear embodiment of the Law and the teaching of the Prophets—we see the glory of God in the human being fully alive before we make our descent to the valley and learn even more.
But that’s not why the evangelists told these stories. The gospels aren’t arranged to organize the calendar of the church—the gospels give us the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And this event was important for three of the four evangelists to include in some way, maybe because it tells the Church exactly who Jesus is—the embodiment of the Law and the Prophets. Maybe because it puts him on a mountain—where most of the God revealing moments of the Scriptures happen. Maybe it’s there because Moses predicted a prophet that was going to come after him and Elijah’s return was meant to signal the presence of that prophet—the Messiah.
Or maybe it’s there because—in addition to being a very Divine moment of Jesus the Christ—it is a very human moment for him, too. Peter, James and John are his inner circle; they are three of the first four disciples called by Jesus; they are the ones he probably trusts more than anybody else. They are loyal; they are feisty in their faith—Peter is quick to name Jesus as the Messiah and just as quick to rebuke Jesus’ notion that, as the Messiah, he must suffer and die. So it’s no real surprise that Jesus picks these three to go up the mountain with him.
It’s a very human moment for Jesus because in this moment of Divine revelation—he is showing them a part of his identity they couldn’t possibly understand. There is a vulnerability to the moment of coming out, if you will; and like most moments where we allow our friends insight into the truest parts of ourselves, there is also holiness. And maybe that’s one of the things that Jesus gives to us, gives the community of faith, in this moment: holiness in vulnerability. Maybe he is modeling for the Church his vision of a community that is vulnerable with one another, a community where we are allowed to be our authentic selves without fear of being rejected.
It would almost be a return to the state of the first two humans in the garden before the fall. The authors of Genesis tell us that they were naked and unashamed—that they stood before one another in a completely vulnerable state and they were not ashamed of the things that made them different, they weren’t ashamed of themselves; and it was, even if not directly said by the storytellers of Genesis, holy.
In this transcendent moment, something about Jesus is revealed to Peter, James, and John—that he chose his inner circle reveals as much of his humanity as being with Moses and Elijah reveals his Divinity. But nobody gets to stay on the mountain. Moses had to come down from Sinai to give Israel Torah; Elijah had to come down from Horeb to deal with Ahab and Jezebel. Jesus, and with him Peter, James and John, must descend from this high and holy place to do the work that is to come.
Last year, to celebrate my birthday and Jennifer’s and my wedding anniversary, Jennifer, Aaron and I planned a trip to Tokyo and Kyoto. Out visit to Tokyo had one singular purpose: climbing Mount Fuji, whose summit is 3,776 meters (12,388 ft). We took the Yoshida route, which starts at the 5th Station and rests at an altitude of 2,300 meters. Guide books and signs say that climbers can make the ascent on the Yoshida trail in 5-7 hours. Our goal wasn’t to make the summit on the first day, only to make it to our hut which was at the top of the 8th station so we could eat, rest and then make the summit early in the morning. Our wake up call (if what we did could actually be called sleeping) came at about 2 a.m. and we wrapped ourselves as warmly as we could and stepped out into the river of humanity walking in the dark, head lamps strapped to our foreheads, trying really hard to not get blown off the mountain trail by the 30+ knot winds. It hurt; it took pretty much everything all of us had, but we made it to the summit in time to watch the sunrise. As we stood in the hut at 12,400 feet, watching the sun emerge from the clouds as Kimigayo (the Japanese National Anthem) blasted over the speakers, I wept for the beauty of the moment. And while I’m pretty certain a portion of my sanity slipped away and stayed on top of Fuji-san, that glimpse of glory will always rank pretty high in my life’s memories.
But then we had to come down from the mountain; we took a different trail for the descent and it took us a good 4-5 hours to get down (maybe longer, because none of us managed to hold onto the giddiness we felt at the summit) and arrive at the Fujinomiya station and boarded our bus to the train station. I have never been so sore in my entire life. Two days after the ascent a level of pain set in to my quadriceps unlike anything i have ever felt, and the next day my calves locked up—totally different muscles used for going up the mountain and for going down the mountain. I had no idea. You learn a lot climbing a mountain—but climbing the mountain is only half the journey and as you come down from those sunrises and glimpses of glory, you learn even more.
Maybe that’s why Jesus tells Peter James and John not to say anything about what they’ve seen; they aren’t done learning; they haven’t seen the hard work that’s still left to do. One pastor says, “God prepares people in the transcendent encounters of our lives to endure the world below…the world that has the ability to break us and yet is never beyond God’s redemption.” (Maryetta Madeline Anschutz, Feasting on the Word, Year A: Volume 1).
The next time Jesus takes Peter, James and John into a vulnerable place is the night he is betrayed and arrested. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus draws as close to God in prayer as perhaps he ever will. This is what our transcendent moments prepare us to endure: Walking the way of the cross ourselves, or being with others as they endure suffering. But Peter, James and John would not have known this if they had built the booths and stayed there. We wouldn’t know this if being the Church was all about climbing mountains to memorialize the holy and transcendent moments of others. We only know this when we, in our own transfigured way, come down from the mountain and embrace the life of vulnerability and sacrifice.
Embracing vulnerability and sacrifice as isn’t easy work, and it’s rarely tidy work, but it is important work, even if it isn’t always fulfilling.
A few stories about living into vulnerability before we wrap up today:
On Sunday, in the greeting line after morning worship I was welcoming a first time guest at our congregation and when she introduced herself she really just put it all out there, “Hi it’s nice to meet you my name is Gwen* and I’m HIV Positive.” Okay, it was a bit of what many folks would consider to be an overshare, but it wasn’t going to deter me to making her and her children feel welcome in the church. So I told her it was nice to have her with us and that I looked forward to chatting some more over coffee in the fellowship hall. Gwen had three children, lovely mixed race babies who really filled me with joy whenever they came forward for the children’s message
Over the coming weeks and months some members of the church began struggling with the reality of Gwen’s situation and the reality of having children in the nursery and in Sunday school who had a Daddy who was in prison. At board meeting we would discuss “What do we teach our kids to say when they talk about their Daddy and Prison? They’ve never dealt with that, they don’t know what to say and neither do I.” Tell them they just need to love those kids like they would anyone else.
In a different situation at a different time I was working with a young man who had once been in a professional skating circuit. He managed to ruin his knees while skating and lived in chronic pain. He was out of work and had no insurance so he medicated with alcohol. We began talking one day because we share affinity for a particular music group and in the midst of that conversation he opened up about his pain, and his shame at being intoxicated all the time, and his appreciation that “a man of God” wouldn’t reject him for his problems.
If we go into the valley to embrace the Jesus Way of vulnerability and sacrifice, we’ll see and hear and meet folks who may challenge our assumptions about who we’re called to surround ourselves with. When we create the space for one another to reveal what’s happening on the inside, we learn what reconciliation, and maybe what Church is really all about.
May God give us grace to walk valleys with those who wander in shadows, and may our lives bring just a little sweetness, just a little light.
*Name has been changed.