Close your eyes, for a moment, and try to remember some place, some time, some moment when you felt that you were in the presence of something sacred. How long ago was that moment? How long did it last?
I remember this one particular afternoon, a sunny spring afternoon at the home of some family friends, a farm in Columbia County, New York, where we often spent school vacations. On this particular day, I was maybe ten years old, and I had wandered by myself out to a hillside above the pond. I was lying on my back in the long grass, eyes closed, feeling the breeze above me and the sun on my face. It was a Sunday afternoon, which meant that any minute my parents would call to tell me it was time to go home. But for that moment, everything was perfect. I was completely at peace. I was basking in the glow of God.
And then my parents did call me, and the moment ended. You can only bask in the glow of God for so long, before someone calls you, and you have to move on.
One day, Jesus takes three of his disciples on a hike up a mountain. They leave the others far below, and climb up to a high place, a place apart from the crowds and the conflict that seemed to be following Jesus everywhere lately. And in that place apart, he is transfigured in his disciples’ eyes. His clothes become dazzling white, whiter than bleach could bleach them, whiter than humanly possible.
Transfiguration isn’t a word you hear every day. Really most of us hear it only once a year, if we happen to be in church on the Sunday before Lent. Its meaning is similar to transformation, or metamorphosis. A transfiguration is a complete change in form or appearance, into something more exalted, more beautiful. Think of caterpillars, turning into butterflies. The only reason that doesn’t totally freak us out, is that we have come to expect it. But just imagine, if it caught you by surprise.
Now mind you, the disciples have seen a lot of wondrous things since they have been travelling in Jesus’ company. Healings, exorcisms, crowds of hungry people miraculously fed, storm waves miraculously stilled, a child miraculously restored to life. Signs of the kingdom, everywhere they looked. But now it is as if a veil has been torn open, as if the scales have fallen from their eyes, because now they can actually see the light of God streaming from him. It catches them by surprise, and it takes their breath away.
Moreover, he is no longer alone with them, but appears to be in the company of the great leaders of Israel’s past, Moses and Elijah, the law-giver and the prophet. Not knowing what else to say, Peter offers to build them houses, tabernacles on the mountaintop. Because that is what humans do, in places where we have encountered the Holy: we build shrines. Jesus is transfigured, and now the only thing Peter can think of to do, is to stay there on the mountaintop, basking forever in the glow of God.
But Jesus declines Peter’s offer of a mountain-view home. Instead, they head back down the mountain together, and Jesus asks them to keep their peak experience to themselves. For ahead of them still lies the cross, and the empty tomb, and their vision of who Jesus is will be even more radically transfigured in the days ahead.
Moses and Elijah have this is in common: they, too, had profoundly vivid experiences of God on a mountaintop. Moses was on Mount Horeb, when he saw the burning bush, and heard the voice of God in the fire, telling him to return to his people in Egypt. Later, Moses again climbs Mount Horeb – it’s also called Mount Sinai, those are two names for the same place – and once again amid fire and smoke, God speaks to him giving him the Law to govern Israel.
But while Moses is up there on the mountain, the Israelites begin to get into trouble in the camps below, so God tells Moses he better get back down there to his people.
Generations later, Elijah, fleeing persecution, climbs the same mountain, and he too hears the voice of God there, not in the fire, but in silence. And that voice says, Elijah, What are you doing here? Elijah comes to seek refuge in God; but like Moses before him, God sends Elijah back down the mountain, to serve the people of Israel.
You can only bask in the glow of God for so long, before somebody calls you, and you have to move on.
When I was in high school, we received word that our family friends would soon be selling the farm of my childhood. It was, after all, not really mine, not even my family’s property, but it was holy to me, and it was hard to imagine losing it. I was a budding photographer at the time, and I spent hours wandering the fields and barns, trying to freeze the farm in time, to capture it with the camera’s shutter. But looking through the lens was not like lying in the grass. Life is like that. Try to pin it down, and it turns into something different. The butterfly’s wings are never more beautiful than at the moment when they emerge fresh from the cocoon. But if we try to preserve it, to pin it down, we end up with something lifeless.
Butterflies exist in motion, just like moments exist in time. Pin them down, and they become something different.
Many of us have had mountaintop experiences, moments when the veil is torn open and we suddenly see things, not just by the light of day, but by the light of God. And it is tempting, in those moments of clarity, to think that perhaps we are done; that we have glimpsed not just the truth, but the whole truth. And so we want to linger on the mountain, to hold on to that particular moment in time. We want to pin it down, put it in a cabinet, and protect it from damage.
But the church is not a shrine, it’s a movement. There’s a reason why the first disciples referred to their faith as “the way.”
Jesus does not linger on the mountaintop; like Moses and Elijah before him, he returns to his people. We see Jesus, transfigured, in garments of dazzling white; but Jesus is ready to get his hands dirty. We try to pin him down, but he is on the move. We look for God on the mountaintop: but God, it turns out, is already down in the valley.
You can only bask in the glow of God for so long, before Somebody calls you, and you have to move on.
(sermon preached by Liza Knapp for Belchertown United Church of Christ, Transfiguration Sunday, 2015)
(photo: Liza B. Knapp, all rights reserved)