February 11, 2018 — Rev. Paula Norbert
Our reading today reminds us of the important moment when Jesus invites a few of his followers to join him up on the mountaintop where they will be amazed and changed by what they witness. It is life changing for them, and it probably inspired them even more deeply to follow Jesus on the hardest days even when fear and anxiety creep in. And, after Jesus has been crucified and they believe their own lives are in danger, they find the courage to continue to go out and teach and heal and share the Good News. Let us pray, O God, help us to be open this day to the wonders you work in our lives and help us to be open to your message of Good News, of mercy and love in scripture and in the lived experiences of our days. Amen.
While I was finishing my graduate work in Theology, I was able to pay my expenses by teaching part-time at a middle school in Brookline, Massachusetts, a very nice suburb not far from Fenway Park…and where many of the great hospitals in Boston are located. It was a wonderful school and most days, I really enjoyed teaching there and especially with some of my great colleagues. Each year, they would take the entire 8th grade on a hike in the White Mountains and spend the night at a cabin sponsored by the Appalachian Mountain Club and so I joined my fellow teachers on this outing. There were a number of kids who had never been hiking and so it was both challenging and exciting for them to be out there and taking on this challenge. Sadly, most of the teachers were in far better shape than many kids and it showed.
One of the things I remember was this one young man who had grown up in Boston. He attended the Brookline Schools as part of a program called METCO that encouraged promising students to attend school at some of the more well- funded and high achieving schools found in the suburbs around Boston. I don’t know if he had ever been hiking before but he took it on with great enthusiasm and was very excited to get to the top. Other kids were dragging along, becoming winded as they climbed, or they would reach a rock face and say, is this the top? Have we reached the top?… only to discover that alas, they still had more to climb. Anyway, this young man found his way to the front of the hikers and as he reached each summit, he would turn around and cheer on the other kids who were coming up behind him. As he cheered, others would climb to him and turn around and cheer the kids behind them, and so on, and so on…it was a great sight and I was so proud of them. And when they finally reached the top, you can imagine the cheering that took place. It was a great celebration…and a real metaphor for life.
That night, we built a bon fire and roasted marshmallows and told ghost stories and had a lot of fun, and many of the kids begged us to stay longer. We had some really nice conversations about how climbing a mountain can be a metaphor for life, how hard the climb can be and yet how rewarding when you reach the top. It had been such a fine experience that they didn’t really want to go back to the city, or to school. They wanted to stay up on the mountain and enjoy the experience longer.
Well, that’s exactly what these followers of Jesus felt after witnessing this transformative experience. They say to Jesus, let’s build huts and we can just stay up here and continue to feel this amazing feeling. They have been touched profoundly and spiritually and hey, who wants to leave that behind and make one’s way down the mountain back to the dusty roads and challenges that await there? But Jesus knows what he has been called to do, and he also knows that they perhaps needed this experience to strengthen them for what is to come.
This vision that the disciples have of Moses, Elijah and Jesus at the top of this mountain reminds us of the symbolism of mountains in scripture and what takes place there. We recall that Moses received the commandments on the two tablets on the high mountain called Sinai or Mount Horeb where he came in contact with God and then descended with the Commandments. He understood the significance of high places. Elijah also traveled to high places for important moments in his journey. We are told that he visited that same mountain where Moses was. In scripture, it was on that same mountain where Elijah is trying to find God. There’s an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake. There was a wild wind, but God was not in the wild wind, and then there’s a soft breeze and God is in the soft breeze. So …the image of a soft breeze, almost a whisper. Think of the moments in our own lives when something comes to us as if in a whisper, an important spiritual experience, that we must listen to in order to hear it or make sense of it.
Later, Moses leads his people to the Promised Land and gets to Mount Nebo where he can see the Promised Land, but he dies before he can enter it. On that mountain, he is frustrated and is not able to finish the journey with his people to the promised land. When Elijah was getting old and seemed near death, he too was up on a mountain, but according to the story, a fiery chariot came along, and swept Elijah up and he doesn’t die. Since that time, people believed that Elijah had to return to earth in order to die. So people wait for Elijah to return; sometimes people in the Jewish tradition set an empty chair at the table, waiting for Elijah so he can eat and then finally die and go to God.
We read the story of the Transfiguration this day, the week before we begin Lent in just a few days on Ash Wednesday, also Valentine’s Day. We understand that the conversation that Jesus had with Moses and Elijah was about Jesus’ own death to come. Jesus is transformed in that moment, and perhaps he fully understood that he was going to die, we’re all going to die. He seems to find great courage at the top of that mountain and when he comes down, he heads to Jerusalem with his followers.
This reading helps remind us of our own mountain top experiences in our lives, moments that may not actually take place on the top of a mountain, but moments that deepen our spiritual lives and renew our faith and our hope and our trust in God. I certainly hope each of us may be able to point to moments like those. Sometimes when we’re in the midst of them, we don’t fully appreciate the magnitude of the experience or the way it may change us later or bring meaning to our lives. God does bring those moments to us and we are invited to pay attention and to follow the invitations that may allow us to experience such moments…sometimes they can be in the midst of a family gathering or crisis, or during a wonderful retreat or time away with friends. Often, they do take place outside of the course of our day to day lives. They enrich us and allow us to go back to our lives with a renewed purpose and wisdom. Sometimes we don’t want to leave because they are so powerful, and yet, like Jesus’ followers, we must go back down the mountain or back home after the time away and take what we have learned and experienced and integrate it into our lives.
Jesus asked Peter, James, and John not to tell of what they witnessed on the mountain until he was resurrected. But we can tell what we have seen and heard of how God works to us in our lives. As we look ahead to the Season of Lent, let us be open to the experiences of God that come to us, often in moments that we don’t expect…and then to take those moments as a sign that God wants us to deepen our faith and spread the good news of God’s love and mercy. And, maybe, we may find courage, as Jesus did, courage to listen and be open to the experiences that truly enrich our lives and allow us to live authentically and courageously as people of faith.