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Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
The Holy Mountain – Sewanee
The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there.” Thirteen years ago, Terri and I experienced an unexpected life-altering event, the call to seminary. Sudden, unexpected changes seems to be the nature of mine and Terri’s ministry. God sets us on a particular journey and then, unexpectedly something changes and we are on another path. In 2007, we left beautiful Southwest Florida, the low land peninsula of palm trees, warm weather, and luxurious beaches, and traded all that in for a paradoxical, Appalachian, pseudo-Oxfordian adventure on a holy mountain in East Tennessee. For three years I studied, and later received, a Master’s of Divinity degree from Sewanee, The University of the South. Sewanee is a nearly two centuries old, Episcopal owned seminary and liberal arts college situated on top of the Cumberland plateau, west of Chattanooga Tennessee, and in many ways, it looks and feels like the Oxford of the South.
With its isolated mountaintop locale, we experienced the weekly ritual of wearing academic gowns, the beauty of old stone Oxford-like buildings, and the holy presence of prayer in the lives of seminarians, undergrads, and professors. On that mountaintop, Terri and I found a geographical, academic, and spiritual life changing experience. There, we made friendships that last to this day, and the memories we had there of community and prayer, I often long to recapture and sustain.
However, we were not called to stay on the mountain of Sewanee forever, rather we had to come back to the valley, the flatlands of Florida. God would take that experience of God’s holy presence on the mountaintop, and use it to inform us and change us, so that we might serve and tell others, about the mystery of the incarnation, the very presence of God and humanity undivided.
Today, we hear in the gospel reading an unusual and often overlooked chapter in the life of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; the Transfiguration. I wonder why we just gloss over one of the most important moments in scripture, which clearly defines the true nature of God, “human and divine, both at the same time.” Maybe we rush over this story and merely say that this was when God’s glory was first fully revealed, however we forget the Moses experience we hear about in Exodus. Maybe we look at mountaintop experience as subservient to the valley work of disciples, and we wrongly judge Peter, James, and John and label them lazy, uninformed, or naive. Maybe we like those three are in so much awe at the possibility of God’s glory and power being contained in a fleshly jar that like them, we just cannot comprehend such an event as reality. Sisters and brothers God in flesh was, is, and will be always a factual, authentic, and true reality, and there is much for us to learn from the transfiguration event that is, if we are willing to go to the mountain with God.
Mountain Top Experiences
The Christian life is a series of mountaintop and valley experiences, highs and lows, joy and fear, and revelation and darkness. Read the stories of Jesus ministry and you will see each of those diametric realities revealed in almost all of the events; especially the Passion and Resurrection. However, I want to stay for a moment on the mountain with Peter, James, and John, and not be too quick to leave this scene, run down the mountain path, and get back to work. I want us to sit in awe of the glorious light of God’s divinity fully present in fleshly clay jar. We all need a mountaintop experience today.
Henri Nouwen once wrote of mountaintop experiences, “At some moments we experience complete unity within us and around us. This may happen when we stand on a mountaintop and are captivated by the view. It may happen when we witness the birth of a child or the death of a friend. It may happen when we have an intimate conversation or a family meal. It may happen in church during a service or in a quiet room during prayer. But whenever and however it happens we say to ourselves: “This is it … everything fits … all I ever hoped for is here.” (2)
When have you experienced that kind of mountaintop experience, that you were able to say, “This is it … everything fits … all I ever hoped for is here”? I have to be honest with you, those times seem to be elusive and difficult to come by, especially if you think they are only made for a chosen few. We all know those people who walk around with a perpetual smile, a “happy go lucky” outlook, and the unending joy of a life of ease. Here is what we don’t see revealed in people whom we think are living perpetual mountaintop lives. We do not see the injuries, trauma, and the valley moments that have changed them forever. What you may not see revealed in them is that behind the mountaintop revelation on the outside, there could be a horrific valley moment that forever changed their hearts, and somehow God’s grace brought them back to the mountain, even in the midst of the lowlands of life. Sometimes we need to go to the mountain and be in God’s presence and then, bring a little of that back into everyday life.
Peter, James and John
Peter in glee shouted, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” These three, especially Peter have over the years gotten a bad rap for their reaction to the mountaintop transfiguration experience. These three guys were sitting in the holy presence of God in flesh, fully revealed and they just wanted to stay. Down in the valley, these guys faced everyday rejection from the religious elite. They lived as poor itinerant preachers following this “up and coming” rabbi and most of the time, they were confused by his teachings. They had doubts, fears, and uncertainties about their choices to leave their families and businesses.
Now, in a moment of light and flash, it all seemed to make sense because this guy they were following was God, and yet still human, and all of it was confirmed by Moses and Elijah. The great Exodus rescuer, and the holy prophet who was taken up into heaven were both declaring to these three disciples, “yep, this is the one.” Even God’s voice from heaven declared it, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Let me tell you, had I been there with them, I too would have wanted to stay. I too would have wanted to forget the ministry valley below; the weekly committee meetings, the surprising personality clashes and betrayals, and the endless emails. I bet you would have wanted to stay there too. So, don’t be too quick to judge these guys. We like them, need to go to the mountaintop in our lives of faith more often. We need moments like those, to carry us through the valleys.
A Greek Orthodox theologian tells us, “The transfiguration is not only an event of memory, but one of participatory action.” (3). We need to go to the mountain and not just sit, but we need to be like Peter, who wanted to do something (build tabernacles). We need to go to the mountain so we can build a life of transformation, changed hearts, and the full revelation of God’s divine presence in us.
The transfiguration is not merely a moment of glory for Jesus, where he showed his disciples that he was who he claimed he was. The transfiguration is the moment Jesus shows us clearly, that we are who he says we are; glorious children of God in fleshly containers. Let me explain. I found this quote on Pinterest, “Shining forth atop the mountain is the glory not only of Christ as the unrepeatable, incomparable person of the Son made man, but also the universal, approachable vision of humanity wrought fully in the image and likeness of God.” (1).
The Valley of Transformed
“So, Fr. Eric, how do I experience the mountaintop,” you may ask. Honestly, it is easier than you think, if you are willing to go. You can have a mountaintop experience every single day, if you are willing to go. It is simple; find that place that completely takes you out of your routine, that focuses your heart, and provides you with time and space for introspection. Maybe it is the beach, maybe it is your lanai, maybe it is a walking path in your community, or maybe it is the vistas from 2000’. Mountaintops can be places that bring you to a peace, where you can be open to new insights, where you can experience an open heart, and a find renewed spirit. When you go there you simply need to pray. When you are there, ask God to reveal Godself to you, and wait. Ask God to show you who you really are and wait. Finally, expect God to show up. Now you may have to do this a few times and you may be disappointed, if you do not have that glorious mountaintop experience, but be patient and wait.
Not into that kind of thing? So, try this as an alternative. The next time you experience any event in your life: the missed golf shot, the troublesome co-worker, the events that seem to overwhelm your peace, the tragedy in your life you cannot bear, the family member who is angry with you, the anxiety you carry every day, well then, go to the mountaintop in the midst of those valleys. In other words, go to prayer. Ask God to reveal Godself to you and wait. Ask God to show you who you really are and wait. Finally, expect God to show up.
You see, when you go to the mountaintop, you are going to discover who you truly are, but be ready, because you will there be forever changed. Mountaintops for many of us can be frightening and life-altering, because these moments will bring us to a decision point. When we come face to face with our true identity, we face many choices. On the mountain, you will discover who we truly are and either choose to accept the valley paths Jesus sets out for us; or you may discover who we really are and decide to follow the valley paths of our own choosing. You see, the beauty of the story of the Transfiguration of Christ is not a story of the divisional experience of mountain and valley, as if they were two different and separable parts of life. Just like the truth revealed in the shining face of Jesus with Moses and Elijah on both of his sides, divinity and flesh are not separable parts of our journey of faith.
The truth we find in this story is this that wherever we are on this journey, the mountains and valleys if taken following Christ, can really be indistinguishable. In other words, if we truly see and trust the very presence of God living in us, no matter where we are the divinity and humanity of God is present with us in Christ. So, when you experience uncertainty, trials, fears, anxiety, depression, disappointment, pain, and when a choice is before you, remember that you always have available to you, the God given grace to listen to God’s call, to leave your troubles with Jesus as be beckons, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there.”
Steenberg, Irenaeus Archimandrite. “Two-Natured Man: An Anthropology of Transfiguration.” Pro Ecclesia, vol. 14, no. 4, Fall 2005, pp. 413–432.