Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” – not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
I think there’s an innate craving to be “a conservative.” By conservative, I’m not explicitly referring to the fundamentalism that arose in 19th century North American Protestantism, and is quite strong in our own country today. Nor am I explicitly referring to the fundamentalist movements that we see in contemporary Judaism and Islam. I’m speaking of something that antedates these religious movements, speaking about the makeup of the human soul. This innate craving to conserve is about claiming and clinging to the treasury of either the past – because the past seemed so clear and good, and the present seems so bad – or claiming and clinging to the present – because the present seems so clear and good and the past (or future) seems so bad, were it otherwise. It’s about clinging to a certain prism through which to see life, and that’s the way it’s got to be. And I’m suggesting that there’s a part of all of us that craves to cling to some moorings in life so that we don’t get lost. I think we work out this drive toward conserving psychologically and sociologically and religiously. We’re creatures of habit, and we habituate ourselves around the ways we make sense of life and try to keep ourselves safe and sound.
Where a prism becomes a prison is where this innate craving toward “conservatism” in our souls doesn’t allow us to negotiate the changes and chances of life. We need to be “grounded” in life; but there’s quite a difference between a boat that has been grounded on the rocks, is stuck, and may be quite in danger, and the way a tree is grounded in the soil, in which it’s roots, very much alive, keep the tree centered and steady while actively drawing nourishment from the well of life. We want to be grounded like a tree – to be “rooted and grounded in love” (to quote from the Letter to the Ephesians3:14-21). To be rooted and grounded in love (rather than simply to be rooted and grounded in an experience, or a text, or tenet) means that the prism through which we are experiencing life is one of relationship with the living – with living people and with the living God – because love is about relationship, and relationships either evolve or they calcify.
I think that Peter and James and John got grounded, got momentarily stuck, on this mountaintop with Jesus. Here we have three very common people, with very common needs and common desires and common hopes, three of Jesus’ followers who had been fished out of their simple boats by Jesus and shown another way. They had seen the prophesies of old being fulfilled by Jesus in ways that they could never before have imagined. The hungry were being fed, the blind being healed, the hopeless and forgotten being received. They themselves were being fed; they themselves were being healed; they themselves were being given a place in the Reign of God. And people, multitudes of people, were listening and changing and following. And all was right with their world, and all would be right in the whole world when Jesus got to Jerusalem and finally ascended the royal throne and assumed the kingly power… and they would be seated at his right hand and at his left. It would be the best of times, and it would have stayed the best of times… except for this one tragic dimension about Jesus. Jesus kept sort of name-dropping that there would be a terrible twist to his life (and to theirs!) when they arrived in Jerusalem.
Jesus kept talking about the doorway to the future having to pass over a threshold of suffering and death. In actuality, Jesus had talked about this quite an amount. He hadn’t merely hinted about his forthcoming death; he had talked about it a great deal, and in the very presence of the these three disciples… But sometimes in life you simply can’t bear to hear what you hear, and so you don’t hear what you hear. We say in slang, that “something goes in one ear and out the other…” And I think the disciples could not bear to hear whatJesus had been saying all along. It’s almost as if they were pretending not to know what they knew that Jerusalem would bring to Jesus (and to them).
And so, on this particular day, there they stood on the mountaintop with Jesus. And Jesus was simply flooded with dazzling, mesmerizing light. And for a fleeting moment, for the apostles Peter and James and John, this moment salvaged the best of the past and it gave hope for the rest in the future to come. And they did not want that particular moment to end. Whatever was happening to them and to Jesus at that moment, they didn’t want it to end. They wanted to save it, to conserve it. We call it Jesus’ Transfiguration. But in actuality, it might be more accurate to call this the story of the transfiguration of the three apostles. Because suddenly they, too, were filled with this light: lighting their lives, lighting the darkness of their pasts, lighting their hopes and dreams and confusion and fears about the future. Suddenly the dim mirror through which they had been seeing life became clear. They saw. They understood. It fit. Everything fit. Everything was going to be okay. It was an incredible experience, and Peter – I’m just guessing it was Peter who spoke for the three – Peter seized onto this experience and said to Jesus: Don’t move! This is it! Let’s hold this moment in “stop action.” Don’t change anything. “Master,” Peter says, “Let’s just stay here! Let’s build some dwelling places here. Let’s stay put. Let’s keep everything as it is. Don’t move.” They had what I is called a “mountain top experience” with Jesus. They were clinging to it, and they did not want it to end, and they were afraid that it would end… And it did.
We don’t know much about when or how they came down off the mountain top. But I suspect a new set of clouds rolled in, as clouds are want to do in life. The next time they would experience that kind of light would be on Easter, the Day of Resurrection. But we know that that transfiguring light finally soaked into Peter and James and John (and the other apostles), and they were able to get on with their lives with real meaning and with real power. How? Here’s the good news they discovered… and here’s the good news for you and for me about this transfiguration. Two things come to mind.
First, they were able to hear that Jesus would be with them always. Jesus is God Emmanuel, God with us. We do not worship a God whose presence is limited to a particular experience, nor to a particular place (like a mountain top, like the temple, or totem, or tenet, or shrine, nor to a particular time. We worship God Emmanuel, in all times and in all places. God is with us, with you. That’s one thing that soaked into the apostles: that Jesus was going to stay with them. They didn’t have to go back to a mountain top to be with Jesus. They would be grounded in the light and life and love of Jesus, who was going to stay really present to them.
The second thing that soaked into the apostles was that if Jesus was going to stay with them, it was going to have to be in a new way… because he was still going to leave them. That was for sure. He was going to die and leave the dusty roads of Galilee and still be with them, but in some new way. And that’s true for us all, too. The apostles had seen the crying needs around them, and had seen the power of Jesus to transform their world, the power of Jesus working through them. And this had been their other fear: not that Jesus would leave but that Jesus would stay, that Jesus would stay with them, and that he would leave power with them. Which is also true for us all. We have been given the light and life and love of Jesus to transform the dark world that surrounds us: by our touch, by our words, by our mere presence, we have been given power by Jesus to transform the world in which we live, in the very ways that Jesus spoke and worked.
The apostles had been first afraid of Jesus’ absence, that he was leaving them; and then they were afraid of Jesus’ presence, that he was going to stay with them, in new ways, in powerful ways. Were they up for it? Who were they? Simple little fishermen. And who are you? Simple little you? And yet I would say that God has great things in store for us all. God Emmanuel is with us, to transfigure our own darkness and the darkness of the world in which we live. I spoke at the outset of our innate craving and habit to conserve, to cling to things of inestimable value in the past and present so that we don’t get lost and so that we stay safe and sound. If we convert this verb from “cling” to “cherish” – to cherish things of inestimable value in the past and present – we can claim what means the world to us and, at the same time, grant others that same dignity for what means the world to them. Be very liberal (not conservative) in what you value greatly, and you will invite others to do the same.
One last thought… and this comes from cinematography and television programming. How many movie and TV productions have there been in recent years (and currently), where what captivates us, the audience, is something about extraordinary power? About power coming through someone’s fingers or hands, power through someone’s eyes, power through someone’s mind, power through someone’s words. Why do these actors and plots captivate us? I think it’s because we recognize ourselves. We get in touch with the essence of our being. We recognize the power. It might even frighten us, because we know its truth. The invitation – the invitation in life – is to claim it. You have been given power, the light and life and love of Jesus. Let it flow. Let it go. Don’t deny it; don’t conserve it. There’s always more. Claim the power you embody – the light and life and love of Jesus – and let it flow with great generosity and authority through your own fingers and hands, through own your eyes, through your own mind, through your own words. We remember the Transfiguration of Jesus today to remind us all about our own transfiguration. “Christ lives within you.” That is what we say. Today is also a reminder about your own transfiguration. Claim the power. Let it flow. Let it go. The world is dying to know it.
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