On the Mountain Top. . . For a Time

Sermon Preached August 9, 2007
Saint Barnabas-by-the-Bay Episcopal Church

The Feast of the Transfiguration is one of three days that our prayer book says should take precedent over the “usual” readings when they happen to fall on a Sunday. The other two days are The Holy Name and The Presentation. This year, the Feast of the Transfiguration, always August 6th, fell on Monday and, because of its central place in the life of the church, I opted to transfer it to our Thursday Eucharist this morning.

In the Eastern Church – Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and so forth – the Feast of the Transfiguration is held in very high esteem because “the figure of the transfigured Christ is regarded as a foreshadowing of the Risen and Ascended Lord.”[i] In fact it is one of twelve great festivals in the East Orthodox calendar and has been celebrated since the 4th century. In the West, the festival was not recognized until much later – in the middle of the 15th century among Roman Catholics and by the Episcopal Church in 1892. Since that time, most modern Anglican calendars include this celebration.

The readings are not unfamiliar to us as they are the same stories we encounter on the last Sunday of Epiphany each year. In that context, we typically focus on the revelation of the true nature of Jesus as the Son of God just before we begin our journey through Lent toward the cross.[ii] The gospel reading is so vivid in its description – “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.” A mountain top experience of the most extraordinary proportions!

Has there been a time in your life when you have experienced God’s presence in a way that was beyond the ordinary. Perhaps it was in viewing a beautiful sunset over the bay, maybe it was holding the hand of a loved one as they died, it may have been a conversation you had, or a dream. When I think back to times like these – I remember having climbed to the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, I sat down on a rock and just looked around me and thought, “Wow, this is it” - when I think back to times like these, I often wish I could go back, to relive that experience, that moment of transformation when I realized something greater than I really was present in the world. And in those moments, I can remember wishing that I could just stay there and never leave.

I suspect that when Peter offers to “make three dwellings” on the mountain – one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah – a similar notion crossed his mind. He recognized the sheer power of the moment, the glory of the experience, and he wanted to capture it forever with a monument to its significance. Imagine how the gospel would have changed had Jesus acquiesced. We might still have the stories of Jesus’ miraculous birth, his early teachings and stories about those whom he had healed and it all would have led up to this beautiful mountain top experience that three disciples were privileged to have witnessed – that moment when “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” and he spent the rest of his life dwelling on that mountain in the presence of Moses and Elijah. Compared with the magnificence of the resurrection and ascension, I’d say this alternative ending is pretty anti-climactic.

And that is just the point. While having a mountain top experience can frequently mark a transformative point in our lives – a transfiguring moment – we cannot live in that moment forever. We cannot even adequately capture it. Many of us have had the experience of taking a photo of some beautiful natural phenomenon only to find when the film is developed or when we view the image on the internet that the picture simply doesn’t do justice to the event. We cannot live in the moment forever. We cannot even capture it. Instead, we are called to continue on. New Testament scholar R. Alan Culpepper writes, “The dangers of such [mountaintop] experiences . . . are that we may either fail to learn from them as we ought, or we may want to make them the norm and withdraw from the day-to-day struggle that fills most of life.” Culpepper goes on to say that “Discipleship involves following, going on. . . Faithfulness is not achieved by freezing a moment but by following on in confidence that God is leading and that what lies ahead is greater than what we have already experienced.”[iii]

In the experience of God’s greatness we are refreshed, we are renewed, we are reassured but ultimately that refreshment, renewal, and reassurance are provided so that we can continue to move forward in the world as disciples of Christ feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, and healing the sick. And so this morning, it is fitting to have these readings followed by the litany of healing and the laying on of hands and anointing with Holy oil for this is one of the sacraments of refreshment, renewal, and reassurance given to us by God so that we might go forth into the world loving and serving Christ in all persons.

[i] Lesser Feasts and Fasts, p. 332.
[ii] James Kiefer, “Feast of the Transfiguration,” The Lectionary accessed online on August 8, 2007.
[iii] R. Alan Culpepper, “Luke,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9, p. 207.