This is a rough draft – the final “draft” consists of four 4×6 cards with some sharpie notes on them to remind me of the order of things. If this was the manuscript, there’s a lot I’d cut and change, but I’m doing all of that without a MS. Anyway, here you go.
“Down from the Mountain”
Luke 9: 23-43
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
The Transfiguration story comes up a lot in the Lectionary, usually right before Lent. But I can only remember one Transfiguration sermon, and it is much, much better than the one you’re going to hear today.
Fortunately, I have a very reassuring and wise spouse. Last night, she told me something very important that I had forgotten. She said, “Doug, I’m going to tell you something that you’ll just have to learn to accept. No one actually listens to sermons.”
So, given that, I’m not as worried as I might otherwise be.
The Transfiguration story, and the one that comes immediately after it, occur together in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and the Lectionary for today puts them together. The juxtaposition definitely changes the overall effect.
When I first read the passage from Luke, and almost every time I re-read it after that, I found it troublesome. The main problem with it is that it is one of the few times where we see a grumpy Jesus. Possibly downright cantankerous. How does he get there?
The story begins right after Jesus has miraculously fed a huge crowd. Presumably, the crowd is still hanging around, even though it is eight days after. Nothing is said about what happens during those eight days, and Matthew and Mark say six days, so who knows?
But Jesus grabs Peter, James and John and goes up a mountain to pray. This is something Jesus does – there is sort of a rhythm where engagement with the crowds and ministry is followed by seclusion. Maybe something like an annual retreat. So up they go, and they pray.
Presumably, that night, as Jesus is praying, his appearance suddenly changes. His face and clothes become bright white, like a flash of lightening, and suddenly there are Moses and Elijah standing next to him. They are talking together about Jesus and what will happen to him when he goes to Jerusalem – what they writer calls his Exodus, what we know as his betrayal, abandonment, torture, execution, and resurrection.
When Elijah and Moses are leaving, the light and the conversation finally wakes the sleeping disciples up. One is reminded of Gethsemane, where once again Jesus is praying and something crucial happens while the disciples are asleep. But they wake up, and Peter sees what is going on, and says “this is great – Jesus, Moses and Elijah all here together with us! Let’s build some tents where you can all live!”
Now, a side note. The text says that Peter didn’t know what he was saying, and his suggestion seems sort of dense. We chuckle as he foolishly tries to capture the divine vision in tents. Yet, aren’t we in a church? Sort of like a tent, but more permanent? And we go here expecting the divine, as if it was contained here, or only accessible here. When we say that this is the house of God, do we know what we’re saying, either?
Peter doesn’t get a response to his idea, because as he’s speaking a cloud rolls over them all, enveloping them. Now, they’re on a mountaintop. There has been a bright light, and visitations from Moses and Elijah, and now there is a cloud surrounding them. We know what this means – God has arrived. And a voice, reminding us of Christ’s Baptism, comes from the cloud and says “This is my son, whom I have chosen.” And then the voice adds, perhaps exasperated “Listen to him!”
When the voice is finished, the disciples find that Jesus is alone – Moses and Elijah left during the commotion, and Peter doesn’t have any more bright ideas. The disciples say nothing about what happened.
Now, if you can, picture this scene. Jesus has been praying all night. He’s been lit up like a flash of lightening, he’s spoken to Moses and Elijah, and God has reaffirmed that he is the Chosen. He and the three disciples, Peter, James and John, are hiking down from the mountain, probably following foot-paths or other trails. The morning sun is shining. The disciples are strangely quiet, trying to understand what they’ve seen. Maybe they spoke to Jesus about it, and are still wondering how to understand what he told them. They look at each other as the sounds from the crowd below reach them – they will say nothing. This will be something they keep with them.
As they descend the crowd is able to see them coming down, and maybe a hush falls over them as they watch. They have been sitting and standing, sleeping and talking, arguing and visiting, eating and drinking. Some have left because work and family call them back and others have arrived, thinking that something must be going on that’s pretty interesting. One by one they turn to watch the four tiny figures come toward them. Do you see them? Is it Jesus? Sshhh! They’re coming. Did you see the cloud, and the light, like lightening, last night? Ssshhhh!!
And those in front break away and begin coming up the mountain, scrabbling over rocks and climbing toward the four. More follow. The whole crowd begins to flow up the slop to meet the four. Scattered disciples go to meet their master and their companions. The sick and the lame limp up for the chance to be healed. Nay-sayers and rumor-mongers go to hear what this mad prophet will say next. Scribes and community leaders go to hear this man and decide who he really is – a threat? A lunatic? A prophet?
One of them surges forward, sprints ahead to meet Jesus first, the rest of the teeming crowd hot on his heels. Maybe he goes down on his knees before Jesus, out of breath, dusty, sweating in the daylight.
“Lord, I beg you to look at my only son. A spirit seizes him and he screams and is thrown to the ground. It keeps happening and its destroying him. I asked your disciples to help, but they could not.”
And then Jesus looks down on the man, then perhaps out over the crowd climbing up to smother him, and says “you faithless and perverse generation, how much longer will I have to put up with you?” You can almost hear the sound of a needle scratching across a record as the music stops, the scene grinds to a halt, and everyone looks uncomfortably at each other, or their own feet. Then Jesus says, with perhaps a sigh, “Bring your son here.”
The man calls for his son, or perhaps pushes back through the crowd to find him and take his hand, but even as they are coming back to Jesus, the spirit hurls the child to the ground and he has another seizure, there in front of everyone. People climb over each other to pull back, not wanting to be part of the terrible spectacle of someone seized, helpless, in the grip of a power no one understands.
And then there’s Jesus, speaking to the spirit with authority, sending it scuttling away. The boy’s spasms cease, his eyes open, his breathing evens. His father rushes to him and embraces him, weeping with relief. The disciples nearby look a little guilty, perhaps, that they failed to heal this boy.
Through the whole crowd a thrill of amazement travels like an electric current. Their hair stands on end. They look to each other, to the sky, in sudden wonder. This man means business.
The passage from 2 Corinthians that is coupled with the Transfiguration story this morning is somewhat different. It talks about boldness. Unveiling ourselves. Glory. Transformation. Telling the truth.
We’re not really comfortable with boldness, with glory. When we think of a holy person, of a person who is close to God, we think more of meekness, humility. A quiet soul, a well of deep water, a person of wisdom and patience. Boldness is a little too close to rudeness. Outside maybe of the military, when we honor boldness in combat, or stories, where bold heroes capture the imagination and drive the narrative forward, boldness isn’t something we look for. It makes us squirm a bit.
And the bit about veils. We don’t like being unveiled. To be unveiled is to be naked. To be entirely visible. Nothing to hide behind.
I’ll be honest. The pulpit is more comfortable, in the sense that it is a big wooden veil I can stand behind. Really, I’d be happy with a screen, maybe, that I could sit behind and read my sermon into a microphone. Or I could videotape it, and you could watch it at your leisure, while I’m safe doing something else. Or maybe I could podcast my sermon, and you could listen to it on your computer or iPod during your commute.
When you’re veiled, you can say anything, because you’re disconnected. Its like you’re just talking to yourself.
But 2 Corinthians says it, and I think its right. When you turn to the Lord, the veil is taken away. The good opinion you have of yourself is laid bare and looks quite foolish. The letters after your name are stripped away. There are no clothes, no car, no home to insulate you. Your title floats away on the breeze. And your privilege – your economic, or sexual, or social privilege that surrounds you, protects you, is stripped away. What’s left is just you. Who you think you are, who you want others to think you are, is cut free, like a snail’s hard shell, leaving only who you really are, underneath all the veiling we all do. Seen like that, we’re not very impressive. We’re all a little…squishy.
Its obviously a terrifying experience. If it wasn’t so frightening, would we go to all this trouble to avoid it? Every year millions of people having mid-life crises go off on adventures or retreats looking to find themselves. How the heck do you lose yourself? It isn’t like losing your keys. But it happens to all of us.
Parker Palmer talks about it in his book, Let Your Life Speak. He talks about how, basically from birth, the pressure builds to forget ourselves. There are requirements and constraints – the constraints of gender, and how you’re supposed to act, and what is a valuable use of your time and what isn’t. It continues. We are molded by family, friends, society. We fill roles that are prepared for us. Birth order. Sexual preference. Occupation. The way you dress. The way you speak. Who is important and who isn’t.
You can sense the veils, one after another, placed over us, smothering.
Sometimes, when you cage a wild animal, say, at the zoo, it gets so used to the cage that it forgets the wild. You could open the cage door and it would just sit there. It won’t venture out, anymore. The cage is home. The cage feels safe. The cage is where it belongs.
We’re like that. We’re smothered by all of these veils we wear, but we don’t even realize it, except maybe in brief moments of clarity. And who has the courage to put them aside?
And here’s the scandal. Here’s the real tragedy. We are created in the image of God. We aren’t created as garbage, and then we work hard until we become the image of God. We are created in the image of God. We are God’s children. We are made for the wild, not for cages. We are made to be free, not prisoners. Paul writes that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. But only if we are unveiled.
Later on in Parker Palmer’s book, he talks about the difference between being good and being whole. We spend so much effort trying to be good, but this good we’re trying to become is another veil. Its another barrier around us. Its like we’re trying to fit into someone else’s clothes, and then we shuffle around, trying to act natural. Palmer says that it is more important to be whole than to be good. The calling of every human being, for him, is to be who you are.
If we have the courage to be who we are, to cast off our veils and simply be, then comes the glory. The glory of God will be reflected in us. The light will fill us and shine from us, not because we are good, but because we belong to God. Like Christ on the mountain-top, flashing like a bolt of lightening. And like Christ coming down the mountain, frustrated with the crowd, rebuking them, being honest. And yet his compassion wins out, and he uses the power he has to heal the afflicted child.
Christ can do this because he is free. In the Spirit of the Lord there is freedom. Freedom to be who we are created to be, who we are already. Christ is unveiled, naked, vulnerable to the world, even when it costs everything to remain so. From that mountain-top his next stop was Jerusalem, and pain, and death, and only through that, resurrection.
There is an old Hasidic story about Rabbi Zusya. You might have heard it before, but it really fits here. Rabbi Zusya was on his deathbed, and his disciples were gathered around him, being with him in his final moments. Suddenly they see that he has begun to cry. “Teacher, why are you crying?” They ask.
He responded, “I weep because I am afraid, afraid of what God will ask me when I die. I know God will not ask ‘why were you not like Abraham’, because how can I compare to the first to recognize the almighty? And I know God will not ask ‘why were you not like Moses’, after all, I am not a great prophet or leader. But when God looks at me and says ‘Zusya, my child – why were you not Zusya?’ What shall I say then?”
I like this story, because I think that is the question. For Christians, it is not “why were you not like Christ?” But rather, “my child, why were you not simply who you are?”
Go out into the world boldly
Like flashes of lightening
Be the one that God created
And reflect the glory of God to the world!