Climbing Up the Mountain Children

Climbing Up the Mountain

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – © 2017 All Rights Reserved

Transfiguration Sunday/A • February 26, 2017

Matthew 17:1-9

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“After six days…” Six days: so much can happen in a short time. What’s happened in your life in the last six days: six dawns, six days, six dinners. Life is such a mix of random events and plans pursued. What plans did you pursue this week? What did you make happen; what happened to you? What was unexpected?

Now think of the disciples: What have they been doing in the last week? Perhaps recovering from the crisis Matthew tells us occurs when Jesus reveals his mission and identity. “Who do you say I am?” he asks and after Peter answers, “the Christ, the Song of the Living God”, he shocks them by explaining he’s going to Jerusalem where he will be crucified. They argue; he persists. That’s what they’ve been doing for six days.

We have been listening to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians; today we return to the gospel. When we left Jesus, we were still glowing from the story of Epiphany with its star and sages and bits of Christmas paper still littering the corners of the house. When we last saw Jesus, he was emerging from the waters of baptism where he had gone to John to become ready to take up his own ministry. Six days: so much longer than that along the way!

Meeting Jesus

Now we meet him again and he is on a path that will lead to the cross, to the grave, to the glory of his resurrection. He has been preaching and healing, teaching what Matthew condenses into a sermon on the mountain. He has been sharing his life with his disciples and this is what he has said to them: 

Those who want to come after me should deny themselves, pick up their cross and follow me! Remember those who try to save their own life are going to lose it; but those who lose their own life for my sake are going to find it. 
[Matthew 16:24-25]

He’s begun to make it clear to his disciples where this journey is going, the destination of the path he’s walking. They aren’t happy about it; Peter argues with him. Yet it’s also Peter who sees through to his real self: the Christ, the Son of the Living God. All that has gone on and now, six days later, Jesus takes Peter and James and John up a mountain where they will see even more clearly.

Climbing Up the Mountains

Mountains punctuate the Biblical story like chapter headings: they are a signal—pay attention! Something important is about to happen!

Abraham goes up Mount Moriah, later the site of Jerusalem, when God tells him to take Isaac, his only son, and bind him as a sacrifice. On the mountain he obeys God and his token of faithfulness becomes a transcendent moment when God’s covenant is reaffirmed and he receives the promise of blessing through all generations.

Moses goes up Mount Sinai alone, leaving his people, his helpers, his brothers and there sees the glory of the Lord pass by and receives from God the Torah, the teaching, what we call the Ten Commandments, God’s Word on how to live as God’s people.

Elijah goes to Mount Carmel and God demonstrates a faithful presence that defeats the idolatry of the prophets of Baal. And later on a mountain, Elijah hears the small, still voice of God.

To go to a mountain with Jesus is to go where the covenant was given, where the Torah was given, where the prophet receives God’s Word. These together—Torah and Prophets—are everything known about God to the people of Jesus’ time.

So they climb the mountain with Jesus. Have you done this, hiked up a mountain? I wonder what the trail was like: was it rocky, was it hard? Did they take enough bottles of water along? Did they bring trail mix? Scripture is silent. We simply hear, “Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.”

I imagine them huffing and puffing a bit; mountain hiking is hard work. I imagine them wondering inside where they are going and whether someone thought to bring lunch. Whatever they wonder, what’s clear is this: they keep walking, keep following, Jesus going ahead, the three of them after. We sometimes sing a hymn called “I want Jesus to walk with me” but isn’t the real call of faith for us to walk with Jesus?

Transfigured

Sometimes hiking up a mountain trail you walk and walk in the shade of trees, so focused on where you’re stepping, looking down, choosing the next step that coming out to a clearing, being hit by the sun takes your breath away. I remember a day hiking in Thatcher Park when Jacquelyn and got lost. Wandering among the trees, we thought we were on a trail but the markers petered out and we kept going. At some point, we knew we’d lost the trail and we began to just go toward where we thought the road might be. We walked a long time through the woods there and then suddenly there was an opening: we’d come to one of the access parking lots and the light flooded in like a dam had burst.

Peter and James and John follow Jesus and I think, I imagine, him walking just ahead of them, coming before them to the top or to a clearing at any rate and standing there, in the light, so that as they come into the clearing light shines through him and they see him in a new light suddenly. All the things he has been saying are suddenly clear. He is transfigured, that is to say, he is lit up from the inner light of God and they see that about him, they know that about him, they understand that about him in a way that will never leave them.

On the Mountain with Jesus: Is this My Jesus?

Just to make the point clear, because God knows we so often miss the point, Jesus isn’t alone. There with him are Moses and Elijah, as I said earlier, persons who have been to the mountain and who represent all that is known about God, Torah and Prophets, the whole of what we call the Bible, God’s Word in the flesh. And Jesus is standing with them.

I love the next part of this story because it is so real, so us, isn’t it? There he is, Jesus transfigured, Jesus according to many commentators as he will appear to them when he is resurrected. It’s a miracle, it’s a vision and this is what they say: “It’s a good thing we’re here.” Is there any limit to our ability to turn from Jesus back to ourselves? There’s a popular praise song that begins, “My Jesus, my savior…” Well, it’s a good song, fun to sing, but if we are serious about what Jesus actually says and what scripture says about him, it’s wrong. He isn’t my Jesus. He isn’t your Jesus. The question the gospel asks isn’t “Does Jesus belong to me?”, but “Do I belong to Jesus?”.

Here’s Peter with Jesus transfigured, Moses and Elijah back from heaven, you’d think that would be enough to inspire anyone, wouldn’t you? All he can think to do is form a building committee, to say it’s a good thing he’s there, to enclose Jesus and the others in some structure. Isn’t this us: boxing Jesus up just when he threatens to get out of hand?
God won’t have it. Just then, when Peter and John and James are discussing who will chair the committee, creation stirs up and a cloud comes in and God speaks: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him, I am well pleased.” Now if you have been coming here religiously and listening, that ought to sound familiar because it’s exactly what God said when Jesus was baptized. We talked about it weeks ago. This is the fundamental identity of Jesus: the beloved child of God.

What we don’t hear is the context. In that time, this was a political statement. “Son of God” is one of the titles that the Roman Emperor Augustus and following him others including Tiberius, the emperor in this moment, claim. It’s almost as if God said, “This is the President, with whom I’m well pleased.” It’s God pointing out who we should follow, who we should look to for direction. And that’s just what God says. For there’s one more thing that wasn’t said at the baptism, one more Word of God for this moment: “Listen to him”

Listening to Jesus

That’s the key to keeping Jesus out of the box: listening to him. It’s no surprise that Word knocks the disciples flat. “When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown on the ground,” terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, “Get up,” he said, “Don’t be afraid.” For this moment of transfiguration is meant to warn them but also to help them. And it’s meant to help us understand that following Jesus, listening to Jesus, living with Jesus creates an imperishable relationship There is a spiritual, a song, that says,

Climbing up the mountain, children,

We didn’t come here for to stay.

And if I nevermore see you again, 

going to see you on the Judgement Day

Coming Down the Mountain

We are not meant to stay on the mountain and they don’t. But having been to the mountain, we come down to lives permanently changed, connected to Jesus in a way that will never end.
“This is my son…listen to him.” In that command, in that Word is the challenge of faith and all the inspiration we need to reflect the light of God and give God joy. Bernard Moitessier was a French sailor and one of the first to sail around the world by himself, single-handed, in the Golden Globe race. Thousands of miles into the race, after months by himself alone on a small boat, as he was passing New Zealand, he went to sleep with his boat on autopilot headed east to pass a reef off to the north.

When he woke, he found the boat surrounded by a huge group of porpoises. They kept doing a strange maneuver where a group would swim ahead, and then suddenly turn right, right in front of his boat. After watching this for a while, the sleepy sailor thought to check his course and discovered that while he slept, the boat had shifted from sailing east to sailing north, right for the reef. The porpoises seemed to be warning him. He changed his course. He goes on to say:
…then something wonderful [happened]: a big black and white porpoise jumps ten or twelve feet

in the air in a fantastic somersault, with two complete rolls. And he lands flat, tail, forward. Three times he does his double roll, bursting with a tremendous joy, as if he were shouting to me and all the other porpoises: ‘The man understood that we were trying to tell him to sail to the right . . . you understood . . . you understood . . . keep on like that, it’s all clear ahead!’
[Bernard Moitessier, The Long Way]

Jesus takes a few disciples up the mountain. There, transfigured, they go from thinking they can enclose him in a box to people listening and following him in a new way. There they know indeed, it’s all clear ahead. the message of transfiguration: “This is my son, listen to hm, listen to him.” And when we do I think god must leap with joy like the porpoise.
Amen.

What Happens?


A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Transfiguration Sunday/C • February 7, 2016

“You are my beloved”. Twice, the gospels tell us, heaven opened and Jesus heard in his deepest soul God speaking these words. Once at his baptism; again, late in his ministry, when he took his closest friends up a mountain and they saw how like the great prophets Moses and Elijah he was. Because we aren’t reading these stories in order, we miss some of the context. Before this, he has healed and offered hope; before this he has taught his friends his path will lead to a cross. They have argued with him, feared for him, followed him. Now he shines with the vision of this mission, now he is transfigured, altered, like the wick of a candle, as the love of God burns and sheds light in the world. What happens on the mountain? How many have asked this? Yet if we truly look, we will know what happen because we see it ourselves at times. We have been thinking about how to live together in the covenant community of Christ and last week we heard the most important principle of all: to live from the permanent love of God. What happens on the mountain? What happens when we live in the love of God?

Let me tell you a story. There was once an old stone monastery tucked away in the middle of a picturesque forest. For many years people would make the significant detour required to seek out this monastery. The peaceful spirit of the place was healing for the soul.
In recent years, however, fewer and fewer people were making their way to the monastery. The monks had grown jealous and petty in their relationships with one another, and the animosity was felt by those who visited. The Abbot of the monastery was distressed by what was happening, and poured out his heart to his good friend Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a wise old Jewish rabbi. Having heard the Abbot’s tale of woe he asked if he could offer a suggestion. “Please do” responded the Abbot. “Anything you can offer.”

Jeremiah said that he had received a vision, and the vision was this: the messiah was among the ranks of the monks. The Abbot was flabbergasted. One among his own was the Messiah! Who could it be? He knew it wasn’t himself, but who? He raced back to the monastery and shared his exciting news with his fellow monks. The monks grew silent as they looked into each other’s faces. Was this one the Messiah?

From that day on the mood in the monastery changed. Joseph and Ivan started talking again, neither wanting to be guilty of slighting the Messiah. Pierre and Naibu left behind their frosty anger and sought out each other’s forgiveness. The monks began serving each other, looking out for opportunities to assist, seeking healing and forgiveness where offense had been given.

As one traveler, then another, found their way to the monastery word soon spread about the remarkable spirit of the place. People once again took the journey to the monastery and found themselves renewed and transformed. All because those monks knew the Messiah was among them.

Let me tell you another story. Almost 16 years ago, I stood in the chancel of another church, a church where I had been the pastor for five years, a place I knew well. But on that day, another minister was at the center, directing our worship, a man who is like a father to me. And as I stood there and looked out at the congregation, Jacquelyn appeared in a white dress at the back and there was a light around her. In moments she was next to me, a few moments later we were married. We were changed, changed by love, and that has made all the difference.

One more story. Two years ago, I was still healing from a wound from which I thought I’d never recover. I was only just beginning to believe the astonishing sense I’d received from God that I wasn’t finished, that God had more for me to do. I read the information about this church and set it aside; Jacquelyn insisted I read it again, contact the committee and I did. A few months later I came here for the first time, stood in this pulpit and addressed you and, just like the day with Jacquelyn, we made a new covenant. We were changed, changed by love, and that has made all the difference.

What happened on the mountain?. In those moments, those disciples saw Jesus in a new way and a new covenant began. We often live in the past. We use it to draw lessons, we use it to guide us, to help us avoid hurts. But the gospel wants us to see ahead, not just behind. Transfiguration is a glimpse of the future, of where we are going, of a moment when we can see that God has been doing the same thing all along, in Moses, in Elijah, now in Jesus: reaching out to embrace us, inviting us to embrace each other.

I tell these stories this morning because transfiguration doesn’t just happen on a mountain far away, it happens in our lives, it happens when we open ourselves to God’s love, when we take a moment to look up from our wounds and let God’s love embrace us. John Sumwalt tells of a friend who had a powerful experience of the holy. She wasn’t sure who she could tell. She couldn’t think of anyone in the church and ended up sharing it with a Buddhist priest. He told her “not to try to dissect it for meaning, pick away at it or anything else – but just to let it sit. His words were “Hold it in your heart. It may be years before you even catch a glimmer of understanding.” Whenever heaven opens and God’s love is so evidently, clearly, showered down, a difference is made; all the difference is made.

What happens on the mountain is that the disciples see Jesus in a new way. They see him as the child of God, embraced, loved. What happens when we see each other that way? We gather in the name of Jesus who was transfigured on the mountain and as the continuing expression of that covenant community of disciples. Like them, I think we often misunderstand him; like them, we aren’t always ready to follow immediately where he’s going. But when we do, when we ourselves hope in that love, have faith in that love, practice that love, what happens? Christ comes; God blesses. And the kingdom is here, right here, among us. Today I want to close with a poem from Malcom Guide.

For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.

What happens on the mountain can happen, does happen.
May it happen in your life this week.
Amen.

Your turn!