On The Mountain Top
2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalms 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9 February 14, 2021 -Transfiguration Sunday
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens. Today we find Jesus and Peter and James and John on the mountaintop for one of the great moments, one of the great revelations, one of the great awakenings of humanity’s time on earth.
We read it is “six days later” so first we need to open the Good Book to see what happened six days before. In the eighth chapter of Mark, Jesus feeds the 5,000 with five loaves and two fishes. They move onto Bethsaida and Jesus gives sight to a blind man.
There follows that conversation where Jesus asks the disciples who the people say he is and they reply, ‘a prophet’ and Elijah and John the Baptist. Then Jesus asks who they say he is and Peter blurts it out, “You are the Messiah!”
Jesus then begins to teach them that he, the Messiah, must suffer and die and Peter rebukes him for talking like that, to which Jesus replies, “Get behind me, Satan!” Six days later, here we are on the mountaintop.
Things do not always remain the same. If there is a season for everything, there is an ebb and flow of events. a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a to be born and a time to die..
This all sets the stage for the Transfiguration, which is a turning point in the story of Jesus. He has shown the signs of God’s greatness with his winged words and his healing. Once again he retires to a quiet place, but this time he takes three of the disciples with him.
Once there, a great light shines on him or through him, revealing the divine presence in him. Heaven comes to earth.
At his birth he was surrounded by angels and shepherds. Now he is with Moses – the law, Elijah – the prophets, and those he will one day ask to feed his sheep when he is gone.
There is a symmetry, a balancing of heaven and earth in both stories…nativity and transfiguration, and the stories balance Jesus’ story between the beginning of his ministry and the beginning of his passion.
There is a time for everything under the heavens and at this crucial moment, heaven and earth are in balance.
Peter, the alpha disciple, suggests that the three earthly ones build three dwellings for the three heavenly beings, but that does not happen, because he is interrupted by the voice of God anointing the only begotten son, with whom God is pleased. We hear the voice say: “Listen to him.”
Then Moses and Elijah have gone and the earthlings descend from the mountain…back to a more ordinary place, but still an extraordinary time.
It is a lot like humans to want to build a structure to commemorate and perpetuate a great event or a great moment. We are so like the disciples in this story.
In 1902, Methodists bought property right here to build a church for the worship of God in Jesus Christ. Again in 1989 and 2001 your church expanded and updated their footprint to provide us with the beautiful building we now call our church.
It is a gathering place for worship… usually…but not now. Once again, there is a time for everything under heaven, and this is the time of the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, we have this place to do worship and deliver it to you with new means, YouTube. We still have our meetings, but they are almost all Zoom meetings or have a Zoom component to them.
We have had to climb the mountain, too, but we have done it to continue the work God has begun in us, and to do the work God wants done in the world.
Once the work was done on the mountaintop, Jesus and the disciples moved back into the world to complete the work Jesus had come to do.
This has become so much more than a place to meet on Sundays. It has become a meeting place for the community. Bridge club, Threads, Scouts, Rotary, our fall bazaar, the Community Foundation for a Better Bigfork, and so on and on.
The building was a way we could bring the community together, in worship and in shared interests, common values, and mutual hopes. It is a beacon, built in an apple orchard, tying our past and future together in the present.
Once we had paid for it, we were able to see that the church…our church…is not just a building but a presence in the community…not just a structure but a central clearinghouse of community, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and caring for those who are without hope.
We could see beyond the building, we have grown beyond the building, and our prayers have become larger and stronger for having done it…our community has become richer and stronger because we have done it.
There is a season for everything under heaven and we are in a new season now …growing into a new way of being the hands and feet of Christ in the world.
Maybe this shift, begun a few years ago now, is what has made it possible for us to adapt and move forward as covid-19 swept around the world and found its way to our village.
Jesus wants to get on with it and he wants us to get on with the job of spreading the Word and transforming the world. The transfiguration was not an isolated event any more than building this building was, or paying off the mortgage was, or becoming more intentional about being in ministry outside our walls and inviting the world to step through our door many times each week.
Transfiguration is a sweeping change that sticks, a becoming something more …more open, more giving, more involved, more awake and aware, more alive, and more instrumental in bringing light into the darkness and finding goodness in the hurly burly of life.
Peter, James and John were never the same after that. Jesus was never seen the same. The world was changed by that moment.
But transfigurations don’t just happen in the Bible. There was a great transfiguration of the New World, America, during and as a result of, our Civil War.
The war was begun because the South insisted on leaving and the North believed that the Union was forever and could not be broken. Much was broken in the struggle to keep it together.
Lincoln only wanted to stop the spread of slavery, not stamp it out at the beginning of the war. But as the conflict continued it became clear that it was slavery that had caused the war and that slavery was the underlying source of discord that was unraveling everything else.
The antagonists found themselves on a mountaintop of sorts before the true situation became manifest. Once the issue was joined on both sides, once human liberty was the issue, no country would ally itself with the South, slaves ran away from plantations when Union troops were in the area.
The South lost its domestic revenue and its foreign support. A great light was shed on the contention of the time and the burning issue of the day, and the tide of war turned.
Lincoln said he was not controlling events…that events were controlling him. He said that he felt like an invisible hand was leading him through the chaos of his day. He was having his own personal mountaintop kind of an experience.
The cost was great in property and life and the broken bonds of friendship between people who lived in different parts of the country.
It has taken a long time for those wounds to heal, and they are still healing. I stopped at Vicksburg in 1977 and took some pictures. When I came to work the next week, everyone wanted to see my pictures.
They didn’t like one, so I took it back to my office and put it in a drawer of my desk. Pretty soon, my friend and mentor, Ernest Moran, came back to see me…and the picture.
It was of a headstone in a row of headstones that curved away in an arc among some large oak trees at the military cemetery there.
Ernie said it was a nice picture, “but you ought not to show it to folks around there.” I asked him, “Ernie, what’s wrong with that picture?”
He said, “Son, that boy was a Yankee.” It was 112 years after the end of the Civil War…but the war was not over yet.
Julia Ward Howe would write that Christ was born in lilies across the sea with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me…but that transfiguration was still going on in Alabama in 1977…and today.
Transfiguration might be an event that changes everything, but it doesn’t change everyone. Still the light has come into the world and the world has changed.
We are going through a time of great change in America again…still… today. We are still trying to understand the reason or reasons for it, just as Israel was still trying to figure out why the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had abandoned them.
What we need is an epiphany, like the one that enabled the Wise Men to see the Christ child…that filled Mary with the grace to accept being the mother of the Son of God…that allowed the disciples on the mountaintop to see so clearly that their teacher was the Promised One and he was bringing a lesson into the world that the world would never be able to get out of its head.
The Transfiguration was not a preview of the Resurrection. It was a second… or third…or umpteenth…epiphany that there in front of them, leading them, calling them, was the Messiah.
They were in awe…at the moment… but they would still desert him when the moment of truth came in the Garden of Gethsemane a few days later. Peter would still deny him. Judas would still betray him.
But the word of a loving God had been spoken by then…Listen to him…and it could never be unspoken…any more than the words “All people are created equal” could or can be unspoken.
We might think someone is better than we are or worse than we are, but we are all still equal. It is a uniquely American epiphany, like the disciples’ claim to be serving the One that God had sent to save us all. It is our claim, too.
We might do better some days than others, but we have to keep on doing… keep on trying to find our way to the Promised Land…keep on loving people who don’t love us, or even themselves, knowing that if we can’t love everyone, we can’t love anyone.
We have been through another exhausting week as we draw an exhausting plague year to a close. But years are like transfigurations. They change the world, but they don’t always change people.
If we can keep our eye on the prize in the upward call of Jesus Christ, we can find our way to the end of the current crisis…the end of crisis itself. We can renew our strength as we share the witness of our faith that Christ came to save us all…man and woman, slave and free, Jew and gentile…with the whole world.
I close from the words that Lincoln ended his speech at Cooper Union in New York City on February 27, 1859.
Let us not be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT.
O Lord, what is it that you want to accomplish in the world through us… through me…this day? Amen.