Matthew 17:1-9 (NRSVUE)
Have you ever heard someone tell the story of their “mountaintop experience”? How they’ve “felt the Spirit” in Sunday morning worship. How they’ve sensed Jesus speaking to them. How they’ve seen visions. Spoken in tongues. Encountered God’s living presence in their dreams. These are stunning stories, no doubt about it. And they often leave the rest of us feeling like spiritual schmucks, somehow less than, less mature in our faith.
And stories like today’s story of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top don’t help. If Peter could see Jesus in his full, unfiltered glory, why can’t we?
But think about this: if we believe we can only encounter God on the mountaintop, how do we—how does anyone—live their day-to-day life with any purpose? What happens when we separate the “sacred” from the “secular”? The mountain from the valley. The spectacular from the mundane. “As if,” Debie Thomas has said, “God is somehow more present during a rousing worship set, a stirring sermon, or a silent retreat in a seaside monastery, than God is when I'm doing the laundry, returning a library book, or driving my son to his friend's house. The work of discernment is harder and messier in everyday life, yes. I have to look for God minus blinding lights and roaring thunder. But that doesn't mean it's impossible. The God of the whisper is still God.”
At “its worst, mountaintop Christianity is addictive,” she says, “such that we spend our days pursuing a “high” we conflate with spiritual success. When we don’t experience that high, we feel empty, unloved, angry, or bored. Meanwhile, we don't notice the ever-present God in whom we actually live and move and have our being. Desperate for the mountain, we miss the God of the valley, the conference room, the school yard, the grocery store, the street corner. Worshipping [only] the extraordinary doesn’t make for a healthy faith.”
Yes, of course, there is great value in gazing upon Jesus as Peter does, totally in awe, eyes amazed, heart all aflutter. It is good to move out of our comfort zones and confront the indescribable Otherness of the divine. Until the Transfiguration happens, Peter and his fellow disciples experience Jesus as a teacher, a storyteller, a healer, and a traveling companion. His face, his manners, his voice, his mission — all are familiar to them. Familiar, endearing, and safe.
Then one day, high up on a mountain, the unimaginable happens. Before their very eyes, Jesus completely changes. The man they think they know is suddenly more, suddenly Other. And this change upends everything the disciples think they understand about Jesus.
“Whenever we think we have God figured out, it’s good to be reminded that we’re wrong. Whenever we grow complacent, self-righteous, or lazy in our lives of faith, it’s good to be brought to our knees by a God whose thoughts are not our thoughts, and whose ways are not our ways. There are very good reasons to encounter Jesus on the mountaintop.”
But here’s the thing Debie Thomas reminds me of: most of life is unspectacular. Most of life doesn’t dazzle us with non-stop special effects. But all of life — all of life — contains the sacred. The challenge is to cultivate the kind of sight that perceives God in places darker, murkier, and more obscure than a mountaintop.
I sensed the presence of God in an unexpected way this week. It wasn’t a spectacular thing; in fact, it was all kind of painful. But I clearly sensed that God was present, somehow transforming the ridiculously awful circumstances into something sacred. Maybe you experienced this, too.
I watched on live TV the sentencing hearing of Peyton Gendron in the Erie County Courthouse. Family member after family member—all of them closely related to one of the victims of the mass shooting at the Tops supermarket on May 14, 2022—stood in front of the judge, the defendant, a packed court room—and, because of the ability of the media to cover this event, essentially the whole world—overwhelmed by grief and anger, to speak about the value of the loved ones they lost that horrific day.
The level of respect and compassion in that court room for these grieving family members was spiritual to me. The words spoken by Judge Susan Eagan were soul stirring. There is no doubt in my mind that on Wednesday morning, that court room in the Erie County Court House was a sacred, Spirit-filled, place.
Not all encounters with the holy are on mountaintops.
In our scripture reading, as soon as Peter gathers his wits on the mountaintop, he tries to hoard the experience. He plans to “make dwellings,” so they can all stay in that magical place. He’s trying to harness the holy. To make the fleeting permanent. To keep Jesus shiny, beautiful, and safe up on a mountain. After all, everything is so good up there. So clear. So bright. So unmistakably spiritual. Why not stay forever?
Well, because God says no. It’s got to be Jesus’s way—the way of the valley, the way of the cross, the way of humility, surrender, and sacrifice—that Peter must learn to follow. So, Jesus touches the disciples and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Get up. Because now the disciples have to do the really hard thing: they have to—we have to—consent to follow Jesus back down the mountain. “What’s challenging is learning to notice awe and wonder in the face of the mundane. What’s essential is finding Jesus in the rhythms and routines of the everyday. In the loving touch of a friend. In the human voices that say, “Don’t be afraid.” In the unspectacular business of discipleship, prayer, service, and solitude. In the unending challenge to love my neighbor as myself.”
Today, with Transfiguration Sunday, we come to the end of another liturgical season. Having seen the bright lights of Epiphany, we prepare now for the long darkness of Lent. We can’t know ahead of time what mountains and valleys lie ahead. We can’t predict how God will speak, how Jesus might appear. But we can trust in this: whether on the brightest mountain, or in the darkest valley, or in a court room filled with grief, Jesus abides. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale, February 19, 2023