Sunday, March 06, 2011
Find a Mountain to Climb
Matthew 17: 1-13
I’ve said before, and some of you may remember, that I have a certain sympathy, a certain affinity for Peter. He’s one of the major characters in the gospels, he’s present somewhere in almost every narrative, and, what makes him so sympathetic to us, ordinary human beings, is that he’s usually overreacting, failing, coming close but not quite to whatever Jesus means. And almost always his actions teach us hearers a lesson.
I’m sure you are familiar with the word epiphany, because you hear it here. In the church context, it means having a vision of the divine.
Peter has at least four I can think of, off the top of my head. There is the episode where he is walking on water, demonstrating his faith after he sees Jesus coming to him over the waves; there is his vision on the rooftop, where he is shown various kinds of foods, kosher and un-kosher, and told to kill and eat; there is his presence in the upper room when Jesus comes to them all, except Thomas, even though the door is locked; (well, let’s count that twice, because he’s also there when Jesus comes back just for Thomas), and there is today’s story.
Jesus invites Peter, James, and John up onto the mountain with him. The scriptures are pretty tight-lipped here, because it doesn’t say that there was any other reason for Jesus to have gone up there, other than to show Peter, James and John this event. Once they get there, Jesus is “transfigured”, or “transformed”.
He begins to glow with an inner light, and his clothes become dazzling white, instead of whatever earth-toned color his robes usually are. And then he is joined by Moses or Elijah.
Do you know how, when you are dreaming, people will appear and you know who they are, though you don’t know why? That must have been what it was like for Peter James and John, because Moses and Elijah had both lived thousands of years before them; it would be as if we were standing together, and suddenly here is Leif Ericson, the Viking explorer, and King Ethelred the Unready of England standing with us. Would you know who they are just by sight? I wouldn’t. Moses and Elijah are far more well-known to Peter, James and John, of course, at least their stories are, but their faces would not be any more familiar. It would be a little bit spooky, right?
So, there is Jesus, glowing like a lantern, in clothes whiter than any bleach could make them, standing with the two biggest Giants of their faith-the guy who will come before the Messiah, and the guy who is the founder of everything they know and believe about the world, about God, even bout food and marriage.
What would you do, when you realized what was going on?
Building some sort of shrine all of a sudden doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, does it? Peters’ no dummy, he realizes what is happening, and he wants to honor the situation, the event, the way we always want to honor these things. Jacob wrestles with the angel, he piles up a bunch of rocks and pours olive oil over them, marking the site of his epiphany. I’m not sure if anything happened in that rock grotto across from King’s College in Wilkes Barre, on whatever it is Pierce St. becomes when you cross the river, but that’s a pretty considerable shrine.
But God seems to intervene here, just as soon as Peter says that bit about building a three-boothed shrine. It gets very cloudy and foggy, but it’s that kind of fog that is shallow, and the sun is shining brightly above it-Josiah and I call it “fogshine”. That suddenly gets thick, and a voice announces to them that Jesus is his son, God loves him, and they should listen.
What was already an amazing, life altering event, worthy of a shrine, has now become terrifying, as God Goself has now spoken to them, and it doesn’t matter what tone God uses to speak-a commanding voice from nowhere, everywhere, from the fog, the mountain rocks, the ground, still commands attention like nothing else.
What can you do? You bow and hide your face. Filled with awe, indeed. I think I’d describe it, imagining what it would be like, as some combination of “This is amazing!” and “Make it stop!”
And here is what I think god means when he says: “Listen to him:” Jesus tells them “don’t tell anyone what has just happened until I am raised from the dead.”
So they don’t. And Peter has several more experiences with Jesus as a divine being, he’s already had one or two, which, at the end of his life, gives him the perspective no one else has, makes him into the Rock of the church Jesus expected him to be.
I want us to realize that in Peter’s story, ordinary people with faults and impulsive moments, people who make grave mistakes and regret them sharply, can still have a lifetime of rich experiences with God.
You may be sitting in that pew, listening to me, saying “I have never had anything like that.” You may be saying “I don’t want anything like that.” Well, perhaps. But’s it’s there for you, if you go and get it. Peter dropped his nets and followed Jesus, because Jesus was right in front of him. You might be called to such a ministry, or you might be called to stay right here, raise your children, play with your grandchildren, volunteer, eat, shop for food pay bills, sleep; live a life.
But, just as Jesus separated himself occasionally from his ministry in order to rest, recharge and pray, so can you. So should you. Kids go to camp, and almost always there is a time when they have experienced God-usually in an unstructured moment, but it happens. I’ve been on retreat, and if it has worked and the people OI am with mesh, it is indeed a mountaintop experience. You can’t stay there, we know, you have to come down the mountain sometime, your regular life awaits you down here, but those high moments of faith are available to you, and will strengthen you down here.
With the wisdom of his years, Peter, if he were to appear to us right now, would probably say to us that the life of faith is not constantly seeking life-changing experiences-it’s taking care to see God in everyday life, but make sure that we plant in our lives time away, to concentrate just on God. We travel away; go camping or to Disney to reconnect with our families; we go to the Poconos or to NYC to reconnect with our spouses-we go away to get closer.
It is no different with God. This Lent, I encourage you to find a way, make a plan, do something to be with God, alone, for a time. Peter went from mountain, to mountain.
What mountain will you climb to be with God this year? Use this Lent to make a plan.