February 10, 2013
“It’s a matter of perspective”
Maybe it is because I am a middle child. Or maybe it is because I tended to be among the last when captains picked teams for playground kickball, but whatever the reason it just did not seem fair.
It just did not seem fair that Jesus picked Peter, John and James to take up the mountain. It doesn’t seem fair that Jesus leaves the rest behind. Isn’t that playing favorites? Wouldn’t all of them have wanted to go?
This passage bothered me until I stopped entering the scene as one of the disciples left behind and instead put myself in the shoes of Peter, John and James. And then instead of envying these three favorites I began to feel rather sorry for them.
But before we go any further let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you O God, our rock and our redeemer, Amen.
The text says that “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James and went up the mountain.” It does not say, Jesus asked Peter and John and James if they would consider coming with him on what certainly would be a demanding excursion but one that he hoped would be well worth the effort. And the passage does not say that after Peter and James and John thought about Jesus invitation a while, they then decided that “yes, indeed” they would like to go. It does not say that at all, does it? No, it says Jesus took them.
I tend to think that Peter, John and James had no idea that Jesus was planning on going up the mountain that day, let alone that Jesus was thinking of taking them. I imagine Jesus woke up early, before dawn when it was still quite cold, while the others were still wrapped in their cloaks stretched out on the ground around a fire that had gone to ashes. And I imagine and I had made his way over to where Peter and James and John were sleeping. And I imagine he startled them awake by saying “Get up. I am taking you with me.”
And if another of the disciples sleeping there in the predawn chill chanced awake at Jesus words, I bet he rolled over and whispered to himself “thank God he is taking those guys and not me. It is too darn early. I’m too exhausted and who even knows what crazy-wild place he’s off to.”
I now feel kind of protective for Peter, James and John because I remember what it felt like to be taken up a mountain — and I hated it.
We lived in Alaska then. It was a wild place. Full of bears that would eat you for breakfast without blinking an eye and mountains that towered around us with peaks that avalanched in the winter. And my father had what seemed to me a crazy, wild passion for getting on top of mountains. It seemed about every weekend he would load my brother and sister and I up in the jeep and we would set out way too early in the morning for a peak.
I dreaded these “adventures.” My stomach would be in knots as we drove the switch backs up to the impossibly high parking lot and as we put on back packs, retied boots and headed out. I mean who could love trying to keep up with my dad who for every one of his paces it took three of mine. I remember struggling over boulder upon boulder, being terrified as shale slipped beneath my feet — sure I was going to slide into the oblivion of the pass below before my summit driven dad even noticed I was gone. I remember the competition I felt with my siblings, somehow needing to be first on the path even though my lungs were bursting.
Looking back on it, I dreaded these excursions I think because they pressed me up against my limitations. They pressed me up against my fears. Each time we set out I knew I would meet exhaustion, inadequacy, and jealousy and all that bad stuff never seemed to emerge until I we set off for a mountain top.
And then after what always seemed like forever, we would come up over that final ridge and I’d I throw myself down on the rocks gasping in the thin air while my dad would unpack lunch, and begin spreading spam on rye crisp crackers.
There is much commentary that pokes fun at Peter, James and John for how when they get to the top of the mountain, they can barely keep their eyes open. But really, who can blame them? Following Jesus is exhausting, especially when he rustles you up out of a particularly good sleep to climb a mountain for heaven’s sake. And the whole point of climbing a mountain is to get to the top, right?. So why not take a nap once you are there and let Jesus pray a bit in the rarified air if that is what feels he needs to do?
But it turns out that the excursion is not over when one gets to the top. The excursion turns out not to be a test of endurance and fortitude seeing if one has what one needs to make it to the top. Instead the point of climbing a mountain, is so that one can see something that one could never have seen if one stayed below. The point of the excursion is what is revealed once the final ridge is crested.
I know now that that is why my father took us up mountains. He wanted us to know what the world looks from a mountain top. He wanted to give us that perspective and have that perspective change something in us. And you know once my heart had stopped pounding and my breath evened out, I can remember even to this day being awed by the view. There stretched out below us was the city of Anchorage looking so small and contained. And beyond the city the inlet with the huge snow caped peaks of the Alaskan range beyond with Mt McKinley presiding over them all. It was spectacular. I was mesmerized. And as I stood there taking it all in I would often lift my arms and roll onto the balls of my feet as if in any moment I could push off and effortlessly glide out over the city to the mountains beyond.
This scripture passage from the Gospel this morning is referred to as the transfiguration because of how Jesus’ appearance is transformed, how Peter, John and James see his face shine and his clothes become dazzling white. But I wonder if we have misplaced who it is that is transfigured. This passage comes in the lectionary at the end of the season of epiphany, and you remember that epiphany is when we celebrate the revelation of God in the person of Jesus. So maybe instead of being transfigured on that mountaintop, Jesus is revealed. Maybe there on that mountain top, Peter, James and John see the radiance that truly is Jesus all of the time if they only had eyes to see it. Perhaps Jesus did not change at all. His glory always was there it’s just that those around him down below could not preceive it.
So, if that is the case, perhaps the ones who are to be transfigured are the disciples? Having seen Jesus as he truly is, having seen his glory, having seen Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah, Jesus in continuity with the great Jewish tradition of the Law and Prophets, having heard the voice of God from the cloud, maybe all of that should have changed the disciples a bit. Maybe it should have changed their way of seeing themselves and what is possible with God.
After all look what happens to Moses when he encounters God on the top of Mt. Sinai. His face shines. And we often read this that Moses face shines because he has been in the presence of God as if some of God’s glory rubs off on Moses. But I wonder if instead there is something of the of the glory of God seeded in Moses is revealed, is drawn out by the presence of God so that what is revealed on Moses face is glory meeting glory. A kind of awakening of God’s glory within him that is called forth in the meeting with God.
Moses is transformed by the mountaintop and in doing so he carries the gift of God, the 10 commandments he has been given, down from the summit and into the life of the people. But not so for our friends, Peter, James and John. At least not yet. They come down that mountain and not only are their faces not shining but they are not even whispering a word of what just happened to them. They refuse to carry any of what was given to them back down into their lives and into the lives of crowd that is waiting for them.
For the very next passage confirms this, there is a boy that is being tormented by demons and they do nothing to free him from his suffering.
It’s curious isn’t it? Why do Peter, James and John not speak of what has happened. Why don’t they let the glory of God that was revealed to them on that mountaintop transfigure something in them so that they too may shine with glory and carry that glory out into the world transforming the lives of those they meet?
Why? Well I think some of it is because they are afraid. They are afraid of how their lives would change if they let their encounter with God change them. Because Glory living has consequences. It makes us responsible for those around us. Glory means that one can no longer walk by the demon possessed boy, the hungry child, the trafficked girl, the people torn by war, the person who comes knocking at the church door asking for money because she cannot pay her electricity bill. Glory living means not turning away from pain and hurt but instead walking straight into it. Glory living means following the way of the One who walked into fear, and pain and death trusting the God who called him beloved, his chosen one. Glory living means trusting that not even the cross or a sealed tomb can keep the radiance of God’s love from transfiguring our lives and all the world.
We can envy Peter, James and John for being Jesus favorite but in our heart of hearts, I wonder if we are glad that he took them and not us? Are we secretively happy that we were not burdened by what it was they experienced? Happy that we do not have to make a commitment to be changed by it?
But do we really want to roll over and go back to sleep? I wonder, has the time come? In this time of Lent that is upon us I wonder if we are not ready for the challenge of letting ourselves be roused out of our comfort and taken to places where we may see something of God and allow that to change us forever.
I wonder if our time has not come to go up that mountain. What does that look like? It could in fact mean a lung ripping, leg burning excursion up Mount Washington to catch a glimpse of the great expanse of God’s beautiful creation and our place within it. But it could also mean letting Jesus rouse you from sleep every morning and take you to your prayer space where for the next 30 minutes or so you struggle over distraction, slip on the shale of discomfort until perhaps you get there. You get to that place where you glimpse something of God and you feel that if you were to roll onto the balls of your feet and push off you could effortlessly soar out over all that is.
Or it could mean taking time each day to write, or walk, or sing, or paint or meditate, whatever it is that brings you into an expansive stillness and beauty where you see in ways you had not seen before, and in doing so something within you shifts and changes and opens to a radiance you had not known.
Why did Jesus make his way through the sleeping disciples to where Peter, James and John lie? Why did he rouse them and not the others? We don’t really know, but I suspect because he sensed that there was something in them that was ready for the adventure, ready for the excursion, ready for the mountain top experience. And maybe they were not fully ready to be changed then. Maybe we are not either, who knows. But we do know that they will be. They will shine forth God’s glory and one day, God willing, we like them will do so too. Amen