“A Place of Encounter” 02/23/2020 by Rev. Stacy Swain (Click on title for audio)

Luke 9:18- 36 (NRSV)

         Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our Rock and our Redeemer, Amen.

         Today is Transfiguration Sunday and for much of the history of Christianity, Transfiguration Sunday has been a big deal. In many traditions, it is celebrated right up there with Christmas, Easter, and Epiphany.  Transfiguration has long been recognized as a major milestone and important touch point in life and ministry of Jesus. 

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         This story of the transfiguration of Jesus is powerful in and of itself, but it is also powerful because it serves as a pivotal point in the Gospel narrative. For once Jesus descends from the mountain, he will shift the focus of his ministry from the Galilee region (where he has been since receiving that first blessing of Beloved at this baptism in the Jordan) to the city of Jerusalem which lies about 90 miles to the south. 

         Jerusalem — that great city.  The epicenter of the world for Jews in Jesus day and the home of the most sacred of places, the Great and Holy Temple.  I learned from my Rabbi friends when I had the privilege of visiting Jerusalem that one does not go “to Jerusalem”, but instead one goes “up to Jerusalem.”  Up because Jerusalem sits atop a high plateau, but more importantly “Up” because Jerusalem and particularly the Temple within it is the upper most point of human possibility. It is in Jerusalem that heaven and earth kiss.  It is in Jerusalem that the veil between this world and the eternal world is thin enough that the glory of God can permeate it and dwell within the holy of Holies that was within the inner most sanctums of the Temple that was in Jesus day.

         It was to Jerusalem, to this great and Holy city that Jesus will go.  But Jerusalem was also a city of tension.  A city bristling with a tenuous balance between imperial might and religious authority.  A city whose outskirts were often studded with crosses and the broken bodies of those deemed to be enemies of empire – a chilling but highly effective reminder by Rome of who ultimately holds power and what can happen if that power is crossed.   

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         But all of that is still yet to come.   Today, Jesus wakes in the predawn hours.   I can see the disciples wrapped in their cloaks sleeping.  The fire of the night before has long gone out.  The sun is hours away from rising.  It is cold, but Jesus awakes.  This time he does not slip away silently to go off and pray as he often does.  No, instead, this time he quietly steps around the sleeping forms until he finds Peter, James and John.  He gently but insistently jostles them until they wake, and he then motions for them to follow.   

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         So they set out and begin to climb.  They silently followed Jesus up the steep path. 

         When they finally reached the top, the disciple are tired.  They want to lie down, wrap their cloaks back around themselves and pick up the sleep that they had left off down below.  But it does not seem like a good idea.  Seems disrespectful to doze off. So they just sit down on the rocky ground prodding each other to keep awake as they watch Jesus withdraw a short distance from them. 

         Maybe they had in fact nodded off, (although they will swear they absolutely did not), for suddenly they are jolted wide awake.  The sun that had started to cast its waking glow, soft pink rays around them, gently warming them with its dawning, suddenly took on an intensity of a completely different magnitude.   Suddenly there was a brightness beyond anything they had ever seen as if the sun itself had translocated itself to the top of that mountain and was now blasting all of its glory out over them.  And not just them but now two other figures as well.  Peter, James and John are transfixed.  It is beautiful, extraordinary, beyond anything they have ever seen, but there is more.  There is a feeling flooding them as well.  A feeling of presence flooding over them as they too enter the cloud. It fills them.  It is as if the glory that is all around them is within them as well, flowing through their veins, and filling every cell in their body.

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         Is there such a thing as a “near-life experience” [1] ?  We know there are near death experiences, plenty of people testify to those kind of experiences.  But what about a “near – life experience”, when suddenly one is not distant from one’s body but more fully in it than ever! When the veil between this world and the eternal world is thin enough that the glory of God permeates all that is. When one is not suddenly floating up towards a distant but compelling light beyond, but when one is instead engulfed by and filled with that light.  I think a near life experience is what Peter, James and John had that morning so long ago.  

         Have you ever had such a moment?  Have you ever had a fleeting moment when you felt purely, wholly, completely, wonderfully alive, fully present and fully filled with presence?  They are rare.  Not often had, but what moments of clarity they can be. 

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         These times if they come at all are to be treasured, for most of the time, for most of us, we dwell not on the top of the mountain but instead in the valleys of life. We tend to go through our days not feeling fully alive but instead in a kind of trance.  Which makes sense because life is hard.  Suffering is all around. In our personal lives, the lives of our community, nation and world.  Every morning when we rise, we muster the energy to take up our crosses and stumble along as we try to follow the one who leads us to life.  But it is hard to keep our eyes on him.  So much demands our attention and the burdens we carry are heavy.  And by the end of the day, don’t we fall into bed more world weary and exhausted than filled up with divine presence? 

         So no wonder Peter wanted to build a booth or three, to preserve, save, and hold onto that glorious mountain top experience.   No wonder Peter wants to stay up on the mountain, stay within this amazing experience of glory!    

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         Before we continue with the story, I want hit the pause button for a moment.  This story is called the transfiguration (which I think was not just something Jesus experienced, but that I am suggesting the disciples did as well as they too are bathed in glory and experienced complete aliveness) but transfiguration is also what I see happening in the relationship between Jesus and his disciples.  Peter, James and John may have started out as disciples of Jesus but they are now becoming  his friends, his companions for the journey.

         What brought Peter, James and John to that apex of awakening on that mountain top was their love for Jesus.  At first, they may have just wanted to learn from him. But now they have grown to love him.  These three that got up in the dark, and followed Jesus up that mountain did so because they did not want their friend to go into the darkness alone.  

         And what did Jesus feel that morning? Does he bring them along because he thinks this could be an important teaching moment?  Maybe.  But more than that I think he wakes them and bids them join him because he genuinely wanted and needed their companionship.  He knows the road is going to get hard and he needs his friends to walk with him.

         And then there is companionship of Moses and Elijah that come to Jesus from the eternal realm to accompany him as well.  They come to give him strength, wisdom and a perspective that will fortify him and that he will need and draw upon in the days and weeks to come.  

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         And so to rejoin the story, what we I’d like to suggest that what we see so beautifully on that mountain is a revelation not only of divine presence that is present to us, but also the revelation that we are and need to be tender and loving companions to each other as we share in not only the glory of the mountain top but also experience together the challenges that the valley holds.  

         For as suddenly as the moment came it too was over and it was time to go with Jesus back down the mountain. But he and his companions go down the mountain now knowing that the glory that is promised at the end of life is also present in the midst of life.  That gives Jesus, and I think it can give us as well, the courage that he (and we) need to face what it is we will face and as we try to live a life follows love and that embodies what being fully alive looks like. 

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         This Wednesday we will enter the season of Lent.  We will join Jesus as he walks now to Jerusalem and as we journey these forty days towards Holy Week.   

         But we also recognize that the season of Lent for many, may last a lot longer than forty days.  For many who are struggling with illness, financial stress, depression or anxiety, or whatever it may be Lent may be may not square with the calendar.  It may not be just a forty day experience. Lent may last months or years even.  We may find ourselves in the valley for far longer than we ever could imagine.  

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         But take heart. For here we are. We have been jostled out of our sleep. We have stumbled out of our slumber and follow our dear companion to this place.  It may not be a mountain top, I think it is only 11 more steps right, to enter this sanctuary, but none the less I believe that the divine presence is indeed present.  So let us set out also knowing that divine presence is not just something that we will experience at the end of our lives, but that it is fully present to us in the midst of our lives.  And let also take heart that we too are no longer just disciples but that we too are friends, friends who woke up and show up and who will be faithful companions to each other as we too walk in The Way.   Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] The Politics of Transfiguration by Fritz Wendt as appears on https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-transfiguration-matthew-171-9-fritz-wendt/  downloaded 2/20/20. Fritz Wendt, M.A., M.Div., LCSW-R, a native of Northern Germany, is a Lutheran pastor, psychotherapist and church musician living in New York City. He works full-time in the Pediatric ER and Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of Harlem Hospital.