The Transfiguration of Our Lord, February 25/26, 2017
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA ~ The Rev. Roy Almquist
Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. [Matthew 17: 1-2]
Our Gospel lesson for this final Sunday of the Epiphany Season always takes us up onto a mountain top. Today we hear Matthew’s version of this wonderful story of Jesus and his inner core disciples at the top of what scholars believe was Mount Herman, near the Roman city of Caesarea.
On the summit of that mountain Peter, James, and John had an experience with profound implications. They saw Jesus visually transformed and engaged in an intimate conversation with Moses, the great patriarch and leader, and Elijah, the prophet supreme. The Church remembers and honors this unique event, calling it … The Transfiguration.
As we focus our attention on the disciples’ amazing experience with Jesus, we are reminded that Our Lord’s ministry was marked by many memorable mountain top events.
Clearly Jesus had a memorable day when he was baptized by John in the Jordan River and the voice of God confirmed his special status: This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.
It was also a mountain top experience when Jesus fed five-thousand hungry people from the sack lunch of one small boy …
It was, in effect, another emotional mountain top experience for Jesus when he rode on that little donkey into Jerusalem with all the people shouting: Hosanna! Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord.
No doubt many of us have had what we might call a personal mountain top experience, perhaps not as intense and dramatic as the event in our Gospel lesson, but a mountain top experience nonetheless. Your mountain top experience may have been a memorable devotional event at a church youth camp or some special spiritual retreat. You may have had a memorable incident in nature … on a beach, hiking in the wilderness, a safari in Africa, yes, even climbing a mountain!
I had what was a mountain top experience for me in 2014 when my wife Shannon and I celebrated our Fiftieth Wedding Anniversary. We observed this special occasion by accompaning our two daughters, our son-in-law, and our four grandchildren for a week’s vacation at a glorious 15th-century French chateau about a hundred miles southwest of Paris. We were joined by our former exchange student from the Czech Republic and his family.
All fourteen of us ate our meals at a long table on an outdoor patio, surrounded by a glorious topiary garden. Every day we had lively conversation, lovely walks, wonderful meals, laughter and new adventures. The time was transcendent for me and I will never forget it.
Mountaintop experiences can be a catalyst for inspiration and transformation. When you have been to the mountain top, you never see things in quite the same way again, as Martin Luther King so eloquently put it in his final address. That was, no doubt, Jesus’ hope in taking the inner core of disciples to that special mountain.
We know that nothing is so good it lasts eternally. Mountain top experiences generally have a short shelf life. Our week in France came to a sudden end. When things are wonderful and meaningful, we want them to last. This was Peter’s intention – he wanted to hold on to that marvelous mountain top moment: Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you want, let us make three tents here: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. [Matt. 17: 4]
If we read on in the seventeenth chapter of Matthew, we discover that Jesus led his disciples back down from the mountain into the world … into the midst of all those people whose lives were marked by suffering and despair. From the mountain top Jesus may have seen the crowd assembling. He no doubt sensed their confused inquiry: Where did that miracle worker go with his loaves and fishes? We are hungry again! What became of that healer? We still have sickness … many of us are blind and crippled.
We, too, know we cannot stay in the rarified atmosphere of the beatific vision. So, like Jesus and the disciples, we lose ourselves in the task of contributing to the economy of life. We work hard … many of us are overachievers … some of us workaholics …we are hungry for affirmation and a clear indication that we are successful. The world does not always provide that affirmation. Our faith can!
As followers of Jesus Christ we need to find a way back to that mountain of affirmation … that place where our faith is formed and we gain a sense of purpose and direction as children of God. We need to practice being in the presence of God … we need events and activities that remind us not simply of who we are but more importantly, whose we are. And you know what? You cannot get that on Facebook or in an on-line chat room.
Carl Jung, the great psychoanalyst, was counseling a man who seemed unable to make progress in reintegration his life. Jung finally acknowledged that he had no more to offer the man. Friend, Jung said, I cannot do any more for you. What you need is God.
How do I find God, Dr. Jung? … the man inquired.
I don’t know, Jung replied, but I suspect if you will find a group of people somewhere that believes in Him passionately, and, if you just spend time with them, you will find God. That is what the man did and he found new purpose for his life. In the words of Jung: Bidden or not, God is there!
I am convinced that thid gathered people of God, which we call Washington Memorial Chapel, can be our essential mountain top. This building is not the mountain top; our participation in Christian community is our mountain top. As we gather with others who share with us a passionate belief in God and a determination to help change human lives, we gain clarity, and purpose, and understanding. As we gather regularly, faithfully, with companions in faith, our hearts and our minds will slowly open and we will grow in confidence. We will discover who we are meant to be and what we need to do in these troubling times.
Savor the moments that are special and transformative for you. Honor the ways in which God draws you more fully into his body, the Church. This is what it means to be with Jesus and the disciples on the sacred mountain. But let us never forget that our call is to immerse ourselves in the valley of human suffering and need. The good news we proclaim is that in both places, the mountain top and the valley down below, Jesus is there, reaching out to raise us to life again. Amen.