This Sermon, based on Matthew 17:1-9, was preached by the author at American University for the United Methodist community’s Sunday evening service on Transfiguration Sunday.
Have you ever had a mountain top experience?
One of those movements when the Kingdom feels close enough to touch, and the love and mercy, and justice, and grace of God seem to be flowing in and around you. The fire of the Holy Spirit is burning in your belly, and when you close your eyes, you can almost see Jesus smiling at you. You know, those moments when you can’t stop your feet from carrying you up for the alter call, or you can’t stop the tears from flowing, but you kind of don’t want to anyway. Sometimes these moments happen at camp, or on a retreat, or at a big rally, or concert. Sometimes they happen on a hike, or while playing music, or while you are reading scripture, or while you are praying, or looking at a particularly beautiful piece of artwork. A lot of the Christians that I know have had an experience like that, especially United Methodists. Our own founder, John Wesley, had a particularly moving experience of God that he described as having his heart strangely warmed. Experience even made it into the Wesleyan quadrilateral. Seeing a little piece of the Kingdom, or a snap shot of the cloud of witnesses that await us can be a formative part of the Christian life.
In the scripture that we read tonight, Peter, James and John get to have a moment like this. It is literally a mountain top experience, because they are literally on top of a mountain. There with Jesus they see Moses and Elijah, and they hear the voice of God speak. It is such an awesome moment that Peter wants to memorialize it. He want to stay up there on the mountain. He even suggests building some houses for them all to stay in.
I love Peter. I heard the other day that there are now some theologians who believe that he may have been very young. Like 14 or 15 years old. Doesn’t that explain a lot? Can you think of any precocious, impetuous, scrappy 15 year olds? Were you like that at 15? Like can’t you imagine that in this fantastic moment that can only be brought to you by the Bible when Jesus is glowing radiantly and is joined by Moses and Elijah, the voice of God is speaking and 15-year-old Peter is like, “yo, Jesus, this is so cool man, dude, can we like stay here? I’m pretty good with a saw, I can build you a house right now dude, and one for these guys too.” I don’t know if Peter’s age thing is true or not, but I really hope that it is because I remember being 15 and having a moment this like.
I wasn’t on a literal mountain with the still incarnated Christ, but I was on a retreat called Chrysalis. Has anyone here been on a Chrysalis or Emmaus retreat? They are pretty big in the Methodist church. They are about feeling the closeness of God and experiencing just how loved you are. I have to say, my retreat weekend was the beginning of my call to ministry. When I really started to feel the love of God, when I first tapped into that stream of God’s care for me, I wanted everyone to know what that felt like. I wanted to stay at that retreat forever, and I wanted to bring everyone that I knew up there with me. This was the first time that I realized everyone should know how this feels. God loves everyone as much as God loves me and I knew a lot of people who really needed to know that they were loved. It then became my mission to let them all know. I got my saw out and asked Jesus if I could start building dwellings for all of us there.
But here is the problem, if I stay up on top of the mountain forever, basking in the glow coming off of Jesus’ face, then I never Go back down the mountain. And we have to go back down because we have seen hope. We have glimpsed the Kingdom of God, and we have to tell the people down in the valley what we saw on the mountain. Just like the disciples had to come back down. They still had to get through the next few weeks and months. Before they went up to the mountain, six days before according to the scripture, Jesus told the disciples that he was going to die. The six days is interesting to me. There is a gap in the story here. They have been moving around the countryside greeting crowds of people and schooling the religious leaders, Peter finally starts to get who Jesus is and declares Jesus to be the Messiah. Then Jesus tells them all that he is going to suffer and die. Then a six day break. We don’t have a record of what happens in those six days. I imagine that if the disciples are taking Jesus seriously, then they are not happy. They have given up their lives, left family and friends behind, left homes behind, and jobs, and security to form a traveling band of roving disciples and to learn from Jesus, their great teacher. Now he is telling them that he is in a lot of danger and even though he is God and could avoid it, instead, he is going to take it all because of his love for them and the whole of creation. They must be pretty shook. The future is not looking good. Hope is in short supply.
In the scripture, Jesus tells them not to tell this story until after the resurrection. This seems like an odd instruction. I think maybe Jesus knew that in that particular moment, they had not yet reached the peak of uncertainty. Maybe Jesus knew that everyone would need a word of hope even more in later days. My friends, I have to confess to you that I have not been about sharing hope lately. I have felt so much despair that trying to look into Jesus’ shiny face has been too painful. When I read this scripture and started to think about the mountain top experiences that I have had, I felt like hope was out of place. But we need that. We need to look back up at the mountain and remember that those feelings are still there and still real even when we are walking in the shadow of the valley. We have to carry the hope around inside us and take it along as we move back down the mountain.
The Son of Man has been raised from the dead, so as Jesus instructed, now is the time to tell people. We still have a reason to hope. The promise of the Kingdom of God is the only thing that will get some of us through the valleys of our lives. Any of us who have experienced the mountain top have a responsibility to tell others about it. And if it is possible to lead other folks up to the mountain themselves, we should do that. We should bring them, and then we have to be the ones to say, no, put your saw away, you can’t camp out up here, you have to come back down and tell the folks who are still in the valley. Everyone deserves to know about this. And there is a lot of work to be done because a lot of folks are trying to sell the opposite narrative.
A lot of folks want us to believe that only some of us are the beloved creations of God. They may not ever say it directly, but they will act as if it is true. For example, I have a friend named S. who has worked with the Chrysalis organization for a long time. She, like me, went on the retreat when she was a teenager and it changed her life. She learned that God loved her and wanted everyone else to know too, so she started working with Chrysalis and leading the worship for the retreats. She got married about a year ago, and was told after her wedding that she was not invited to lead worship, or even be on the team anymore because S. married a woman. It is a sad contradiction that an organization that has been so successful at showing people the love of God would deny that same love and the opportunity to share it to a person because she is a lesbian.
We have a lot of work to do. So many people are being told that they do not matter as much as others. ICE agents waited like trap door spiders outside of my husband’s church to arrest folks who had taken refuge in the church’s hypothermia shelter the night before. They were effectively told that they are not worth as much as other people, just like my friend S. was, just like the Black community is every time another person receives no punishment for the murder of a Black person. Just like refugees from around the globe are made to feel like a dangerous and unwanted burden when they are turned away at our borders. The list of human atrocities and injustice goes on and on. We have work to do when we come back down from the mountain. and so as we travel through the valley, may we keep the mountain, and the shiny face of Jesus in our hearts. May we be like Peter, eager to hold on to the joy of a glimpse of the Kingdom, and may we be like Jesus, who taught us that this joy, this hope, cannot be kept to ourselves, but shared with all the world and especially with those who need hope the most.