March 6, 2011
Kanata United Church
Exodus 24: 12-18 The Rev. Suzanne E. Sykes
Psalm 99 (p. 819 VU)
Matthew 17: 1-9 firstname.lastname@example.org
In popular imagination climbing mountains is an iconic experience. Think of the hundreds who attempt Everest. Or the great popularity of rock climbing. People climb something to bun gee-jump or parachute off of it. We climb both actually and metaphorically. We can climb to the top of the heap, the corporate or bureaucratic ladder. We climb to test ourselves, to be exhilarated, to experience power or exercise control, and in every case, we climb in order to see the world and ourselves differently.
Our Old Testament scripture lesson is about a mountain, a climb, and a different, transforming vision. Moses journeys up the mountain to encounter God. He enters the cloud - the shekinah - the divine glory - that veils God’s being like a cloak. It is a life changing, transfiguring experience. Tradition tells us that Elijah didn’t die but was translated into heaven - another kind of dramatic transfiguration.
In our Gospel story, Jesus climbs a mountain and encounters Moses and Elijah - the Torah giver and the prophet. The two greatest figures in Israel’s religious history, meet and talk with Jesus on a mountain including him in their very special company.
The transfiguration of Jesus tells us, as it told the disciples, that Jesus belongs in the company of those God has chosen and specially blessed. The disciples have a revelation. They see the real Jesus. They gain a peek into God’s nature through Jesus like they do with Moses and Elijah. When the disciples see Jesus with Moses and Elijah they realize that Jesus is as important, as transformational to their religious and spiritual life, as the two greatest figures in their history. He truly is the founder of a new spiritual path. He really is the real deal.
Mountains are still places of vision and clarity. Several years ago while on sabbatical, I went up mount Baldy in California. You leave the smog and the fog of Los Angeles behind and climb up winding roads until you emerge into crisp, clean air and bright sunshine and look down on the cloud that you have just left. A cloud that covers and hides the city.
When I lived in Israel, in the mountains of Galilee, I could step outside my door on the mountain kibbutz, and below me, spread out along the valley, less than a hundred feet below, were the clouds of winter - looking like cotton wool - pillows that would hold your weight if you walked on them. Overhead, clear sunshine and crisp, cold air with the sharp smell of snow from Mt. Hermon across the valley.
Mountains give us, as they did Jesus and the disciples, a different perspective on the world. A perspective that is both clarifying and disorienting. That is the nature of transfiguring moments: seeing with greater depth at the same time that the ground is falling away beneath you.
Then as now, if you want to get away from the world and its business, you go up a mountain, or in our part of the world, a hill. If you want clarity and vision, you go up a mountain. If you need time to get away and reorient yourself to what matters in life, you go up a mountain. If you need an epiphany, a revelation to refocus your life, if your spirit cries out for transfiguration, you get out of the city and climb a mountain. It is no accident that so many places of worship in all faiths are built on hills. We intuitively know that mountaintops bring vision and clarity, epiphany and even transfiguration.
How do we respond to a transfiguring epiphany? Peter offers one way. Build a monument - an altar. There is a long tradition of shrines, cairns, booths, in Israel. If you met God, encountered an angel - which is an emanation of God - if God helped you win a battle, if you were healed, you built a shrine at that place to mark it for everyone.
Or think of Europe. The whole countryside is dotted with little wayside shrines. And we don’t even have to go that far - there are lots of shrines in the townships of Quebec. My own favourite is at the intersection right in my own village of Burnstown. Made of an old bathtub turned on its end
and sunk one third in the ground with its back to the prevailing wind, it holds a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary - seasonally decorated with garlands of flowers, or leaves, or now, with snow.
Like the shrines in Israel they are an announcement. They say to every passer-by: I met God here. Stop for a minute:you might too.
Peter is a traditionalist - part of a long line of monument builders. A monument is a sign that alerts others that revelation is possible; God can be met in this place. A meeting with Moses and Elijah - well that is a momentous event - a monumental event - that just cries out for, well, you get it.
But the announcement from the cloud tells Peter otherwise. This may look like the same encounter with God as in the past; it may look at first sight that it stands squarely in the tradition, but in fact it turns the tradition on its head.
The transfiguration tells Peter and us that God cannot be confined to any place, time or tradition. Building a shrine is redundant, for God and God’s boundless compassion is everywhere and for everyone.
This morning’s text asks us to think of those mountain top experiences in our own life. To remember them, savour them, treasure them and draw strength from them. But it does more than remind us. It invites us, in these times of change and uncertainty in the life of our faith and our church - and, considering the events unfolding in the Middle East - the world - to hope for an epiphany for ourselves. To hope for a transfiguring epiphany with all its disorienting and clarifying effects. It invites us to long for a particularly vivid and arousing experience of God for ourselves, and a spiritual visionand path for our day.
On the mountain of transfiguration, the disciples realized that with Jesus, they encountered the living God. They went on, eventually, to be that for others. Like them, we are called to be that window into the love and compassion of God for everyone we meet.
It’s a tall order. Be a window into God’s love and boundless compassion in order to heal the world. Yet that’s what the Christian life is about. Transforming visions of clarity and beauty and healing that stir us to live them for the sake of the world.
On this Sunday before we begin the long forty day journey through the valley of Lent, remember and meditate on the mountain tops in your life. Draw strength from them to sustain you through the Lenten journey to come.And be at peace, trusting in God’s compassion and care.
c. 2011, Rev. Suzanne E. Sykes