SERMON FOR SUNDAY 3 MARCH 2019
Transfiguration of Our Lord
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
|Icons in progress at Anafora Retreat Center near Cairo|
“You can choose one thing.”
This is what my parents told 10 year-old me in the gift shop at Disneyland on our last day of vacation, just as the park was closing. I remember standing in front of a massive display of stuffed animals—Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald Duck, Bambi—and thinking “How can I ever choose? How can I pick just one thing to represent the whole Magic Kingdom?!” I agonized over the decision far past my family’s patience, until they said with exasperation, “Come on, Carrie, it’s time to go!” In desperation, I quickly grabbed a Mickey Mouse, hoping his iconic red pants and giant black ears would preserve all my memories of our Disney vacation forever.
Two weeks ago, I found myself in a similar situation, except this time it was at a desert retreat center in Egypt, not Disneyland. On the last day, I was standing before a display of icons, debating which one to bring home.
Now listen: I had traveled to Egypt fully intending to bring home an icon. I had money set aside to spend on one. I had even watched the religious sisters of the retreat center writing these icons! And still, I found myself agonizing over the decision. The thing is, I didn’t really want to leave the retreat center. I wasn’t ready to go back to the hustle and bustle of Cairo. I wanted to stay in the peace and quiet of the desert! And I wanted to stay near to Jesus, who had so faithfully walked with me while I was there. Could any of those images—as beautiful as they were—truly capture that experience?
This time, there were no exasperated parents to step in and demand I end the deliberation. I was about to just grab an icon, any one, when I noticed a small rock sitting on the same shelf. It was marked with a tiny Coptic cross, painted in the same style as the icons. I picked it up and noticed it fit just in the palm of my hand. It probably wasn’t intended to be for sale, but I took it to the checkout counter anyway. The cashier just looked at the rock (and me) with amusement and handed it back, a free gift with my other purchases. I stuck it in my pocket, where it remained for the rest of my trip.
Now Peter, James, and John were on a high mountain with Jesus. They were weighed down with sleep, but because they stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men (Moses and Elijah) who stood with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let’s build three little houses, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.
The story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain is both one of the strangest stories in the Gospels and one of the few we hear twice a year! Come August 6, we will hear it again…and I suppose that makes sense, as it was most certainly something to remember.
It’s tough to know what to do with mountaintop religious experiences. How do you commemorate such moments? Do you write a poem—or maybe even a Gospel? Do you compose a piece of music, or create a work of art? You may want a souvenir to take home, a small rock from the mountain where it happened, for example.
Or maybe you would want to build a little house in that exact spot, because it feels so good to be there, where the world (and Jesus) make sense.
When we experience profound or mystical moments, it is certainly tempting to try and hang out there forever. This feeling keeps us coming back to the Holy Land, or visiting a favorite vacation spot, or it makes us try and recreate that perfect dinner party time and again.
But I think this feeling—this wanting-to-stay-on-the-mountaintop feeling—is also the same impulse that causes well-meaning, Christian people, to try and preserve the church the way we remember it, the way it was when we were young, the way it was when the world (and Jesus) made sense.
The problem is, that feeling of wanting to protect and preserve mountaintop experiences means we spend our precious time building little boxes and attempting to keep Jesus in there—except Jesus didn’t ask us to build him a shrine on the mountain.
But he does ask us to follow him.
I’m sure it was a day for Jesus to remember, too, on that mountain. But instead of lingering there, Jesus took Peter and the other disciples with him off the mountain as soon as possible.
He took them down the mountain, where he got busy proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor—starting with the healing of one boy possessed by a spirit.
Jesus took the disciples down the mountain and into the streets, where he asked them to join in this work of life transformation and transfiguration, and where he continued to prepare them for the next stage of their journey, which was to be Jerusalem, and the cross.
Dear siblings in Christ, there’s nothing wrong with mystical mountaintop experiences – in fact, on Wednesday evenings during this Lenten season we’re going to spend some time with a few of the most famous Christian mystics: Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, and Antony of Egypt.
However, mountaintops are not where disciples of Jesus are called to stay.
Mountaintops are not where we even come to know Jesus in the deepest way!
“This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him!” says the voice from the cloud.
But it turns out that the glory of God is made manifest not only through mysterious clouds and mystical voices from heaven,
But even more so when a boy possessed by a spirit is restored to wholeness and returned to his family,
and when the lost and excluded are restored to community,
and when the oppressed and occupied are liberated,
and when our broken hearts are made whole once again,
and when our own lives are transformed and transfigured.
The glory of God is not housed on any high mountain,
Or in any church building,
Nor can it be contained or controlled by any church institution
Because through Jesus God’s glory is on the loose in the world, active in every interaction Jesus has with the broken, the sinful, the grieving, and the oppressed. Amen!
“OK, you can take one thing” I imagine Jesus saying to the disciples, after the cloud dissipated and the magic kingdom was fading into the distance.
“We’re not staying here on this mountain, and we’re not building any houses, but you can take one thing with you.”
You can’t very well take a cloud down the mountain in your pocket, can you?
But the one thing the disciples could take with them from their mountaintop experience was a profound experience of who Jesus is…not only a teacher, not only a prophet, but God’s Son, the Chosen one, the one the world had been waiting for.
This is the value of any mystical experience, after all—and of any Holy Land pilgrimage, for that matter—in that it gives us a deeper knowledge of who Jesus is.
Thanks be to God that on the mountain, in the desert, in the bread and the wine, and especially on the cross,
Jesus is again and again revealed to us as love, perfect love.
Friends, we can’t stay on the mountain. Not many of you can stay here in Jerusalem! And I promise, you won’t be able to find the perfect souvenir on the last day.
But we can take Jesus’ radical, self-giving love with us wherever we go--
We can take it to the streets.
We can take it to the hospital.
We can take it to the halls of power
We can take it into our darkest hours.
We can take this love all the way to the cross with him—for there we find the deepest understanding of who Jesus is.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
"Little Boxes" by Malvina Reynolds