Sermon: “Dwellings on the Mountain”

February 26, 2017: Transfiguration Sunday

Matthew 17:1-9

If you think back to one class in one grade in your school years, back in junior high or elementary school, there will probably be one name among the other students that you can remember. Because that was the name that the teacher called all the time: “Steven, catch up now.” “Carla, don’t throw pencils.” “Frank, is that yours?” “Melissa, what do you think you’re doing now?”

There was always one in just about every class, wasn’t there? Most of the time, it was those same kids, year after year, but every once in a while one would make a change, take a new approach to things, and they’d stop hearing their name in the teacher’s exasperated voice, and maybe start hearing it in the approving voice.

But there was always one. There was always one.

There was one in the circle of Jesus’ disciples, too. It was Simon Peter.

Most of the time, Peter was the first one in the group to offer the wrong answer. Mind you, he did get things right from time to time, for instance just six days before, when Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was. Peter charged in with, “You are the Messiah,” which meant he got a gold star for the day, and his nickname, “Rock,” was the rock on which to build Jesus’ new community.

But shortly thereafter, as Jesus began to warn his friends that his path as Messiah led inevitably to arrest, being handed over to the Roman occupiers, and crucifixion, Peter couldn’t resist. He charged in again to tell Jesus that he had to be wrong. He (Jesus) clearly hadn’t read the Manual for Messiah, because that wasn’t how the restoration of Israel was supposed to go.

Jesus’ response was about the harshest he ever made. “Get behind me, Satan,” he snarled, “for you are a rock to trip me up.”


Was it, perhaps, to reassure Peter that Jesus invited him on the hike up the mountain? Four is a nice sized walking group, of course, and the fact that James and John were included would mean that Jesus wasn’t taking him out to the woodshed for a much longer private talking-to.

Is “take him out to the woodshed” a common phrase in Hawai’i? No? Well, if you’re taking someone out to the woodshed, it’s to explain to them in no uncertain terms just how wrong they’ve been.

Well, that’s one possibility. On reflection, I have to say the more likely one is that Jesus said, “I’m going to climb this mountain. Who wants to come?” and Peter was the first one with his hand raised to say, “I do!”

Some hours later, Peter finds himself confronted with the sight of his friend glowing like a… well, you or I would say light bulb, but Peter had never seen a light bulb so about all he could compare Jesus to would be the moon or the sun. But there he was, glowing like whatever he was glowing like, and then two other figures appear, and somehow he realizes that it’s Moses, the prophet of deliverance, and Elijah, the prophet of faithful resistance, and now he’s got to say something.

Because he always does.

So he offers to build everybody a shelter. Well, a shelter for Jesus and Moses and Elijah. James and John and Peter himself don’t get one.

That’s not quite as bizarre as it sounds. One of the three great festivals of Judaism is Sukkot. It’s a harvest festival, held in the fall when the grain was ready. To this day, observant Jews construct a small shelter in recognition of the lean-to like booths which field hands erected and lived in during the harvest.

Sukkot has a second significance as well: celebrating the Exodus and God’s gift of the Law – through Moses. So let’s give Peter some credit. His mind really did click onto something relevant. Moses = Exodus = Sukkot = Let’s build a booth!

It makes sense, but once again Peter was first with the wrong answer. He gets shut down by a great voice, which just about begs Peter (and James and John) to stop talking and listen to Jesus.

Just listen to Jesus.

Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz writes, “The moment of transfiguration is that point at which God says to the world and to each of us that there is nothing we can do to prepare for or stand in the way of joy or sorrow. We cannot build God a monument, and we cannot keep God safe. We also cannot escape the light that God will shed on our path.”

The light of the glowing Messiah. The light of the hovering cloud. The “light” of the booming voice that finally burned away Peter’s urgent need to be first with the wrong answer.

Or, at least, for a little while.

Transfiguration didn’t change Jesus. It changed Peter, or at least continued his transfiguration, perhaps accelerated it, perhaps guided it. “Listen to him!” Or at least listen more often.

In a poem on the transfiguration, Rachel G. Hackenberg begs Christ to cover himself with the cloud, so she, and we, can worship through the haze. She writes:

But still
I will love you
and a little more
adoringly because I will not have to
contend quite so honestly
with myself
through Your eyes,
I will not have to account for
not only my humanity but also
my holiness, not only
my blunders but also my belovedness.
Do not reveal Yourself transformed
for I am not ready to be

Transfiguration transfigures us.

Partially because of this story, we tend to call significant encounters with the holy “mountaintop experiences.” In fact, both Moses and Elijah had significant encounters with God on mountains as well: that’s where Moses went to speak to God and receive the Law, as we heard the Old Testament reading this morning. Elijah fled the King of Israel to a mountain and got, if anything, less patience than Peter did. But both had no doubt that they were in the presence of God.

People still have those experiences today. Not always on a mountain, but frequently. The simplicity of a mountain summit, with all stripped away but rock and sky, can focus the human mind on the majesty of God. It can clear away the distractions that prevent us from hearing the voice of God. The breadth of the sky can open the mind to the new possibilities presented by God.

The thing is, mountaintop experiences aren’t complete until they’re lived out in the valleys. They don’t truly manifest if the changes they envision aren’t undertaken. They don’t matter if they’re not embodied.

As deep and powerful as they are, they lose their meaning if they make no difference on the lives we live afterward.

“Do not reveal Yourself transformed
for I am not ready to be

Truthfully, it took quite some time for this experience to work its influence on Peter, James, and John. Peter continues to be first with awkward answers and questions further on in chapter 17 of Matthew’s Gospel, and in chapter 18, and in chapter 19. But not in chapter 20, because that’s when the mother of James and John comes to Jesus and asks that they be given the best places in his new administration. James and John ran away when Jesus was arrested. Peter, confronted with the question of whether he knew Jesus, denied it that night. Not once. Not twice. But three times.

Yet it did have its effect. They stayed with Jesus when others drifted away. They may have fled when the police arrived, but they came together when they heard the news that Jesus had risen. In the days after Jesus’ resurrection, they became pillars of the new community of faith, the Church. Peter spoke boldly in public, and endured arrest, imprisonment, and torture and death. He even learned how to listen for the voice of God, and stop saying the first thing that came into his mind. That may be the greatest miracle of all.

I don’t know if you have had what you’d recognize as mountaintop experiences, with all the colors and lights and sounds and special effects. But I’m sure as I can be that God has reached out to you in some way, and that somewhere, there’s been a moment, or a minute, or an hour, when God’s spirit was real to you.

We can’t dwell in those moments. We can’t build dwellings on the mountain. But we can treasure the memory, and let it work in our day-to-day, ordinary but now transformed lives. There it can become courage. There it can become patience. There it can become endurance. There it can become generosity. There it can become inspiration. There it can become leadership.

In the valleys, let the seeds which the mountain planted in you, take root, flower, and blooms.


Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on February 26, 2017

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