Text: Mark 9:2-9
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. It’s a bridge between Epiphany and Lent – a transition between a season that begins with the wise ones coming to see the infant Jesus and his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. Epiphany opened with a star guiding the camels to the manger. Then we saw Jesus’ baptism by John and the beginning of his ministry of teaching, feeding and healing. Today’s text describes a dramatic event involving Jesus, Moses and Elijah, all of whom are depicted in our stained glass windows. There’s a lot to take in and process because the lectionary readings have been traveling at warp speed through Mark’s version of Jesus’ life.
Now Mark tells us that Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain where he is joined by Moses and Elijah. A bleached-white, dazzling light surrounds them followed by a cloud from which a heavenly voice speaks. Remember that at Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.” Here the voice says, “This is my beloved Son; hear him.” I don’t know if this second pronouncement carried the same tone and cadence as the first. But I wonder if it was tinged with a bit of exasperation. The Revised Tamsberg Version would be: “The One standing before you belongs to me. Will you just listen to him?” I say it this way because the disciples had already demonstrated on multiple occasions that they didn’t get was Jesus was about. Now Peter’s response to the appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus is to offer to build a tent for them to live in – as if the threesome were just going to camp out on the top of the mountain and live there.
For several reasons Peter’s tent-construction plan doesn’t make any sense. You see the Jews considered Moses and Elijah to be alive in the presence of God. Their tradition held that Moses, whose burial place was unknown, and Elijah, who was taken up in a chariot, did not die. Now they join Jesus in a dramatic hint that he, too, would not die in the permanent, human sense of that word. Peter knew this history, but he was scared – “terrified” is actually the word our text uses – so we can cut him some slack if his response wasn’t the most thoughtful or appropriate. We’ve certainly said things after a shock that we wish we could take back.
Poor Peter doesn’t understand the symbolism of this startling scene, but he wants to capture the feeling. He wants to prolong the moment. It’s a photo op, says Beverly Galenta, and Peter wants to preserve this stunning event even if he misses its meaning. It’s like when you miss actually seeing your child receive her diploma because you’re so busy trying to take a picture of it.
Mountaintop experiences are wonderful even when they aren’t as dramatic as the biblical transfiguration. They happen to us in many locations, not just on literal mountains. We need them to inspire us. Some of us crave them. And these days our culture is experience-focused. We had a conversation two weeks ago about how to raise funds outside of Pullen to support our five international partners. Part of that discussion was about offering people an “experience” as part of a fundraiser. Generally the experience is tasting gourmet food or listening to good music or both, but not always. Charities and churches are increasingly offering all kinds of interactive experiences to raise money. One of the best things about this trend is the shift from a long-standing focus on “getting stuff.” That’s a welcome change in American culture. Now I think it would be fascinating to analyze the difference between swapping a free meal for writing a check and swiping a credit card in exchange for an “experience of food.” Yet it is true that experiences touch multiple senses. They motivate and engage us. And engagement is good. The Transfiguration certainly got the attention of the disciples who witnessed it. The issue is what they did with it when they came back down the mountain.
This morning I want to suggest not that focusing on experiences is problematic, but that our lives are lived primarily in the spaces between these extraordinary episodes. Jack Cornfield said it well in the title of his book, “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.” Unless yours is truly exceptional, life includes a lot more laundry than ecstasy. So the message for me in today’s text is that how we listen and live in the ordinary spaces matters a lot.
This Wednesday we will begin our Lenten journey toward Easter with our Ash Wednesday service at 6:30 PM. We’ll gather here on a chilly February evening, reflect on this next season of the church year, and put ashes on each other’s foreheads. I was speaking about this in Pullen 101 last week and someone asked, “Why do you do that?” It’s a good question that deserves an answer. The season of Lent was modeled after Jesus’ fasting for forty days in the wilderness. The observance of Ash Wednesday dates back at least to the 8th century. It was a ritual of penitence that followed the ancient practice of putting ashes on oneself to represent humility and an awareness of one’s sins.
So why do we do it here at Pullen? First, using the words of our opening hymn, we do it out of custom. Observing each of the liturgical seasons like Advent, Epiphany, Lent and Pentecost connects us to many centuries of Christian history. A lot of Baptists don’t do this. As a Southern Baptist child, the only thing I knew about Lent was that my Episcopalian neighbors gave something up for it, which seemed pretty cool to an 8 year old. But here at Pullen we try to be aware that the freedom we have as Baptists can turn into an unhealthy individualism. If we’re not careful, it can be used to justify a belief that we don’t need anyone else – as individuals and as a church. One of the ways we guard against this is to join with other Christians to mark the historic seasons of the church year, in this case journeying through Lent with our sisters and brothers across the globe.
We also do it out of need. The ashes we’ll exchange Wednesday night are still a reminder that our time on this earth is fleeting and that we aren’t perfect people. As Alliance pastor James Lamkin says, “…on our foreheads we wear our morality and our mortality as a cruciform smudge.” In typical Pullen fashion, we do recast this ritual a bit. We’re clear that we aren’t just “dust,” but all of our lives could use a bit of tidying up. Lent provides an opportunity for us to do this together. It’s a time, says James, when we put the brakes on our frantic pace. And perhaps most importantly, we begin the process, our journey through Lent, with a ritual we share. We do the imposition of ashes here in this sacred space, together, as we promise ourselves and each other to dig a little deeper, reflect a little harder, and make a little more space in which the holy can rise up. You can’t have ecstasy in the middle of the laundry unless you make a place for it. We’ll do this for the next six weeks and I hope you’ll join us on as we embark on this journey on Wednesday evening.
Ours is a “doing” society. In fact, it’s increasingly an “over-doing” society. That why the quip, “Why do when you can overdo?” typically generates an amused, but knowing chuckle. We know it’s true. We overdo a lot. Just think about weddings or children’s birthday parties these days. We just keep adding more and more to these and other special life events.
So whether we want to admit it or not, just about all of us need a Lent-like time even if we don’t do it as part of a liturgical season. It’s one of those “spaces” that encourages us to step back and do some interior, spiritual work. The Transfiguration may have happened in a few moments, but real transformation is typically much slower and takes a lifetime. If we’re lucky, we do have those mountaintop, “road to Damascus” experiences when we get blinded so that we can truly learn to see what is real and important. But the follow-up is mostly hard and slow – enough so that it’s attractive to just look for the next mountaintop when the last one wears off. In fact, there are “mountaintop junkies” who are always looking for the next spiritual high. It’s one of the many things to which we can become addicted because it feels so good.
For most of us, however, that’s not how life is day-to-day. We seldom fully understand what the mountaintop reveals until we come down and do some processing of what happened at the peak. That was certainly the case for Peter, James and John and I think it’s often true for us. Most of us have multiple conversion experiences – critical points along the way that change the direction of our lives and even the lives of others. Sometimes we know this is happening in the moment, but often we don’t know it was a transfiguration, a change in the form of our lives, until months or even years later when we realize the impact it had on us. And whether it’s a real transformation or a photo op depends on who we become after we descend from the heights.
Let me say, too, that it’s not always about what we do in response to those mountaintop experiences. Sometimes the epiphany of the moment transforms the shape of our lives only as we are able to wait for what’s next. I went to seminary after two very different, decade-long careers unsure of what I wanted to do with my theological training. But my time at Wesley and as an intern with a Washington, DC congregation made it clear that I wanted to work in a church. So, because I am a Myers-Briggs “J” who plans ahead, the approaching end of seminary made me anxious. I knew very few churches would hire me. I had no idea what the future would hold.
One day in chapel, our Wesley Seminary choir sang the African American spiritual our chancel choir sang here at Pullen recently and at the the MLK service at Martin Street. It’s entitled Order My Steps. Larry tells me you’ll get to hear it again in a couple of months. The lyrics that touched me are these: “Humbly I ask thee teach me your will; while you are working help me be still.” I should say that for me, “words from the Lord,” as my mother would call them, come literally in a few words – in a song or poem or passage of scripture or a phrase or sentence from a speaker or even through a thought that mysteriously comes into my head. Dramatic flashes of light have always passed me by.
With anxiety about the future heavy in my heart, I sat in Wesley’s lovely chapel one morning and heard my fellow students sing, “While you are working help me be still.” The message was as clear as a bell: “Just chill, Cathy. I’m working on something.” Was God working on getting me hired here at Pullen nearly 18 months later? I don’t know for sure because I couldn’t and can’t read God’s mind. But what I do know is that it was what I needed to ease the anxiety. It helped me relax a bit and let things unfold. It also reminded me of something I once heard that has stayed with me for years. “The trouble with good people is they tend to run ahead of grace. They try to be today what God is gently calling them to be tomorrow.” So attentive waiting is sometimes the faithful response when the bright lights go out.
Like the favored disciples, we like the mountaintop. Whether it’s a dazzling light or a sacred word spoken only in your heart, these inspiring experiences can transfigure us. They can re-form us into something new. But it’s who we become when we come down the mountain that determines whether the climb has lasting value or offers just a momentary high. It’s the follow-through that matters in the long run. It’s the hard, slow work of transfiguration at sea level that makes the difference.
Pierre Teillard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest, advises us this way:
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that God’s hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
Our culture and human nature encourage us to seek the quick fix and skip the hard parts. It’s natural to want to jump over Lent to get to Easter. It’s more pleasant to bypass the violence of the cross and get on to the joy of the resurrection. But dramatic miracles and heavenly visions do not by themselves create faith and seldom do they form us into people who are loving and just. They may inspire us. They may even empower us to change what needs changing. But it is trust in the slow work of God that will take us where this deeply troubled world needs us to go. It’s what we do as God’s partners in each moment that turns a dramatic photo op into a nurturing, abiding light that guides our way.