"What Happens Next"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
March 3, 2019
Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36
Near the end of his last public speech, the night before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke these words:
“… I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.”
Mountaintop experiences at times do seem to clarify our vision. As we look out over life, patterns come into focus, details become insignificant, the distant horizon seems to be a more integrated part of the picture – another hem on the garment of life. On the heights we feel exhilarated, maybe even a little giddy, perhaps with oxygen deprivation, invigorated and drowsy in the same moment. Problems of daily life seem to fade away.
In the rarified and simplified atmosphere up there, it feels like heaven. Our needs are reduced to the lowest common denominator: food, shelter, clean water, warmth, companionship, a guide, a sense of direction. Comfort seems less important. Luxuries lose their allure. Why not stay? It’s there in the mountaintop experience that we finally see Jesus for who he is: glorious, luminous, enlightening, the focus of our attention and effort. And yet, to follow Jesus, the path leads down, into the valley, into sickness and despair, injustice and captivity, injury and obscured vision. We don’t want to go back down. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. We don’t know what happens next.
Once again Luke has offered a version of the Gospel in miniature. It begins with the journey of discipleship – perhaps a test of our will to follow Jesus on the climb – like that roller coaster ride up toward the point of maximum potential energy, arriving at the frightening view from the top. Then, the mystery unfolds – something too big for words. Jesus’ countenance is infused and suffused with light. Here there is a moment of revelation, of connection, an “aha” moment in which the gospel is in conversation with the law and the prophets. Dazed and drowsy, Jesus’ closest companions, as if trying to make sense of something beyond words, as if wanting to domesticate the glory, offer to build tents or tabernacles, to drive stakes in the holy ground in an attempt at tying down the sacred.
Instead of bringing comprehension, the divine response seems to bring further mystery as the scene is enveloped in haze. Then from the cloud comes a voice that says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” We assume it is the voice of God. If we had been there, perhaps we would know for sure. But in the manner of dreams, visions, and overwhelming events, we can hardly begin to describe what really happened. Whatever it was – it was big. It was important. It was transfiguring – and not only for Jesus. The witnesses were transfigured as well – their sight, their hearing, their speech, and the path back down the mountain lead in a new direction, beyond sickness and despair, injustice and captivity, injury and obscured vision, beyond sin and death.
Perhaps like Peter, James, and John, we are left wondering how we are to respond. Having confronted what can only be described as the divine, do we, like they, tell no one of the things we have seen? My Quaker friend Susanne suggests this is the appropriate response – to proceed quietly and demonstrate our change of heart – hoping to become transparent to the light that we have seen in Jesus during our mountaintop experience. Quakers would stop now, and would sit quietly for the next ten minutes….
Instead I think I’ll save that silence for the weeks of Lent – a time for us to be silent together as we sit in the presence of the divine. For now, there are some ways this passage can form us – some ways we can be transfigured by this encounter with the divine.
The visible transfiguration in Jesus comes as he is in prayer. How we perceive that depends deeply on how we perceive prayer. If we think of prayer as a quiet personal mumbling of petitions aimed at the cosmic butler, who is expected like Radar O’Reilly to know already what we need and to be ready and waiting for us to give the sign – well, that is one thing. That mode of prayer presumes that God even notices our elaborate systems of privilege and hierarchy.
But what if we think of prayer as a deep communion with the “other” – whether the “other” is God who is wholly incomprehensible to us; or the “other” is the widow, orphan, captive, unclean, alien, stranger – even our LGBTQ siblings whose access to the divine has been hampered by the actions of the institutional church – with whom prayer happens in the valley of toil and turmoil just as much as it happens on the mountaintop of mystery or vision.
I, who am only a week back from my week in solitude and community at the Academy on the mountaintop in California, rejoin you in the lowlands, transfigured – luminous from the solitude and glory of God’s presence. But is that luminance any more profound than the gleam of fulfillment, radiant through the sweaty brow of the soup kitchen volunteer or Habitat house builder? The prayer that leads to transfiguration comes in many forms – only some of them with words, only some of them in solitude, only some of them acknowledged as prayer.
Then, we might wonder, just who it is that has been transfigured. On first glance it is Jesus. His appearance – at least for the moment – is strikingly different. In the tradition of mountaintop encounters with the divine, he is radiant – like Moses after Mount Horeb, having received the commandments. Moses’ countenance is so transfigured by God’s glory that he must cover his face for the sake of the children of Israel not to be blinded. But unlike Moses, Jesus’ luminance seems to wane. On their return from the mountaintop, nobody remarks on Jesus’ appearance, and only Peter, James, and John seem to be changed. It is three chapters before compulsive Peter manages to speak again. So perhaps it is not Jesus, or not only Jesus, who is changed by the encounter on the mountaintop. If we intend to count ourselves among those who follow Jesus, perhaps we are the ones needing transfiguration – needing to be changed from the inside out, to be enlightened, in order to fulfill the ancient promise – to bring about the meeting of God’s forward propelling wind/breath/spirit with the wooing, luring, beckoning voice of God’s intention for us – in order to bring it about in our time and place.
Every translation is an interpretation, and sometimes meaning gets lost in translation. Two particular words caught my attention in this passage, and once we dig into them, we see that they relate directly to the presence of Moses and Elijah in this scene. The words that caught my attention were departure and accomplish.
“They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”
The words in Greek are ἔξοδον and πληροῦν. Exodon is a clear reference to the deliverance from oppression and captivity that Moses led. Exodus and Moses represent God’s presence and grace in the past. Pleroun means to fulfill, make come true, bring about; to fill or make full; to bring to completion; to make fully known, proclaim fully. This calls to mind God’s desire to bring about shalom – God’s desire for health, peace, and the common good of all creation. In Hebrew tradition, Elijah was to return as a herald of the immanent realm of God. So Moses and Elijah’s presence in this narrative indicate that in Jesus, past and future are met. It’s no wonder Peter, James, and John wanted to stay.
Returning to the valley is the hardest part. We want to stay on the mountaintop. We want to build shelters – to contain the glory we have witnessed. Whether literally on the mountain top or in the mountaintop experiences in which we feel fully alive – in which we lose track of time and place and self. When we have encountered the divine, we may resist the return to routine and normalcy. We may be disappointed by the banality or tedium or injustice or terror of what we call real life. Having been changed from the inside out, having been transfigured, can make it even harder.
The Jesuit missionaries, who brought compassion, forgiveness, inclusion, and charity to the harshest places on the planet, who lived in utter poverty and solidarity and communion with the poorest of the poor, these Jesuits had a motto: Ruined for life. After their sacrifices and deprivations, they found the most common conveniences of civilization to be unsettling and uncomfortable. They could not tolerate the luxury even of simple monastic life.
The truth is we need mountaintop experiences – to give us a different perspective, to lift us out of our routine or tedium. When we get Sunday morning worship right, it is a small mountaintop experience that is scaled perfectly to the course of our week. We feel we have encountered the divine. Our sights have been lifted once again to the horizon – to the possibilities that are inherent in the life that follows Jesus’ path. We have been assured of God’s presence with us, perhaps surprised a little by the connections that are made between past and future and present. But we cannot stay.
The truth is that though we may be transfigured in our mountaintop experiences, though our eyes may be opened in a new way, our growth as individuals and communities of faith is deepest in the deep times and places of our lives.
The truth is that poverty, captivity, darkness, and oppression are not mountaintop experiences, but especially when our path leads through them, we are changed, deepened, transfigured.
The truth is that the mountaintop experience is not the important part of the journey – though it may be the one that we most wish to recall – nor is it the goal. The mountaintop experience prepares us – focuses and clarifies us – for what happens next.
Luke’s story of transfiguration is thick with imagery and meaning. We have only just begun to peel back the layers. The metaphors are a thick cloud enveloping us. Sometimes we just want to cut through the haze and see how things really are. In our enlightenment mindset and our submersion in empiricism, we are committed to measuring, quantifying, and comparing everything.
It’s not clear that the enveloping cloud and the voice that come with it are God’s responses to Peter’s effort to fit everything into nice, neat little boxes. Though we attest to God’s grace and abiding presence, this does not mean that everything God does is in response to our actions, errors, or requests. The enveloping cloud of mystery is terrifying. In our experience the cloud obscures the way forward. But from the cloud comes the assurance that Jesus is beloved and chosen, and the admonition to listen to him; receive news from him; give heed to him. So what has this to do with us, as we face what happens next in our lives?
You might think that with the title “What Happens Next” this sermon would address my prediction about the consequences of the recent decision by our General Conference to restrict who is judged worthy of going to the mountaintop with Jesus. I don’t intend to dwell there. But I will say this. From the mountaintop we get a pretty good overview of what’s possible. And we can see to the horizon in many directions. Still we don’t know where our path will lead – there are many twists and turns along the way. We may see the horizon, and as followers of Jesus, going back down the mountain, we only know that God will be with us when we get there. In the meantime, I’m sad to say, many followers of Jesus will choose a separate route, or give up the journey altogether.
Lent begins Wednesday. Someone – maybe St. Augustine – said that prayer is paying attention. That could be for us the work of Lent this year: to learn to pay attention. We might pray that the Holy Spirit open our eyes to the holiness that lies behind the ordinary around us and in us, to invite the Spirit to show us, as it did Peter and James and John, who Jesus really is and who Jesus means us to be, and then to lead us on to what happens next.
If we pay attention, we might come to see that our communities are holy. We might come to know that our world is holy, that God permeates every inch of it. We might come to know that we are holy, that God dwells not in a tabernacle but in us. We might come to know that our neighbor is holy, our neighborhood the holy ground where we are most likely to meet and to serve the Mysterious and Holy One. We might come to know that God is what happens next.