Today’s gospel (Matthew 17:1-9), the transfiguration of Jesus, is often thought of, described, or spoken of, as a mountaintop experience. And I think it is a mountaintop experience, but I’m beginning to think it’s not the mountaintop experience we often understand it to be. For most of us, the mountaintop experience is a big deal. We’re on the pinnacle. We’re on top of the world. Everything has come together in just the right way.
It’s a time in our life that we never want to end. We want to stay there and keep it just like it is. It’s the fulfillment of what we’ve hoped for and dreamed about. Everything is just right. It often looks like success or accomplishment. It just doesn’t get just any better than this. Today’s gospel has all of those qualities about it.
Jesus has taken Peter and John and James up a high mountain, and then things begin to happen. Jesus’ face shines like the sun. His clothes become dazzling white. And then Moses and Elijah show up and start talking to Jesus. And Peter’s having a mountaintop experience.
Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter doesn’t want the moment to end. He wants to capture and contain it. I think it’s what most of us want when we have a mountaintop experience.
Then a bright cloud envelops all of them. More light. A voice from the cloud says, “This is my son, the beloved. This one I am well pleased with. Listen to him.”
But here’s what I wonder. What if that’s not the mountaintop experience?
What if the shining face of Jesus, his dazzling white clothes, the presence of Moses and Elijah, the bright cloud, the voice from the cloud, what if at their best those are just pointers to the mountaintop experience, and at their worst they’re distractions from the mountaintop experience?
What if the real mountaintop experience happens when Jesus says to Peter, James, and John, “Get up and do not be afraid”?
Whatever is happening for Peter, James, and John on the mountain is something they’ve never experienced before. It’s beyond their understanding. They can’t make sense of it. It is so big, so overwhelming, so overshadowing, that they fall to the ground. And they’re terrified.
Maybe there are afraid for their own safety. Maybe they’re terrified because they don’t know what’s going to happen next. Maybe “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). Maybe they’re terrified because it’s just so amazing and they can’t comprehend or take it all in. You know what that’s like, right? I do. I suspect we’ll all been terrified in those and a thousand other ways.
They’re experiencing something bigger than they ever imagined, more than they could have ever dreamed. And we’ve had those times too when life has overwhelmed us with more than we could handle. And we’ve had times when life asked more of us than we thought we were able to give. And we bumped up against our limits and wondered if we were up the task.
Regardless of how that comes about it’s always brings change. Sometimes we want the change, and other times we don’t want the change. Sometimes we’ve worked hard to make the change and we’re disappointed when it doesn’t happen. Sometimes it feels like life brings us changes we never wanted or asked for.
I can’t help but hear today’s gospel in light of last week’s Diocesan Council. It’s the annual meeting of all the churches in the diocese. And this year we elected a new Bishop.
When our delegation showed up, I was a bit disappointed, somewhat upset, even a little aggravated, to find out that our table was in the very front row where the Bishop and everyone on the stage could look down on and see us. I’d rather sit in the back than the front. I don’t like sitting in the front row. Apparently, you don’t either; the first three pews are empty this morning.
People came up and kiddingly asked what I had done to be seated on the front row. They wanted to know if I had been misbehaving or if I was being punished.
But then I learned why we were in the front. The Bishop wasn’t watching us. He was watching over us. In his address to Council he talked about Uvalde, what happened here back in May, and how St. Philip’s has responded to that event. And then he committed to be with and support us and Uvalde as we move forward.
It was if he was saying to us, “Get up and do not be afraid. Change has come upon you, but get up and do not be afraid.”
And as I think about the election of our Bishop Coadjutor I again recall Jesus’ words, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Three faithful priest who love this diocese, committed themselves to us in faithfulness and discernment. They offered themselves to our prayerful consideration. Only one would be called to serve as Bishop.
When I think about the one who has chosen, the Reverend David G. Read of St. Helena’s, Boerne, I wonder what he and his wife are thinking today, the morning after the election. What just happened? Can we do this? I can image them being overwhelmed and maybe a bit afraid. And I hear those words again, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
I think about the other two priests and what it might be like for them the morning after the election and what they might be thinking. What’s next for me? What does my priesthood look like now? What does it all mean? Their lives have also been changed. And I hear those words again, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
And I think about Bishop David. For seventeen years he’s been a bishop for us, and yesterday he watched his successor be chosen. He experienced his life being changed, knowing that not too long from now, he will begin living a different kind of life. His rhythm and routine will be different. He is entering a time of change. And once again I hear Jesus’ words, “Get up, [David,] and do not be afraid.”
And those words aren’t just for St. Philip’s and Uvalde, Bishop David, or the three priests who offered themselves to be elected our next bishop. They’re for us as well. We’ve all stood in that place of change wondering what to do with it, how to handle it, what would become of us, where we would go, what life would be like. Maybe that’s where you are today. “Get up and do not be afraid.”
And I have to believe that for our Diocese, for St. Philip’s, for Uvalde, for every one of us here today, that those are words calling us into and promising us a future, even when we don’t know what it looks like, where it will take us, or what it will ask of us. “Get up and do not be afraid.”
If we’re pinned to the ground and if we’re living afraid we are living less than the life that God has given us, and we’re living less than who we truly are. So whatever it is that has knocked your feet out from under you and left you on the ground terrified, whatever change has come upon you whether you wanted it or not, whatever is overwhelming you today, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
To get up and not live afraid, that’s the mountaintop experience I want. What about you?
Image Credit: “Transfiguration Icon” by bobosh_t is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
My life has greatly changed in the last two years. This interpretation of the mountaintop experience speaks to me in a personal way as well as helping me to imagine that fear in others. As I reflect on your words the words”get up” will be part of my goal of Lent. Get up and do not be afraid of where God may be leading me.
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Nancy, I so appreciate you sharing a bit of your life. I hope the lenten season is for you one of courage and rising up.
Peace be with you,
Beautiful and encouraging sermon. Thank you for sharing.
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Peace be with you,