At my last call, the church had a very rustic cross that we would place on the crest of Church Hill, the edge of High Street, just before our Easter sunrise worship service. When we first began to do this, I felt that it was important to bring the cross to the place where we, as a church community, would first welcome Jesus’ resurrection. There was a moment there when the horizon, the mountains, the church steeple, and the sunrise could all be seen transcending beyond our rugged cross nearly at the same time. Seeing through the empty cross on the hill in the early morning hours when the sun was just starting to ascend was an unforgettable experience and a reminder to us of just how far humans can go in their scapegoating of others, as well as how far God will go to save our collective and individual spirits from destruction.
Now, getting the cross up on the hill was always an interesting process, especially when the last remnants of winter New England air wrapped tenaciously around our faces and fingers. Some years, I remember, the cross was loaded on a dolly and some faithful and willing trustee like our own Dan Driver would manually cart its heavy, awkward beams up the hill using the side road that ran alongside the church. Other years, the cross was loaded onto the back of someone’s pickup truck in the dark in order to make its way up the hill. The base of the cross alone was cumbersome and heavy, a bit like BUCC’s—one year it was anchored by a plastic container filled with gravel—in other years, it had a kind of brace. For these practical reasons alone, you might think it both crazy and tedious to lug a cross up and down a Church Hill, or any slope, for a brief half-hour service, especially when you can still see your breath spilling out in the frosty air. But when all is said and done, I am glad that we took the time to do it.
Sometimes I wonder why Peter, James, and John decided to go up the mountain in the first place. When we read this story, Matthew says that six days later, six days after Jesus foretold his death and resurrection, Jesus led the disciples up the mountain. He led them after talking about his death. Can you imagine leading anyone after telling them that you are about to die at the hands of friends? More to the point, can you imagine anyone wanting to follow you on a journey to death? Was it sheer curiosity that prompted these disciples up the mountain? Was it disbelief?
A friend of mine won’t travel with her friend because she has had four automobile accidents. She tells me that her friend is not necessarily a bad driver, but has somehow accrued what she calls, “Bad Car Karma.” I don’t know, but like my friend, if Jesus told me right before the mountain hike that he would be betrayed and killed, I don’t know if I would have made the trip with him. Especially if I wasn’t too sure of where I would actually be when the time of betrayal and death came. But these disciples had either not heard that part, or had simply dismissed the concern, because they were in the mood to hike that day with Jesus.
Now there weren’t just any of the disciples, but these three: Peter, James, and John. Which makes me wonder what happened to the other nine? Maybe they were afraid of high places, maybe they figured whatever would be said or done up on the mountain could just as well be said or done down in the valley—or maybe it was what Jesus said. Do you remember that part, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”? It comes right before this story. Maybe those words were enough for the other 9 disciples to stay at home that day.
Friends, how do you know a good thing when you see it? Or rather, how do you come to learn about a good thing, if you haven’t yet experienced it, unless someone you trust has told you about it? When it comes to advice, we tend to listen to those whom we believe will have our best interests at heart. On a very basic level, so many of our choices are based on what those whom we trust have shared with us. A book, a movie, a church, a vacation, an investment, and a mountaintop expedition might not ever be experienced were it not for those who have gone before us and given their testimony. We often do not readily do a thing unless we’ve heard from a trusted friend that the thing can be done or believed or experienced by someone like us. So again, I wonder, what was it about Jesus that compelled Peter, James, and John to venture up the mountain in the first place?
Those of you who have climbed mountains or even just a single set of stairs post-surgery know that climbing mountains is not just a walk in the park. There’s a time that comes when the tedium of the journey can “get” to you, when your muscles pull and ache as you ascend, and when the sheer labor of getting to the summit can be difficult. And then we have to deal with all that “baggage” that we tend to carry up the mountain with us. Things that we thought we needed, but were useless, and the things that we left at home, but wish we now had, and the things that we revisit and remember repeatedly in our minds, but would rather like to move beyond. All of these can weigh down our feet and our hearts and make the climb more difficult than we ever anticipated. And there is usually a point when we wonder if we will ever, in God’s good name, make it to the peak of the mountain, and there is usually a time when we wished that we had started earlier on the journey, and a time when we thirst and ache and wonder if the journey is all there is—no point of culmination – just this endless walking along steep paths.
So up the mountain they go with Jesus at their side, which is not insignificant. We sometimes climb mountains that Jesus never asked us to climb and we sometimes attempt the difficult without ever asking Jesus to lead us along the way. Some of us curl our lip at the thought of being led anywhere. It reminds us that we may not know everything. It reminds us that we might be taken advantage of. It reminds of the time we stopped for directions and the person waved their hand confidentally to show us where to go and we ended up in the exact opposite direction than where we needed to be.
How to explain what happened on the top of the mountain? I suppose it was like trying to explain an incredible sunrise or a tremendous weight being lifted or the gift of an entirely different perspective. Or maybe it was a newly found purpose that both surprised and challenged them. What we understand from our text is that Jesus appeared differently to the three who made the journey, and there was joy, befuddlement, and challenge in that transformation. There was also fear. The disciples were terrified. I mean, what if what happened to Jesus, could actually happen to them? They had followed willingly on the ascent, but could they follow just as willingly on the descent, in the crevices where pain and suffering and humiliation were waiting?
Following Jesus isn’t all one spiritual high after another. Following Jesus or being in relationship with the Divine is also about what we do when the glow is gone or flickering only slightly and when it is time to make our way back down the mountain.
Years ago, a friend and mentor named Roger lay fighting for his life in a hospital room in Florida. Roger was a big, strong, and brusque man, but also had a warm and compassionate heart. I used to go and visit Roger to help him pass the long hours of waiting and frustration that tend to occur when one is sick and the remedy elusive. There were several times when I thought that Roger would die—and I, quite frankly, confess that I did not want to be there when it happened. I’m not sure what I was afraid of at the time—I suspect, like the disciples, that I just didn’t want to see Roger suffer…that I didn’t want to stand helpless in his time of need or deal with my feelings around seeing someone so vibrant and strong reduced to laying prostrate on a hospital bed. But during our shared time together, my perspective gradually shifted. I came to admire Roger’s courage. He had a kind of clarity about life and about his own life’s purpose that gave him peace in tremendously difficult circumstances.
Then there was also this one other thing about Roger that I didn’t yet understand and wanted to. I asked him, one time, who– exactly –Jesus was to him. Was he a great teacher? A prophet? A philosopher? A God? “He is Lord,” he replied before drifting off to sleep in the middle of lunch. But he said it with such conviction that I found myself replaying his words in my head after our visit had long ended. It would be several months before I would answer my own question, but for me the transformation had begun with those words “He is Lord.” The challenge had also begun. I had begun listening—at first to those who I trusted, but then to the voice that called down through the ages through the church. “This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him.”
“Roger, who is Jesus to you?” “He is Lord.”
Friends, enjoying fellowship with the Divine—being on a spiritual high—is a great and glorious thing. But let’s face it, those moments are not the main course of the spiritual diet, nor are they its purpose. The spiritual life more like lugging crosses up and down hills, like following and listening to the voice of love when the glow is gone or flickering only ever-so-slightly, like trusting “He is Lord” of our life, even when we are flat on our back and the doctors don’t know why.
When my husband and I were in Israel, we visited Mt. Tabor which is a steep hill, some 1,843 ft above sea level. Tradition says that Jesus’ transfiguration occurred on Mt. Tabor which is closest to Nazareth. (Another tradition states Mt. Hermon, the highest peak in Israel but that’s another story) While we were there, we could have taken the 4,300 steps that were built in the 4th century for pilgrims ascending Mt. Tabor, but we instead chose to take one of the many taxis that shuttle people to the top, along a very windy roadway. I still wonder what we may have missed in our hurry to the top. We had a good driver though who found it exceedingly funny to remind us continually that he was both the oldest driver there, had had no accidents in his recollection, and had been shuttling pilgrims up and down the mountain for as long as he could remember. No kidding, his other car had been a mule. Every time our driver took a sharp turn (and there were many) he would lower his speed ever so slightly and shout, “Hallelujah” with a mischievous grin.
During Epiphany, we have seen how God revealed Jesus’ power to the disciples and to those he healed. But after Jesus’ transfiguration, during the season we call Lent, the focus will shift to our reflection and our response. What difference does Jesus make to us? Can we shout or even whisper “hallelujah” in the midst of a sharp turn? To whom are we ultimately listening? In whose hands are we willing to place our lives, our purpose, and our thanksgiving? And are we as ready and willing to follow Jesus when the way proves difficult?
Brothers and sisters, the good news is that the promise of transformation and transfiguration is for us, too. But no taxi is going to appear out of nowhere to shuttle us to where we need to go. We will need to walk, to listen, and to follow—Jesus– one step at a time. We need to allow ourselves to be led by the One who walks before us. Let our descent begin.