The Last Sunday after the Epiphany – February 15, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Have any of you ever had a mountaintop experience? By that I mean, an experience that was spiritually thrilling beyond anything else you’d felt, a time when you felt close to God and everyone around you, at peace with yourself, in love? Sometimes feelings like that come when we’re on a retreat, or on a trip into the wilderness, or when we have our first child. I remember as a teenager going to spiritual renewal weekends, what a high I would be on for a few days when I returned. Or the thrill of backpacking up above treeline, how deeply settled I feel when I’m up there. But however wonderful, that feeling of exaltation doesn’t last, does it? Sometimes it’s only a little while, sometimes a few days – but eventually, we have to go back to work, we have to balance the checkbook and clean the bathrooms, we have to sit in traffic as we drive back from the mountain trip, and it all fades away. It’s the nature of mountaintop experiences that they don’t last. But that doesn’t mean they don’t change us.
I think we use the term ‘mountaintop experience’ because of the very story we heard today, the story we call the Transfiguration. It’s a story that comes in each of the synoptic gospels, and we always wrap up the church season of Epiphany, this season we’ve been in since Christmas, with this story. Before we go into Lent – the valley of Lent, you could say – we hear about the mountaintop. It’s an amazing story, this tale of the Transfiguration. Jesus reveals himself in a whole new way and Peter, dear Peter, is absolutely beside himself. He just doesn’t know what to think or what to do, it seems, and so he starts babbling: ‘Hey, it’s a good thing we’re here, Lord, because you and Moses and Elijah should have some places to stay in up here! Wow, we could really do something great for you here! We could –‘… but then there comes a voice, interrupting and silencing Peter, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son…listen to him!’ And Peter shuts up and falls to the ground, and so do James and John – and then the vision ends and just Jesus is there, looking normal again. And they go down from the mountain, and Jesus begins his journey toward Jerusalem and death.
Poor Peter. Of course he babbles and doesn’t know what to do. Maybe he wants to prolong the experience – maybe even in the midst of having it he already fears it slipping away. Maybe he really is frightened – his best friend shining like the sun and a voice from heaven booming out. It’s terrifying. You don’t have a close encounter with the living God without being terrified. So of course Peter’s first instinct is frantic action, this idea of building some kind of booth or tabernacle – maybe it’s trying to provide some ritual religious context for what he’s seeing, or maybe it’s less coherent than that, to put parameters around this wild and uncontrollable experience. What he is seeing is utterly beyond his ken, utterly incomprehensible – it freaks him out, and he wants to regain his equilibrium and sense of control. And he also wants to sustain the experience, the moment of total intimacy with Jesus. But God’s voice from heaven interrupts him: Stop it, Peter, and just listen.
The picture of Peter we get from the gospel stories is pretty consistent in all the gospels – Peter the hothead, the impulsive one, the one to blurt things out and put his foot in his mouth. Peter who is scared out of his wits at Jesus’ arrest, who follows and hangs around to see what happens but then denies he has anything to do with Jesus, Peter who responds eagerly to Jesus in the end, yes, yes, Lord, I do love you. But the picture of Peter in other New Testament books is different – Peter in the book of Acts is more focused, more authoritative, part of the building of the new church; Peter in the epistles has the gravity of a respected elder. Somewhere along the way, Peter grows up, maturing from the fiery friend of Jesus to the pillar of the church. He has his mountaintop experience of God – really you could say he has several years of it, all the time he accompanies Jesus in his ministry. He experiences Jesus’ resurrection, a firsthand eyewitness to the empty tomb. But then he has to keep going – to keep following on with what Jesus is calling him to do even when the rush of Jesus’ presence is gone.
All of us are something like Peter, wherever we are on our journey – whether we’ve had what we would call a mountaintop experience or not. Peter in the gospels sometimes is the example of what not to do – but he’s also the example of real love for Jesus, and for trying hard to understand him. We want to follow Jesus; we want to understand his call to us; but our own stuff gets in the way. We want to be in community; we feel drawn to church, but we’re not sure about all the other people who are there too. We’re uncomfortable not being in control. We’re afraid. We get all tied up in knots, trying to live the way we think we ought to. We want to just do it our own way.
Again, that voice from heaven breaks in: listen to him. Listen to God, to what Jesus is calling you to. Listen to God in the voice of these people around you today. Hard to do. Our prayers tend – if you’re like me – to be full of the sound of our own voices, asking for things. Good things, important things, things that are right for us to ask for (and probably some that aren’t) – but it’s always us talking. And then we wait impatiently for an answer – usually giving God about two minutes to respond. When we don’t hear it, we get still more impatient. The thing is, relationship with God is just that – relationship. It’s not a drive-up window at MacDonald’s. Listening to God requires being in relationship with God. And we don’t always want to go there. Or rather, we want it and we don’t want it at the same time.
It’s like all relationship. All of us need relationships. We need other people, pets, somebody around to relate to, to talk to and hear from, to connect to. We need to be part of a group or maybe several groups. It’s elemental: babies who are never touched fail to thrive. We are geared to be with others. Unless we’re hardcore loners, we’re lonely otherwise. And yet most of us aren’t that good at relationships, Valentine’s romantics notwithstanding. We tend to want to have our cake and eat it too, to have others around for us without having to change anything of how we are. At our worst, we want relationship only at our own convenience – avoiding it when it isn’t what we’re wanting at the moment. This is why we make such extreme vows in our marriage ceremonies – till death do us part. When we make the vows, we’re all romantic and excited at the life ahead of us with this wonderful person we love. But marriage isn’t always like that – without those vows, it’s all too easy to wander off when things aren’t quite as we want them. And community life isn’t always like that either. We have to do a lot of daily work to stay in relationship, to have our relationships be a healthy one of love and respect.
And so too with God – we want God around and useful to us when we need it, and out of sight and mind when we don’t. The mountaintop experience is wonderful and we want it to continue, whether it’s the flush of first conversion or the profound experience of God’s closeness in a crisis; we’re less enamored, however, of the daily discipline of prayer and moral behavior. Showing up regularly, whether we feel spiritual or not, is hard. We wax and wane in our commitment to God – like Peter, we can be wildly enthusiastic when the rush of passion is upon us. But very quickly, we start wanting to shape it our own way – to control the terms and do our life how it suits us. The harder work of really following Jesus, however, means that we can’t be in control. We’re not passive in it – we have to be present to listen. We have to have our ears open and our eyes peeled, to see and hear God in what happens to us, in the voices of those around us, in the sound of wind in the trees. We have to be alert, but not fearful – alert to where God might be calling us to act, to trust – to be God’s people without fear.
Maybe that’s why we have this reading before Lent – a story of spiritual exaltation before we enter the time of discipline and penitence, the season when we are supposed to re-up our commitment, to focus anew on right relationship with God and with each other. We have a joyful ceremony in today’s service, welcoming new members who have decided to commit and stick it out at St Michael’s. They’re happy to be here and we’re thrilled they’re choosing to be part of things. We’ll have cake and celebrate. But soon, our community together will boil down again to daily life. And so does our following Jesus. The mountaintop is the start of the journey, or maybe the renewal of the journey. It changes us; it fuels us for what is to come. But then, Jesus says, Get up, let’s go down the mountain. There’s work to be done. There’s a world of suffering, there are people hungry and in need. Stay with me in this relationship, Jesus says – listen, and learn, and love.
So today we give thanks for this community that we are all a part of. Today we remember and relive what got us started in this love relationship with God – and this week, we reconnect again with the discipline of prayer, and caring for others, and study of God’s ways, the things that sustain our relationship with God. May we celebrate today, and spend the time ahead truly listening to God together – and together let us respond with love for the world. Amen.