The Feast of the Transfiguration: August 6, 2017
The Rev. Kate Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty.
On our vacation a few weeks ago, we took our kids backpacking up into the Sierra mountains in California for four days. It was idyllic – perfectly sunny, perfectly warm but not too hot, the lakes perfect for swimming. We found wonderful places to camp on granite slabs with wide open views, we had long times each day of just relaxing together outside. We didn’t want to come back down at the end. Back down below, we wondered if we were at war yet with North Korea, what further chaos had erupted in the Oval Office, what bad news there might be from our families. Up in the mountains, none of that could reach us. And so we just wanted to stay.
But I’ve had other kinds of times in the mountains too. I’ve had times climbing mountains when the altitude just got to be too much, when I felt nauseous and dizzy and like I wanted to die. I’ve had a few falls where I soaked myself and my gear in freezing water, or fell through a collapsing snow bridge into a crevasse. I’ve had water filters stop working and water sources dry up, I’ve had critters eat through packs, I’ve had torrential hailstorms and mud. Those have been mountaintop experiences too, but not so pleasant. And if you’ve ever read the book Into Thin Air, or any other similar account of extreme mountaineering, you can fill in the other, more terrible things that can happen up on high mountains. Mountaintops aren’t always places of awe and glory and wonder. Sometimes you really don’t want to stay there.
Today is a mountain day in church – at least that’s how I see it. We’re celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration, which falls on August 6 every year. Usually we celebrate it modestly, just a small Eucharist after Morning Prayer in the morning. But because August 6 is a Sunday this year, and this feast is so important on the calendar, it overrides our other readings for the day. Right in the season of life in the outdoors, we get a set of stories about mountains, and a huge whopping metaphor pileup of mountaintops. We hear about Moses going up Mt Sinai and receiving the tablets of the covenant, and his face shining; and Jesus and disciples up on another mountain, and the revelation of Christ’s glory. We also get more or less this same set of readings at the end of the season of Epiphany, right before Lent begins, so every year we hear these stories of Moses and Jesus and James and John and Peter in the mountains – and this year we’re hearing them twice. By a fluke of something or other we’re getting lots of time to emphasize this idea.
In both stories it’s worth looking at what comes before and after today’s passage. The Exodus story is actually the second time Moses receives the tablets of the covenant from God on the mountain. The first time, he came down with them in his hands only to encounter his brother Aaron leading the people in worship of a golden calf. Moses is so angry about this that he breaks the tablets and carries out a purge of the offenders. God then sends a plague on the remaining people, just to get the point across. But Moses persuades God to stick with these Israelites, and so they have a do-over of the encounter on the mountain. This time Moses’ face shines, everyone behaves themselves, and they set off again on their journey to the Promised Land. Clearly, meeting God on the mountaintop is not safe, and it doesn’t guarantee things will go the way they ought to – and yet God and the people reaffirm their covenant with one another through this experience and begin again.
In the gospel story, Jesus has been teaching and healing crowds of people, and fed 5000 or so of them after they all lingered around him too late in the day to find their own food. Peter and James and John finally get special time with Jesus up on the mountain, but then they come back down, and immediately step back into the crowd. The rest of the disciples, left down below, have been trying unsuccessfully to heal a boy with a demon, and the crowd is riled up and shouting. As soon as they see Jesus, the boy’s father cries out to him, and Jesus’ work picks right up where it left off. No wonder Peter wants to build dwellings and stay up there on the mountain in that exclusive experience, with the vision of Moses and Elijah and their teacher, Jesus, dazzling white. Their mountaintop experience was really wonderful, and Peter wishes it would never end.
And yet Jesus on the mountaintop is not himself in ecstasy. When he speaks with Moses and Elijah it is about his coming ‘departure’ in Jerusalem – about the approaching Passion, his suffering and death. I wish I knew just what words are spoken in that conversation, but it cannot be a joyful one. Peter might be in ecstasy and want to stay in the limelight; Jesus, however, is beginning his agony. Their mountaintop experiences are quite different. And yet each is being prepared, each in his own way. The joy and the glory of the dazzling vision are one way God teaches us, one way we grow. Pain and suffering, it is clear, can be another.
The Times science section had a piece the other day on resilience and how to develop it as an adult – resilience meaning having the strength and depth to weather tough times and failure. There’s been some attention to developing resilient kids, a reaction to the helicopter parenting of recent years, realizing that kids need to learn how to deal with things on their own rather than always looking to a parent to help. But this article pointed out that kids aren’t the only ones, that we adults also need to develop the strength to get through failure and loss, because both are a part of life. On the one hand, this advice sounds sort of ridiculous – unless you’ve led a remarkably charmed life, you have probably not made it to adulthood without going through some things that toughened you up. Living in New York City probably qualifies all on its own for most people. But on the other hand, there is something to the list of suggestions worth paying attention to – which goes as follows: practice optimism, reframe your situation, don’t take things personally, remind yourself of how you’ve coped in the past, reach out to care for others, take breaks from stressful situations, try new and challenging things. The point being that we can learn and grow and deepen through adversity – when we stay grounded in our best selves and connected to others.
Which is also much of what the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu have to say in The Book of Joy, a book about how we can find joy in the midst of suffering. Both men know firsthand, and in the experience of their people, deep and lasting suffering. And yet both men glow with a light and radiance that strikes everyone who meets them. They talk about times when suffering was not just something to get through, but something they needed in order to become who they were. Suffering stripped them of their selfishness, deepened their capacity for generosity, gave them the ability to continue to love. They are both of them men transfigured by suffering, whose faces shine with the light of love.
That all sounds good, doesn’t it? And yet it is possible, of course, not to be transfigured in a good way by our suffering. It is possible to be embittered instead, to stay in a place of self-pity, to wring our hands over the problems in our own lives and in the world and never to find our way through. What is frightening about the mountaintop can overwhelm us; what is painful or discouraging about the climb can loom larger than all else. There is something of a choice we make, isolating ourselves or brooding on the worst of what we see. But sometimes it feels like more than we can manage.
But our model and our way, Jesus, shows us a different path. The redemption of the world, his revelation as Messiah, the power of his resurrection – all of that comes through and because of, not despite, his suffering. He walks through the pain in order to come out into the light. He does not stop at hatred and bitterness, but persists in compassion and love.
For us this may feel like a tall order. But it is not just an order, yet another something for us to fail at. Sometimes we just don’t feel resilient, and all the good advice in the world will not get us there. But Jesus doesn’t just leave us in that. He shows us the way, and then he comes and helps us to live the way. His grace lifts us from the mire we find ourselves in. He gets us up the mountain and safely back down again; he gives us the peace that passes all understanding, that no work of our own can give. In the words of today’s opening prayer, God delivers us from our disquietude, the anxiety and pain of the world, and brings us face to face with the beauty of Love.
Mountaintop experiences of all kinds come our way. We long to stay in the good times and to get out quickly from the bad times, but we don’t always get to control that. Life and the needs of the world continue on. And yet it is possible in every powerful experience, in joy and in suffering, to learn, to see God, to hear God’s voice, to grow further into the human beings God created us to be. With God’s help, we are able. May we come to know and see God’s beauty in everything, and live in that joy. Amen.