Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and
led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them,
and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. —Matthew 17:1–2
It’s not surprising that many mountaintop experiences happen on, well, mountaintops. For many of us, mountains are holy places even before God shows up with a stunning Christophany. On a mountain peak, we can see with our own eyes that life ascends to heights and plunges to depths that we usually aren’t aware of. The air is thin at mountain peaks, literally and figuratively; the veil between heaven and earth is diaphanous.
So, it’s not surprising that when God wanted to reveal to a select few precisely who Jesus is with stunning Christophany, God would do it somewhere near the Summit of Mount Hermon, 9,000 feet above sea level.
And it also makes sense that God will send Moses and Elijah, the most revered prophets in Hebrew history, who also met God on a mountain peak, Moses to receive the stone tablets of Torah with a visage so refulgent it terrified his friends, and Elijah to hear the still small voice of the Lord at an hour when he was hounded and cornered and afraid and alone.
Like Jesus himself, Moses and Elijah were guys who went to the top of a mountain and never came down. At his last ascent to the peak of a mountain, Moses just disappears; according to the Scriptures, no one has ever found his grave; it seems as if God buried him.
And as for Elijah, swing low, sweet chariots! “Father, Father,” says Elisha, Elijah’s lieutenant, “Father, Father, the chariots of Israel, the horsemen of God!”
Our English Bibles tell us that Jesus was ‘transfigured,’ but that’s a Latinism; the Greek behind it is commoner and clearer and needs no translation: Matthew tells us that Jesus was ‘metamorphosed.’ His appearance is radically altered. His face shines like a quasar and his clothes are bleached to a dazzling snow-white. It is as if for a moment his terrestrial form becomes transparent to the eternity behind and within; for a moment, his friends can see what and who he really is and where he comes from and where he’s returning once he completes his obligatory via dolorosa.
And Peter is just beside himself with hope and happiness. Peter loves Jesus and does not want Jesus to endure his obligatory via dolorosa. He wants to freeze time right here and right now, and who wouldn’t want to freeze time after hearing Jesus’ multiple predictions of imminent catastrophe.
In the Gospels, Peter can come off as a little impetuous and inept, sometimes as unpredictable and erratic as Donald Trump, but it’s always from love, and I hope this story endears him to you a little bit. One commentator says, “And then there is Peter. This man is a great consolation. If God can make a saint out of Peter, then God can make a saint out of any of us. As usual, Peter is all mouth, and he has a project. He has found something to do.” A building project. He wants to build a shrine and retreat center in this high and sacred geography.
And then Matthew tells us that “while Peter is still speaking…” While Peter is still blathering away, God cuts him off in mid-sentence with stentorian expression. The Voice says “This is my beloved son; listen to him.” Peter, James, and John are so rattled they fall face first to the flinty fell.
But look what happens next. Matthew tells us that “Jesus touches them.” He says, “Get up.” Literally, “Rise!” The resurrection verb. And then he walks with them back down the mountain to pick up their ministry where they left it off in the valley below.
Well, so what, right? What’s the point? Well, I’m glad you asked. Isn’t the Transfiguration a vivid prototype for what we try to accomplish here in our own sacred geography every seventh day?
To turn the phrase in the opposite direction, our worship service here in our holy space is a tiny approximation, a small reaching toward, the Mount of Transfiguration. We come to hear God’s Voice: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And then we DO listen to him—in the word written and recited and proclaimed; in the ancient, beloved songs. We come hoping that through this Carpenter from Nazareth in work boots and toolbelt we will catch perhaps a fleeting glimpse of the blazing glory of divinity within and behind.
We come to be touched by Jesus, maybe Jesus disguised as one of his saints—a saint ensnared by webs of lead in stained glass, or by the saint sitting in the next pew. In our fear and our confusion over a broken world which sometimes seems to be spinning out of control, we come to be fortified by Jesus, encouraged by Jesus, lifted to our feet by Jesus and sent down the mountain to the valley of need below.
Do you know why churches have been putting steeples on their buildings for over a thousand years? After all, steeples are largely useless. You can’t hold Sunday School classes or meetings in the steeple; the space is not configured for human habitation.
At my last church, we tore down an unattractive and tired building and put up a new one, and so for the first time in 125 years, my church had a steeple.
The first time a little girl from my congregation saw the steeple, she asked her mother, “Mom, what’s the point?” She meant “what’s that pointy thing on top of my church?” but she could have been asking, “What’s the point of a steeple?” Ironically, the pointiest structure on a church is largely pointless.
Still, there’s a practical answer to that question. Before steeples were steeples, they were lookout towers where the Night’s Watch could detect White Walkers from far off, like in Game of Thrones.
You can hang a bell in the steeple to chime the hour and call the people together for important events. You can hang a lamp high so that the Church can give light and be seen from afar. On the coasts, church steeples are landmarks for sailors. Church steeples will show you the way, literally and figuratively.
What’s the most famous story from the War for Independence? Paul Revere asks the sexton at Old North Church Boston to show two lights instead of one, to warn the colonists that the British are invading Concord and Lexington by sea, not by land.
But there’s a spiritual reason for steeples too. Church steeples are meant to uplift our gaze. They point to heaven. Have you ever thought of a soaring church steeple as a human-scaled facsimile of a mountain peak? At this Church, we have an embarrassment of riches in steeples; we have two. This is Twin Peaks. Do you ever catch a glimpse of the divine glory within and behind the Carpenter? Are you ever transfigured for the work of the Christian Life?
A friend of mine told me about a minister who served a Congregational Church in Western Massachusetts. These were modest folk, and even during the best times, the congregation and its members were financially vulnerable, always one sprained ankle or an appendectomy away from homelessness. But this happened in January of 2009, and you remember what that was like, right? The guys at Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns were the first to lose their jobs, but then the hardship started tripping down the economic ladder till it got to the folk who work at Walgreens for $12 an hour or at a diner for tips.
At this little Church, before the Pastoral Prayer, the pastor would always wander down the center aisle into the nave to ask for prayer requests, which were always plentiful. One morning in January of 2009, an older woman stood up and said, “I would like you to pray for me, because I can’t pay my rent and I’m about to lose my home. I don’t know what to do.” You could hear a murmur of sadness sweep across the congregation.
The pastor didn’t know what to say. There was a long pause as she jotted down the request on her notepad, and finally she said, “Don’t worry, Mary. No one in this congregation is going to lose her home because she can’t pay the rent.” She had no idea how she was going to make good on that promise. There were just no resources available to make good on a promise like that.
Two weeks later, during the Prayer requests, another older woman stood up and started with an apology. “I’m sorry it’s taken me two weeks to say this,” she said, “but I had to figure out how I’m going to do this, but I’ll cover February.” Everybody in that congregation knew this woman was living on nothing but Social Security. Two weeks later, someone else says “I’ve got March.” And on and on it went.
I don’t know, my friend’s story just sounded to me like a small transfiguration. In this Carpenter from Nazareth, we catch a fugitive glimpse of the lambent divinity within and behind. You hear a Voice: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And someone does. Someone listens. And Jesus passes by, and he touches you, and you walk down the mountain, or out of the sanctuary, into the Valley of Need below, and you just get busy, all the way to the cross.
Sometimes the Christian Church doesn’t seem the most promising site for Transfiguration. The American Church sometimes seems flaccid and anemic. This week I attended a seminar on congregational leadership. Someone asked me “How was the conference?” and I said “Terrifying.” The American Church is under such punishing stress just now, mostly from the accelerating secularity of American culture.
My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has almost 10,000 congregations nationwide; last year we closed 187, about 2%. Our future is vulnerable. Every Sunday in the United States, among all denominations, 71 churches close their doors for good. Every Sunday. Every year, 3,700 churches stop being churches and become bars and restaurants and museums and residences.
By the way, Kenilworth Union seems to be a happy exception to what I’m talking about, at least right now. I counted 25 kids in our children’s choir. Not every church enjoys that blessing.
Bev Lang sent me an email at the end of this week. She said that one of our board members, who had already made a generous pledge last September, had called to raise her pledge by $1,000. I don’t know what happened in the last six months to make her change her mind, but she decided she wasn’t giving enough, and the fact is that her additional pledge put us within $8,000 of our ambitious goal of $2,000,000. Again, resources like that in the declining American Church are not to be taken for granted. You should send me to these conferences more often; I return appreciating you even more than I already do.
Still, the Church has a lot of work to do. My son is 28 years old. Many of his friends are getting married and settling down and starting families. Most of them will never join a church. When Michael tells his friends what I do for a living, they are speechless. Literally. I have seen this happen. To them, I am a rare and fantastic beast. They have no idea what a minister is or does. Some of them have never seen one in action. When they got married, the service was officiated by a Universal Life minister who got ordained online for $25 the week before singularly for the singular purpose of this wedding.
Our expectations for transfiguration from such a weary institution are modest and diminishing. But sometimes you just have to get out of town to see the possibilities. I’ll tell you this one last story, and then I’ll quit.
Many of you have been to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. It might be the most sacred geography in Christendom, maybe with St. Peter’s and the Vatican, right?
For centuries, it has claimed to be the place of both Jesus’ Crucifixion and Jesus’ Resurrection. It includes Golgotha and the Tomb of Jesus’ Resurrection. It’s impossible to say with certainty that this is the case, but the tradition goes all the way back to the fourth century when Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena established a church at this site. It’s kind of a dark and creepy place, but I love to be there; it is one of my most sacred geographies.
The place is crawling with Christian pilgrims from every nation on earth. There is a rose-colored slab of marble about 8’x4’ in the narthex of the Church. This marble slab marks the spot where they laid Jesus’ body when it was taken down from the cross, and where Joseph of Arimathea anointed Jesus’ body for burial.
Pilgrims will come with a shawl or a scarf and swipe it across the whole slab. Sometimes they’ll be at this for a full minute; it looks as if they’re furiously wiping up a spill with a paper towel; they are hoping that some residual holiness or magic from the time when Jesus’ body touched that spot will collect in their clothing.
When I was there in November, I was hanging out near The Stone of Unction and watching people, because it is one of my sacred geographies, and I saw a man in a wheelchair. He was about my age, around 60. His fists were clenched tightly against his chest and his head was bobbing from side to side. I’m no doctor but it looked to me as if he had cerebral palsy. Some of you know Amal Maari, who is part of Kenilworth Union’s refugee family; she’s seven years old and has cerebral palsy and her limbs are rigid just like the guy I saw in Jerusalem.
Now, I think cerebral palsy is by definition a birth defect, so if my guess is right, this guy was about 60; he’s been living with this challenge for 60 years.
A beautiful young woman was pushing his wheelchair. She had the raven hair and olive skin of an Italian or a Spaniard. She was wearing the white dress and shoes of a nurse and over her nurse’s outfit the blue yolk or apron and headcovering of a nun. She must have belonged to a medical missionary order or something.
And she wheeled the guy’s wheelchair over to the Stone of Unction, the place where they say Jesus’ body lay when they took it down from the cross. Then two tall, lean, strapping men—black as Africa—came to the guy in the wheelchair. One unbent his rigid arms, and the other straightened out his twisted legs, and they stretched him out like a plank, and they carried him over to the Stone of Unction, and they began wiping his cheek back and forth across the Stone of Unction; it was the only exposed skin on his body. Sixty years. Hoping for a miracle. A tear was rolling down the cheek of the nurse/nun.
I don’t know why that was such a powerful parable for me. The relentless of faith. The hope for transfiguration. His expectations are not diminished.
As someone put it, “Transfiguration is the appearance of God’s glory in the midst of our journeys to the cross. Out of the darkness God sends transfiguring presence. It’s OK. I’m with you. You are my beloved child.”
M. Basil Pennington, “Tabor: Icon of Contemplation,” Weavings, July/August, 2001, XVI, #4, 32-33.
Dale Bruner helped me to think about this story in this way in Matthew: A Commentary, vol. 2: The Churchbook, ch. 13-28 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 177-179.
Jim Antal told this story to a group of ministers at a conference in St. Petersburg, FL., January 10, 2017.
Statistics for the PCUSA come from the PCUSA website: http://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/2015_comparative_summaries_.pdf. Statistics for all denominations from Norman Bendroth, “Whither Transitional Ministry?” in Transitional Ministry Today, ed. Norman Bendroth (Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2015), p. 12.
Stephen Paul Bouman, “Marias Full of Grace,” The Christian Century, February 8, 2017, 19.