Here, above much of Washington, D.C., perhaps we can imagine being present on that other mountain with Jesus.
Imagine Jesus in dazzling white, talking with Moses and the prophet Elijah–men who had, years before, had their own mountaintop experiences–Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and Elijah complaining to God, as we heard in the first lesson.
We can certainly understand Peter’s desire to memorialize the moment by building something. Don’t we seek ways to hang on to special moments in our life? We photograph gatherings of people, collect souvenirs from special places and close our eyes and try to relive the moment someone told us that they loved us.
But mountaintop moments can seduce. Without our even noticing it, we can begin to live in the past. Or we worship a title we received or we try to maintain a reputation based on a moment in time or our connection with some mountain.
Clearly Peter, James and John would have been especially in need of good news. For the story of the transfiguring of Jesus that we just heard occurs at the heart of each of the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) right after a tough description of discipleship and Jesus’ prediction of his own death and the coming of the Kingdom.
How wonderful, then, to see such honor for their leader!
But, as Peter discovered, mountaintop moments can seduce us into imagining glory without a price, or a long-term relationship without a disagreement, or growth without pain, or new life without death. Corporate America, and even certain religious groups, may promise such results, but we know in our hearts that they deceive.
What, then, is the power of the mountaintop? To offer strength for the journey.
In the Gospel according to Mark, the Transfiguration story also sits in the middle of a section that begins and ends with stories of Jesus healing blind men. But the disciples, too, were blind. They failed to understand who Jesus was. And so, through an extravagant display God revealed that Jesus fulfilled both the law and the prophets.
Then, from a cloud, the same voice that spoke when John baptized Jesus spoke again. But this time, God’s voice spoke to the disciples…and speaks to us saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.”
The voice did not say, “Worship him”; and neither did Jesus say, “Worship me.” Instead, Jesus gave two commands over and over again. Above all, he said to love. Love your neighbor. Love your enemy. Love yourself.
Then, nearly twenty times, the four Gospels report Jesus saying, “Follow me.” Follow me in loving people who are poor. Follow me in loving yourself. Follow me in loving people who resent you. Follow me in challenging the oppressive systems that surround you. Follow me in a life devoted to God’s reign.
For Peter, James and John “following” meant accompanying Jesus down the mountain and into Jerusalem where he would be killed and then resurrected.
On this last Sunday of Epiphany, following our liturgical calendar moves us from the manifestations of the Epiphany season toward Ash Wednesday and Lent. But our baptism calls us in all seasons to follow Jesus in his ministry of reconciliation in our still broken world and to proclaim the good news no matter how difficult the circumstance.
A friend of mine likes to tell a story about when he was in South Africa during the horror of apartheid. Nelson Mandela was still in prison, and the white government had just cancelled a political rally. So Desmond Tutu convened a worship service instead inside St. George’s Cathedral. Outside, armed riot police surrounded the church while inside other police were furiously taking notes of everything that was said.
From the pulpit, Archbishop Tutu confidently predicted that the oppressive system of apartheid wouldn’t survive because it was “wrong.”
Looking at the security police taking notes, Tutu said, “You may be powerful, indeed very powerful, but you are not God! You have already lost.”
And then Bishop Tutu left the pulpit, offered that twinkling smile which has so often graced this Cathedral and shouted with glee, “And since you have already lost, we are inviting you to come and join the winning side!”
The congregation rose up in a triumphal procession.
As he has done so many other times, Tutu broke through the pain of the moment with the good news that God wins in the end.
And so on this last Sunday of the Epiphany, we gather in this wonderful mountaintop Cathedral to catch a glimpse of our glorious future. See how the sunlight streams through these colorful stained glass windows, transfiguring the stones around us.
But mountaintops are just the beginning. Our time together now gives strength for the journey of our week. The Transfiguration offers courage for the journey of Lent.
So if we think being here on the mountaintop means that we have arrived, then we are just as mistaken, as was Peter. And if we’ve come today to escape our families, or our boss, or homeless people, or flooding in Mozambique, or our call to serve God, then God will come after us as God went after Elijah.
These magnificent stained glass windows contain pictures of Jesus and his followers in every generation engaged with the world. Often the engagement has a price. So if we’ve come hoping to escape the cross, then we’ve come to the wrong place.
But if we’ve come to hear again the promises that resurrection follows death, and that God loves us more than we could ever imagine, then we’ve come to the right place.
The iconography of this magnificent “booth” and the words of our Eucharistic prayer tell the story of God’s action from the Creation to Christ triumphant. So let us go from here filled with the glory of God. And like our fellow traveler, Desmond Tutu, live as if we know it’s true.