The Rev. Canon Jean Milliken
…Jesus took with him Peter, and James and his brother, John, and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he (Jesus) was transfigured before them and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. (Matt. 17:1-2 NRSV)
Can you imagine the surprise, bewilderment and excitement of the disciples when they saw Jesus being transfigured? “His appearance changed from the inside out, right before their eyes. Sunlight poured from his face. His clothes were filled with light…Then they realized that Moses and Elijah were also there in deep conversation with him.” (Matt 17:2-3, trans. The Message)
Peter’s first response to being confronted with Moses and Elijah was to find a way to memorialize the experience, hang on to it, capture the ecstasy of the moment by constructing three tents.
Who wouldn’t want to stay up on the mountain top, basking in the light of what had happened…and bide a little time to let the experience sink in and make some sense out of it.
Several weeks ago, I went on retreat to have some quiet uninterrupted time to pray and plan an upcoming workshop. During the weekend, I was surprised by God’s love which broke through my focused plans in the form of gracious words of reconciliation spoken by the Roman Catholic priest who was leading the retreat. The experience deepened my awareness of God’s love for me and all of humankind. I didn’t want to leave that place; I felt like I could have stayed forever.
Experiencing the transfiguration of Jesus, and then seeing a vision of Moses, bearer of God’s law, and Elijah, representing the Old Testament prophets, was awesome and amazing to Peter, James and John. As if that wasn’t enough, then they were enveloped by a light-radiant cloud from which they heard God’s voice, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased, listen to him.” With that, they fell on their faces in fear.
We have all had our mountain top experiences. It’s possible to put ourselves in settings where they could happen; however, they are not in our control. They catch us by surprise, just as the disciples were caught by surprise. Maybe we have had the mountain top experience of falling in love, confessing our love to our beloved and had it reciprocated…or perhaps in prayer, meditation or worship we have felt the spirit descend on us, warming our hearts, confirming our beloved ness to God…or perhaps just standing in the sun on a warm spring day with the wind blowing gently around us, the awareness of our oneness with God and all of humankind and creation penetrated us.
But sooner or later like Peter, James and John, Jesus calls us to come down from the mountain top and re-enter our everyday lives. Once we have experienced being beloved of God, and know that Jesus is more than a law giver or prophet, but in fact God’s son, life is forever changed.
Quoting Marianne Williamson, in his 1994 Inaugural speech Nelson Mandela offered a glimpse of the challenges of this new life:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
The truth that all of humanity is “born to make manifest the glory of God” was contained in the vision the disciples were given on the mountain. And yet that vision is so hard to hold on to when we confront the challenges of every day life. Fear gripped the disciples before they ever left the mountain. They were transformed by the experience of being in the presence of the living God. They knew now that Jesus was more than a great teacher or prophet; he was the incarnation of the living God. Everything was different. All of life would now be seen through new eyes. It was awe-inspiring yet also frightening.
Jesus told them, as he tells us, to not be afraid and come down from the mountain top to engage in life. He doesn’t promise that life will be easy but he does promise to be with us.
Sometimes we are pushed down the mountain by internal events that cause us to look in the mirror and confront our human frailty or we are hurled down by external events like the terrorist attack on 9/11. We may not want to see what is before us but Jesus calls us to walk into the suffering of our lives and witness the suffering in the lives of others and be bearers of the light of hope by our attitudes and actions.
Prior to 9/11, we had already begun to experience the deep divisions within the Christian Church. At the bottom of the mountain we have met up with not only Christian friends who see the world very differently from us: but we have been confronted with those from other faiths who challenge our faith and pose a threat to our very lives.
We are bombarded every day with news that provokes fear in our hearts.
The threat of future natural disasters like the Tsunami in South Asia, the increase in gang membership and violence on the streets, companies downsizing threatening our jobs, the tremendous cost of war in dollars and human lives, the exploitation of children…I could go on and on.
Clarence Jordan, minister, biblical scholar, founder of Koinonia Farms, and author of the Cotton Patch translation of the Bible, once said, “Fear is the paralysis of the soul that keeps one from walking in faith.”
Jesus was constantly reminding his followers to walk in faith and not in fear.
So here we are at the bottom of the mountain—male and female, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist—all human beings created in the image of God.
We can choose camps, construct tents around ourselves to shut out those who are different from us, and cut off dialogue because our understanding of the Scripture on issues like abortion, homosexuality or women’s ordination is different.
But the values that support the way Jesus has shown us to live when we are interacting with each other at the bottom of the mountain—persuading, confronting, agreeing and disagreeing, all of us trying to be faithful to God—are values that discourage us from building tents around ourselves to shut others out.
The February 7, 2005 issue of Time magazine lists the 25 most influential evangelicals in America who represent many Christian denominations as well as thousands of unaffiliated churches. According to the article, they share four basic commitments:
- The divinity and saving power of Jesus
- Personal religious conversion
- The Bible’s authority
- Spreading of the Gospel.
What Christian doesn’t believe these things? I don’t think it is what we say we believe that divides us, it is the disposition of the heart that defines the way we live out these beliefs, whether we are liberal or conservative Christians, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or Jew.
Will fear keep me from engaging you as “the other with whom I differ”? Or will a compassionate heart, born of suffering, a love of justice and the humility of knowing that I am not God and therefore my knowledge of the truth is limited, allow me to see every other human being on the face of this earth is God’s beloved?
How do I do that? How can I possibly do what seems impossible to do, to engage the other with compassion even when they may hate me and make me their enemy just because I am “the other” i.e., white or black or brown or because I am a woman or a man, or a liberal or conservative, Christian, Muslim or Jew?
The power is in the prayer which asks God for the courage to say to my enemy, real or perceived, “Tell me about yourself. Help me understand why you believe as you do and why you do what you do,” and by the grace of God, to be able to hear the response without defense.
Jesus didn’t send the disciples down the mountain alone. He went with them. When their faith failed them, when they were afraid, or unable to heal those who came to them, he sometimes rebuked them, sometimes encouraged them, sometimes mentored them, but he never abandoned them.
Following Jesus’ death and resurrection, God sent the Holy Spirit to guide, encourage and mentor us. We are not alone. We do not have to fear abandonment by God. What we do have to fear are those who feed our fears, paralyzing us from walking in faith to actively love our enemies.
So I encourage you to seek out those from any denomination or faith tradition who choose to overcome fear with compassion. Join with those who understand their purpose on this earth to be bridge builders who know their own “clay feet” and whose commitment is to do what they can to help heal those who are broken hearted and do justice for all.
It is, after all, what we do and how we treat each other, after we have experienced transformation on the mountain top, and come down to engage in life that is the true measure of our faith.
The truth is that there is a lot to fear. We are no longer safe from terrorist attack nor are our families and communities always able to keep our children safe. Is there any hope to relieve us from our fear?
David Myers, in his book, The American Paradox (pages 8 and 294), has offered a hopeful vision of a better world which is based on compassion, humility and justice. I have taken the liberty of adapting it somewhat and adding to it. I offer my revised version to you with the hope that it will offer a unified vision which informs our faith journey.
Imagine with me a world
- which rewards initiative but restrains exploitative greed
- that balances individual rights with communal well being
- that respects diversity while embracing unifying ideals
Imagine a society
- whose citizens are compassionate toward those with whom they differ where mutual respect and dialogue inform our laws, our morality and our action
- that protects and heals our degrading physical and social environments
- where children are safe inside and outside of their homes and have extended family and neighbors who care for them
- where parents who are committed to each other jointly parent their children
- where free yet responsible media will entertain us with stories and images exemplifying heroism, civility, compassion and committed love, and at the same time not deny the reality of the brokenness of life
- that takes care of the soul by developing a deeper spiritual awareness of a reality greater than self and of life’s resulting meaning, purpose and hope
- one that is committed to a social contract that includes decent housing, fair wages, health care, education and justice for all of our citizens
- one that develops children’s capacities for empathy, self-discipline and honesty
- one that regards committed love relationships as covenants and understands the expression of sexuality as life-uniting and love-renewing
We will constantly have to go to the mountain top to renew the vision but Jesus didn’t intend for us to build tents and live up there on a permanent basis. Worship, prayer, a transformed mind and a loving community help us remember the vision, but the achieving of the vision happens at the bottom of the mountain when we engage each other with compassion “to do justice, to love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8)