Trust the Transfiguration

They must have been filthy by the time they reached the top. All four of them--Peter, James, John, even Jesus--covered in dirt from head to toe. Smelly, too. You can't climb a mountain in Galilee without breaking a sweat. Of course, they always looked--and smelled--that way. Neither that dry hill country landscape nor their lifestyle afforded many opportunities for baths or laundry.

But high on the mountain that day, all that changed--at least for Jesus. The dirty, sweaty Jesus the disciples knew suddenly took on a heavenly aura. His dusty clothes became bedazzling, cleaner than any bleach on earth could produce. That day on the mountaintop, you could say Jesus was "transfigured." Mark did when he wrote his Gospel. So did Matthew and Luke.

But I have to confess. I've never been able to figure out the Transfiguration. The earthly Jesus transformed into a heavenly being, his face aglow, his robes dazzling. And then there's Moses, Elijah, and the voice from the cloud. All of it makes the Transfiguration story sound straight out of Steven Spielberg, right up there with Moses talking to a burning bush and Elijah taking off in a flaming chariot.

Part of my challenge is that I'm in the United Church of Christ. We pride ourselves on being thoughtful Christians, rational Christians. This story of Jesus suddenly aglow with glory, conversing with the long-dead prophets is anything but rational. No wonder that in most UCC churches, you'll hear about the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, but not much about the Jesus of the Mount of Transfiguration.

Another challenge for me, perhaps for you, is that this story of Jesus' Transfiguration can make me feel "less than" as a Christian. I have never had the kind of mountaintop experience Peter and the others had with Jesus. I've certainly had other mountaintop experiences. I've hiked Fourteeners in Colorado and rafted down the Grand Canyon. Plus I live in northern New Mexico, where high desert meets the Rocky Mountains and golden sunsets transform the world every day. Perhaps, like you, I can see God's glory through all creation. I believe the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins' affirmation that "the world is charged with the grandeur of God."

But I've never seen Jesus adorned in grandeur, Jesus arrayed in all his glory. I've never seen him change from hot, sweaty, dirty Jesus to cleaner-than-clean, day-glo Jesus. I've been a Christian all my life and ordained for over half of it, but I've never seen Jesus, transfigured or otherwise.

Yet I have seen Ben Stanton. He was a member of a youth group I once led. Always tall for his age, Ben grew eight more inches the year he turned thirteen, and his feet jumped two shoe sizes. Never particularly coordinated, Ben's extra height guaranteed he couldn't walk three steps without tripping over himself or someone else.

Ben also had a tendency to forget things. Once on a service trip into New York City, he managed to lose his glasses, lunch, gloves, and one shoe--all between the train station and the church where we were staying.

But Ben was also part of a youth theater company and often had the lead in the plays. On stage Ben became a different person. No matter how clumsy or forgetful he might be in the rest of his life, he was poised and confident in front of an audience. He always knew where his feet were. He never dropped a line or missed a cue. When Ben Stanton stepped onto a stage, he changed from a gangling teenager to an elegant actor--right before our very eyes.

I've never seen Jesus transfigured, but I have seen Ben Stanton.

I've also seen Muriel Burkhardt, a pillar of the church I served in Arizona. At age eighty-five, she still had a twinkle in her eye and always loved a good joke. She also loved her husband Sam and her piano, not always in that order. A pastoral call on Muriel and Sam usually ended with her playing sacred hymns, followed by slightly ribald ditties, her face glowing with joy and delight.

All that changed when Sam got sick that year and died. Muriel's face, so often lined with laughter, now sagged with sorrow and grief, her eyes red from crying. Then the night before Sam's funeral, she fell and broke her hip. Pain deepened the lines on her face. For weeks she couldn't even sit on the piano bench. But one day, about six months later, with the help of a friend, Muriel made her way back to the piano and sat down to play. The moment her fingers touched the keys, her countenance changed. She played and sang for an hour, her face lit up for the first time in months. That day at the piano, right before our eyes, Muriel was transformed from a grieving widow weighed down with loss to someone who was still full of life and capable of joy.

No, I've never seen Jesus transfigured on the mountain, but I have seen Muriel Burkhardt at her piano and Ben Stanton on stage. Perhaps you seen such transfigurations, too. Perhaps you've had times when, right before your very eyes, someone you know is transformed--and as Marcus Borg writes of Jesus--you see them again for the first time. You see them in all their glory. You see them as God sees them.

And perhaps you've wanted them to stay that way. I know I have. Whether it was Ben Stanton or Muriel Burkhardt or anyone else I've known and loved, I've wanted them to stay in their glory, Ben without his adolescent angst, Muriel without deep grief. I wanted those glorious moments to last forever.

Peter did, too. "Rabbi!" he blurted out. "It's good to be here! Let's build you all some booths!" In a word, let's stay here on the mountain, in this wondrous moment.

Now Peter gets a lot of bad press for his response. Commentator after commentator castigates him for being clueless at best, if not plain selfish. There he goes again--this Peter who never quite gets it, never fully understands Jesus' mission. Just days before, he'd rebuked Jesus for his prediction of suffering and now he wants to stay on the mountaintop. Silly Peter who doesn't know what to say. Selfish Peter who wants to bask in Jesus' glory but not do the hard work of ministry. Doesn't he know you have to come down the mountain and get back to work? Doesn't he care that there is justice to be done, mercy to be offered? Apparently not. "Let's build booths and stay here, Jesus." What kind of response is that?

A very human one--and a very hungry one. Before we rush to judge Peter, take a closer look at him. By the time he and the others got to the top of the mountain that day, not only were they hot and dirty, they were exhausted, partly from the hike but even more from the journey that preceded it. They'd given up everything--fishing nets, fathers, family--to follow Jesus. They'd left all that was home, all that was safe and secure. For a long time before this story, they'd been trying to understand him. Yet the closer they followed, the less it made sense and the scarier it got.

Peter and the others saw Jesus break every rule in the book, eating with unclean people, healing women, crossing lines of race, class, and gender. They witnessed his arguments with the religious leaders; they knew he was getting into more and more trouble. They tried to be faithful, to do what he asked them to do--be it feeding a multitude or casting out demons. But it wasn't easy. When, a few days before their hike, Jesus had talked about his suffering and death, their fear was so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Given all that, who wouldn't want what Peter wanted that day on the mountain? A desire for glory to be sure--an understandable response to the grit and grunge of his life. But also, I think, an equal desire for safety and security, just to be able to hang out with his best friends, without contention and fear. Peter saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, for the first time not arguing with them as he has with all the other religious leaders. For that reason alone, why not stay on the mountain, rather than going back down to confront the Scribes and Pharisees, along with all the people who wanted something from Jesus and from him? 

No, they couldn't stay on the mountain. Yes, there was work to be done, people to be healed, the hungry to be fed. There still are. But for a moment this Sunday, with this story, can we stay with Peter's hunger? Can we first hear Peter's need? "Jesus, let's stay here"--on the mountain, in this moment of glory, this feeling of belonging, this time of peace. Before we judge Peter for his response, can we first hear the hunger that shaped it?

Because I think it's our hunger, too. A hunger for beauty, a longing for peace, a need to be connected. "Let us build booths." Peter's is a very human response, not just to the glory of Jesus' transfiguration but to his journey, a journey to which we are also called, a journey that is often hard and sometimes lonely, where it's easy to get lost, to feel afraid, and find ourselves far from any place that feels like home. Let's build some booths.

I think it's why Muriel found her way back to the piano after her husband died. At the piano, she could remember she was connected to something deeper and more beautiful than her grief and loss. It's why Ben loved the theater. On stage, he was an actor, not just a gangly adolescent. Even more, he was part of a troupe and a tradition. He belonged to something bigger than himself. I think both Ben and Muriel would have understood Peter's desire to build booths and stay on that mountain with Jesus in his glory. And if we're honest, I think we understand it, too.

The Gospel of Mark doesn't record Jesus' response to Peter. Instead Mark writes that a voice came from the cloud saying, "This is my Beloved. Listen to him." Perhaps it was that command that enabled Peter to let go of the building project and head down the mountain to continue the journey with Jesus. Because to listen to him is to follow him, down that mountain, often back to the hard and lonely places of our world.

Yet to follow him is also to trust that as much as the journey can lead us to such hard and lonely places, it can also lead us to places of beauty and peace, where we hear that same voice whisper to us: "Beloved."

The story of the Transfiguration reminds us the world is charged with the grandeur of God, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. "Listen!" the voice says on the mountain. "Pay attention. Trust the glory."

At the end of worship in the church I serve, the congregation generally stays to listen to the piano postlude. Throughout the service, our music includes a mixture of traditional hymns, spirituals, contemporary songs, African praise music, Hispanic folk tunes. We call it eclectic excellence. But our music director Jacquelyn is also a classically trained pianist, so her prelude and postlude usually draw upon the works of composers like Chopin and Bach. Each week as I stand at the back of the church listening to the music, I see a congregation of people who would understand Peter's longing to stay on the mountain. It's their longing too. Some sit on the edge of their chairs watching Jacquelyn as she plays. Others close their eyes letting the music bless them with its beauty. Any given Sunday they are a diverse mix--the 84-year-old anxious about an upcoming surgery, the exhausted parents of three teenagers, a doctor at a low income clinic that's always understaffed, the businessman facing a hard decision at work, the young reporter struggling to pay off her student loans. What unites them is their longing to stay, to rest in that beautiful music just awhile longer before they go back out into the world to do what they are called to do.

"Sometimes the experience of that glorious music can transform the whole week," the clinic doctor told me once. "No matter how hard or discouraging my work has been, hearing something so beautiful gives me what I need to keep at it."

I can't help but believe that Peter's experience was the same. No, he didn't want to leave the mountain top. No, he may not have grasped the full meaning of the Transfiguration or even of Jesus' mission, but he did go with Jesus back down the mountain, and he did follow him to the best of his ability. At least part of what gave him the courage to do so, I believe, was the same thing that empowers the clinic doctor and the rest of the church in their work, a glimpse of glory, a reminder that beauty is part of the journey too, that the world is charged with the glory of God.

And so whether or not you've ever seen Jesus in all his glory, trust the glimpses of that glory you have seen in your life. Trust the transfigurations you've experienced, whether on a mountain top, in church, with another person, or even within yourself.

Most of all, trust what Peter learned in the days that followed the Transfiguration and what the clinic doctor remembers on Monday morning after listening to the Sunday postlude: That the One who meets you in glory on the mountain is the same One who is with you every step of the journey that follows.

Thanks be to God for that One and for that journey. Amen.

Please join me in a time of prayer. Open us, O God, to your grandeur and glory all around us. May that experience of your beauty and grace transform our lives that we might help transform this world. Amen.