For many people, Valentine’s Day or St. Valentine’s Day will be the big focus for today. But on the liturgical calendar, today is Transfiguration Sunday, a day that embraces belovedness in a different way, featuring the amazing vision of Jesus on a mountainside with Peter, James, John and a couple of otherworldly guests.
To be honest, for many years this was a Sunday that I often booked Continuing Education time and let someone else preach the sermon, for a couple of reasons. First, it’s just before Lent and it’s good to take a deep breath before embarking on that journey. But second, as a born and raised flat-lander, this story set in the mountains, which shows up every year in our Revised Common Lectionary, seemed like someone else’s story to tell.
But here in the Bow Valley corridor, a scene set on a mountainside is not merely metaphorical or archetypal. The majority of you watching/reading today have many experiences of ascending to mountain summits and seeing creation from that vantage point. While setting the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on a mountain used to make it more distant, ethereal, or exotic for me, this particular setting makes the story more relatable for those who live surrounded by mountains.
So I invite you to remember a favourite climb, a breathtaking vista, a day when the sun and the breeze and the scents of the forest, and perhaps even the companionship of woodland creatures brought you closer to God. Let one of YOUR cherished mountains, be the setting for this pivotal story in the ministry of Jesus. If some other majestic place in nature works better for you, like a roaring ocean or cliffside by the sea, please make those translations on the fly. And while we’re at it, let the story be story, unfettered by any of the rightful questions we have about its historical accuracy.
Imagine yourself, then, ascending a mountain with Jesus. (You can be 2m apart with masks, if that makes it more contemporary!) Feel the ascent in your limbs, recall the mountain air in your lungs. Perhaps you’re just huffing your way uphill in silence, but more than likely you’re chatting away to keep the wildlife aware of your approach, and it could be that you and Jesus may have carved out some time to finally able to talk about things that you couldn’t quite bring yourself to talk about in more mundane surroundings. What are some of those things that you keep not quite getting around to in your prayer times? What are the uncertainties about life, or about yourself, that need to see the light of day in Christ’s presence? There is something about trees and sun and breeze, rocks and streams and mud and undergrowth that draw out the truth. And there is most definitely something about mountains that brings perspective.
As Mark reminds us, we’re not alone on this ascent – this isn’t just a me & Jesus moment. Jesus has brought with him other people who desire to follow – Peter, and James, and John.
Somewhat surprisingly, the gospel writers Mark and Matthew place this event very, very close to the time when Jesus will be entering Jerusalem for the last time, rather than near the beginning of the journey when this kind of context-setter could have been useful. Up to this point we have known Jesus as the one who calls – who sees our potential and urges us forward with deep, truthful encouragement. We have known him as healer, who reminds us that God’s greatest intention for us is that we be in right relationship with the world, with God, and with our own body, mind and spirit. We have experienced his invitation as one who includes. As we have walked with Jesus, we have heard his storytelling and teaching and at times that we have been mystified by him – by his unwillingness to speak of how, exactly, he is connected to God; by his ability to do things we would normally regard as impossible; by his poetic responses to linear problems. And at times, we have been frightened by Jesus, as he insists on pushing the boundaries of social convention, as he speaks plainly to those in power. And even as his boldness takes us aback, he awakens us a thirst for justice and we are proud to walk with him; his clarity makes even the leaves on the trees shine more brightly.
Up until the point that we started this mountain hike, my relationship with Jesus has been with a feet-on-the-ground, walking-the-shores-of-Galilee Jesus, who interacts with people in transformative ways but in a very human way. His words are remarkable, his ability to heal is incomparable, his sense of presence is amazing, but for the most part the things he does are not that far removed from the ways that you and I interact with one another. But here on the mountainside, I come to see Jesus in a new way, so different from his typical words and deeds that I do not entirely know what to do with it.
Here on this sacred mountain, Jesus is transformed, transfigured, seen and understood by his disciples in a new and startling way. This Jesus, I must admit, is one I seldom bring to mind, the radiant, shining, other-worldly, glorified, exalted Jesus. This is not the walk-down-the-road Jesus or the sit-down-to-dinner Jesus or the lend-a-neighbour-a-hand Jesus. This is the up-on- the-cloud-topped-mountain Jesus.
So: what about this Jesus, the holy one specifically named and claimed by God, the one who engages in conversation with two past heroes of the faith, Moses and Elijah, who both had their great mountainside moments? This aspect of Jesus was, to this point at least, unknown to the disciples and, most likely, less cozy for us as well. This glowing, Godly Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, may create distance rather than intimacy, leaving us almost-too-awestruck. In the same way that the view from the top of a mountain can sometimes overwhelm us, we may struggle to be in the presence of the transfigured Jesus.
This event leads us up the mountainside to begin to see the full scope of the mission awaiting Jesus in Jerusalem. It starts to open our eyes to Jesus as fully human AND fully divine. As mainline Christians, we know that we are called to embrace the ethical teachings of Jesus, to allow the force of his love to transform our lives and our society, but here we are knocked off our feet by the glory of a God whose love for the world is so profound and universal, that in Jesus Christ we have much more than just a great philosopher and ethicist. In Jesus Christ, the one who goes mountainside with us, we experience the fullness of God’s own love and power for the entirety of creation. And in the presence of Jesus, we hear a pivotal word ringing in our very souls: the word BELOVED, spoken from God’s heart to our heart.
When God the parent declares the belovedness of Jesus the child, in this place where everyone had an expansive, mountainside view of all the land, it was a proclamation that the disciples needed to hear. They needed to frame their journey with Jesus, even as it approached its heartbreaking days in Jerusalem, as an expression of God’s will. They needed their perception of Jesus to change from human, to human and holy.
But I believe that this declaration of belovedness applied not just to Jesus, but to everyone who was there and to all that they could see. This was a personal application of those beautiful words from the story of Creation, “and it was good” – all of it, every one of them, the clouds and the soil and the waters and all living beings. This was a moment of proclamation but also unification: in the presence of Jesus, the Christ, heaven and earth, holiness and daily life, the glories of nature and the real, lived lives of human beings, come together in beloved community.
Over forty years ago, Matthew Fox, developing his creation-centred Christian spirituality, wrote of the importance of embracing compassion in our lives, and I believe that his words about compassion intersect completely with the centrality of belovedness in today’s gospel reading. “Compassion” he wrote, “is not private, egocentric or narcissistic but public.” “Compassion is not mere human personalism but is cosmic in its scope and divine in its energies.” “Compassion is not anti-intellectual but seeks to know and to understand the interconnections of all things”. And perhaps most importantly, “Compassion is not sentiment but is making justice and doing works of mercy.” To hear the voice of God proclaim that Christ is beloved, and to look around and realize the additional implication that you are beloved, and we are beloved, and this planet and all that dwell therein are beloved, calls us to this compassion of which Matthew Fox speaks: to be compassionate in our approach to one another, in our respect for the land and its traditional keepers, in our self-assessment, even if others have tried to diminish that; and to let humble, loving compassion be the bond that connects us to the Divine.
Peter, James and John were so bedazzled by what happened up the mountain, that they weren’t sure what to do next. They wanted the moment to last, and who wouldn’t? Eventually they knew they had to move, guided to accept the full weight of what Jesus was telling them to do, and to follow his lead. But as we prepare to follow Jesus into the season of Lent, let’s not be too quick to rush off to get busy. Let’s pause with him on the mountainside – that favourite mountainside, or oceanside, or sea view that you imagined earlier. Let’s not rush back to those parts of life we think we can more easily control. Pause for a moment, gaze with Jesus over the beauty of creation. See your life in the context of this huge and wondrous world. Be overwhelmed by the truth that you are beloved, let the word compassion soak into your pores. And give thanks and praise, always, to the indescribable one who gives us light, and new life, and brazen, beautiful love. Amen.
Fox, Matthew. Compassion. Minneapolis: Winston, 1979. Pp. 1-36.
© 2021, Rev. Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.