A Sermon by Greg Ledbetter preached on February 3, 2007 | Mardi Gras Sunday | Transfiguration Sunday, Year A
Lectionary Texts: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
Mountains are remarkable things. Native peoples have always considered mountains to be sacred places, places where the spirit of the divine brooded, places where the great transcendent spirit of creation could be encountered. Certain mountains were viewed as “God’s footstool” as the Psalmist describes it.
Shell Ridge may be a modest geological feature on the map, but back in the day, I would take our youth up to a high point on the ridge behind the church where we would perch ourselves above the surrounding valleys. And from that vantage point and with the wind gusting up the face of the ridge, the ancient tugging of God’s spirit seemed very real.
Every time I drive up Mount Diablo, I am aware of some primal impulse that is being stirred. As the surrounding landscape falls away and the vegetation grows sparse and the wind mounts, there is something within me that gets tickled and thrilled. I’m not inclined to give a name to that something or that experience—to forcibly capture the experience in words or to name it “God”, but I can certainly attest to the opening within that I feel that makes an experience of God and God’s Spirit all the more likely and all the more real.
I’m not the first in my family to feel this way. While my maternal grandfather was no Edmund Hillary—the recently departed conqueror of Mount Everest, grandpa, too, was drawn to mountains. In the same way that Mt. Diablo is a bit of a modest lump in the world of mountains, so, too is Mount Spokane which is on the horizon of the Northeastern Washington landscape where I grew up. When I was back in Spokane recently for the funeral, I tried in vain to get someone to join me in a drive to the top of the mountain where I had spent so many days of my youth skiing. It is the same mountain that drew my photographer grandfather to ascend the mountain on skis on New Year’s Eve for some thirty consecutive years—from the 1930’s well into the 60’s. And it was when the mountain experienced the wildest of wild wintry weather that he would go out with his camera and capture the fantastic shapes the trees had been sculpted into by the wind and the driving snow and ice.
For Grandpa Leo, the snow sculpted trees seemed almost to possess a life of their own. He would often give names to the trees that seemed implied by their forms. Such was the power of mountains and the extremes that seemed to hint at the powers and energies that drove them.
Our own times in the mountains can easily evoke memories of Biblical encounters on the mountain. Most likely we’ll remember Moses on Mt. Sinai and Elijah on Mt. Horeb. Each of these encounters were fantastic … visually full of the “terrible goodness” of God … clouds and shadows and thunder and lightning and fire and even the shaking of the foundations of the mountain. There was POWER in those mountains and if you wanted to meet God “face to face”, you had to go up to the mountain where God’s presence was enthroned.
These mountain encounters also signified turning points in the lives of these individuals and their communities. For Moses, it was both a validation of his leadership as well as an occasion for receiving the law—the Ten Commandments. For Elijah, it was a time for a direct encounter with God that reaffirmed his role as God’s prophet. By the way, let’s not miss that each of these stories are accompanied by references to forty days and forty nights—the classic Biblical number that refers to a time of spiritual journey and preparation. Forty days and nights the earth was baptized in the time of Noah … Forty years the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness … and forty days and night Jesus dwelt in the wilderness as he prepared for his ministry.
It’s with all of this in mind: mountains and legendary prophets and leaders and times of great challenge and deep revelation—consciously and sub-consciously this was all present as Jesus and his hand-picked trio, Peter, James and John ascend the mountain. They were not simply “climbing a mountain”.
And then the story takes on the patina of a dream … a vision … a “not of this world” kind of experience as, perhaps, you might expect of something you could only describe later as a divine encounter. Matthew, as you may remember, is very concerned with making his readers understand that Jesus not only stands in the long prophetic line, but more importantly even, is the new Moses. There are all kinds of ways that Matthew tells this in his gospel, but none, perhaps, as direct as the transfiguration of Jesus. In Exodus 34, Moses came down from the mountain of meeting with the tablets of the covenant—the Ten Commandments. And he didn’t know it, but his face shone from having talked with God. And just so the slow-witted don’t miss the connection between Moses and Jesus, before the glow of the transfiguration has faded, Moses and Elijah appear and speak with Jesus. I suppose they were divided among themselves as to just who WAS the greatest quarterback of all time … Joe … Terry … Troy … Tom.
Let’s remember that in the time of Matthew, history was not being kind to either Jews or Christians. The way to “easy street” was to pay homage to the emperor, otherwise you might become grisly entertainment for the emperor’s friends. After the fall of the temple some 15 years earlier, Judaism and Christianity drifted rapidly apart and many were caught with one leg on each path. It was a true Robert Frost moment: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and being one traveler long I stood …”.
Which path do I take? Whom do I believe? Whom do I follow? Sounds like a REALLY current, REALLY modern dilemma, doesn’t it?
Judaism was in the process of trying to redefine itself apart from the Temple which was no longer … and Christianity was trying to understand itself as in the tradition of Judaism, yet something altogether new. By reminding his readers throughout his gospel that Jesus was the new Moses, Matthew was saying to all who would listen—but particularly fence-sitting Jewish Christians: “Jesus IS the new thing of which Isaiah had spoken. Jesus is the new fulfillment of the very old prophecy.
By writing in Moses and Elijah joining Jesus on the mountaintop, Matthew has pulled out the biggest of the big guns. This is called: “endorsement by association”. We’re all very familiar with how it works. When Obama shares the stage with Ted Kennedy, you’re supposed to “get” just whose tradition he stands in … and when Hilary shares the stage with Cesar Chavez’ children, you’re supposed to get just whose tradition she stands in. Whenever we do a little “name-dropping”, we kind of hope that the names we drop will reflect favorably on us. But we must be careful, remembering Dan Quayle’s ill-fated mention of Jack Kennedy around someone who actually knew Jack Kennedy.
The gospel of Matthew is written using stories from Jesus’ life and ministry, including the story of the transfiguration. But the gospel is being written for people concerned with making choices for their lives in their time. For Jesus, the high and lifted up view from the glorious mountain top was of Calvary, of a path of suffering that led to death. This was his path of discipleship and Matthew joins Mark in telling us that for all of Jesus’ followers as well, the path up to and back off of the mountain is one that leads through a discipleship that is willing to tread the shadowed valley of death … and one that is willing to follow the crooked path of sacrifice that can place great demands and great suffering on those who are willing to follow.
It seems to me that Matthew is speaking for the church and Christians of every age when he has Peter—newly anointed as the rock on whom Jesus will build his church—when he has Peter try to freeze this moment in time. “It’s a nice day, we’re in such lovely company, what say I just pitch us some tents and we’ll … live here.” We’ve mocked Peter’s absurd suggestion many times over the years.
But who can blame Peter for wanting to preserve the experience? We know how hard it is to hold on to extraordinary moments … singular experiences. Once the story’s told, it can’t help but grow old … And, perhaps more significantly, we know how easy it is to defer the undesirable, to put off to another time, another day, what we know will be painful. Who hasn’t done that with taxes or with matters related to one’s own health. Jesus has hinted to the disciples what will follow the descent of the mountain and they want nothing of it.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer had friends like Peter. As the winds of World War II were rising, Bonhoeffer’s American friends found him a teaching position at the great Union Theological Seminary in New York City—it’s where nearly all the theological luminaries of that time had gathered. Bonhoeffer was viewed as a troublemaker by the Third Reich and so any return to Germany in the late 30’s was sure to be dangerous. To Bonhoeffer’s friends it seemed a slam-dunk of a decision: stay in America far from Hitler’s grasp and ride out the war. “Save yourself,” they pleaded. “Two roads diverged …” Bonhoeffer never did think of himself as particularly courageous, but he did wish to be faithful to the deepest parts of his faith and conscience—no matter the cost. And in the end, back home in Germany before the war ended, the cost was: his life.
As a community of faith, we enjoy some glorious, light-filled times together. Like this second annual celebration of Mardi Gras. Collectively we ascend and re-ascend the mountain together and create rich memories that seem to grow even richer with age. And there is always the temptation to build our lives around these moments, around this rich fellowship. But we do well to hear Matthew’s words of caution to us as daily we confront diverging roads, diverging paths, diverging calls upon our time and energy and resources and loyalties. The mountain is a glorious vision and God knows we need glorious visions. But the path of Jesus leads up over the mountain and back down into the valley … the crooked way … the seamy street … the hard city … the oppressed people … the languishing soul.
Our Forty Days and Forty Nights will soon be upon us. And more than most days of our faithing, we will be aware of divergencies in our path, places of parting, places of choosing, places of committing. In the days ahead … with Ashes on our foreheads … with tokens of our faith hung around our necks … we’re going to be saying that we are “friends of Jesus” … he of the mountain … and he of the cross. It’s both … and … it’s BOTH.
The preparatory time of Lent gets us ready for our own Baptisms—it’s always been that way in the traditions of the church. But when Jesus talks about Baptism, we know that it’s a whole lot more than the dunking he received from Cousin John. It’s a putting of the hand to the plow of the kind of ministry that both animated Jesus and ultimately deprived him of his life.
William Willimon speaks of this kind of baptism. He says: “On the banks of some dark river, as we are thrust backward, onlookers will remark, ‘They could kills somebody like that.’ To which Old John might say, “Good, you’re finally catching on.”
The days of Lent are all about the pathways of Jesus and implication of being a friend of Jesus … finally catching on with us. It’s more than a smudge of ashes … it’s more than a Lenten symbol … it’s more than sprinkling the name of Jesus in our conversation, like seasoning in an otherwise bland salad.
While we’re dropping names … let me drop the name of Alan Boesak. Alan was a significant figure in the tearing down of the wall of apartheid. He is a powerful minister and preacher. He is also a foibled soul as I think he would admit. Following Jesus into the shark-infested waters of apartheid and on into the wrenching and uneven process of truth and reconciliation in South Africa took an enormous toll on Boesak. His enemies had a field day spinning foibles into major failures. He lost a lot of blood and credibility.
Alan taught for a time at our seminary in Berkeley and during that time preached in our church at Micky’s ordination. Alan said something in his sermon that has always stuck with me … WILL always stick with me. They are words that he has had ample opportunities to live out truthfully in his own life. Alan said: “At the end of time, when we arrive at the time of judgment, we will be asked: “Where are your wounds”? And we will say: “We have no wounds.” And we will be asked: “Was nothing worth fighting for?”
Another freedom fighter, Martin Luther King said, even more troublingly: “If a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”
In the days ahead, in and beyond the season called Lent, may we each and may we all find something worth fighting for, to risk dying for and, ultimately, to commit to living for.