A sermon for the Last Sunday of Epiphany: The Rev’d Linda Mackie Griggs; Luke 9:28-43a
“On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him.”
There are a number of Feast Days in the church calendar that celebrate milestone events in the life of Jesus. Today…is not one of them. While the Transfiguration, as this story relates, is indeed one of the pivotal episodes in Jesus’ life, today is not the Feast of the Transfiguration, which is celebrated on August 6. Today is simply the day on which the Lectionary instructs us to read this lesson—always on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. This is somewhat unusual; to see a story emphasized twice during the year like this. While the teacher in me appreciates the importance of repetition to effective learning, this isn’t just about reading the same story twice so that we can be more familiar with the definitive Mountaintop Moment when Jesus shone brilliant white, manifesting God’s glory, bridging the gap between temporal and eternal, earthly and heavenly, the Old and the New Covenants. This isn’t just about repeating the cautionary tale of Peter’s over-impetuous zeal being firmly tempered by God’s command to pipe down and Listen to Jesus. No; it’s not as simple as repetition for reinforcement.
We see this in the fact that the Lectionary has us reading a few extra verses (as you can see in the bracketed bits in your bulletin.) There is more here than just the Transfiguration event alone. Since this is last Sunday in Epiphany, we get to hear the last of this season’s stories of the many manifestations of Jesus’ divinity. But we also see something else. We see today what happens next: Jesus and his friends come down the mountain. And as we look toward our own journey into Lent—a season of fasting, introspection, prayer, and repentance that begins this week (in three days), it is appropriate that the gospel puts us on a path, not only walking down the scriptural mountain, but also, like Jesus, setting our faces toward Jerusalem.
The Transfiguration has come to epitomize the proverbial “Mountaintop Experience”; that vivid transcendent moment when the aesthetic, intellectual, or relational becomes interwoven with the realm of the spiritual—a moment that is so achingly perfect that you somehow feel that it has happened just for you. It’s a moment of connection to the Divine—a place where the veil between earthly and heavenly is gossamer-thin. If you’ve known a moment like that, you can imagine how Peter felt; he didn’t want it to end. Who would? Who would want such feelings of awe, exhilaration, joy and Connection to end? Who would ever want to walk away from being so special; so singled out as a witness to glory?
And yet, Jesus and the three disciples, the adrenalin gradually dissipating from their bloodstreams, make their way silently down the rocky path. And it is there, at the bottom, where they are greeted by the first-century equivalent of a neglected inbox full to overflowing. The crowd presses in; a man shouts that the disciples couldn’t heal his son. “Jesus!… Jesus!… Jesus!…” “Where have you been, Jesus? …Help my child, Jesus! …We need you, Jesus!” Frustrated, he lashes out: “How much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” It’s like he’s dealing with the worst possible case of post-vacation letdown.
It was necessary to come down the mountain. Because, while Jesus’ identity was affirmed on the mountaintop, he couldn’t do the work from there. Because, while Peter, James and John had the singular opportunity to experience their own witness of and connection to the Divine, they weren’t going to form as disciples while still on the mountain.
The mountaintop is only the beginning of formation, not its apex.
The work takes place down the rocky rutted path, where the crowds are. Where the demons are.
When I first began to respond to my call to Priesthood one of my mentors invited me to the idyllic Kanuga Conference Center in the North Carolina Mountains to spend a week soaking up the wisdom of two well-known theologians whose work I admired. It was a week of beautiful music, worship, fellowship, spiritual conversation, and learning. It was sublime. I felt so loved, so called, so focused. I could have stayed forever at the feet of those people, in the company of new and old friends. I glowed all the way home—feeling certain that my work of discernment was done—I was ready to do God’s work.
The day I came home from Kanuga was also the day of my final meeting with the parish discernment committee—the first step of what is known in the Church as The Process. I took my glowy self off to that meeting, sure that this would be a piece of cake. And it went well. Until near the end, when a member asked me what I perceived my faults to be.
Bear in mind that I was still glowing. I. Was. SO. Beloved. Of. God. I knew the answer to all of Life’s questions. All I needed to do was accept God’s Call to bring everybody else on board. So (you can see this coming, can’t you?) in answer to the question about my faults I said…
…That I had none. Not that mattered. Because God loves me as I am. My goodness, I wish I had a ruler to measure how far six pairs of eyebrows shot skyward.
I swear it is by the grace of God that they passed me on to the next step in spite of that. And it was by the grace of God that I learned, through a long and winding journey, that my mistake had been in thinking that I could stay on the mountain with my ministry as if I could do God’s work by teleconference from the mountaintop. No. I had to get rocks in my shoes, get jostled by competing demands. Skin my knees. Face my demons. The mountaintop is only the beginning of formation, not its apex.
Luke has set today’s Gospel in a context that communicates this same kind of challenge to all of us. If you look more broadly at the chapter in which this appears you see that Jesus tells his disciples twice, once each on either side of our passage, that it will be his fate to suffer and die. And there is more foreshadowing even in the glory on the mountain. Luke alone of all of the three gospel versions of this story tells us what it is that Jesus, Moses and Elijah are talking about: “…his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” So you see this entire story, even in its glory, is woven on a loom of sacrifice and shot through with a thread of suffering.
That’s not to say that mountaintop experiences, for the disciples or for us, are without value—they emphatically are. There is tremendous value in encounters with ‘Thin Places’ wherever we find them. What I learned at that Kanuga conference profoundly influenced my theological outlook. It nourished me for the hard downward journey. But it was in that very journey that the most crucial formation took place. And now I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
And that’s the Good News. The Good News of the downward journey is that, in the words of Richard Rohr, “The path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death and woundedness are our primary teachers.”
That’s the GOOD News? Yes.
The realities of our lives, especially the painful and aggravating and scary parts that just happen and send us reeling, these realities can be our teachers. The demons we face—spiritual, emotional, medical, vocational, relational—are challenges that give us a choice; to be formed, or deformed by them. Mountaintop experiences are the grace-filled nourishment that feeds us for the work of formation; to become “fit for God’s purpose,” as Father Mark said last week.
The Good News of the downward journey is that it is God’s invitation into closer relationship through the deepening of our spiritual lives, something this parish has said that it longs for; and it shows. But it is not a linear downward struggle any more than spiritual deepening is a direct ladder to the heavens. The entire journey is more of a spiral—maybe even a rollercoaster.
It’s this rollercoaster image that has me looking toward this Lenten season with a feeling of excitement, believe it or not. People often think of Lent as a depressing time, but the opportunity to engage with scripture more deeply, to explore new spiritual practices in order to deepen our relationship with God, Creation and one another is admittedly exciting, all the more so because we are embarking on this season as a community. As we deepen our spiritual lives we are being formed, individually and communally, for the work that calls us, whatever it will be.
The mountaintop is only the beginning.