by Rev. Scott Summerville
Luke 9, Exodus 34
… Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 9:30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him….
A few hours from now, across the land, from millions of throats will come shouts of delight, gasps of pain, crescendos of exclamation, howls of indignation, accusation, consternation and jubilation. There will be millions of people who on a normal day go quietly about their business, sit at their desks, tend to their children, and cope with life’s challenges with quiet determination, who on this day will leap up from their seats, shake their fists and raise their voices in ecstasy and in outrage. They will speak with passionate words or even revert to the primal language of their pre-verbal infants selves:
“Ahhhhh! Eeeeeehhh!… a-a-a-a-a-a-ahhhh! ooo- ooo – ooo — oh – oh -oh!!”
For many people sports are one area where they let loose the passion pent up in their hearts. I am sure that when I go to the club where I exercise tomorrow, in the men’s locker room – it may be quite different in the women’s locker room – the conversation will be dominated by the analysis of the game: scorn for those who made mistakes that cost the game – replaying and point by point analysis of the spectacular plays and the great blunders – each man speaking as if, had he been the coach on the sidelines, the strategy and the outcome would have been different than what it was. This is the language in which many men are comfortable talking with other men. All the intensity of men’s lives – and there is great intensity in men’s lives, even if we do our best to hide it – all the intensity of many men’s lives finds it outlet in sports.
The is Transfiguration Sunday and you might also say this is “Moses on the Mountain Sunday.” Biblically speaking it is an intense Sunday. Moses goes up the mountain to receive the tablets of the law from God Almighty; he is exposed to the radiance of the Holy – the overwhelming power of the divine which threatens to destroy him even as it delivers to him the law that he is to bring to the people. In the presence of the divine he is so affected that his skin glows; he terrifies the people when he comes back down the mountain; they are afraid to look at him. Such as the power of the holy.
That same power returns in the gospel story: Jesus is on the mountain with his disciples, when a cloud descends upon them and a voice cries out, “This is my chosen, my son son; listen to him.” The great prophets appear before the eyes of the disciples, and they are dazzled, amazed, and terrified. Yes this is an intense day all around. In the gospel story there is this mysterious cloud and voice and vision on the mountain overwhelming the disciples, but what happened as soon as they came down the mountain was just as intense:
Back down the mountain, a crowd gathered – desperate people looking for Jesus to speak, to touch them, to help them with all their troubles. The first voice Jesus and his disciples hear out of the crowd is a terrified father:
“Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”
Every parent who has been frozen in powerless terror at the suffering of their child can understand what was in the heart of this father, this desperate father. Jesus invited the man to bring his son to him; as he did so the child continued to convulse and hurl himself to the ground. Jesus spoke a word – then there was calm – Jesus handed the quieted child back to his father. The gospel writer adds this comment: “ And all were astounded at the greatness of God.”
Moses was in the wilderness forty years with the Hebrews – every now and then he went up the mountain. Jesus was with his disciples a much shorter time – perhaps three years – now and then, though apparently not often, he took them up a mountain.
In the Scriptures the mountain is a very important place, but very little time is actually spent on the mountain. You don’t go there often, but what happens on the mountain shapes and illuminates everything else.
The mountaintop is the place of spiritual and emotional intensity – but you don’t live your life on the mountain; you live your life in the valley, on the plains, but you live remembering and trying to hold onto what you got on the mountain or what came to you from the mountain. The Hebrews got their guidance, their wisdom, their law, from the mountain. The disciples got their message: this is my beloved son listen to him, from the mountain top.
One of the privileges of being a clergy person is to sit with those who are grieving after death. The clergy person at some point invites a conversation about the one who has died. It is a privilege to be present at that sacred and unique time as people reach inside for words for matters that lie beyond the power of words. In grief we are down in the valley; we are in the depths. In the circle of conversation, what almost always happens, and begins to happen very quickly after a death, is that the minds of those who are grieving begin to turn to highlights, high points, the punctuation marks of a person’s life.
At this moment I think of the recent death of the daughter of one of our senior members. What emerged so powerfully in the conversations after her passing was her relationship with her niece and nephew. She did not herself have children, but she had a deep maternal bond with her niece and nephew – traveling with them, taking them on annual vacations, involving herself in so many dimensions of their lives. The love she had for them and all the experiences she shared with them emerged as her greatest passion in life. They were her mountaintop; from them she received all this energy and love and passion for life. So many high points of their lives were connected to her, and so many of the high points of her life were connected to them. For her niece and nephew this made her loss harder to bear in some ways, but at the same time it gave them deep gratefulness and rich memories.
As we fashion our life stories, there are lots and lots of commas: This happened (comma) and then that happened (comma) and then this happened (comma) and then this day (comma) and the next (comma) this year (comma) and the next. Until there is a period to the sentence, and we are done.
But there are also exclamation marks – they do not come as frequently as the commas – but they make all the difference. The passion of the ball game is intense,but it doesn’t last long. A few hours or a day or two and it is mostly forgotten even in the locker room. But each of us has specific experiences in our lives that are foundational and transformational, and it is important for us to return to them, celebrate them, draw wisdom from them, and not wait until we die and let others recite them for us.
These are the exclamation points in our lives. There are a lot more commas in our lives than there are exclamation points. Sometimes as good old Shakespeare reminded us, life feels like it’s all commas: “Tomorrow(comma) and tomorrow (comma) and tomorrow (comma) breathes in this petty pace from day to day…” This Sunday we call “Transfiguration” is a good time to remember the exclamation marks, the transforming moments of our lives – and celebrate them, and draw wisdom from them.
What have been the transformative moments of your life?
“My life was changed the day…. I met you.” (Exclamation point !) – “Have I told you lately how much you have changed my life?”
“My life was changed the day I acknowledged that I had become powerless over alcohol. (Exclamation point !) I need to be remember that every day.”
“My life was changed when I decided finally to deal with my” –
[fill in the blank:]
“my anger…” (Exclamation point !)
“My life was changed when, after many years, I found a church.(Exclamation point !) Let me tell you about it.”
“My life was transformed by the experience of being a teacher.” !
“It was a turning point in my life when I decided that I had to let go of the money and follow my heart.” !!
These buildings of ours are gathering place for a large number of twelve-step groups 365 days and more than twice on Sunday. In any given week there are about 15 such meetings. In all but one of them people talk through the 12 steps. One of the meetings is silent – the silent AA meeting on Sunday mornings which meets in the Fireside Room. The room is packed wall-to-wall. 60 or 70 people total silence. I swear as I walked by that room I can feel the silence.
My sense of what is happening in that silence is that individuals who must confront and acknowledge and deal with addiction every day of their lives, in order to achieve and sustain sobriety, are going to the mountain: they are remembering the powerful positive forces in their lives, the powerful positive influences available to them, and the powerful words and messages that will contribute to their healing and health. They are returning to the mountain from which their saving wisdom has come, and they are holding that wisdom in their hearts as they prepare for another week of challenge.
What we do here together in worship and in the sacrament is not so different, is it?
We return to the holy mountain to renew our wisdom, our strength and our love.
Grace and peace to you.