February 26, 2017, Last Sunday after the Epiphany YR A The Rev. Anne Abdy
This past week I spent two days on retreat with the clergy assigned to Fresh Start. This is a diocesan program where the newly ordained or those clergy with new parishes attend monthly meetings and a retreat annually. But before I left I did what I suspect many priests have thought about doing over the course of their ministry. I know my father did this on occasion. Not knowing how much time I would have to contemplate the scriptures and construct a sermon, I reviewed a sermon given in 2010. But 2010 was such a different time. On that Transfiguration Sunday, I preached about the “revealing of Jesus to the three disciples.” As much as it was inviting to do a “repeat” this year, I could not. Maybe because my preaching professor made my seminary friends and I memorize this phrase, “What does the Holy Spirit want the people of God to hear from these texts on this occasion?”
While the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is familiar to all of us, we can always learn something new. Maybe it is from a different perspective. Maybe a deeper meaning is hidden and only revealed after much time spent in prayerful contemplation. But the more important reason is this. The Bible is the living breathing text as the Spirit reveals God to us on the printed page and between the words. Thus, my professor’s phrase: “What does the Holy Spirit want the people of God to hear from these texts on this occasion?”
Let’s look specifically at the Exodus and Gospel passages because there is one obvious similarity. In the first accounting we are told the name of the mountain. It is Mount Sinai. In the Gospel, no name is given to the mountain, but the event is confirmed by Peter when we read, “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.” (2 Peter 1:18) The common denominator is the mountain—a very high mountain.
So why a mountain? Mountains are barriers that for some reason humans have an urge to cross or at least conquer. Mountains can only be passed if you over over, go under, go around, or go through them. But mountains also have metaphorical meanings. Mountains stop us in our tracks and we have to reevaluate our next steps. They help reveal things about ourselves. There was a period in my early professional career where the psychiatric hospital that I worked for went camping and mountain climbing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with their patients. Because there was a need to continued training, the recreation staff regularly climbed in the same mountains.
When you are challenged to scramble across sheer rock faces you learn a lot about yourself. You learn what you like and what you don’t like. You very quickly recognize your weaknesses and your strengths. Climbing helps you die to that which is holding you back. You have to let go of the fear to learn to fully rely upon that rope tied around your waist. You are invited to move outside your comfort zone. You learn a lot about trust, trusting the climber ahead of you, your partners below, but mostly, you learn to trust yourself. The therapy that takes place in those moments is powerful and holy. If you choose to go there, and accept the invitation to do the inner, most intimate and sacred work, mountains become holy ground.
If we look closely at both stories and dig a little deeper, both God and Jesus invite others to journey on a mountain with them. Well, Moses is told to ”Come up to me on the mountain and wait there” (Ex. 24:12) and “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John” (Mt. 17:1) I guess there was no real asking, and I guess all four guys could have said, “No Way!” But all chose to follow the Divine.
A few chapters earlier in the Exodus story, Mount Sinai is described as being “covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently” (Ex. 19:18). The Israelites are in awe of God’s power revealed in nature. Think of the burning bush and Moses being told to remove his shoes. This is a holy space, and regardless of smoke or cloud, Moses and the disciples go. They accept the invitation freely given by the Divine.
Living in Cape Town, Capetonians have their own special mountain in their back yard. It is called Table Mountain. Maybe you have seen pictures of it. It is about 1000 feet above sea level with a flat top (thus the name “Table”) and it looms over the city. In the winter when the wind blows, clouds move over the top of the table towards Table Bay below covering the table in a shroud of white. Capetonians affectionately call it – the table cloth – because the clouds settle there for days, much like what we can imagine happening at Mount Sinai or at the Transfiguration.
When you climb mountains, you choose to walk into that mysterious mist, that eerie fog which surrounds you because you know when it lifts, you will see the majesty of the God in nature. Walking in that swirling mist brings you into the presence of God. Another way to look at this notion of seeing the face of God comes from Martin Smith who wrote the book, The Word is Very Near You: A Guide to Praying the Scripture. He takes the expression “No one can see God and live” to mean “No one could see God and remain unchanged.” God changes us. Those who accept the invitation and “enter the cloud” are changed.
My spiritual director asked me this past month, “What is God inviting you to do?” I am still contemplating that. To help you understand where I am with it, a post from Facebook best describes my internal dialogue.
Mind: I’m worried.
Heart: Just relaxed.
Mind: But I am totally lost now.
Heart: Just follow me.
Mind: But you’ve never been there before.
Heart: Trust me, you’ll love it!
Soul: If you two would shut up, I’d show you the map!
I am not sure what God is inviting me to do. I do know that on this Transfiguration Sunday, God is inviting us to join Moses and the disciples. This is a different time and place in history and many people are living in fear. But when we—you and I—cling to the rock, the solid mountain, the Source (capital “S”), then you and I have the power to love, power to live, power to endure. We have the power to bring change.
Bishop George Young III is the spouse to Kammy Young who preached at the ordination. Recently he challenged a group of newly ordained deacons with these words: “May God grant you the grace never to sell yourself short; grace to risk something big for something good; grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.”
Lent is the Church’s gift given to us. Over the next forty days we are invited into the silence of the Holy Mountain. We can and should walk and talk with God. But to have a conversation with God, you have to show up. You have to enter that swirling cloud. Will you say “yes” to God’s invitation and show up?
Over the next forty days, will you listen deeply? I mean really listen to what God is inviting you to do. For when you live in that powerful place call Love (capital “L”) with a road map called the Beatitudes, you become the light to the world. It is the same transforming light which Peter described Jesus on that first transfiguration Sunday. Will you accept God’s invitation to change? To be fully transformed ?
And as the prophet Micah said so well, over the next forty days, will you do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God? (Micah 6:8) In these days of uncertainty, will you—you and I, the Church—accept God’s invitation to bring about change? Real change? Lasting Change? Will you accept God’s invitation?
 Martin Smith, The Word is Very Near You: A Guide to Praying the Scripture (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1989), 131.
 Bishop George Young III, Bishop of the Diocese of East Tennessee on the day of the Ordinations of Deacons, St. John’s Cathedral, Knoxville, TN., February 11, 2017.