Here is a slightly edited version of the sermon I preached this morning at Church of the Transfiguration in Arcadia. I preached on the Gospel (below). For all the readings for this last Sunday of Epiphany, click here.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
This is the last Sunday before Lent–Ash Wednesday is only a few days away, so this is kind of Mardi Gras Sunday and appropriately, our Gospel lesson finds Peter apparently wanting to have a party because he suggests putting up some tents (which is another translation of the word, “dwellings”) and having a campout with his buddies on top of the mountain. There’s usually a tendency to criticize this desire of Peter’s when we come across this story,–(and, actually, almost anytime Peter appears in a story, it’s a safe bet that the preacher will criticize him)–because it looks like Peter, as usual, doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get it that Jesus can’t remain in this exalted, dazzling state; he’s blind to God’s plan that Jesus has to come down from the mountain and face crucifixion and death so that our salvation can be effected. But there’s something different in this story from a lot of the other passages where Peter seems to not get it. In this story, Jesus doesn’t rebuke Peter, he doesn’t say, get behind me Satan. It is the voice from heaven that intervenes, saying “this is my Son, the Beloved,” which leaves open the possibility that maybe Jesus doesn’t really disagree with Peter’s emotional outburst, “It’s good to be here–how about we just kick back and hang out for a while?”
The truth is, rather than not getting it, Peter gets it all too well. In fact, it is in the episode immediately prior to this that Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and receives that famous, stern rebuke from Jesus, “get behind me, Satan.” So now, on top of this mountain, what Peter believed by faith to be true has been confirmed in his sight, and he sees that Jesus is not just another rabbi, but is in fact something greater, and that he won’t be around much longer. The shadow in this beautiful miracle that Peter witnesses of seeing the promised Messiah together with the two biggest heroes of his Hebrew faith, is that in that moment he also sees this friend and teacher that he loves and the goodness of their time together slipping away from him and he wants to throw a tent over the whole thing and protect it.
I bet at least some of you, and hopefully all of you have had mountaintop moments like this. Perhaps not as dramatic as Peter’s, but moments and people you want to hold on to and stay with and savor. I’ve been lucky enough to have had several times in my life when I felt like I was on top of the world and everything was going my way and, like Peter, I wish I could’ve thrown a tent over them when I felt them slipping away. The peak of them all had to be the year I spent studying theater in Paris when I was a mere child of 23. You may know the famous line by Earnest Hemingway, that, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man [or in my case, young woman], then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” I can attest that is true. I carry within me the memory of every perfect baguette and crepes from street vendors and every perfect night when the city truly seemed to be made of light, just like its nickname. How I wish I could have put up a tent and stayed in that beautiful city and that beautiful time of my life forever. But God, obviously had other plans for me and so here I am. It would be easy to tell you the typical line about the Transfiguration story, how it shows us we need to let go and move on and that’s why we don’t get to stay on those mountaintops and in those ideal times in our lives. But I’m troubled by that interpretation because it seems like we are so eager to dismiss Peter’s statement, “It is good for us to be here.” Why are we in such a rush to come down off those mountains, those peak experiences of our lives? I think it’s because most of us, unlike Peter, don’t realize that we’re in a good place to dwell with good people until it’s too late, and when we do realize it, we certainly wouldn’t want to blurt it out loud, like Peter does. We tend to get hurt when we try to hold on to the good things in life, and our hearts sting when we think of the people and times now absent from our lives so we tell ourselves that nothing good lasts forever, that we have to move on, and we hurl ourselves as fast as we can down off those mountaintops of happiness, of community, of joy onto the rocks of practicality because we want to be in control of our own pain, not have it thrust upon us.
But if the Transfiguration is not a lesson about our blind insistence on holding on to things, then what exactly are we supposed to draw from this story? How can we get any meaning out of a weird miracle about Jesus looking dazzling and talking to a couple of dead guys? Bear in mind that all the stories in the Gospel, no matter how opaque, are always meant to be good news–that’s what Gospel means, “good news”–which is the other reason I’m suspicious about the “don’t-hold-on-to-things” interpretation: that sounds like chiding, which is really not good news. But I think the good news to be found inside this story is that our destinies, our futures are truly in God’s hands. There is no shame in wanting to hold onto good times and good things in our lives–but God will and does move us forward when the time is right. God brought Jesus down from the mountain to accomplish our salvation for us–we don’t have to save ourselves–Jesus has already done it. And for these next few days before we begin the discipline of Lent, we get to take a break from trying to figure it all out and trying to save ourselves and just enjoy things a bit. Jesus will come down off the mountain and save us. In the meantime, we get to just put up a tent with St. Peter, build a campfire and make some s’mores and hang out. God has given us so many good places and relationships to dwell in, but all too often we hurry down the mountain so that we can get back to the control and ambition of our lives. It is that kind of false practicality–the idea that we can’t enjoy the moment, we gotta get back to work, back to the grind– that kind of thinking destroys our relationships, our dreams, and ultimately our souls.
Which is why we need to hear stories about miracles like this to wake us up from that, and the miracle of the Transfiguration is the moment when this human being Jesus was revealed to us in his true nature as not only human but also divine. We may not get to see with our own eyes Jesus in glory on a mountaintop as Peter was privileged to do, but we do get to have glimpses of the divine. We have glimpses in the Eucharist we share together, and we have glimpses of the divine whenever we experience those mountaintop moments in our own lives. So next time you notice yourself having such a moment, instead of rushing to hurl yourself down, think of Peter taking the risk of saying out loud to those he was with, “It is good for us to be here.” God will bring you down off the mountain when it’s time–don’t worry. For now, if you’re lucky enough to be on a mountaintop, if you’re lucky enough to be in a good place where you have love and fun and meaning in your life–it’s okay to rest inside that. It’s okay to appreciate what we have and what God has given us in this very moment. It is only this moment that we can hold onto. The next moment, and the next one, and the next one after that, are all in God’s hands. It is good for us to be here.