Sunday, February 19, 2012

All That You Are

A meditation offered in worship...2/19/12...exploring the transfiguration of Jesus in Mark 9.


Mountains do funny things to the human spirit.  Consider, for example, the story of Billy Prior.  Years ago, I spent a summer at camp counseling high-risk boys, on an island, in the lakes region of New Hampshire.  Beautiful place, tough kids, kids like Billy Prior.  These were ten, eleven-year-old boys coming out of brutal family environments and tougher neighborhoods.  I remember once, waking up around 2 in the morning to discover that half my cabin had run away.  Turned out they just waited for me to fall asleep, then snuck out of the cabin, stole a camp-owned boat, and motored off to the mainland.  Where they were caught, around midnight, playing video games in a pizza parlor.  Beautiful place, tough kids.

Well, one summer day, we organized the boys for a hike up one of New Hampshire’s stony mountains.  We did all the things you do.  Sunscreen.  Snacks.  Layers.  And all the while, little Billy Pryor was running his mouth: at the injustice of it all, the idiocy of his counselors, the insanity of climbing mountains.  To be sure, Billy was a big round kid, terribly out of shape; and he resisted just about every physical activity.  But this particular morning, he was hopping mad.  “I’ll never do it!” he groaned.  “It’s a disaster.  It’s stupid.  Why would any one want to do such a thing?  I won’t.  I won’t.  I won’t.”  And it went on like that—on and on and on—while others brushed their teeth, while others ate breakfast, while others loaded backpacks.  “I won’t.  I won’t.  I won’t.”

Somehow we cajoled Billy into a van, drove him and the others to the trailhead, and started up the mountain.  Billy was miserable: “This is a disaster,” he swooned at first.  “This is stupid.  Stupid.  Stupid.  Stupid.”  I drew the unenviable assignment of sticking with Billy, bringing up the lagging rear of our climbing party.  It wasn’t a ton of fun.  “Stupid.  Stupid.  Stupid.”

Well, eventually, the trail got pretty steep; Billy was so out of breath he couldn’t swoon much, he couldn’t grumble any more; he had to keep his head down, and just work his buns off up that mountain.  We stopped for water every once in a while, but, even then, he was panting pretty good and not much interested in complaining.  He just tightened up his canteen and trudged his way up that trail.

So you know how it is with great hikes.  You know how you get to the summit—and sometimes, all of a sudden, there’s just this moment.  This ‘mountain moment’ when the path and the trees and the brush and the agony clear out, and you can see forever.  You know how it is.

Well, we arrived at that summit, and it was spectacular up there.  I mean: not a cloud in the New Hampshire sky, Vermont’s lush green mountains to the west, a little glimpse of the seacoast to the east.  It was just glorious, top-of-the-world spectacular, and even those battled-hardened eleven-year-olds were giggling like school girls.

At one point, I looked around up there and saw Billy Prior coming at me with a whole new spring in his step.  Just beaming from ear to ear.  And I have to confess I imagined he was coming to thank me for insisting on all this, to thank me for pushing him along, to thank me for serving as an inspired roll model and all that.  What a day!

Instead Billy tossed me an apple he’d been bouncing hand to hand, and he said in his biggest boy voice: “I’m sure glad I convinced you to let me come along,” he said.  “This is the greatest day of my life.”  And then he turned to find some of the others.  But he looked back at me and said so the whole group could hear every word: “I knew I could do this, DJ.”  That’s what the he called me, DJ.  “I knew I could do this, DJ.  I knew it.  I knew it.  I knew it.”


See what I mean?  Mountains do funny things to the human spirit.

And I’ve got to tell you.  I kind of imagine Peter as something like a biblical Billy Prior.  You know what I mean?  Kicking and grumbling most of the way up that mountain.  There’s just no way it makes any sense to do this hike up Mount Tabor.  Not today.  Not when the world is crying out for bread and peace and mercy.  I hear Peter saying: “I won’t go.  I won’t.  I won’t.  I won’t.”  There are hungry crowds wandering the countryside; and Jesus has shown this gift for organizing and feeding them.  “I won’t go.”  There are broken lives to heal and there’s corruption to confront, and we’ve got to have this urgency about it all.  “I won’t go.”

Peter remembers that Jesus himself has come along preaching NOW!  NOW!  The kingdom of God is HERE and NOW!  “So let’s got on with it, Jesus.  Let’s get on with it.  Save the mountain for another day.”

But you know how the story goes.  Jesus insists.  Sunscreen.  Snacks.  Layers.  Up the mountain they go: Peter and James and John.  And when they reach the summit, clearing through the Palestinian brush and the Mediterranean clouds, they can see forever.  Across the green plains of the Galilee.  Deep into the wild places of the red desert.  They can see all the way to the Jordan River, where Moses delivered his people to a freedom and the promised land.  They can see all the way to Carmel, where Elijah defeated the gods of violence and greed.  They can see forever, these four; and it’s a lovely thing, a beautiful thing, the whole world transfigured by God’s grace.

And suddenly Peter wants to stay.  James and John have dragged him up that mountain, coerced him and cajoled him all the way.  And now Peter loves it.  Now Peter wants to stay.  Build some tabernacles, some cathedrals. Pitch a tent for the weekend.

I don’t know about the rest of you.  But I get it.  I’m right there with Peter.  When I get to my mountain top, I want to stay.  I want to stay right there.  I want to print that view and keep it with me always.  I want the awe in my soul to linger and last.  Is Peter way off the mark here?  I don’t think so.  We want these mountain top epiphanies to last forever.  To change the way we live and move and go about our daily business.

So the story says.  “Rabbi, it’s so cool to be up here with you.  Let’s stay for a while.  Let’s build some tents: one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”  But then, the story goes on, a cloud overshadows them.  The wind shifts, electricity’s in the air.  And from that cloud, in all the wind, a voice: “This is my Son, Beloved; listen, listen, listen to him!”

I want to do just a little bible study with you here; because something important is going on within the gospel narrative, within the Markan story.  And it speaks to the whole transfiguration bit, the rich meaning of this text.

On two other occasions, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is identified as God’s Son.  You can look them up.  One looks back, the other looks ahead.

The language of the first—going way back to the very first verses of Mark—is strangely similar to this mountain moment in Chapter 9.  Remember what happens when John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River?  In essence, it’s Jesus’ coming out party.  In the Jordan.  Remember how the heavens split and a dove falls on his head, and a voice says: “This is my Son, the Beloved, in his life I take deep delight!”  This is my Son, the Beloved!

One occasion looks back.  The other looks ahead.  To the very end.  When Jesus has given everything he has.  When Jesus has loved with every once of blood and every prayer in his heart.  When his friends have fled in fear and Jesus is nailed to that tree.  On a hill.  That dark afternoon, a nameless Roman soldier watches Jesus suffer on the cross.  And he too says: “Truly, truly, this man was—God’s Son!”

If you lay Mark’s gospel out from end to end, the story we read this morning, the story of that odd hike up Mount Tabor and the so-called transfiguration at the summit—we find this story at the very center of the gospel.  Its midpoint.  In a way, it helps us look back to the very beginning.  It helps us remember Jesus’ coming out, Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan.  All that love.  All that promise.  All God’s delight stirring in his eyes and in his dreams.  Life is sacred.  Life is pure sacred gift.  “This is my Son—in him, with him, I am delighted!”

At the same time, up there on Mount Tabor, we look ahead.  We look ahead to the price Jesus will pay for his love, for his inclusive, generous love.  We look ahead to his suffering, his loneliness, his sense of abandonment.  Up there on the cross, he cries out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  As if the one who delights in him has now betrayed him.  As if he dies alone.  And then, and then, the Roman soldier says, looking at Jesus, “Truly this was—God’s Son!”

So what is going on here?  Why set aside a feast day every year for this strange transfiguration?  Think about it for a minute.  All that Jesus is, all that he ever has been, all that he ever will be is holy.  All of his joy, all of his delight, all of that wonder in his coming out.  All of his pain, all of his loneliness, all of his suffering in the last days.  From beginning to end.   From discovery to loss.  From his holy birth to his holy death.  All that Jesus is, all that he ever has been, all that he ever will be is holy.  That’s transfiguration.

Right here, in the middle of the story, when nothing is certain, when everything is at stake, when the world seems stunningly fresh and oddly dangerous...right the middle of your story.  All that you are, all that you ever have been, all that you ever will be is holy.  All of your joy, all of your delight, all of your wonder in coming out.  All of your pain, all of your loneliness, all of your suffering.  From your very beginning.  Looking ahead to your human ending.  All that you ever will be is holy.  It’s a powerful affirmation—when things are hard, when things make no sense, when there’s difficult work to be done.  That’s transfiguration.


I imagine every one of us has some kind of mountain top story—I hope you do.  Could be your favorite is literally a mountain top story.  A trek taking you to some vista that blows your mind and your world wide open.  Some peak in the Sierra.  A volcanic summit in Hawaii.  The Himalayas.

Or maybe, maybe yours is a different kind of epiphany.  Maybe your stony mountain is a metaphor for a different kind of climb, a spiritual quest.  And after a brutal slog through treacherous territory, you arrive in some kind of spiritual clearing.  A different kind of high.  It’s been a tough climb, maybe a bruising climb.  But suddenly you see your life, you appreciate your life, and you howl in gratitude from the top of some psychic peak.  You’ve made it to the mountain top.  And nothing will ever be the same.

I’m thinking of folks among us, in our own congregation, who have struggled through challenging times: folks facing crises in relationship, folks dealing with hard-to-beat illnesses, folks living with addiction and despair, all kinds of folks wandering through dark valleys, the shadow of death. 

You have to know what I’m talking about.  You’ve had this happen at least once.  There’s that brutal slog through treacherous territory; and the sudden realization of grace, the expansive gratitude you find on the mountain called hope.  It’s a steep climb, sometimes a bruising, painful climb.  But there’s that moment in the clearing, that vision of your life whole and well and blessed. 

Remember today that Jesus’ transfiguration is your transfiguration.  There have been difficult moments and there will be others still to come.  On Wednesday evening, we observe Ash Wednesday, one of the truly sober, somber days of the liturgical year.  We trace the sign of the cross in ashes on our foreheads.  We remember that we’ve come from dust, from the earth; and every one of us returns.  Returns to dust.  Returns to the earth.  Every one of us.

But here on this mountain, today, right now: we get to see what Peter sees, what Jesus sees, what faith sees.  All that we are, all that we ever have been, all that we ever will be is holy.  All of our joy, and all of our pain.  All that we are is holy.