seeing things as they really are – a sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany

sermona sermon, based on Mark 9.2-9, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, Sunday, February 15, 2015

Jesus took Peter, James, and John to the mountaintop.

I wonder. What do Peter, James, and John expect when Jesus says, “Come with me”? Perhaps they want, need time alone in intimate conversation with Jesus. He had said some disturbing things about his suffering and dying, about denying themselves, taking up their cross, following him, losing their lives for his sake. Perhaps not having understood any of it, they have thoughts, feelings too poignant, questions too pointed to voice in the presence of their fellow disciples. Now on the mountaintop, they have a chance to bring it up to have Jesus clear up their confusion.

Suddenly his appearance changes, his clothes dazzle.

What the heaven is this? An illusion? Do Peter, James, and John, physically exhausted from their climb, gasping for breath in the thinner mountaintop air, in a hyperventilated haze behold something that isn’t there?

No. What they see is real. So real that they can’t comprehend how real. So, not knowing what to say, beyond Peter’s impetuous recommendation to initiate an immediate mountaintop building campaign, they fall silent.

Two millennia of Christian contemplation and commentary about Jesus’ transfiguration have not improved on the response of silence. Arguments about what (or whether it) happened fade in the recognition that for the early church this story was so important that it was recorded in all three synoptic gospel accounts – Matthew , Mark, and  Luke.

As Mark tells it, Jesus took witnesses to a mountaintop where he stepped outside of time and space into eternity to reveal unmistakably the truth of his glory and the glory of this, his truth: Jesus, flesh and blood, as he really appears, on that mountain appears as he really is.

However we view the transfiguration – historical event or the disciples’ recount of a vision or a mythological legend that strives to describe the ineffable, a theophany, a divine appearance – this story conveys what the early church believed about the identity of Jesus: prophet of God, verified by Elijah’s presence, even more, fulfiller of God’s Law, testified by Moses’ presence, still more, truth-teller-and-bearer, truly, an embodiment of God.

Now, today, for us, I suggest that this story is a metaphor for our very human experience, how life is meant to be, therefore, what life really is in the face of all that we call “reality.” Human life, at its heart, truly appears and appears truly on mountaintops of transfiguration…

A moment in a relationship when two people – years ago, having made a commitment to each other, having lived through cycles of uncertainty and clarity, self-inquiry and discovery, expectations broken and reconciliations, having lived life – come to deeper love and greater respect. There is a mountaintop moment of transfiguration where they see their relationship, in becoming what it was meant to be, as it really is – a safe, sanctified container for the living of life’s paradox: that only through the other can each become one’s fullest self.

Human life truly appears and appears truly on mountaintops of transfiguration…

A moment in a job when one knows that one’s work is suffused with a sense of calling, a giving of self in which one’s deepest desires and greatest gifts address a need of the world. There is a mountaintop moment of transfiguration where one beholds what was meant to be becoming what is, life and labor joined as bone and marrow, soul and spirit, distinct, yet so related as to be indistinguishable.

This happened for me over nearly forty years of active ministry, from which I retired a bare two weeks ago, on those occasions, whether in concord or conflict, when God’s people and I said to each other, “You have helped me become who and what I was created to be!” At such moments when we offered one another the gifts of honesty and vulnerability, acceptance and affirmation, then I knew my vocation was not about doing a job, even about doing it well, but about living life in authentic, real relationship.

Human life truly appears and appears truly on mountaintops of transfiguration…

A moment in life at the time of death. A month ago, I stood bedside with my mother; ninety-nine years of age and for the past nearly twenty years having journeyed ever deeper into the distant, darkening shadows of Alzheimer’s disease. As she lay dying, I began to recite a prayer I have uttered countless times over the years in similar instances:

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, I commend your servant Lolita. Acknowledge, I humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

There was a mountaintop experience of transfiguration when my mother’s life in this world came to completion, thus inaugurating in fullness her eternal pilgrimage in the wholeness of God’s glory.

Human life truly appears and appears truly on mountaintops of transfiguration.

Peter, in his mountaintop moment had an idea: “Let’s build houses.” I don’t blame him. I’d want to stay, too. Funny thing about mountaintop transfigurations, those moments when we see things as they are meant to be. They don’t last…but perhaps they can and do.

“As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” In the days of Jesus’ ministry, Peter, James, and John said nothing about their mountaintop moment. Nevertheless, immediately after they had come down, a man, pleading that his ailing son be made whole, approached Jesus, who healed the boy.

The transfiguration of the mountaintop, where and when we see life as it is meant to be, is to be repeated, replayed in life lived on the daily plane of our human existence. Wherever, whenever you and I, through word and deed, transform discord into harmony, despair into hope, disappointment into forgiveness, sorrow into joy, there is a transfiguration moment when we play our part in making what is meant to be that which really is.

2 thoughts on “seeing things as they really are – a sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany

  1. I loved this sermon Paul. You combined so much in here that fully explained to the congregation through your life and pivotal events, what it means to see things as they really are. Transfiguration indeed. I have realized recently, that while I’ve never been to the mountaintop, I certainly have experienced transfiguration from a variety of life-changing events. “Transforming through word and deed” …….a variety of events and emotions, all of us work (hopefully working with each other when possible) together through life’s ups and downs! I realize how many moments of transfiguration are yet to come in my life. Thanks for sharing!


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