Sermon by the Rev John Shellito – 10 February 2013

RCL Year C, Last Epiphany


Loving Creator, show us your wisdom, on the mountaintops and in our daily lives. Guide us to accomplish your will here on earth. In the name of your son Jesus. Amen.

I can see James, John, and Peter following Jesus up the mountain—one step at a time, one foot in front of the other—slow, taxing progress upward. What an exhausting effort! James, John, and Peter would be tired when they arrived at the top. Maybe the hike involved some breaks, to look back on the expanse of land rising behind them, as they made their way into the sky. Maybe they were working up a sweat as they plodded their way towards the top.

But, when I think about the disciples’ retreat up the mountain to pray with Jesus, I can’t help but be struck by the timing. Why, just a week after Peter acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, is Jesus taking himself and his disciples away from the crowds of people who need him and his healing power? Wouldn’t Peter’s moment for understanding the magnitude of Jesus’ calling be an occasion for action? For them to move into the needed work of healing a hurting world? For God to make immediate use of Peter’s newfound understanding?

Why is he withdrawing from the needs of the city, taking sanctuary on a rocky crag jutting out of the desert? Why isn’t he devoting all his time to caring for a world that so desperately needs his power?

I wonder if in this story the transfiguration points to the importance of listening and taking the proper time to be with God, even when we’re called to incredibly meaningful and inspired work.

I remember one of my first meetings with Kate in New York. Kate was my supervisor and I was just beginning my work as a Seminarian at St. Michael’s. Among other things, I discussed my love of the outdoors, and my encounters with God there, and how I missed the outdoors as a recent transplant from the woods of New Hampshire to the concrete canyons of New York. Kate talked about her own connection to nature, and her own appreciation for time spent hiking and exploring outdoors. Kate also pointed to the wall behind me. I turned around to find, on the back wall of Kate’s office, a beautiful panorama of Half- dome. I was surprised to realize how, in the midst of the big city, here was a faithful mentor who herself had continued to devote time and energy to her own spiritual nourishment in retreat outside.

Both Kate and this text remind me that that the call to serve with God cannot be a substitute for time well spent with God, knowing from whence we came, and listening for where we are called to go.

So, what does it mean that Jesus called his disciples up to the mountaintop with him to pray that day? Why is it, if God is present everywhere, even in the ugliness and pain of the city, that Jesus chose to take the time, energy, and effort to escape to the mountaintop?

And what exactly, did Jesus plan to do when he took them on such a long journey to pray?

Is this some sort of divine game in which you have to get up to the top of the mountain in order to connect with God? Pay your penance climbing to the top and then maybe the God of Israel will talk to you?

No. God is with us in our deepest, darkest moments of confusion and loss. As a hospital chaplain I see people grieving and questioning every day, and I cannot help but trust that even amid the pain and the suffering, God is there. But, God’s presence with us in times of confusion and darkness is no reason to continue to live in confusion and darkness.

As I think about Jesus’ and the disciples’ experience, I feel that Jesus, in his humanity, is showing us how to engage with the Creator, his own Father, and our Parent, who cares for us as a mother hen cares for her chicks and shelters them under her wings.

Sometimes we can find guidance from God in those “mountaintop experiences” we encounter in our own lives. Some people like to think about these encounters with God in terms of the Celtic idea of a “thin place”—where the connection between this world and the next is particularly close, and where the presence and guidance of God can be felt to be particularly powerful and clear.

And yet, the transfiguration also points to many of the human pitfalls we face as we think about what it is to encounter God and know that we have encountered God. What does it mean to have been transformed, and transfigured in blinding light?

First, and perhaps most obviously, there is the aspect of intention. Mountaintop experiences involve deliberately setting aside time to wait on God, and to listen. God may guide us up there, and God may lead us to pray, but we don’t participate in the blessings if we don’t participate in the journey. Woody Allen said, 90% of life is showing up. We have to show up with God in order to be able to be in relationship. We have to take the time to get a sense of proper perspective.

Secondly, mountaintop experiences draw on where we have been, in order to send us where we’re going. Moses is a crucial leader in the Torah, or first five books of the Bible, and Elijah is a classic prophet in Israelite history. Here we have two giants in the spiritual heritage of the Hebrew Bible, both speaking to Jesus about his calling.

Which brings us to the third aspect of a true mountaintop experience— mountaintop experiences call us forward, even as they draw on the past. Jesus was being called to accomplish something at Jerusalem. The magnificence carried a message, a goal, and a blessing for the time ahead. With God’s help, we are empowered to live into our callings to risk big things with and for God. It is human to encounter God and find the temptation to want to simply stay on the mountaintop– Peter encounters a moment of connection with God, and is ready to make camp. Lets just stay here! Peter could be sure of God’s care and God’s magnificence up there. Sometimes I don’t want to go back to the stress and pettiness of normal life. But God calls us to the mountaintop so that we can be inspired to return empowered, transfigured.

A fourth insight is that sometimes, we can miss out on the magnificence of God because we get bored with the smaller tasks God has given us. Maybe it wasn’t so exciting for Peter and the other disciples to be “just out there praying” in the wilderness. Maybe obedience can get a little tedious at times. But in those times of inattentiveness to what Jesus is doing, we can miss out on the miraculous side of life. We can miss out on the ways in which God is choosing and transforming something or someone who we thought we knew well, including ourselves.

We can trust that God will guide us as God guided the Israelites through the desert—sometimes with a rather unusual pillar of cloud and sometimes with an awesomely powerful pillar of fire. Sometimes with the guidance of friends up the mountain, and sometimes with our face shining bright. But we have to stay awake, stay attentive, and follow where we are being called. And wherever we find ourselves, we can remember that God is with us, from the deepest depth to the highest height. And in those times when we are brought to the mountaintop, tired or distracted as we may be, we can be thankful for the transformational power of that encounter– of our calling to partner with God to accomplish God’s will here on earth.