February 11, 2024 ~ Transfiguration Sunday
Rev. Beckie Sweet
In 1986, I had the opportunity to engage in a year-long pastoral exchange. I had spent most of my life in rural upstate New York. I was going to spend a year in the heart of Silicon Valley, San Jose, CA. THAT was quite a culture shock. At the time, approximately one million people lived in the San Jose area, and in my estimation, about 50% of them were on the road at any one time!
BUT, before I arrived in San Jose, my predecessor had started making arrangements for some in the Jr. High Youth Group to go on a backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park. Now that would put me in a more comfortable element, at least for nine days. After a couple of weeks of preparation, including meetings with the youth and parents sharing expectations and what and how to pack, we embarked. A couple from the church joined me as we took 13 12&13 year olds on a physical and spiritual adventure.
The first afternoon and evening, we established a base camp to which we would return seven days later. We had a carb-rich dinner and tried to sleep before we started a couple of days of making a 6500-foot assent up the side of a mountain on challenging trails. That first evening a park ranger came to speak with all of us about safety while we were in the Park. Risk factors included hiking accidents, fire, and of course, encounters with neighborhood grizzly’s. We learned how to hang our backpacks containing our food, personal items, and even our toothpaste, from large limbs overnight, in order to frustrate the hungry bears.
During that adventure, I observed two important things among my traveling companions. The grandson of the senior pastor with whom I was serving was, let’s say, a free spirit! He and his best friend packed for the trip based on their own desires, rather than our instructions. Rather than packing light-weight food, such as trail mix, Ramen noodles, dried fruits and veggies, and packets of hot and cold cereal, they packed large cans of Dinty Moore Beef Stew, king-sized salami sticks, and cans of soda. Their backpacks were so heavy that they hardly made it through the first hour of hiking. And as they walked, weighed down by their load, they were only looking down at where their feet were hitting the trail. They missed seeing the gorgeous vistas that came into view as we rounded each bend. With the loads they carried, they soon grew miserable.
The next night, after making camp and having supper, we prepared for sleep by hoisting our backpacks up in a couple of trees, sat around a campfire for our devotions, and then turned in. I was awakened in a couple of hours when I heard a terrible ruckus nearby. After peeking out of my tent I determined that a Mama Grizzly and her decent-sized cup were trying to get into some of our backpacks. Let me tell you, there is very little that will keep a hungry bear away from king-sized salami sticks! In the morning, we found two shredded backpacks littering the ground. The boys’ food, clothing, and personal items, meant to last the for the next week, were shredded as well. All that they had left were their shared tent and two sleeping bags.
We picked up as best we could, reported the “theft” to the first ranger we encountered, and continued on our way. It took us four more days, but we reached the peak of our journey. The transformation that happened within that group on the way up the mountain was amazing! At the beginning of our journey the youth were quite territorial, selfish, and non-cooperative. By the time we reached the beautiful peak, those who had not lost their provisions were generously sharing with those who had none. And the boys who thought they were much smarter than the adults charged with their care, had become the most compliant 13 year olds you would ever want to meet. At the top of the mountain the love of Christ had bound us together as a community that cared about one another, and provided for each other.
From time immemorial people have told stories of divine encounters on mountain tops. This is true of Moses, Elijah, and many others. As we gather on this Transfiguration Sunday, we’ve heard Mark’s story of Jesus’ trip to the top of Mount Tabor in the company of Peter, James, and John. This journey to the mountain took place just six days after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. While the disciples had begun to sense that Jesus was the messiah, they still had questions. I’m guessing that Peter’s confession of faith was a bit tentative and needed more seasoning.
The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus seems out of place in our modern age. Since we Disciples have typically embraced a reasonable ~ reasoning faith, we tend to look at stories like this with a critical eye. But this story begs us to dive below the “facts” to the deeper spiritual truths of the Christian faith. We need to keep in mind that Mark’s telling of Jesus being transfigured includes witnesses. And the event was for the benefit of those witnesses.
Now, using our imaginations, we can picture Jesus standing on the mountain. The three disciples had given Jesus a bit of space, but they could see him clearly. To their amazement, he was transfigured before their eyes. In this story, something about Jesus’ identity is revealed. It is like the veil is taken off the eyes of these disciples, so they can see the light of God that defines Jesus’ full identity. As they watch with amazement at this dazzling display of light coming from Jesus’ inner being, they notice two figures have joined Jesus on the mountain. Moses, the Lawgiver, and Elijah, the prophet. It is all so overwhelming for the disciples. Who is this Jesus that he becomes light itself and talks with Moses and Elijah?
Some biblical scholars contend that it was not Jesus who changed, but rather the vision of those observing this sacred mountaintop gathering had changed so that they were now seeing in a different light.
To truly understand who Jesus really is, we need to see him with spiritual eyes.
When the disciples saw Jesus with spiritual eyes, they suddenly were opened to a spiritual reality they could not explain. Sometimes holy moments are like that!
Then the story takes another turn. Just as Peter was making an offer to memorialize the holy experience, a voice from heaven rings out. The message is similar to the one Jesus heard at his baptism, but this time the message wasn’t for Jesus. It was for the disciples. “This is my Beloved, my Own, listen to this One!” As another translation states it, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!” Yes, listen to Jesus! Then you can walk in the light that is Christ.
On this transfiguration Sunday, we’ve been invited to see Jesus with unveiled faces so that we might be transformed by an encounter with the glory of God. And as we walk in the light, we can shine “this little light of mine” into the darkness of this world.