February 14, 2021
Exactly one year ago I spent a wonderful day in the city with my friends Rob and Jennifer, who were visiting from California. We had the best time, truly delightful, and I did not take that time together for granted. I enjoyed every piece of art, every joke or story that sent us into gales of laughter, every delicious bite of our meals.
But I wonder how I might have appreciated it even more if I’d known what was coming a month later. How might I have experienced that day differently if I’d known that it would be the last time I’d do certain things for a year? The last time on a train. The last time in a museum. The last time in a crowded restaurant.
In retrospect that day was a time between what had been a busier-than-usual January and what was about to be a full lockdown in March. We were all about to cross a threshold, but we didn’t yet know it. That’s the thing about thresholds. We don’t always know they’re just ahead of us. We don’t know that we’re about to head into new territory.
Without knowing it, Peter, James, and John were standing on a threshold at the top of that mountain in today’s gospel. I’m quite sure they realized they were having a remarkable experience. It’s not every day that two heavy hitters from your spiritual tradition show up. Moses and Elijah – both of whom have been dead for centuries, by the way – are right there with them, chatting with Jesus. And it’s not every day that Jesus is changed right in front of you, shining with a brightness that defies explanation.
We know that they do not take this moment for granted, partially because Peter wants to build some places for all of them to live up there on the mountain. He wants to hold on to this moment. And we also hear that Peter, James, and John are terrified. That’s also a part of many significant moments, even happy ones. The birth of a child. A wedding. Heading off to college. Starting a new job. They are thrilling. And they’re scary too. There’s so much we don’t know about what comes after that moment on the mountain.
What happened on top of that mountain, what we have come to call the Transfiguration, was a turning point, a threshold. A crossing from what had been and to what was about to be.
That time on top of the mountain was connected to all that had come before. It was part of the story of liberation that God had been telling throughout history. Moses could tell about his part in God’s story of leading the people of Israel out of slavery and into freedom, crossing through the Red Sea into the wilderness.
That time on top of the mountain was part of the story of justice that God had been telling throughout history, especially in the voices of prophets like Elijah. Elijah had called out the people for abandoning God and worshiping false gods. Elijah took on 450 prophets claiming association with the god Baal, and Elijah won that challenge in rather dramatic fashion. (Check out the 18th chapter of 1 Kings for the full story. I recommend it.)
No wonder Peter wants to stay there on the mountain. It’s not every day that you get to feel so connected to the powerful lives and stories of your ancestors.
But there was also the looming future, and that’s the part that Peter, James, and John don’t understand at all. They might have understood a little – if they had been paying attention. Just before they all climbed this mountain, Jesus had gathered his disciples and told them that he would soon undergo great suffering and be rejected by the political and religious leaders and be killed and after three days rise again. Even in that moment Peter pulls Jesus aside to challenge what he is saying. Peter can’t believe it.
Peter can’t believe it, but Jesus is telling the truth. What lies ahead when they come down off of this mountain is a series of events that unfold with a painful momentum, one after another. Betrayal…arrest…torment…crucifixion…death. The path on the other side of the mountain leads to the cross.
We are standing on a threshold. We are shaped by the past, those ancestors who came before us and, for better or worse, laid a foundation for our life’s story. They were not perfect people. Neither Moses nor Elijah was perfect. Not by a long shot. Moses tried every excuse to get out of what God wanted him to do, and he also had a bit of a temper. Elijah liked to go sit in a cave when he felt overwhelmed by what God was asking of him. Your ancestors weren’t perfect either, but they are part of what brought you to this moment.
And the future? We don’t really know. Most of the predictions I would have made on February 14 of last year would have been utterly wrong. In most ways we have no way of predicting what our futures will hold. That’s been one of my biggest lessons of the past year. And I don’t like it very much. I want to be in control of my destiny. But that’s not always how it works.
Writer Jan Richardson admits to being fascinated by thresholds, which she describes as “those spaces where we have left the landscape of the familiar, the habitual, and stand poised at the edge of a terrain whose contours we can hardly see or even imagine.”[i] Jan acknowledges that we don’t always cross these thresholds by our own choosing. One of her own threshold times came following the sudden death of her husband Gary.
A threshold, she notes, can be chaotic and terrifying. But it can also be a place of wild possibility. Jan says: “A threshold invites and calls us to stop. To take a look around. To imagine. To dream. To question. To pray.”
That’s true even in times of heartbreak and grief; these are places where we learn, and re-learn, how to imagine, how to dream, how to question, how to pray.
We don’t know what lies ahead of us right now. We have some hunches. The increasing availability of the vaccine gives us hope. But there’s still so much we cannot predict.
But remember what that voice from the clouds says to the terrified disciples: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” There’s so much in that one statement. If in this threshold moment we listen to Jesus, we hear that betrayal and suffering and crucifixion are not the end of the story. It’s the rising again that comes after that. It’s resurrection. New life. New hope.
Those moments bathed in light on the mountaintop may not last forever, but we are forever bathed in the light of Christ in our baptisms. We are held by the light shining forth from the empty tomb, and we can trust that the future is in God’s loving hands.
I leave you today with one of Jan’s blessings, short and poignant. It is a blessing for all of us standing in a threshold, terrified but hopeful:
at this beginning,
be there delight
or be there grief,
may grace come
to greet you
and keep you company in the way
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“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.” Mark 9:2b-4
At the beginning of the week the light bulb went out in my refrigerator. To be honest, I’d forgotten that my refrigerator had a light bulb, but I became keenly aware of it once it wasn’t working anymore. My refrigerator is positioned so that most of the light in the room is blocked from shining into it. So until I installed a replacement bulb, I either fumbled for a flashlight or risked grabbing some mustard for my toast.
It’s a small thing, that light bulb. But I had taken its light completely for granted. I gave it not one bit of thought. I just expected the light to be there always.
I wonder sometimes if that’s why we have some of the weirdest stories in the Bible, stories like today’s account of what we call the Transfiguration. To make us aware of things we take for granted about Jesus.
I am usually drawn to the stories that depict the humanity of Jesus. Let’s face it. That’s one of many reasons we love the Christmas story. We like to imagine Jesus as a baby, gurgling and waving his fat little baby arms and even crying. Crying is what human babies do. I love the stories of Jesus eating with people because it’s one of my own favorite pastimes – to gather around a table of good food with folks whose company I enjoy. I’m not great with boats, but I love hearing about Jesus hanging out with his disciples out on the water. I even like the stories where Jesus gets angry, flips some tables over in the temple. If Jesus can get that angry, then he really must be one of us.
But too often I take the divinity of Jesus for granted. It’s there in all the stories we’ve heard throughout the Epiphany season, the healings and the exorcisms and the bringing of Simon’s mother-in-law back from the brink of death. Jesus has this incredible power, but I can breeze right past it without being fully in awe of what he’s doing.
So when Mark’s gospel leads us up a mountain with Jesus and Peter and James and John, I’d be perfectly content for it to be a normal day of hiking to get a few minutes of peace and quiet after another round of healing people and feeding people. But of course there’s nothing normal about this particular trip. As soon as they reach the top of that mountain, Jesus is transfigured – in the Greek, he experiences a metamorphosis – a complete transformation. His clothes are dazzling white, brighter than anything that your ordinary washing machine could achieve.
And as if that weren’t strange enough, Jesus is also standing there having a chat with two of the biggest figures in the Hebrew scriptures – Moses and Elijah.
And as if THAT weren’t strange enough, we hear a voice from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
Three times in the Gospel of Mark there is a voice that reminds us that Jesus is the Son of God. We heard the voice from heaven when Jesus was baptized: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
At the end of his life, as Jesus breathes his final breath hanging on the cross, a Roman soldier will say, “‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’*
And in the middle…on this mountain…we hear it too. This is my Son. Listen to him.
It’s one of the most profound aspects of who Jesus is. The Son of God. And yet we so easily take it for granted. Something incredible is happening up on that mountain, full of enough mystery and blinding light to leave us, like the disciples, feeling terrified. But most of the time we aren’t terrified. We aren’t even a tiny bit scared. On a daily basis I’m not sure we give Jesus enough thought to let ourselves be terrified.
I’m not saying that Jesus wants us to be scared of him – or that terror is a necessary condition for faith. I am convinced, though, that we would be surprised at what would happen if we allowed ourselves to be amazed by this Jesus, this Son of God, this shining light.
Jesus stands up there on the mountain as part of God’s story of salvation. That’s why Moses and Elijah are there too – to remind us that the story is much bigger than we remember most of the time. And Jesus is transfigured there, transformed, “metamorphosed,” if you will, so that we do not take for granted the transformation that he can bring about – on that mountaintop and in our own lives.
Remember that Jesus does not come down off the mountain to wild acclamation. He returns to all the stuff of his ordinary life. There’s a boy with an unclean spirit that needs to be cast out. The disciples will squabble about who is the greatest among them. There are other children in need of attention.
Jesus comes down off that mountain to begin his journey to the cross. Jesus comes off the mountain and runs headlong into the darkness of his own death. And because he does that, we are given the gift of transformation too.
When we take the power of Jesus for granted, we miss opportunities to share it. When we assume that his light will shine when it’s convenient for us but otherwise ignore it, we give up on the possibility that he can transform our lives and the lives of others. When we withhold our own light, it usually means we’ve forgotten where our light comes from in the first place.
We’re about to enter into the season of Lent, when we spend forty days remembering that Jesus makes possible new beginnings, new directions, new pathways. Having been claimed by this Son of God, having been bought by his life and death and resurrection, our lives do not stay the same. Our lives can shine with a holy light, not because we somehow have it all together, but because we reflect the light that Jesus carried off that mountain and into the world.
Among my favorite Super Bowl commercials this year were the ones for Tide.[i] We’d see an image that suggested another kind of ad – a celebrity driving a car, a Clydesdale horse, people playing tennis. We’d soon realize, however, that while they had led us to believe it was an ad for beer or arthritis medication or insurance, the commercials were all, in fact, about Tide detergent. All of them pointed to the brightly gleaming clothes in the ad. There was one after another after another of these ads, so that eventually we went into every commercial expecting it to be about Tide.
Now I’m not suggesting that living our faith is like a big advertising campaign, but I wonder what would happen if every aspect of our lives in some way pointed to the Jesus we claim to follow. What if we reflected the light of Christ wherever we are – home, school, work, gym, car, grocery store? What if people came to expect that all of our identities – parent, friend, colleague, citizen – were rooted in our identity as Christians?
I’m willing to bet that something – or someone – would be transformed. Including ourselves. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ