Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Matthew 17:1-9
I want to begin my sermon today with some good news and some bad news. The good news is, this morning I would like to take you all with me on a trip around the world. Doesn’t that sound good? And don’t worry. It is not going to cost you anything, and I promise we will be back in time for the Nicene Creed.
Oh. Wait. About that bad news. I’m afraid we’re going to have to climb a few mountains along the way. I’m sorry, but it can’t be helped. I only promised that we’d be back before the Nicene Creed, not that this would be easy. So strap on your virtual crampons, fasten your imaginary carabiners, and let’s get this journey underway.
It begins, as all spiritual journeys should begin, with the Gospel. In today’s scripture, our journey takes us back to the Holy Land, where along with Peter, James and John, we climb our first mountain. When we get to the summit, we become witness to an amazing, transcendent moment in Jesus’s life. On top of the mountain, he is transformed from his earthly form to the divine, and we hear God’s words: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”
We have heard these words before. If you recall, the cycle of readings for this season of Epiphany in the Lectionary for this year begins with Matthew’s retelling of the story of Jesus’s baptism. As Jesus emerges from the River Jordan, Matthew tells us that a voice from heaven announces, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
The message is clear in both scriptures. God is taking great delight in Jesus’s ability to carry out the divine mission here, on earth, in human form. But in today’s gospel, the geography has changed, and we hear these words spoken not from Jordan’s bank but from the top of a mountain peak. So we need to ask the question: why the change in location?
Across time, across cultures, across religions, mountain peaks have been revered as sacred spaces. Why? Because they are literally and symbolically the place where earth and heaven meet. Because of that, they become places where divine revelation occurs. The Old and New Testaments are full of references to miraculous events on mountain tops: Noah’s Ark lands on Mount Ararat and God’s covenant with humankind is revealed; Moses sees God on Mount Horeb, then receives the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai. Recently, on the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, we heard Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, delivered from a mountain top and filled with the wonderful promise of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus’ own death occurs on the mountain top of Calvary, and he ascends into heaven from, where else? You guessed it–from the top of a mountain.
Wonderful things occur on mountain tops. But we all know that the climb to any summit is difficult. That climb is symbolic of our own earthly existence, our day-to-day struggle to overcome the challenges that life puts in our way. And that is where our journey takes us next.
It is time to climb another mountain.
In March 2005, my life was in freefall. I was going through a painful divorce. I had been unemployed for almost a year. I had no idea where my life was going, and my faith was being tested to its limits.
Then one day, sensing my pain, one of my dearest friends from childhood who happened to be living in Tokyo invited me to get away from it all and stay with him for a week. Two weeks later, before I even knew what was happening, I was at Norita Airport where my friend, Glenn Williams, picked me up, and the journey began.
A few days into the trip, Glenn said, “Let’s go to Kamakura,” and soon, I found myself in a small village nestled between the tall, steep sides of a V-shaped valley. Kamakura is home to numerous Buddhist shrines and a spectacular monastery called Kencho-ji, which was our final destination. For about an hour, we walked among the temples–beautiful, graceful, wooden structures built 300- and 400-hundred years ago–and around the Zen garden until the path began to ascend up the steep valley side.
At that point, we could have ended our trip, but for some reason we continued on the path, which now turned into a series of extremely steep stone stairways.
Up and up we went. Our hearts began pounding and our lungs began gasping for air. After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the top, where one last beautiful temple greeted us. Tired from the effort, and in awe of the building in front of us, we stood there in silence for some time. Then Glenn, without any warning, suddenly turned to me and said, “You know, Bruce, despite everything that’s happened to you, you are still the same, good person that you have been since I first knew you.”
Without either of us knowing it, God had spoken to me through Glenn’s words, and in the weeks and months to come those words gave me more strength and more courage than I could ever imagine. I had climbed my own mountain–literally and symbolically–and at the peak of the trail leading up from the Kamakura valley floor, I had learned that it did not matter what I had done in the past. God was still pleased with this creation. I was still beloved.
And this is one of the messages I hear in today’s Gospel. This is one of the things we learn when we get to the top of our own mountain. After the struggle of climbing, after the struggle of our life, we eventually arrive at the place where earth and heaven meet, where we learn the great news that our life does have meaning, that we are loved by God, that we are blessed, that we, too, are part of the divine scheme.
So now it is time to journey back home. Except we still have just a little further to go, just one more short trip, one that we have taken many, many times. Only today, I want us to take it with fresh steps and with a different perspective.
In a few minutes, some of us will walk from where we are sitting to this altar, where we will receive the Eucharist, that moment when we become one with God and the Church through time and space. But before we get there, we have to climb one more mountain. Because, like any good church architect, whoever built this church knew a thing or two about scripture, and built these steps to symbolize our journey to the mountain top.
Now some of us will walk these stairs, this symbolic mountain, with a spring in our step. Some of us will make the ascent with difficulty. And some, who have made this journey more times than they care to remember, are no longer able to make this climb. But whether or not we make this journey today, whenever we have ascended this peak, we have learned what Jesus learned during his Transfiguration and what a dear old friend reminded me of in a Buddhist monastery in Japan those many years ago–that no matter what we have done, we are God’s children. We are God’s beloved. And with us, God is well pleased.