Transfiguration Sunday, 2019
March 3, 2019
Exodus 34:29-35, II Cor. 3.12-4:2, Luke 9:28-36
Does anyone know the highest point in Wisconsin?
It is Timm’s Hill in Price County.
Timm’s Hill is 49 feet short of 2000. If it were 2000 feet tall it could be called a mountain.
But it is not.
Today’s homily could be called “A Tale of Two Mountains”.
One of the mountains is 255 feet shorter than Timm’s Hill!
I love the mountains; I think I inherited this love from my father.
My Swiss dad grew up in Basel, a metropolitan area. He loved mountain climbing.
When he was dying of cancer and his brittle bones breaking, he talked about being carried down the mountain after a climbing accident.
During his last weeks I hung a huge poster of an unidentified Swiss valley in his room. He insisted he had been there.
The setting of today’s readings is Mt. Sinai and Mt. Tabor.
Exodus tells us Moses spent a lot of time alone with God on Mt. Sinai.
The Transfiguration is recording in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Mt. Tabor is not named in any of them. There is only “the mountain”.
By the late 4th century the transfiguration is linked to Mt. Tabor.
Ever since then the two mountains have been paired together in iconography and the history of Christian mysticism.
Sinai and Tabor could not be more different
Sinai is three feet short of 7,500 feet.
A sixth century pilgrim wrote, “It is impossible…to pass a night on the summit, since constant crashes of thunder and other terrifying manifestations of divine power are heard at night, striking terror into [one’s} body and soul.” (Lane, p.113).
In 1838 a biblical geographer wrote that “I have never seen a spot more wild and desolate.” (Lane, p. 124)
Mt. Sinai has a foreboding reputation; known for its thunder, clouds and nasty weather.
But I bet there are no wind chill advisories!
It is a challenge to climb. It has been described as a God-forsaken, treeless wilderness.
Mt. Tabor, on the other hand, is an easy Sunday afternoon hike.
She stands alone, shaped like a half sphere, in the middle of a vast plain.
Tabor has wells, mosses and blossoming trees that scent the air and provide luscious fruits.
It is a place of nourishment, a place to rest and be still.
I imagine sitting under a tree listening to the birds and the bees and, like the disciples, becoming weighed down with sleep….
I read somewhere that there are free taxi rides to the top!
Rabbis of the Talmudic period, 6th c. CE, called Tabor the navel of the world.
Is this biblical or geographic trivia? It is neither.
Mountain as metaphor looms large in the written and spoken work.
There is Dante.
There is Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.
Belden Lane’s Solace of Fierce of Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality has been a trusted companion.
Martin Luther King proclaimed, “He allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land!”
The mountain is an archetype, a symbol, a metaphor:
Sinai is masculine; a place of abandonment and being emptied.
Tabor is feminine energy, Mother and Sister, new life and fresh beginnings.
Sinai is darkness, Tabor is light.
Sinai is the old covenant, Tabor the new.
On Sinai God is inapproachable, on Tabor God is incarnate in Jesus.
Sinai is elusive majesty, Tabor is intimate presence.
Jon Levenson writes that “geography is simply a visible form of theology.” (Lane p.9)
Sinai and Tabor are complementary dimensions of a single truth, the truth being that:
God, the Divine Reality, is in relationship with us and all creation.
This relationship is a mystery; complex and multi-faceted.
On both mountains the glory of God is revealed.
On both mountains there is the cloud and the voice of God.
On both mountains there is transformation.
Both mountains are a metaphor about our relationship with God.
We ascend the mountain and approach God.
The Divine Reality, descends the mountain desiring to meet us.
Somewhere, somehow there is an encounter. In the process we are transformed.
Sometimes our relationship with God is a struggle, ambiguous or challenging and exhausting, a dark night.
Other times we know we are embraced by love; there is a deep inner peace and deep inner wells.
Sometimes it is both simultaneously.
Our spiritual journey is both light and darkness, like the two mountains.
Light and dark must co-exist; one cannot exist without the other.
It is like Wisconsin:
Sometimes I walk Lucy along an enchanted Lake Mendota, the snow sparkling with diamonds.
Other times Lucy and I are leaning into a harsh wind and I wonder if I will ever see the sun again.
Some of you are climbing Mt. Sinai.
The physical challenges you live with are enormous. All you can do is put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes that seems impossible. It is then also a spiritual challenge.
Others of you are in the midst of different challenges.
Dave and I recently finished listening to What the Eyes Don’t See, written by Flint, Michigan pediatrician, Mona Hanna Attisha who understood the impact of lead in the drinking water.
Now we are immersed in Michelle Obama’s Becoming. The first lady to be describes relocating to Washington as a mountain to climb.
Both authors climbed Mt. Sinai.
Fortunately, life has its Mt. Tabor moments.
Both Mt. Tabor and Mt. Sinai are essential to the transformation we are undergoing.
On the mountain Moses is changed. So are Jesus and his disciples.
So are we.
II Corinthians puts it this way:
We are being transformed into the same image
From one degree of glory to another;
For this comes from our God, the Spirit..
We do not lose heart. (II Cor. 3.)
Moses put a veil over his face; the disciples are instructed to remain silent.
What is this about?
At the end of my yearly silent retreats at Snowmass we are exhorted not to try to tell others about it.
Words cheapen the experience and do not do justice to what has taken place. Others, who did not experience it for themselves, would not get it.
Anyway, to be honest, I really don’t know exactly what happened as I sat in silence and walked outside for hours in that sacred place.
I can’t put it into words. I need to let it be, I need to give it time to take shape and do its work.
All I can say is that I was there.
Olivier Clement in The Roots of Christian Mysticism (p. 240) writes, “The more God is known, the more God is unknown”. It is true.
The veil and the command to be silent are increasingly important in this age of e-mails, Twitter and Facebook.
At the beginning of my last retreat we were told to trust the silence. The retreat leaders were available if we needed to talk. But we were advised to stay in the silence first rather than go running to them when we felt stuck or whatever.
It was very wise advice.
Don’t go running to the social media. Hold whatever is going on in your heart. Let the silence be your teacher.
If we ascend the mountain we also must descend:
Moses descended Mt. Sinai to lead the people through the wilderness toward the Promised Land.
Jesus departed Mt. Tabor and began his journey toward Jerusalem and the cross.
Lent begins in three days….
We descend the mountain and re-enter life again with all its joys and challenge. We become God’s presence in the world.
As a community we ascend the mountain together in our liturgy. At the end of liturgy we descend the mountain and are sent forth with these words:
“Let us go in peace to love and serve our God and one another.”
Today, as we go, we will sing these words:
Jesus, send us to the valley where the road through suffering leads.
There we meet your anguished people;
there your world from violence bleeds.
Give us courage, when we falter, not to shrink from pain or loss.
Jesus, grant us, as we follow, to bear with you the cross.