Grace and peace to you, from God our Creator and from Jesus Christ, who is the transfiguration. Amen.
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a short parable:
A ship was in a serious storm and was in great distress. The passengers were afraid. One of them finally, against orders, went up to the deck and made his way to the pilot. The pilot, an experienced sailor, was at his post at the wheel, but, seeing that the passenger was greatly frightened, he gave him a reassuring smile. Returning below, the passenger said. “I have seen the face of the pilot, and he smiled at me. All is well.”
“I have seen the face of the pilot, and he smiled. All is well.” Isn’t there truth in this simple statement? That when we see, it is easier for us to trust? At least that’s the case for me.
I think of whenever I get on a plane. I always like it when, as I board, the pilot or the co-pilot are standing there. I make a point of making eye contact, and we smile. Somehow it makes it easier for me to trust this woman or man with my life. Well, most of the time. There was that one time when I boarded and there, in a pilot’s uniform, was Nick, who had once-upon-a-time, been in my youth group. “Nick?!? You’re my pilot?” He laughed “Pastor Todd!” and gave me a big hug. “Well, the co-pilot, actually.” “But I used to have to chase you all over the church when you were skipping confirmation…and you’re the one that I busted for doing donuts in the snow in the church parking lot…and you’re my pilot?”
So I guess I should amend Robert Louis Stevenson’s original statement: 99.9999% of the time…you see the face of the pilot…and all is well.
This idea is the foundation of the transfiguration story from our Gospel today
Jesus took with him, Peter, James and John to the top of a mountain and there Jesus was changed, transformed into a white glow that could never be duplicated on earth. Along with this glow came two people out of the past, Elijah and Moses. The disciples did not know what to make of this.
Peter, who could be a bit impulsive, said “let us build three dwellings, monuments to this great occasion. Let us stay here and relish in this moment.”
And then a voice said to them, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” After Elijah, Moses and Jesus had finished talking, Elijah and Moses vanished, and Jesus told the disciples to follow him down the mountain and not to tell anyone of this experience.
What a moment! How amazing would that be! And Peter, James and John could have thought to themselves, “I have seen the glory of God through Jesus, Moses and Elijah and heard the voice of God. And everything Jesus has taught us is true…it is real! We need to go, and share this!”
But did they?
No. Their first impulse was simply to stay put. Their first impulse was to insist that they stay in the moment, and to bask in the glory of God. “We don’t want to go back down there! Jesus, let’s stay here!” I can kind of relate to this impulse.
The most amazing place I’ve ever camped is at amphitheater state park in Ouray, Colorado. I was there with a youth group. It’s a state park that is halfway up a mountain, overlooking the beautiful little town of Ouray, which is literally surrounded on all sides by mountains. The road to the north leads to Grand Junction, and the road to the south is Red Mountain Pass. The campground has an amazing scenic overlook where we did our evening worship. And as the last chord of the last song faded from my guitar, we just sat there and watched the sun dropping behind the mountains directly across from us, on the other side of town. And as the sun set, the lights of Ouray came up. It was breathtaking. We sat there at the overlook and watched and talked all night…until sunrise the next day. One of the young people in our group said “How could anyone see this, and not believe in God?” It was magnificent.
I didn’t want to leave. Our group didn’t want to leave! That mountain top experience was glorious. I wanted to stay put.
Likewise, the mountain top experience for the disciples was glorious. They wanted to stay put; to stay and worship what they had seen, heard and experienced.
And many times we as people of faith want that mountain top experience in our faith life. We want that glorious feeling of being with Christ; we like the highs, we shun the lows. It feels like when we have these mountaintop, transfiguration experiences, our faith is more somehow more alive…more meaningful…more real. And that’s true, to a point. But Jesus reminds us today that a real faith cannot be built only on these moments
A faith built only on these “glory moments” is fragile. It is dependent on getting to the next mountaintop.
Those who live this kind of shallow faith are missing out on a deep and vital part of our relationship with God; that Jesus calls us not only to live in the glory of the transfiguration…but also to follow him into the valley, all the way to the cross.
On Wednesday, we begin the season of Lent…perhaps the most profound and moving season of our church year. What’s interesting about Lent is how it is bookended. Today, this last Sunday before Lent, we focus on the story of the transfiguration…filled with light, with glory…with a miracle… the transformation, the physical transfiguration of Jesus into a beacon of light.
On the back end of Lent, six weeks from now, we will find ourselves at Easter; filled with light, with glory…with a miracle…with the transformation, the physical transfiguration of Jesus into a beacon of love
But for those six weeks between these two high points, Jesus calls us to follow him deep into the valley; the valley of the shadow of death. For Jesus, there will be suffering, pain and crucifixion. It is a steep journey.
But even knowing this, Jesus still went down that mountain and began his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. Jesus knew that it is good to have those mountain top experiences, but the real work is in the valleys, in the depth of the human condition of sin and brokenness.
Jesus on that cross felt and experienced human sin, our sin, in all of its ugliness. He knew the depth of human suffering. He knew and felt it all on that cross; and through the resurrection at Easter he conquered it all for you.
Jesus went up the mountain to be transfigured, but he came down the mountain to be a savior. He calls us join him on the mountain, to be in relationship with him, but then to come down into the messiness of the valley, to minister with him…for him… to those around us with love and compassion.
During Lent, we remember that to follow Jesus is to come down the mountain, to leave the light and to move into the shadow. It is to share in the suffering of others, even as Jesus shares in ours. It is to walk with those in need.
May 19, 1953 was the day when Sir Edmond Hillary, and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, reached the top of Mount Everest.
The first two people ever to literally be, on top of the world.
After Hillary had climbed Mount Everest, be became an overnight celebrity.
- He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth.
- He traveled the globe and met with heads of state.
- His feat was the headline of every newspaper in the world.
- His name became a household word.
- His name appeared on sleeping bags, tents, and boot laces.
- He even became a spokesperson for Sears-Robuck and company.
And He could have lived the rest of his life just basking in the glory of his success.
But he didn’t!
What did he do? He packed up and went back to Nepal
He returned to those people, the Sherpa, whom he had grown to know and appreciate and respect and love. And he used his fame to bring them help.
In a speech some years ago, Hillary recounted how an elderly Sherpa from Khumjung village, the hometown of most of the Sherpas on his Everest ascent, had come to him a few years after that expedition and said, “Our children lack education. They are not prepared for the future. What we need more than anything is a school in Khumjung.”
So Hillary established the Himalayan Trust, and in 1961 a three-room schoolhouse was built in Khumjung with funds raised by Hillary. In its first decade the fund focused on education and health.
Since then the trust has built 27 schools, two hospitals and 12 medical clinics, plus numerous bridges and airfields. It has also reforested valleys and slopes in the many areas of Nepal.
He would spent more than half of every year traveling the world, raising money for the trust and supervising the various projects undertaken with the funds he’s raised. And he continued doing this for more than thirty years, until his death in 2008.
Mountain top experiences are amazing…they change our lives, just ask Sir Edmund Hillary. But Hillary would also be the first to tell you that living, working, helping, loving in the valleys…well, that’s where Christ asks us to be.
Sometimes our own life experiences draw us into the valleys. We experience loss…grief…disappointment…or hopelessness. Many of you feel like you’re in the valley right now. But we are reminded, especially during the season of Lent, that we are not alone in the valley. Jesus didn’t just send the disciples down the mountain, he went with them. And he promises to be with us, alongside us, experiencing our pain even as he experiences his own. And we have each other. We continue to surround and support each other even in the times that are most difficult and painful.
And so when those around us are in pain, Jesus teaches us to step into the muck and mess of the valley to be alongside them as well. We share in what they experience, so that they know that they are not alone.
This is what Jesus-followers do. This is what it is to be a caring community, which as we’ve decided, is the kind of community we believe Jesus wants us to be.
Today is the transfiguration, and we are the disciples who stand on top of the mountain, surrounded by light, and life, and joy. We are awed by the presence of God; so much so that we wish this was what life was like all the time.
But it’s not. We know that life doesn’t work that way. There will continue to be ups and downs, joy and pain, problems and opportunities. In fact, sometimes life can feel like a storm. Life can feel out of control.
But today is the transfiguration, and we have seen the pilot. And the pilot smiles at us. And in our hearts, we know as people of faith, that all will be well. We are descending into the valley and all that goes with it. But we know we won’t be alone. And we know that we will come out of the valley…and again we will experience the light, the love and the joy of Easter. The promise of Jesus, the promise of our pilot, is that all will be well.
See the face of the pilot. And this Lent, step into the valley with confidence. For our pilot is with us, and his name is Jesus.