Transfiguration Sermon by Ms. Hannah Pommersheim Good Morning. Today’s Gospel passage (Mark 9:2-9) seems a fitting end to the Epiphany Season. This year, I’ve had a hard time leaving each liturgical season behind. Perhaps it’s because I work at a church, but I’ve felt these transitions more deeply. In December, I fell in love with Advent, and I wanted it to keep going, to stay expectant. But Christmas came nonetheless, and we entered Epiphany, the season of revelation. And even though I had wanted to remain with those stories proclaiming the coming of Jesus, instead I found myself wrapped up in the stories of Jesus’ ministry: his baptism, his miracles, and his teachings. So today, on the last Sunday of Epiphany, I find myself in the same place again. I want to stay immersed in Jesus’ ministry, in the revelation of his being, and I want to slow down the march towards the cross. But in reading about the transfiguration, I hear a message of hope for the coming season: Lent.
In Mark’s Gospel we hear a story of Jesus and his friends leaving behind the crowds, leaving behind his exhausting ministry to climb a mountain. And on that mountain, Jesus does not perform a miracle. Instead before their eyes, God the Father transfigures Jesus and he appears with the Old Testament prophets Moses and Elijah. A voice from the cloud speaks, again, as at Jesus’ baptism, and says “This is my beloved Son; Listen to him.” The disciples have been dazzled, awed. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be on that mountaintop? Peter does what many of us might have, he requests to stay. He wants to stay in that place of glory and seclusion of nearness to God; he is not ready to move on. But onward, he must and follow Jesus down the mountain, and towards his crucifixion. God transfigures us, God is full of glory and majesty, but in the end we are called to return to our daily lives. The transfiguration through relationship with God and Jesus does not save us from suffering. Indeed Jesus walks down the mountain knowing that he will face suffering.
Yet none of those gathered leave that mountaintop empty handed. Instead their hearts are on fire, burning with the memory of that transfiguration and message of Jesus’ identity to sustain them through the difficult time to come, through the humiliation of Jesus on the cross. Because what is at the heart of the experience of transfiguration, was a revelation of who Jesus really is. If there was any doubt, God has unambiguously answered: Jesus is God's beloved son to whom the world should listen.
What a beautiful passage. As I sat with the scripture this week, I continued to come back to the image of the mountaintop. I’ll admit it: I don’t come by this naturally. I’m from the plains of South Dakota where the closest thing in my county to a “mountain” is called a “mound.” But after leaving home, I did get a chance in North Carolina to see some mountains and even climb one. Have you ever been to the top of a mountain? Mountaintops are special places. They must be symbolic as they are found all over literature. When you reach the summit of a mountain, you have a panoramic view allowing you to see for miles. It’s breathtaking to see the splendor of creation laid around you. But it is also breathtaking for another reason, how utterly exposed you are. A mountaintop is a place of incredible vulnerability. Anyone who has ever watched Discovery Channel programs about Mount Everest knows that climbing mountains can be perilous. You are exposed to the elements; there is no place to hide. There is even a term in mountaineering referring to the “death zone” towards the top of a peak where you can only survive for a few days after a certain altitude. So while we know Jesus wasn’t climbing Everest, I think this still allows us to appreciate the vulnerability of a mountaintop. And in this, we can see how Jesus so obviously opens himself to God’s presence, and ultimately God’s transfiguration. Have you ever experienced that kind of vulnerability with God?
I think many of us have had those moments of spiritual clarity, of revelation, that often is the fruit of vulnerability. And usually we don’t want to leave behind those moments. For me, I experienced a type of transformation in India. The first semester of my junior year in college I had the opportunity to study abroad for in India. The landscape where I experienced God was not that of a mountain top, but another desolate and Biblical location: a desert. Perhaps it was adjusting to another culture, perhaps it was being isolated by language and gender, but in the desert I felt a stripping away of myself. And I turned to prayer. I felt myself becoming more vulnerable with God and opening my heart. While opening my heart helped me to see the glory of God in new ways, it also opened me to the more painful aspects of vulnerability. My time in India felt blessed and was definitely a rejuvenation of faith for me. And I wanted to stay. Of course, why wouldn’t I want to remain in a place where I felt like so much had been revealed about my faith and purpose and where I felt so close to God. For me, India was a sort of mountaintop, I could see the panorama. But then, as with all study abroad programs I had to return home. Back to the United States. Back to the grind of college. Back to my busy life. And I resisted. I felt like Peter, I wanted to remain in that moment of awe, that moment of nearness to God and I didn’t want to return to my daily life. So it was a rough transition.
But what has been continually revealed in the months and now years since my return from India, is that it was just the beginning of a transformation in my life. The seeds planted changed my heart and continue to grow. A major reason I’m exploring ministry this year at St. C’s is because of India. While sometimes it is still difficult to understand why it was so necessary that I leave that place and time, I think in uncertainty it’s always best to follow Jesus’ example. After being on that mountaintop, he went back down to the people. Back to his ministry. Back to begin that path towards crucifixion, towards his purpose.
I believe we all have “spiritual mountaintops” in our lives, however fleeting. Times when we truly open our hearts to God and we feel we are in a “thin space” where the distance between God and ourselves seems to shrink. Yet what I have found about these moments in my life is that they are usually fleeting. One night I feel close to God, have an epiphany, if you will, but in the morning I begin to question again. I return to doubt, fear, insecurity—all those things that keep me from closeness with God, all those barriers we put in the way of God and ourselves.
Yet just because these moments of transfiguration or witness of transfiguration are fleeting, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t welcome them. Because hopefully these moments, these thin spaces will sustain us in the hard times when we are suffering or feel far from God. After all, we are not called to live in glory, but called to live in this world and tend the creation, the people who live here.
The hope from the passage today is not that the disciples witnessed the moment of transfiguration, not that they saw Jesus’ robes turn white. Because in this story there are two types of transfiguration: Jesus' physical transfiguration, but also that taking place in the hearts of the disciples who witnessed this powerful moment. Transfiguration is not just the revelation of God’s glory; it includes that, but also encompasses Jesus and the disciples walk down the mountain, the return to the world, the acceptance of suffering to come.
So today, as we celebrate the last Sunday of Epiphany, let us move into Lent in hope, and may we look for ways to open our hearts to God.