Up the Mountain and Back Down

a sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord [Year A]

Matthew 17:1-9

Just outside the venue of Melinda’s and my wedding reception in downtown Pittsburgh was the entrance to the Monongahela Incline, a 153-year-old funicular railway that scales Mount Washington. The first funicular built in the United States, the Monongahela Incline was initially designed to transport coal workers from the neighborhoods on the back side of the mountain into downtown Pittsburgh. It climbs an elevation of 367 feet along a 635 foot track, meaning it rises at a pretty steep 35-degree grade. As you can guess, it no longer transports coal workers to and from the mills, but it does offer rides to over a half a million people a year. Some of them are commuters, but most are tourists who come to enjoy the city in a unique way.

Melinda and I thought it would be fun on the day of our wedding to ride to the top with our wedding party. So at one point when the party was still going on in the reception, we and our families and wedding attendants slipped across the street to ride the incline to the top. The ticket teller must have been surprised to see a woman in her white wedding dress and several guys in tuxedoes coming his way, so he didn’t even charge any of us for the ride. He just opened the door for us and said, “Enjoy the view.” And there, on the top of Mount Washington, we did—just a small group of us. The view over downtown Pittsburgh is breathtaking.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was like our own little transfiguration moment. Our heads were up in the clouds, we had taken a trip up a mountain with our closest friends, and there was Melinda, dressed in dazzling white. We had both been transformed into married people. And we couldn’t stay there forever, on the Mount of Washington. The photographer snapped a few pictures of us before we all got back on the incline and went back down the hillside into the city.

I think about that moment whenever I recall our wedding day. I think about that unique view, and the closeness of the people I love, and the symbolism of starting a marriage journey from a mountaintop assuming that, like for any couple, there would be days for us too in the valley to come.

Jesus’ transfiguration moment comes as his ministry in Galilee is winding down and he is close to Jerusalem. He has just explained to his followers that he will undergo great suffering at the hands of the religious authorities, and be crucified, and on the third day be raised. In other words, his own days in the valley below are just around the corner. So before that happens he grabs a few of his closest friends and takes them to the top of a mountain where his clothes become dazzling white and he is transfigured before them.

Some of us may read this and wonder what is the point of this event. What is Jesus up to here? We wonder those things, but then think about how many times we take special trips to distant places in order to gain clarity about something or to shift our perspective. Synod youth events take high school or middle school students to the side of a mountain outside of Lynchburg for a time of prayer and reflection on faith and life. They ponder questions together away from the hustle and bustle of school and stressful relationships. One of my pastoral colleagues here in Richmond just booked a pilgrimage to the monasteries in Iona, Scotland, with a prayer group in her church. One young adult in our congregation has now completed two trips along the Camino de Santiago in northwestern Spain. The transfiguration of Jesus isn’t all that different. It’s like the disciples’ and Jesus’ own version of a pilgrimage or youth event.

So here, on this mountain, away from the crowd, the disciples are supposed to learn something important about this man they feel drawn to follow and learn from. They take time to ponder his identity more intentionally. Jesus is not only a great teacher who can explain and interpret God’s law for the common person. He is not just a sharp rabbi who can successfully take on the rigidity and self-righteousness of the Pharisees. He is on par with the greatest prophets and leaders the people of God have ever seen! But more than that, Jesus is the Son of God with whom God is well-pleased.

There were a pair of commercials that ran during last week’s Super Bowl that have been getting a lot of attention. These commercials were ads that didn’t really attempt to sell anything, but they showed provocative images intended to draw you in. Eventually each ad ended with the simple words “Jesus: He Gets Us.” One of the ads had images of people arguing and yelling at each other. The point was that when it comes to the struggle to love our enemies, Jesus gets us. Another had images and video clips of immigrants and foreigners. The message was supposed to be that when it comes to the suffering that refugees go through, Jesus gets us. He understands what we, as humans, go through.

The controversial method of advertising and authenticity of the campaign’s origins aside, the overall concept of the message is pretty solid. Jesus does “get us,” so to speak. I think that’s why he’s attracted a following in the gospel stories to begin with. He speaks to ordinary people in a way that assures them he understands. He get us…but I’m not sure we always get him.

And that is what happens on the mountain of transfiguration. We see that despite the bright, flashing lights and the booming voice of obviousness from above, we still don’t often get who Jesus is. We want to mold him to fit our agendas and shape him in such a ways that he is convenient to follow. Peter offers to build three dwellings right there on the mountain, as if they’ve reached the pinnacle of Jesus’ mission. The dwellings are something that observant Jews would have used during their festival that marked Moses’ giving of the law. It was a throwback to the temporary shelters that the Jews used for housing as they awaited Moses’ descent from Sinai. Peter wants to camp out here. Peter wants to extend this holy mountaintop experience, maybe indefinitely, circumventing any bad things that may come in Jerusalem.

It’s clear that Peter doesn’t really get Jesus. He doesn’t get that the point of Jesus’ love is not to remove us from reality, to create rituals of escapism, but to embrace our real existence. He will endure suffering on our account and rise victoriously on the other side of it.

 After the voice comes down from the cloud, all three of the disciples fall on the ground and are overcome with fear. This is precisely the time they should be filled with joy and wonder. Again, it looks like they don’t get Jesus. Jesus is nothing to be afraid of, for he is God’s pledge of undying love. Jesus is not hear to scare any of us. We can trust him, and not just to be a great teacher, but to be a Savior, to be our redeemer. Jesus is the person who reveals to us our true value in God’s eyes.


And at that moment on the mountain, Jesus comes over to the disciples and touches them in order to reassure them and comfort them. He gets us. He understands the power of simple touch and a word of encouragement. So often we find ourselves in a time of terror or confusion and we need someone to break through our feelings with their word and their presence. Jesus will be this for the whole human experience. God the Father has sent him to come alongside all of us so that any frightful and despair-filled situation may be interrupted by grace. God has sent Jesus to reassure us that God is in control and that eventually good and order will have the final word.

Jesus’ transfiguration, then, is kind of like the photo shoot of glory at the top of the mountain. He prints it out on his Polaroid and gives them the image. With it God gives the disciples a vision of what will come down the road, past all the valleys, past all the darkened ways and woodlands that are part of the human journey. It’s a flash-forward moment where, just for a brief moment, they will be able to see Easter’s brightness. They continue down the mountain, then, confident that Jesus travels with them, confident that his light will guide them.

When it comes to trudging through the valleys of this world with faith in a transfigured Jesus and seeing him for who he really is, I would imagine the experiences of our brothers and sisters of color could teach us a lot. Their stories of survival and perseverance in spite of the odds their heritage has faced through slavery, the Jim Crow era, and the Civil Rights struggle are inspiring and deserve to be heard and listened to. In fact, when the voice of God tells the three disciples on the mount of Transfiguration to “Listen to Jesus,” I often wonder how that might mean for me to listen closely to the cries of suffering and struggle in people I encounter now. Do I embrace things like Black History Month as a time of intentional listening? Their experiences are a gift to us—their songs and their stories—for surely we can hear Jesus, in them, crying out like Jesus does on the cross.

Jesus identifies with Moses and Elijah on the mountain, two figures of power and wisdom, but Jesus also repeatedly tells us he is present in the lowly, the hungry, and the impoverished.  Can we hear him in the voices those at the margins, in the everyday, when the bright light fades and we have no choice but to walk into darkness?  Jesus gets us—always and forever, no matter what, and if we are ever to get him, I suspect that is where we start to tune our ears.

Sheryl Lee Ralph sings “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at Super Bowl LVII

And when the Holy Spirit grants us that grace, perhaps we’ll even find the words of the Black National anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” found on our lips. Also a part of the Super Bowl show last Sunday, tt will be sung by all disciples of all colors because we will trust that the Transfigured Jesus urges us all on with a glimpse of God’s glorious light. In the words of James Weldon Johnson over 100 years ago:

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered;
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
out from the gloomy past,
till we now stand at last
where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Quite a Referee

a sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A]

Matthew 5:21-37

So for the Super Bowl LVII we have the Kansas City Chiefs versus the Philadelphia Eagles. Or, as one of my friends put it, barbecue versus cheese-steaks, which, as far as food match-ups go, is a win-win. No matter what is being served for your Super Bowl shindig, or whether you may be watching it alone, everyone who cares about it is hoping for a good game between two good teams. They are two teams that each clinched their conference championship and was at the top of the rankings as they went into the playoffs. They are also two teams led by two quarterbacks of color, the first time such a face-off has happened in a Super Bowl. Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts: two young stars who will steer these two teams today in a great American standoff.

Suffice it to say there is one team today that no one really wants to see or hear much of. In fact, many say that the sign of a great game in any sport, not just football, is when that third team is barely noticeable. That, as you well know, is the team of referees. Necessary for any game to be played and played fairly, referees call penalties, keep their eye on the boundaries and determine ball placement. But at the same time, it’s best if they’re basically unnoticeable. No one wants the whistle to blow too many fouls, and, if so, they want the fouls to be clear and obvious infractions, not ones called by suspected favoritism or ineptitude. “Just let them play ball,” comes the cry from the stands when it feels like the referees are too influential or too involved in the outcome.

In the gospel lesson this morning, Jesus sounds an awful lot like a referee, and I’d bet most of us would rather hear less of him. He keeps stopping the play, reminding us of the rules, practically reading off all the infractions we could ever possibly make, never just letting us play ball. He’s there, whistle in his mouth, pointing and assigning penalties. Pardon me for saying it, but this is not a fun side of Jesus. It reminds me of a curious comment that my 6-year-old son made two weekends ago when both of his older sisters were away at a youth group event. He was out playing on the porch when he suddenly turned to me and said, “You know, dad, there’s a lot of things we can do as a family with no girls.”

Although they bring life, God’s standards for us can seem restrictive, and this morning Jesus seems to take everything to a new level. We can’t help but thinking there’s a lot of things we could do as a people with no Jesus and his interpretation of the law. Murder is not just murder anymore. Now it’s anger too, and insulting someone can get you hauled before a judge. Adultery isn’t just adultery anymore. It’s lusting too—just looking at someone in the wrong way. And swearing isn’t just swearing anymore. No more bringing God’s name into anything we do. Just a simple “yes” and “no” will suffice. All the penalties and infractions we’d just rather not have to deal with—the ones that make us really uncomfortable—Jesus goes ahead and brings right into the room with the Kansas City barbecue and the Philadelphia Cheese steak.

As you may have already figured out, this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the portion where Jesus’ does a little teaching on the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments form both the backbone and the foundation for the whole of Israel’s Torah, or holy laws. Here, in his first public address, Jesus appears like Moses 2.0, giving a fresh interpretation of God’s law from up on mountain. He wants to lead God’s people into righteousness and freedom. And to do so he doesn’t just reiterate the commandments that Moses did, but unpacks them, one by one, to get behind what God’s will really is with each one.

When he talks about the fifth commandment, for example—you shall not commit murder—he shows how even words and anger amount to killing our neighbor. Anyone who has been a victim of cyberbullying or who has had a child who has been cyberbullied knows exactly what Jesus is talking about. God doesn’t just want to stop us from shedding one another’s blood. God wants to point out the ways in which we tear each other into a pulp from the inside. God cares about the things we post, especially about others, on social media. It is shocking how quickly even Christians will defend anything, even hateful, insulting comments or Tweets, simply because of a concept of “freedom of speech.” This morning Jesus reminds us that people who’ve been claimed by his love really don’t have freedom of speech. Jesus has not set us free so we can say whatever we want and in whatever manner we want unless, of course, we like the freedom of being burned by what we say. We have been freed to speak the truth in love, which is really a lot better than just freedom of speech.

From the fifth commandment Jesus moves onto the sixth: you shall not commit adultery, and from there to a brief teaching on divorce. His unpacking here is more subtle, and is very tied to the specific practices of marriage in his time. Jesus is not just criticizing marital unfaithfulness but reminding his followers that God’s intention for human marriage is based in mutual respect, love, and a fundamental understanding that men and women are equal partners, equal beings. God does not create women as property for men to trade and later toss to the side, and neither are women to be viewed as objects of sexual desire. This particular teaching was clearly very liberating for Christ’s first followers as we have loads of evidence that in the early church women were not seen and treated as temptresses or baby-producers, but as sisters, people who worked side by side with men.

In his last segment of this teaching Jesus focuses on the eighth commandment, which is “Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.” This is the commandment that reminds us that our neighbor’s name and our neighbor’s reputation is basically as important in the grand scheme of things as God’s name and reputation. Our neighbor, after all, as a fellow human being bears God’s image.

Marc Chagall

In Jesus’ time it was customary for people to sprinkle in references to God when making oaths or trying to complete a business transaction or just in trying to make a point in regular conversation with their neighbor. This would easily become manipulative, because if I can somehow through my religious words convince you that God is on my side to get you to believe me or do something, the actual truth of the matter quickly becomes less important. I just want to control you. With his teaching, Jesus reminds us that God’s intention with this commandment is to let integrity speak for itself. It would be wonderful if we could get our political parties to hear Jesus on this. State your promises to us in your platforms and leave God’s name out of it.

I remember having a great conversation with Lee Nye one time not too long before he died. Lee was a member of this congregation who worked in insurance and he helped our congregation negotiate insurance coverage for years. He also was instrumental on Council and in our service ministries. Once he told me about two different men he often had to do business with. One had an office where he had taken effort to place religious paintings on the wall and put religious books like the Bible prominently on his desk so that people would see them when they came in. It seemed to be a stage as if to say to people who came in, “Look, I’m a believer in God and therefore you should trust me.” The other fellow Lee knew had a very spartan office. He had no books other than a few accounting books and business magazines left out. He had no overtly religious art on the walls.

Interestingly enough, Lee said he learned after a while that the first man wasn’t always forthcoming about everything, and could be hard to nail down. The second man never let on whether or not he was a churchgoer or a believer in God. But Lee learned he was an honest man, good on his word all of the time, even when it meant a business loss for him.

I think Lee had really seen up close what Jesus was teaching—that we shouldn’t hide behind our faith or God’s name when forming relationships with people. Be wary of groups and political parties that claim God’s name in conveying a promise. Just be ourselves, and be honest, even when it’s hard, and God is glorified.

Jesus’ treatment of these commandments show us his Father’s true intent in them, but they also point out that our sin, our human brokenness, causes us to turn into objects things that God never meant to be objects. In some way, each of these rules drills down to remind us of the gifts God has given us in each other and how easily we resort to taking the easy way out when relationships get tricky, whether it’s through resorting to murder, or marital infidelity, or the manipulative words we use to coerce our fellow human. Referee Jesus comes not to blow the whistle and make us feel penalized, but to remind us of the value of the people around us and the beauty of our relationships with them. He comes to stop the game temporarily, and for as many times as he needs to, to let us try again, to let us rediscover joy in one another.

Like many others, I have been shocked and saddened by the amount of suffering and loss experienced in the earthquake this week in Turkey and Syria. As it stands, it is already the deadliest earthquake the world has seen in a decade. But also like many others, I am moved by news that some are still being rescued. One simple image that went viral this week seemed to capture the desperation of the moment. It is an image a photographer captured of a young girl, about seven years old, trapped beneath a big concrete slab. She’s on her stomach, maybe slightly twisted to one side, and her left arm is lifted up as if holding the concrete slab from falling any further. And under the crook of her little arm is her little brother’s head. Her name is Mariam and his is Ilaaf, an Islamic name that means, of all things, protection. For 36 hours they waited for rescue, Mariam consistently keeping her free arm in an upward position that would protect him. Instinctive care, instinctive sacrifice, instinctive love. Down in the dust and rubble. That’s what we all saw in that photo.

At some point, the law and all its expectations of us and its reminders of our shortcomings begin to feel like a concrete slab that is crushing us and suffocating us slowly. But Jesus isn’t only a referee, calling us out. He is also instinctive love, down in the dust and rubble with us, and he is this most of all. He is love most of all, and it is clear to him that we need some kind of rescue, and he’s willing to let the weight of God’s expectations crush him rather than let us die losers.

He won’t just unpack the commandments and let us be. Remember: he’s leading us into freedom and righteousness. Jesus comes to lift his arms on the cross and protect us, and in so doing, he lets that kind of love loose in the world. It’s a self-giving love that shows up in all kinds of people in all kinds of situations and often when we’d least expect it. In the rubble of earthquakes, the rubble of hurt friendships, the rubble of broken marriages, in the rubble of all the messes of the world.

As it turns out, there’s not a lot we can do, or would do, as a people with no Jesus. There’s not a whole lot we would want to do without God’s instinctive, protective love, a love that comes to make its home here. It’s a love that sees us hurting, that sees us failing over and over and still picks us up, dusts us off, pats our back and says, get back out there, strong one. Give it another go. I love you. Let’s play ball.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.