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.

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