Mark 9:2-9 “Our Mountains”
“Every night you look at the stars.” That is what my neighbor observed about me the other day. He lives next door to me and is often out in his yard when I take my dog out at night before going to bed. When he and I were both out shoveling last week, I apologized for my dog regularly barking at him – assuring him that it wasn’t personal, my dog barks at everyone. But as we were chatting, he mentioned that every time he sees me taking the dog out at night, I spend most of my time looking up at the stars. My neighbor, you see, is an artist, therefore he is an observer of humanity. And he is right, though I’m not sure I had noticed the habit before. Every time I go out at night I look to see if the stars are visible, and if they are, I often stare. I like to look for my favorite constellation – the Seven Sisters – and scan the night sky for Mars, which can be recognized by its bright light and red hue. I keep an eye out for the moving light of an airplane, and even though I am in my mid-thirties now, I can’t help but think it may be an alien spaceship, which was something my uncles told me when I was five years old. My neighbor is right, I end my days by looking up to the heavens, and for a moment take in the vastness of creation, and the smallness of humanity.
Its good, I think, to turn our eyes away from the valleys and spend some time in the clouds every once in a while. This tends not to be a habit often celebrated by people other than artists and mystics. To tell someone, “your head is in the clouds” is usually a criticism. We want people to focus on the here and now, whatever is right in front of them: the problem of the moment, the task list to complete. To spend too much time dreaming is often considered a waste of time in a world that equates productivity with value.
And I wonder if that is why the story of the Transfiguration, the scripture we read this morning, can be a hard one to deal with. It is certainly mystical, other-worldly, shrouded in Divine mystery. What’s the lesson, the point, the task that was accomplished, we wonder. As a preacher, I sigh in frustration when I read in this story that Jesus was talking with Moses and Elijah – but the writer of the Gospel doesn’t share what they were talking about. Of all the random details recorded in the Gospels, couldn’t they have given us a clue about this conversation? Christians are left with this story that provokes far more questions that it does answers. There is clearly meaning and significance, but it is so other-worldly, we struggle to understand just what that is.
Over the centuries, the Transfiguration has steadily accumulated meanings — most of them densely theological. In seminary, I was taught that the Transfiguration is important because it does the following: it reveals Christ’s divine nature, confirms he is God’s chosen son, foreshadows his death, secures his place in the stream of Israel’s salvific history, places him above the Law as shown with the presence of Moses and the Prophets – with Elijah, and anticipates his Resurrection. All of that from seven verses – evidence of humanity’s need to not spend too much time in the clouds, but rather in the valleys of human need. Unlike the disciple Peter, who wanted to set up house-keeping the mountaintop, we prefer to head right back down into the valley of humanity. We prefer to spend our time around that which we can grasp and understand, rather than with the holy mysteries that challenge and confound us.
In fact, a couple of years ago, that is exactly what I told you to do. On Transfiguration Sunday of 2019, I spent most of my time talking about the story that comes after the Transfiguration – a story of a young boy in need of healing. Don’t spend too much time on the mountain, I told you, because there is work that needs to be done below. If we spend all of our time staring at the stars, staring at the mystery, staring at the vastness of God – then we may miss the needs of people around us. I might as well have told you to get your head out of the clouds and focus on your to do list.
I regret that now. I regret diminishing the importance of the mountaintop, the mystical, the poetic, the artistry. I regret too quickly turning your attention away from the bright light and voice of God. I regret that we didn’t spend time wondering together about what we experience during our own mountaintop experiences. I failed to notice something when I read of Jesus’ admonishment of Peter, who, as I said, wanted to stay up on the mountain forever. Yes, Jesus made sure to return to the valleys, to the people, to the community in need. But, first, Jesus invited a few of his disciples to go up to the mountain with him. If mystical and awe-inspiring mountaintop experiences, those moments when God’s voice can be clearly heard, if those moments were only for the likes of Jesus, Elijah, and Moses – then the three disciples would not have been invited to witness it. It would have been a time set apart just for Jesus – much like it was for Moses, who in the Exodus story journeyed to the top of the mountain alone to get instructions from God.
But that is not what we hear in the story of the Transfiguration. That moment was meant for humanity as well. Peter, James, and John were welcomed into that moment – those imperfect followers of Jesus. Therefore, we are welcomed into that moment as well. We encouraged to spend some time on the mountains, with our heads in the clouds, and our eyes on the stars – we are invited, for a time anyway, to set aside our to do lists, our questions, and our need for answers – and instead just listen for the voice of God and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the grandness of God and God’s creation. Its true that as followers of Christ we cannot get stuck up there. There is too much need around us, too much work to do down in the valley. But, just because we cannot stay on the mountain, does not mean we are not welcome to rest there for a bit.
So, for a little while at least, lets all spend some time being dazzled and over-whelmed by God. Let’s spend some time with those scriptures that reveal the mystery of God. Read the Psalms and be in awe of their emotion. Read the Prophets and sit with their wisdom, accepting the fact that you will never fully understand it all. Read poetry, stare at art, listen to music. Walk in the woods or try to trace the patterns of the stars in your mind. Imagine the conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Have pity for Peter who just wants to sit there and take it all in. The great theologian, Mr. Rogers said it best: “Our society is much more interested in information than wonder, in noise rather than silence…And I feel that we need a lot more wonder and a lot more silence in our lives.”
We won’t stay too long up on our mountains, we all know there is work to be done in the valleys. But, it’s the moments of awe that fill us up for whatever awaits us in our valleys. God’s creation is vast and glorious – and it is a gift for us. It is a gift that is meant to fill us up, give us strength and resilience. We all need our mountains – so don’t feel guilty for spending time up there.
“Every night you look at the stars,” my artist neighbor said to me. “And it makes me look too,” he said. Rather than admonishing me to take my head out of the clouds, he was celebrating that I spend a few moments floating in the heavens, focused not on the worldly, but rather on the Holy. I stare at the stars at night – what do you do to take advantage of God’s gift for each of us? What mountains do you linger on? Amen.
Holy and loving God – whose nature and ways are far beyond our understanding, we thank you for the gift of your Creation. And though we can never fully grasp it all, we are so grateful for those moments when we can bask in its glory and wonder.
God – we often find ourselves weary, tired out by a load of care, a heap of responsibility and concern. We hunger and thirst, and often fail to stop to eat and drink at the table you have prepared for us. But we are here now – and we ask you – grant us a glimpse of your glory – fill us with your spirit – refresh us and make us new …
Give us all, O Lord, a greater love of your holiness, a greater delight in your mystery, and a greater joy in seeking your presence. We ask it through Christ Jesus, who revealed your will to us and who taught us to pray to you as one family, saying Our Father….