Every winter I lead a retreat at our diocesan camp, Camp Stevens, in the mountains outside of Julian, California. Loving those hills as I do, I have never been big on “mountaintop experiences”. They rarely seem to last. The Rocky Mountain High we get on the hilltop often disappears once we near the ground I don’t really trust the mountaintop experience. Give me the epiphanies on offer at sea level.
I routinely distrusted mountaintop experiences until a couple of weeks ago, when I unexpectedly had the opportunity to spend a Saturday riding up one with two friends from high school. These two guys—Owen and Phil--were in town for the wedding of another classmate’s daughter, and they called me up out of the blue to see if I wanted to go bike riding in Griffith Park with them. Though I usually see them both at our every-ten-year reunions (the next, the fiftieth, comes this October) I hadn’t known them all that well in high school. But I always liked them both a lot, and I’m still spry enough to pedal 50 miles or so, so I said, “Sure, why not?”
We met for breakfast at a coffee shop in Burbank (where we all grew up) and then made our way over to the park. Phil, the buffest of the bunch, suggested we ride the steep back road past Travel Town and the water tower up to the Griffith Park Observatory. Owen and I agreed. As we began our ride, we started talking about our own home lives in high school and the home lives of some of our friends. I was not prepared for what I learned.
We began by sharing some of the family traumas we had ourselves experienced in high school. Even though none of us grew up in Dick and Jane, Ozzie and Harriet households, the three of us came through routine family dysfunctions pretty well. All six of our parents were a bit crazy, but they loved us as best they could.
Then we began talking about our other classmates, people we each knew and admired. I was shocked by what I did not know about them. One boy had been routinely beaten by his father every other day or so. One girl had been serially molested by her father. A girl we all knew turned out to have been living in an almost Dickensian style of poverty. As we named and discussed these friends and others, we began to see that we had all gone through high school without knowing very much about each other at all.
Because all adolescents are perpetually self-involved, it appears that during our high school years we had come to school each day so obsessed with ourselves that we had not really seen each other. The more we pedaled up the hill, the more we began to realize the enormity of the unseen burdens that our friends had carried with them to school each day. As we pulled up finally to the observatory to take selfies by the bronze bust of James Dean, I saw myself and my classmates in a new and surprising way. Not only had I not known them. I hadn’t even known myself very well. I wasn’t as empathetic and compassionate as I had thought myself. The kids I had known and sometimes envied had been struggling with challenges that made mine seem small by comparison.
Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus. In Luke’s account of this event, Peter, James, and John suddenly see Jesus in a new and surprising light. Their understanding of him, like my understanding of my high school classmates, is changed in an instant. As I think about this story in the light of my own recent mountain experience, two ideas emerge. One of them concerns Jesus’s companions, the other Jesus himself.
What actually happens in the Transfiguration story? Luke tells us that, as Jesus was praying, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white”. When I was younger I often had a difficult time with this gospel because it seemed at best supernatural, at worst like a bad laundry detergent commercial. But over the years I have come to see—especially with the help of some conversation with colleagues—that the miracle occurs not so much to Jesus as to his companions. If we read this story with some care, it becomes clear that it is not Jesus who changes; it is his companions’ perception of Jesus that changes.
People followed Jesus for various and sometimes contradictory reasons. Some saw him as a healer, others as a teacher. Some saw him as a nationalist revolutionary who would kick the occupying Romans out of Israel. Some regarded Jesus as a teacher, others as a mere magician. No doubt Peter, James, and John brought various perceptions of Jesus and his mission up the mountain with them that day. What happened in that moment was indeed a transfiguration, but it was a transfiguration of their perception. They suddenly saw—and the presence of the Old Testament heroes Moses and Elijah helped in this—that Jesus was up to bigger things than personal wellness and regime change. They saw that Jesus’s life and ministry were about a cosmic process of redemption, renewal, and hope. Their understanding of Jesus had been too narrow. This mountaintop experience opened their eyes to see Jesus in a new and transfigured way. The one they traveled with was more than a teacher, healer, or revolutionary. He was one whose life and ministry would begin a new age of universal justice, liberation, and peace.
So the first idea asks that we reconsider and perhaps expand our own conception of what Jesus is up to. If that first idea says something about who Jesus is, the second invites us to contemplate both his destiny and ours.
In the second part of the Transfiguration story, a cloud comes and overshadows them. They all enter the cloud, and a voice comes from within it and says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” As when we read a poem or a story, so when we read the Bible we have to ask ourselves some basic questions. What is this cloud doing here, anyway? What is it supposed to represent?
There are a number of possible answers, but to me the most obvious one is that the cloud has something to do with God. The divine voice issues out of that cloud. Jesus and his companions are drawn into it. Everyone is gathered into this cloudy divine presence. And then we hear God’s voice endorsing Jesus and his purpose.
The story’s first idea helps us see Jesus in a new light. The second idea suggests how he and God and we are all connected in this transformative process. In being drawn into and covered by the cloud, Jesus is taken up into God and God’s life. The teacher, healer, and revolutionary now lives and represents something of God’s own purpose. And what’s true for Jesus is also true for Jesus’s friends: Peter, James, and John are taken up into the cloud as well. Their lives now shine with a purpose beyond themselves. They, too, are part of what God is doing in the world. Their stories have meaning and significance not only in themselves but in the ways they exemplify and enact God’s purposes. Everyone leaves the mountaintop with both a new self-understanding and a new meaning. We are more than the sum of our parts. We are part of who God is and what God is doing in the here and now and in the future.
On a July Saturday this year I went up a hill with my friends and experienced a transfiguration of sorts. I saw them, my classmates, and myself in a new and transfigured way. On a similar day a couple of millennia ago, Jesus and his companions went up another hill and saw themselves, their world, and their God with similar newness. They saw that God was up to something big cosmically, socially, and personally. They understood that God’s purposes are bigger and deeper and more universal than they had previously thought. And they understood that God’s purposes extended even to them. Their lives were no longer only about themselves. Their lives now had meaning and significance and purpose because they, with Jesus, had now been taken up into God’s own life. Their ultimate destiny was assured. They could begin to risk themselves for the transformation of the world.
We come now to gather with Jesus and his companions at God’s table. Just as our lives become more than we thought they were, so do this bread and wine. There is more going on than we usually know. For all our self-reflection, you and I still rarely see ourselves or others very well. Every once in a while, our eyes and our minds are opened to see them as God does. You and I, along with Jesus, his companions, and every person with a sad or painful story, add up to more than we think we do. God is doing something in and through us that will both bring us fulfillment and lead to the redemption of the world. Just as Jesus was transfigured, just as his companions’ understanding of him was transfigured, so let our lives and minds and hearts be opened to the holiness of everything and everyone as we gather together with Jesus and take in the bread that is now more than bread, the wine that is now more than wine. As we do that, God’s gracious purpose will work itself in us, and over time we will become more than just what we thought was ourselves. Amen.