Stuck on the Mountain

Today’s scripture readings:
Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-43
Sermon audio:

The morning after the Iowa caucuses I was reading the news, getting caught up on all the results. I saw a story online that featured a photo of one of the presidential candidates speaking to a roomful of enthusiastic supporters. What struck me most as I looked at that photo was that seemingly every person in the crowd—including each of the people in the very front row, standing just a few feet from the candidate—everyone, it seemed, was holding a smart phone in their hands, snapping photos. Their eyes were fixed not on the candidate but on the screens they were holding in their hands. The people who showed up for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see someone who could become the next President of the United States, they were determined to get pictures that I imagine they posted on Facebook or Instagram so everyone would know they had been there, and so they would remember themselves what they had seen that day.

In December, pop music superstar Ed Sheeran announced that he was going to take a nine-month break from his phone, email, and social media. He said he was tired of seeing the world through a screen and wanted to take some time to see the world through his own two eyes. Several other musicians have begun banning phones and cameras from their concerts. One band called The Savages told their fans, “Our goal is to discover better ways of living and experiencing music. We believe that the use of phones to film and take pictures during a gig prevents all of us from totally immersing ourselves. Let’s make this evening special. Put your phones away.” Fans haven’t taken kindly to the new policy.

These days it seems almost everyone carries a camera in their pocket or in their purse, built right into their phones. Everywhere we go, everything we see, we want photos! People are constantly whipping out their phones and snapping pictures. We want to capture those special moments, bottle them up and keep them forever. And isn’t it true that our photos become a form of cultural currency that grant us a certain amount of status? I remember a few years ago I went to a Lady Gaga concert and somehow ended up about ten feet from the catwalk that jutted out into the crowd, and I got some amazing, up-close photos of Gaga in one of her crazy outfits. I couldn’t wait to show those photos to some of my jealous friends. That is so often our impulse, when we find ourselves in the presence of celebrity, or visiting a famous site, or encountering something rare or unexpected. We snap a photo that will make that experience something we get to hang on to forever.

This isn’t a phenomenon that’s unique to our modern, smart phone-saturated society. I remember when I was in first grade and the Twins’ superstar center fielder Kirby Puckett came to visit my elementary school. As he came into the gym where we were all gathered to see him, I got to give him a high-five. I went home from school that day and told my parents I was never going to wash my hands again! I wanted to hold on to that experience forever.

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So maybe we can understand what was going through the disciples’ heads when they were up on that mountain with Jesus. In today’s Gospel reading, Peter, John, and James have gone up a mountain with Jesus. The three disciples are half-asleep so you have to wonder if they thought they were hallucinating what happened next: Jesus’ face begins to shine and his clothes becomes dazzling white. Suddenly he’s joined by Moses and Elijah, and the three of them are talking with one another about Jesus’ departure, which is about to be accomplished.

OK, pause for just a second, because there’s a lot to unpack here.

The sudden change in Jesus’ appearance—his shining face and dazzling white clothes—that’s a pretty clear allusion back to Moses’ encounters with God on Mount Sinai. We heard that story in today’s first reading. Whenever Moses goes up the mountain to talk with God, his face begins to shine. So when Jesus is up on the mountain and his face is transformed and his clothes become dazzling white, we are to understand that Jesus is having a close and personal encounter with the divine.

And we read that Jesus is joined on the mountain by Moses and Elijah. Moses, of course, is the one God chooses to establish God’s covenant with the Israelites. It’s Moses who receives the Ten Commandments from God on the mountain and brings the law down to the people. Later, Elijah is the prophet God chooses to call the unfaithful Israelites back to the covenant. Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets, a common way of referring to the totality of scripture. So when these two appear alongside Jesus, we are to understand that Jesus’ life and ministry are consistent with the Law and the Prophets—with the whole of scripture.

So Peter, John, and James have clearly been part of something pretty amazing. They’ve learned some things about Jesus that are really significant—not to mention the fact that they’ve had a pretty cool celebrity encounter with Moses and Elijah. If any of us had been there, we probably would have pulled out our phones and started taking pictures. But they respond the way a typical person in the first century might have responded: “Master, let’s build three tents here—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” They want to make the moment last. They want to hold on to this experience forever.

We know that suggesting they build these three tents wasn’t the right response because the text tells us, “They knew not what they said.” And then, as if to highlight that the disciples were off base and clearly don’t get it, the booming voice of God comes from a cloud as a sort of reprimand: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

The next day Jesus and the disciples have gone back down from the mountain. There, a man brings his only son before the disciples, begging for healing from an evil spirit. But even though Jesus has given the disciples power and authority to cast out demons and heal all diseases just a few verses earlier in the beginning of chapter 9, the disciples aren’t able to cure this man’s son. Maybe it’s that Peter, John, and James were too busy scrolling through the photo albums on their phones, showing all the other disciples their photos from the day before—too busy to even notice this man and his son. Or maybe their heads were all back up on that mountain, remembering all that they had seen, wishing they were still there, wishing they really had built those tents and stayed up there forever with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. And maybe that’s why Jesus responds so angrily at the news that his disciples have been unable to heal this man’s son: “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you!”

Peter, James, and John have missed the point. Staying up on the mountaintop, hoarding those amazing experiences for themselves—that’s not what the life of faith is about. The life of faith takes us back down the mountain into the real world where life is messy and people have problems. The life of faith calls us into service when we encounter people in need. It calls us to the work of healing, and walking with people who are broken as they seek wholeness and restoration.

Of course it’s not bad for us to go up the mountain to learn who God is, to experience the holiness of God, and to be inspired by it all. But being on the mountaintop isn’t what the life of faith is about. The point of the mountain is to be filled with wisdom and understanding so we can make our way back down refreshed and transformed for ministry.

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Sometimes we talk about “going to church” as though “church” is a thing we only do on Sunday mornings. But the truth is, Sunday morning worship is the mountaintop, the place not where we pitch our tents, but the place where we learn who God is, where we are fed and nourished, and from which we are sent back out to live our faith in the world. There’s a very specific reason why, at the end of each service, we turn to face the cross as it moves toward the doors of the church. The cross leads us out into the world where our life of faith continues through the entire week. What happens here on Sunday mornings prepares us for the hard work that faces us as we make our way back into the world.

David Lose at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia tells a story about a couple in one of the congregations he used to serve. Whenever one of them couldn’t make it to worship on Sunday morning—if, let’s say, one of their children was sick—they would do a quick check-in with one another about the week they’d just been through and what was facing them in the week ahead. They would try to figure out which one of them needed worship more, and that’s the person who would get to go that morning. Sunday morning worship is what helps them make sense of their lives. It’s what helps them reconnect with God, re-grounds them in their calling, and sends them back into their week. That’s what Sunday mornings are really all about.

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So this morning, may you have here in this place an encounter with the divine. May you be awed and inspired by God’s presence in our midst. And may you be sent down the mountain with strength to serve and power to heal the world. Amen.


Resources consulted:

Crack Magazine, “Savages are banning phones,” April 17, 2013, http://crackmagazine.net/2013/04/savages-latest-to-ban-camera-phones-at-their-gigs/.

Stephen Crowley, “Senator Ted Cruz at Crossing Life Church in Windham, N,H.,” in The New York Times, February 2, 2015, http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2016/02/02/us/02live-cruztunes/02live-cruztunes-tmagArticle.jpg.

Maev Kennedy, “Ed Sheeran quits social media – for now,” in The Guardian, December 13, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/dec/13/ed-sheeran-quits-social-media-instagram-world-tour.

David J. Lose, “Transfiguration C: Worship Transfigured”, on …In the Meantime, 2016, http://www.davidlose.net/2016/02/transfiguration-c-worship-transfigured/.


The featured image for this post, “Taking pictures of San Francisco,” is copyright (c) 2014 Giuseppe Milo and made available under an Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license. Photo has been cropped.


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