Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers on February 26th, 2017 at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation(Readings for the Last Sunday of Epiphany: Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 99, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9)
The mountaintop story we hear today is the turning point in our gospel. From this mountain, Jesus will set his face towards Jerusalem to do the non-violent actions that will lead to his arrest and execution. For Peter, James, and John it is a moment in which they finally see Jesus with heavenly eyes: as one in whom the glory of God shines brilliantly, as one who talked to and was the equal of Moses and Elijah, as one through whom God spoke.
While our Epistle emphasizes that the disciples had the same revelation that Jesus heard in his baptism – that Jesus is God’s beloved son and one with whom God is well pleased – I would suggest the accent should be on the final line: “Listen to him!” That is, it’s not just about Jesus being one with God, but what God is saying through Jesus.
So often those who claim Jesus as the Son of God seems to think that what he taught can be ignored. At no time do I think we need to listen more closely to what Jesus is saying to us through his actions than in these events leading up to his death.
For Jesus and these three disciples, the mountaintop will be a last heavenly vision before the waters become incredibly dark and murky.
Up to this point, Jesus has spent his time primarily in Galilee trying to teach people about the nature of God and the way of God. He’s tried to show them how they can live the will of God here on earth through: sharing their food, forgiving debts, healing and caring for one another, standing up against injustice and prejudice, learning how to read the scriptures, practicing equality, speaking truthfully, and praying and learning to live from a place of trust and thanksgiving.
Whereas other religious teachers of the time spent their time primarily interpreting biblical texts, Jesus taught primarily through telling stories, parables, which forced his listeners to reflect on their own experience and determine for themselves the truth of the story.
Now, Jesus is going to Jerusalem, where he is going to engage in a re-telling of the story of the Hebrew faith. He’s going to challenge people with a vision of a new, very different kind of Exodus story.
And this time he’s not just going to tell a story, he’s going to act it out so that it will be a story that people will never forget.
If our enslavement were basically about evil people, Jesus could have become another Caesar or zealot committed to killing the oppressor. If our enslavement was simply about bad ideas, wrong thinking, than Jesus could have simply stayed a teacher.
But Jesus recognizes that the enslavement of humankind is not a simple as bad people, or bad ideas. It is about people and institutions embodying bad ideas, and the only way to exorcise these spirits and overcome these bad ideas was to confront them in a bodily form and force them to reveal themselves for who and what they were–not Godly dominion or faithfulness-but cowardice, prejudice, fear, greed, and the rejection of the living God.
Jesus will pursue a strategy that forces these people and institutions to do exactly that, knowing that the reign of lies can only continue as long as it wears the mask of truth, knowing that domination in the name of religion can only continue as long as people don’t know and don’t experience the God of redemptive love.
Jesus knows that this revelation will come at a great price, the price of his life, and yet he willingly embraces his death that we might know life. But worse — yes, there is a worse — Jesus knows the time is coming soon when he is going to have to trust his disciples to carry on this work after he is gone. How terrifying that idea must have been, that Jesus’ work was going to depend on those beloved but bumbling, uneducated but hard-headed and often closed-minded, heroic yet often egotistical, group he called his friends. Jesus must have longed for more time to prepare his disciples before entrusting the world to them, but there was no more time.
And it strikes me that today we are also there, on that mountaintop with Peter, James, John, and Jesus. In the resurrected Christ, we too have seen Jesus in all his glory.
Like Jesus, we have had glimpses of seeing how love is the only reality that matters.
Even though love can appear so weak and vulnerable in the face of violence and physical force, in the end Love is what is eternal. It is so important for us to have these mountaintop experiences, to be renewed in their light, to see our lives and world through heavenly eyes, and yet…..looking down from this mountain into that valley we are confronted with the complexity of this human experience and the dilemma we are facing as a species and a world.
If people and institutions embodying bad ideas are what’s keeping people enslaved and keeping humanity moving towards extinction, how can we best overcome these bad ideas?
If lies reign by wearing the mask of truth, how do we best get lies to reveal themselves?
If this is primarily a spiritual battle, how do we stay grounded in love and the unitive vision that is the grounds of wholeness, healing and peace, especially when facing facing bullying, violence, murder, and ugliness?
If it is not just a matter of ideas and spirits, but how they are embodied in people and institutions and practices, how do we engage people and institutions and practices in such a way as to lead them to change?
And in all this, how do we recognize and embrace our own weakness, limits, and fallibility as human beings – human beings whose God often appears so very weak in comparison to the gods of wealth, military power, and physical coercion?
This mountaintop on which we can see clearly is incredibly important. We need to not only revisit it when we can, but also to carry it within us.
At the same time, something stands between us here on this mountaintop and the next one – the mountaintop on which we all recognize that our humanity is inextricably bound with one another’s. *
Between this mountaintop and that new world is a dark valley, a valley with a wide, deep, cold and muddy river – and we’ll only come to that next mountaintop, to that glorious new world, if we are willing to wade into the turbulent waters that face us.
But if we are willing, God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to make a way for us.
*This is a paraphrase of Desmond Tutu’s definition of “ubuntu”: “the awareness that ‘my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.'”