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Based on the Scripture reading:
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

2006 February 26
Transfiguration Sunday
Rev. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Facing God's Miracle

In the faraway land made up of so many deserts and valleys, our ancestors certainly experienced a lot up on mountaintops. These days when we ask why someone would climb a mountain they often say, "Because it is there." But in those days they had a different belief: because God is there. Which is a good reason to climb.

We're at the mountaintop of Epiphany today, viewing the doorway to Lent, and looking for God. The season of Epiphany strives to reveal God, but it leaves until today the startling story of transfiguration and the direct question of what we would do if we saw God in person. It leaves until today the drama of the illumination of Jesus' presence, the drama of the disciples' changing vision. Indeed, Epiphany is not complete until today, when we look at Jesus and choose to accept or avoid the costs and joys of discipleship, including the cross. Epiphany is not over until we ask, "What if we see God?" What will change? What does God want from us, anyway?

Twenty-eight years ago I traveled with a friend to a peninsula in the northeast corner of Greece and the monasteries of Mt. Athos. The peninsula is a separate nation, accessible only from the blue ocean waters that surround it and only with permission from your own government as well as that of Mt. Athos. And you can travel there only if you are male. Since well before the year 800, women have been excluded by the Orthodox rule, and most of the eighteen monasteries along the peninsula exclude female animals as well. They live by the Byzantine clock, without electricity or telephones, in giant ancient castles where they farm, study, and worship literally a thousand years away from my experience of the world. Pilgrims and residents travel the many miles from one monastery to the next either on foot or in small fishing boats along the rocky shore.

At the north end of the peninsula stands the enormous, almost impassible Mt. Athos itself, which for centuries has been the location of many, many visions. You can see it from miles away Back to topand from most of the eighteen cloisters.

My friend Curtis and I sought to visit and watch and pray with these monks and to drink in their life and faith. So we obtained the proper permissions and arrived one day the summer after college to spend some time by the holy mountain. Knowing that all of the monasteries lock their giant gates at dusk, and having heard tales of wild animals and even loose and dangerous spirits, we hiked fast for several hours under hot Mediterranean sun to reach our first stop: Iviron. Walking dusty footpaths without signs and meeting no one else, we finally found our first stop just before dusk. We were welcomed in its outer wall with tea and olives, Turkish candy and cucumber soup for dinner. After a tour of the courtyard and the treasury we went to an upstairs stone cell without candles or lights to sleep on straw mattresses. We were not in Kansas anymore. We were out of touch with the familiar and out of synch with the surroundings.

I can't pretend that I have a perfect explanation for the events of that night, but some time after dark had fallen completely I lay in that quiet cell thinking myself still awake. I was nervous in my bed. I was away from everything familiar and right in the thick of fourteen hundred years of worship, visions, and spirit.

As I lay facing the open door to my cell, with my back to the wall, I thought that I heard a noise in the hallway, like the sound of leather sandals or the brushing of a robe against the wall. I strained my eyes to see through the doorway, but there was only starlight to assist my vision. I craned my neck a bit forward, as Curtis slept next door, and I was sure that I saw someone coming into the room. At first I guessed that it might be the monk who had showed us our way, but his room was far away across the castle. I strained more and believed that I saw a woman, and then I knew, in that way that you know things in dreams, that this was not just any woman, it was Mary, Mary of Nazareth, Jesus' mother.

I became breathless with fear, but my eyes adjusted and I could see that she stood in my doorway and looked at me in silence. When I was certain that she was really there, and certain that I was certain, I did the only thing that I could. I turned my back on her and my face to the wall. And I laid there and shivered hour after hour on that hot night, sure that she was still watching me and completely afraid to turn around.

As dawn brought its illuminating hope, I checked to see that she was gone, and she was. My back had kept her at bay. I didn't have to engage her. I didn't have to do anything except shiver and, Back to toplike the disciples, keep the story to myself.

To this day I am not certain that I was awake, and I do not know that I was asleep. But I do know that the only thing I could do with a vision of Mary at the age of 21 was to turn my back because I was afraid.

Less than one week after the apostle Peter confessed that Jesus was God's messiah, Peter and James and John went up a mountain with Jesus, and they saw him transfigured. His face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Luke says that the disciples were weighed down with sleep, but awake or asleep somehow they saw Moses and Elijah, long dead, with the illuminated Jesus. Peter made one of his classic mistakes, thinking he could package this glory, but God spoke out of the clouds repeating the words from Jesus' baptism: "This is my beloved son." But God added three words here. God said, "Listen to him."

Fred Craddock, a New Testament scholar, notes how Mark puts this story in a stream of stories about healing blind folks. Here, symbolically, the disciples' can't see, but God hopes they will.

Another commentator says transfiguration can help disciples, "to overcome their puny faith…." But seeing God right in front of us doesn't always comfort us. In fact, it overwhelms us.

Mark's transfiguration proclaims that God is active, that Jesus is at the center of God's plan of salvation, and that if we don't see him yet as he truly is, we can and we may before long.

But these points are not so simple for us everyday Christians. Because for me such clarity, such presence, such power can make me turn my back: it makes me afraid.

I get afraid sometimes simply reading the gospel to prepare for worship, because the God we meet there can be so demanding and so direct. I'm afraid to preach without reservation about peace and justice, sacrifice, human love, and equality, even though that's our heritage and our hope. I am often afraid to preach about gay rights, inclusive language, racism, sexism, classism, and stewardship that means tithing, even though these are our tests, and these are our calls. I get afraid to change, to grow where I don't want to grow, to struggle because I need rest, and to move at the speed of Jesus and not of church. I get afraid of capital campaigns and committee meetings and public displays of devotion. I'm fearful of the demands of the Good Samaritan, the Prince of Peace, the creator God, because of my human limits and Back to tophow I'll be judged if I speak their words, so I shiver, I turn my back, all too often.

Sometimes when I encounter God's message, my mind goes blank until I start to remember that in this message, I receive God's amazing grace. And as I remember it occurs to me that I know God's gifts, and I love God's way. And in this way and from these gifts I remember God's many names, and I love them, too. And then God the father calls out from the sky, come back to the mountaintop and take off your shoes so that you can feel the warmth of the good earth beneath your feet and remember your creation when I called you good. God the mother calls out from the voice of compassion, come back to the table where the candlelight never dims and feel the power of the exodus that we have already taken and the peace of the places we have already arrived. I hear the voice of an ancient God who promises that I need not establish a faith on my own; I hear the voice of an infant God who whispers urgently, be with me as I grow, for creation is not yet complete. I hear the call of a visionary God who draws me to an ever changing future, better than any I could make on my own. I hear the call of our God with many names, and what frightened me in the gospel now calls out, "Be not afraid, for my light is for your strength." What frightened me in the gospel now gives me strength through the light of Jesus: the Messiah on the mountaintop and the partner in our lives.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the light,
that changed the world for me;
I once was blind, I turned my back,
but your call and your love help me see.

To be honest, we do not only meet God on mountaintops and monasteries. Indeed, the point of these stories is that we behold God's glory in all of our earthly, contemporary context. We behold God's glory when we step aside to pray. We behold God's glory in offices and homes, upon streets and schoolyards. We behold God in choirs and committees, among new friends and old promises. In our cars, our classrooms, our community. And when we meet God in these places we need not be afraid. And we need not turn our backs, because the glow we see in each other's faith is God's strength for new life. The glow we see in each other's face is Christ in His baptism, transfiguration, and yes, his crucifixion.

Look at your world today and see our God with many names in many faces, transformed beyond what you'd expect and loving you beyond all fear. Climb to new heights not because they are there but because God is there. Turn around yourselves and embrace the vision of change that Christ offers to us, to each of us. And then let us listen to Him and live anew.


Copyright © 2006 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.
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