I remember a trip Kim and I took out west, how exciting it was to plan our vacation, the anticipation of seeing old friends, and imagining the beauty of new sites along the way. And one of the high points was Glacier National Park, where we couldn’t wait to spend the day hiking and exploring.
Going up was easy compared to coming down. Up and up we went, switching back and forth, the trail went from paved, to gravel, to less and less traveled dirt paths. Hours later we arrived at a little clearing with a magnificent view. Though it had taken longer than we had planned, the climb was well worth it. There were snow capped peaks in its glorious mountain range, miles and miles of majestic hemlock and pine, Douglas fur and aspen. We hadn’t been lucky enough to see the black bear, that other hikers told us about – or maybe we were! – but we had seen lots of other wildlife, including a big horn sheep, perched precariously on cliffs edge.
We couldn’t stay long. We only had so much food, and we didn’t want to be caught on the trail after sunset. So down, down, we went. Now all the good views were behind us. The surprise and beauty of the journey up, and reaching the top, were fading memories. And the longer we hiked down, the more my knees began to ache, and finally near the end, my legs started cramping up. Why was coming down always so much harder?
As we sat gazing at the stars over a camp fire dinner that evening, Kim and I recalled the mystical moment of grandeur atop the mountain, and were now able to joke about the hard journey back down. And, we were glad that it was in the middle of our trip, and we still had other peaks to look forward to.
Jesus led Peter and James and John up to a high mountain privately, by themselves, and he was transformed/figured before them, and there appeared to them, Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. For the disciples, they had anticipated this moment and imagined the glorious places Jesus would give them in this heavenly realm. But it was over so quickly, and the beauty and wonder of it all seemed lost in their march back down the mountain.
But the journey is real, and takes on flesh, down in the valley. Jesus came to heal the sick and preach good news to the poor, down here in the city with us. He invites us on this journey. You can join today if you want – just like our Council members will reaffirm their commitment as Unity’s elected leaders! And of course, we’ll work on it together in the season of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, and continuing through a 40 day journey to the cross and resurrection. It’s a practice that we have here in worship on Sundays and Wednesdays, supporting one another’s faith in worship and discussion, and then, we take it out to the streets, as we make our beliefs take on flesh and become incarnate in the real world, and our whole lives.
Where are you on the road to seeing Jesus? Thinking about following? Marching, dancing, or singing? Quietly hanging back? Already in there, talking with Jesus? Experiencing a mystical moment? Or, cursing Jesus out?
The good news of this gospel story is that it’s not the end of the journey. It’s the midway point. The first peak was at Jesus’ baptism when that voice came out of the cloud, and God named Jesus his “beloved Son,” adding, “with whom I am well pleased.” Here, on the mount of Transfiguration, God says out of the cloud, “you are my beloved son, listen to him.” And at the end of the gospel, when Jesus breathes his last from the cross, it’s the Roman centurion, who says, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” God gives us voice, because the grace and peace of Jesus who came to take on flesh, now lives in and through us.
If we’re only living inside our faith, and have never gotten outside of it, to see how it really works in the real world, we’re as stuck as Peter and James and John would have been if Jesus allowed them to build three tents on his mount of Transfiguration and stay up there, basking in the dazzling light. If we have it all figured out intellectually, but have lost touch with the way our society has changed and transformed, we’re only fooling ourselves, locked in the rigid boundaries of our own heads.
Jesus comes down the mountain, a much more difficult journey than going up, to engage the world as it is. Escapism, running away from the truth, avoiding a confrontation, is not going to do it, for a life of faith, as a follower of Jesus. Our journey’s are not simply hiking trips that go up for the great view and return by the same trail, unchanged. But we aim for the new life of resurrection, that includes our cross filled journeys in the valley, so that Jesus might transform us. Where are you on that road to seeing Jesus?
Robert Jay Lifton, an Air Force psychologist, in his recent memoir, details his journey from, rigid dogmatist, to open, self-critical, reformer. The part of his work that helped him the most was interviewing the doctors, and their families, who were charged with war crimes, who said they were only following orders. It was the daughter of one of those convicted doctors, who had only experienced her father at home as a loving, caring man, who asked Lifton, ‘is it possible for a good man to do bad things?’ Lifton’s response was, “Yes, but then he’s no longer a good man.” Moral coherence, Lifton insists, is striving to have the same morality in every situation, and to be open and self-critical enough to scrutinize it. For Lifton himself, it was a painful, but life transforming lesson learned, down in the valley.
Jesus does not stand for pie-in-the-sky, stuck in your head faith, but invites us to come down the mountain with him, and put it into practice. Joined together in his Spirit, we live it out as consistently as we can, from one day to the next, in every situation. That’s the road were on, with all its joys and pains, excitement and fearful beauty, where we are transformed and changed, as Jesus' faithful followers.