Livestreamed service

2 Kings 2:1-12
Mark 9:2-8

        Transfiguration Sunday is supposed to be all about Jesus. It is, after all, the last Sunday in the season of revealing, and the mountaintop experience Peter, James, and John have with Jesus is a pretty big reveal. Whatever the details of what did or did not happen up there, it seems to have been pretty dramatic.

        The traditional take-away of this end-of-Epiphany, on-the-cusp-of-Lent story is that Jesus is the Christ. That Jesus is God’s love revealed, God’s love poured out into the world, God’s love with skin on, God’s love right in front of us, God’s glory shining bright as the sun, God’s glorious love come to shake things up, God’s dazzling light changing everything.

        The story also reminds us that God is willing to go to great lengths to make this apparent, to show us the way, to make it possible for us to experience life abundant.

        And it’s from this story that the phrase “mountaintop experience” comes. Its common usage suggests a fleeting moment of clarity or ecstasy; a mountaintop experience often comes from an unexpected and mystical encounter with the spirit of glory, truth, or joy.

        And so it is that another common take-away from this transfiguration story is that as nice as mountaintop experiences are, we can’t make them happen and if, by grace or happenstance, we are blessed enough to have one, we cannot expect it to last. Like Peter, James, and John following Jesus down from this peak experience and toward the agony of the cross, we have to get back to “real” life.

        To which I want to say: Not so fast.

        It’s amazing to me how quickly most of our reflections on this story pivot from the hard-to-imagine glory of Jesus’ transfiguration to a harsh discounting of the reality of spiritual experience and a dramatic lowering of our own expectations of having such experiences.

        I want to go so far this morning as to suggest some attitudes and behaviors that might make spiritual experiences more accessible to us. Because the spiritual life is “real” life.

        But before we get to that, let’s consider some basic terminology:

        The dictionary tells us that transfiguration a certain kind of transformation—the transformation of one thing to something more beautiful or elevated. And as surely as our love and attention can change how someone looks to us on the outside, it is our inner transformation that allows that glorious light and love of God to shine in us and through us more clearly.

        One more detail worth mentioning: Notice the language of the story. Jesus doesn’t do a thing; he is transfigured. That is, the fullness of his glory was simply revealed to Peter, James, and John. The glory had always been there but they hadn’t been able to see it.

        So what makes it possible for us to see the glory, the God, that, as Thomas Merton said, is shining through the world all the time? And what is it that, as Robert Benson says, has the power and potential to punch holes in the “darkness all around us” so that we might see the Light and “rejoice in the glow of it?”

        Based on our lessons this morning, I want to suggest two ways of living that might give us more than mere glimpses of glory. The first, from the story of Elijah and Elisha, is staying power; and the second, from the transfiguration story, is the practice of distance.

        It seems to me that both transcendence and transformation are less likely to come from what happens to us—those things we experience—than the choices we make, again and again and again. (I think our friends in 12-step programs have much to teach us about this.)

        Elisha had staying power. Jesus had it. The earliest Christians had it. If any church is to survive and thrive, its members must have it. And if we hope for healing, if we hunger and thirst for justice and peace, if we long for the kind of inner transformation that changes us and our lives and the world, we need to practice what Nietzsche called “a long obedience in the same direction.” We need to show up, stick around, refuse to give up, and keep coming back.

        We need staying power.

        The prophet Elijah had had quite the career but we don’t hear much about his understudy, a former farmhand named Elisha, until Elijah’s life on this earth is coming to an end and he is on one last journey. Elijah knows it, the entire company of prophets knows it, the whole world seems to know it—and they all seem to think Elisha should take this opportunity to get out of the prophecy business.

        Two different times, everyone tells Elisha that hard times are coming, his beloved master will soon be gone. Three different times Elijah tells Elisha to stay put while he journeys on. And three different times, Elisha disobeys his master’s command, saying, “I will not leave you.”

        Now, this is no starry-eyed, wedding-day promise. Elisha knows full-well that he is going to lose his beloved teacher, and that it will be more than he can bear. He hears both Elijah and the world giving him permission to take the easy way out. But he will not have it. Neither difficult circumstances nor the certain grief to come will alter Elisha’s course. Nothing can change his trust in God’s faithfulness or his sense of who God has created him to be.

        “As God lives, and as you yourself live,” he tells Elijah, “I will not leave you.” Three times he says it, and each time requires of him more love and more strength.

        So when Elijah is taken up into heaven, it is Elisha who is transfigured and transformed. He had stuck it out, he had stayed with his teacher until the end, and a double-share of Elijah’s spirit was passed on to him.

        Now I want to be clear: I am not at all suggesting that we stay in abusive relationships or oppressive situations. Indeed, sometimes we must seek the strength and the courage to leave a bad situation.

        What I’m talking about is the faithful, steadfast, hopeful love I see you all living out all the time. The love that continues to care for a partner whose health is declining, even though the costs are high and the grief is deep. The love for justice and creation that continues to pour heart and soul, time and effort into the struggle, even when the odds are grim. The love of brokenhearted parents who refuse to give up on troubled children. The faith that keeps praying. The steadfast commitment to following the way of Love even we when don’t know where the path leads or how long it will take.

        These are some of the ways we are transformed and transfigured, changed from glory to glory.

        I’m not saying it is easy. Staying power requires the power of the indwelling Spirit, the love of a supportive community, worship that forms and transforms us, the Bread of Life that sustains, the Cup of Blessing that never empties, and, at the same time, the practice of distance.

 Jesus taught his disciples the importance of getting away from duties and distractions to be alone with God. Jesus demonstrated that when we step away from the busyness and habits that keep us from connecting with God’s Spirit and our own, we can be healed and transformed. Our vision clears, we hear God’s soft and tender call, we see with new eyes, and we feel at a deeper level.

        Staying power is renewed by the practice of distance, and getting away with God renews our staying power.

        If we would but pay attention to God’s presence within us and all around us, we might find that mountaintop experiences are not so rare after all. If we would just invest in the spiritual life, we might discover the life that truly is life.

        May it be so.