The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, February 11, 2018

“Coming Down From the Mountain” A Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYC, February 11, 2018]

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

So, you heard it right. Jesus goes up the mountain to pray, and then—something happens.

Something that is hard even for the Evangelists to describe. In tonight’s Gospel, Mark writes that he is “transfigured” and that his clothes become dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” [1]

Luke struggles to describe it, too—the best he can come up with is to say that “while [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” [2]

Matthew adds a new detail—Jesus’s face “shone like the sun.”[3]

In reading these three tellings of the Transfiguration, it’s pretty clear that the Gospel writers are reaching for a way to capture the experience, and not quite succeeding. They don’t know how to put into words the sheer unearthliness of what happens to Peter, John, and James on the mountaintop with Jesus. It’s like trying to catch lightning in a bottle.
But they try to convey this experience for which there are no words—so Jesus’s face just alters, or it shines like the sun, his clothes are whiter than possible on earth. They’re grasping for metaphors to tell us that Jesus the teacher, the rabbi, the wise man, became suddenly very, very Other.

And if that’s not enough, Moses and Elijah appear, talking with Jesus. Not only are these two of the greatest figures in the Hebrew Bible—the lawgiver and the archetype of the prophet—but they’re both figures who were more than a little uncanny, a little unearthly themselves.

Moses, who after he received the tablets of the Law directly from God, came down from the Mountain unaware that his face was shining with an unearthly radiance, and that people could only speak to him if he wore a veil[4]; Elijah, who was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire.[5]

Peter, John, and James are exhilarated and terrified, and frankly who can blame them? Only Peter tries to do anything, and I have to admit, his effort to be helpful—“Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"—sound like something out of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. In some translations, it's not "dwellings" Peter talks about building, but booths. That's almost better, because it's so futile. Why would Jesus, Elijah, or Moses need booths? To sell lemonade?

It doesn't matter that it's absurd, though; it matters that he wants to be a part of what’s happening, to be useful.

A mysterious cloud covers the mountain, and a voice is heard, saying “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
And then it’s all over.

No Moses, no Elijah, Jesus back to normal, no booths for Peter to build.

So they go down the mountain, and rejoin the others.


This is the kind of story that makes me realize my own shortcomings. Because I can’t help but think that we Episcopalians, in our Twenty-first Century way, are not comfortable with these moments when the Gospel asks us to step outside of the realm of the senses, and into something—very different.

Something happened. What was it?

We’re handicapped by the fact that we live in a scientific, empirical age. We live by science and technology and it’s enriched our lives in many ways. But not in all ways.

In today's Epistle, Paul warns us of that the cost may be more than we think. That we may be closing ourselves off from a whole realm of experience, because we are so accustomed to the everyday, workaday world around us, that we accept its appearance as our limits.

Or, as Paul writes, “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

The god of this world, with a lower case g, not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or Elijah and Elisha. Of Jesus.

That god is the drab heaviness of routine, the tired hurrying about, the weight of anxiety. That lower-case g-god is the one we were warned about by William Wordsworth:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not

Not too far off from New York City in 2018, is it?

So when we reach a Gospel passage like today’s, it’s easy to write it off as a metaphor. A story. After all, the world we see and touch, the five senses, that’s reality, right?


This stand, holding my notes. To my senses, it’s a single object, solid, hard metal pieces attached to each other.
But basic science—I mean the stuff I learned in high school, so really old fashioned, baby science—tells us that it’s not anything of the kind. It’s a little galaxy of tiny particles in orbit around each other, branching out like a child’s model of the universe. It’s nothing like what it feels like or looks like to us.

But our eyes are blinded to the miraculous by the lower case g god of this world. We take things for granted, as we see them, even when we know they aren’t so.

As a culture, we have lost the sense that the ordinary can transcend itself, that in day-to-day life, there can be moments when the light gets brighter, the air is alive with currents and motes tumbling through sunbeams, and our hearts beat just a bit faster. They come out of nowhere, little moments that we can treasure, or dismiss as a fleeting feeling.
Seven years ago, I had one of those moments in this very church—next door, actually in the main sanctuary. I was sitting in the congregation as the choir sang a new piece of music, Evan Solot’s The Hawk, and suddenly—well, I was a little bit more alive. The music had set something free in me. I felt, in that moment, serene, centered, and at one with my Creator.

That’s not normal for me.

It’s not normal for most of us, I suspect, but many people have moments when they are pulled into alignment with the universe; some have experiences that are even more striking, harder to ignore.

In the Church, we would call these mystical experiences. We are told that the mystical facility is one which everybody has but which few develop. But the lives of the mystics, from Julian of Norwich to Thomas Merton, have shown us that these experiences aren’t to be written off lightly.

They’re not nothing.

In the ancient world people were far more open to these experiences than we moderns are. They write of them without embarrassment, without doubt. They have not called into question their own experiences.
But the Transfiguration isn’t a subtle little intimation of immortality, or an ordinary peak experience. It’s much more dramatic, much bigger, and shared—it’s not just Peter, or John, or James alone who experiences it, or even Jesus—it’s all of them. It has a reality to it that transcends any physical or psychological explanation for its cause.
And it’s not just a feelgood moment. It’s terrifying as well as exhilarating, until the voice speaks and it all just ends. But the disciples remember. They remember well enough that slightly different accounts of the experience appear in 3 out of the 4 Gospels.

But the really important part is what happens next.

They come down from the mountain, and rejoin the day-to-day world.

But in a changed way.

A transformed way.

Dare I say it—a transfigured way.

Those glimpses of beauty, those moments of one-ness—cherish them, hold on to them. I don’t mean try to prolong them, or extend them—I mean remember that you are capable of them.

Because they are our visits to the mountain.

Lent is coming, and the point of it isn’t to suffer; it’s to make room in your heart for the tragedy of Good Friday, the unexpected, inconceivable triumph of Easter Sunday.

Step back from the world while you can, just a little bit. Look for the unexpected grace note—the stranger’s smile, the perfect beauty of the bright-eyed sparrow in the subway station.

Take some time to feel your own heart beat, to savor the moment.

And heartened by the glimpse we come down from the mountain, like the disciples. We rejoin the swim of life, but participate in a new way. Restored, refreshed, encouraged.

Transformed, even if only a little bit.

And, perhaps one day, willing to build that silly booth.

To act, whether wisely or not, out of love.

Because the booth isn’t silly, after all. It’s an act of love, an offered sharing of the self. It’s community ministry’s breakfast feeding program, our overnight shelter. It’s giving some of who you are, what you have, to what you love.
And getting far more in return.

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.


1. Mark 9: 2-3.
2. Lk 9: 28-36.
3. Matt 17: 2.
4. Exodus 34: 29-30.
5. 2 Kings 2: 11.

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