This is an edited version of a sermon I gave this past Sunday, at Pasadena Christian Church. The texts for the day were Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; and Matthew 17:1-9
A few years ago I worked in a group home for adults with severe disabilities. My main job was taking care of my brother. He requires 1:1 care 24/7 so I only worked with him when I when worked. However, I naturally spent time with and got to know the other people living in the house.
One man, Jay, was in his mid to late thirties. He was able to take care of himself (for the most part) with prompting and supervision. Jay is severely autistic – he is verbal, but usually only repeats words or phrases, he hums to himself almost constantly, and also engages in self-stimulating behavior, sometimes called stimming: he will flap his hands, rock back and forth, or clap his hands all day long.
While I was solely on staff to take care of my brother, and wasn’t fully briefed on his individual needs and goals, medications, or behavioral interventions, I did get to know Jay over the course of the years I worked there. Both my brother and I enjoyed Jay’s company. The humming and noises Jay would make were especially entertaining for my brother.
But most of the other staff who were charged with helping him had a much different relationship with Jay, no doubt because of the requirements of fulfilling his service and behavioral plan. I had a little more freedom to interact and engage with him on a personal level. It was common for the other staff to “redirect” Jay to perform certain activities to prevent him from stimming. His outbursts were often ignored or punished.
It was common for Jay to come up to me, especially if he wanted something, hold my hands, look me in the eyes, and ask me for something. Sometimes it was food, a drink, to go outside, or listen to music. I remember the first time it happened: I was completely caught off guard by it – I didn’t know how to respond. I think sometimes it’s assumed that all people with disabilities are the same, so that if you know one (in my case my brother) you know them all. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just because I am comfortable responding and interacting with my brother does not mean I am comfortable with everyone else with a disability. It is absurd to think that is the case, just as it is absurd to think that once you’ve met one person you’ve met all other people.
That Jay came up to me, grabbed my hands, and looked me in the eyes was a deeply transforming and political act. This simple gesture transformed the way I saw him: he was no longer someone to be taken care of, but became truly human in that moment. He had desires and pain, joys and sorrow, and wanted, above all, to be loved.
Where the sacred manifests itself in space, the real unveils itself, the world comes into existence…
In the story of the Transfiguration and Moses on the mountaintop, we find an account of an experience of God in the world. In his book The Sacred and the Profane, Eliade talks extensively about mountaintop experiences such as these. In a very real sense, these experiences are an act of creation. It’s not just that the world becomes meaningful in these sacred places, it is revealed that the world is sacred – it becomes the most real in those places. As an result, it is common to want to be as close as possible to those places where the sacred manifests.
Keeping this in mind, Peter’s response, “Lord, it is good for us to be here,” makes complete sense. He wants to build a dwelling and stay there.
In Exodus 24:12-18, it is only Moses that goes up to the top of the mountain and experiences God and God’s glory – for 40 days and 40 nights! While he was up there, he received instructions for the Tabernacle, which is where God’s presence was among the people of Israel. So again, Peter’s response makes complete sense – he is thinking in terms of the Tabernacle. God is experienced in the world in a certain place.
There is, however, one big problem I have with these mountaintop experiences: they can very easily be turned against us. It is so tempting to take an experience like this, an experience where the ordinary and profane are transformed into the extraordinary and sacred, and try to keep it, to maintain it, to hold on to it. Yet part of what makes these experiences what they are is the temporary and dynamic nature of it. By trying to establish this experience as the status quo, we end up robbing it of its power. But worse, we misunderstand the very nature of this power.
Transformation from Below vs. Justice as Order
Psalm 99 is a great example of this. Psalm 99 is an enthronement psalm, which celebrate the right ordering of creation and thus the right ordering of social power as well.
[In these psalms,] Justice is linked to the maintenance of a viable ordering of common life . That right ordering assures stability.
This, I think, is exactly what we end up with when we try to stabilize such a dynamic mountaintop experience – the idea that order and justice comes from above. And if that’s true, then who better to dish out this justice and order than those at the very top, those closest to the mountaintop.
With this in mind, Brueggemann points out why verses 6-7 in psalm 99 are so powerful. it represents an interruption of the established order, hearkening back to a time of struggle for liberation against the powers of oppression.
Moses and Aaron among his priests,
Samuel, among those who call on His name –
when they called to the Lord,
He answered them.
He spoke to them in a pillar of cloud;
they obeyed His decrees,
the law He gave them
These verses reveal the sacred in the midst of a celebration of top-down order. In doing so it says something very important about the nature of God. What begins as a celebration of justice from above, a sort of “trickle-down justice” that says if the king and elites in Jerusalem are well-off, justice will reach the poor and the oppressed below. It is a way of making God a God of justice and order from above, a God who helps not the least of these, but those at the top, those closest to the summit first.
But something changes in the middle. We find a reminder of the Exodus, of the struggle of the people of Israel against Pharaoh. In other words, a reminder that God is a God who transforms the world not from above, not through people in power (kings, Pharaohs, emperors, presidents, etc.). Rather, God is a God who transforms the world from below, through the weak, through the poor, and through the outcast.
The Road to Jerusalem
Finally, in Matthew 17:1-9 we have the culmination of all of this in a rather unexpected way. It is the very nature of transformation that Jesus transforms.
The Transfiguration, which means transformation, is a dynamic and creative process, unlike the static just and order of kings, emperors and pharaohs. And not only does Jesus, like Moses before him, interrupt the transformation from above narrative of Rome, but he transforms the framework for understanding what transformation means.
Because now, instead of God’s presence and glory being experienced on the mountaintop, Jesus brings God’s presence off the mountain and to the least of these. God’s presence is now experienced among the poor and the outcast, the sinners and widows, those with disabilities and those with illnesses.
Frank Tupper calls it a reverse Exodus: Jesus goes into Egypt, not out of it; into the occupied territory, not out of it. Jesus, after the Transfiguration, goes into Jerusalem, to his suffering and death.
What does this say about the nature of God?
God is found not among the kings and the emperors at the top of the mountain, but with those at the bottom of the mountain. That is where transformation and justice takes place. God is found in the midst of suffering, pain and death, not removed from it. Not only that, but we are called to go into those places of great suffering and pain and to let them transform us.
So while Peter wanted to experience God’s presence on the top of the mountain, to be as close as possible to God’s glory, Jesus offers an important correction. If we are going to experience to presence and glory of God, which is to say, if we are going to be transformed by God, then we must sacrifice our lives for the poor, the sick, the widowed, the orphaned, and the disabled. That is where transformation happens – at the bottom of the mountain. In the world, with all of its pain and disappointment, its injustice and suffering.
What the disciples experience is something different from the fulfillment of their longings. They are caught up in a complete reversal of events. What they have longed for is a flight from the difficulties and failures of life, to the mountain of bliss. But now they go back to the world, with Jesus. Their path does not end up there on the mountain. It turns back, down from the peak, away from the satisfying fulfillment of their own desires. It is a path that leads them to Jerusalem with Jesus, to suffering, beneath his cross.
What they longed for was to escape from the pressures of life, to be released from the problems and pains of this world, and to live a solitary existence away from other human beings. But what they are called to do is to live in the midst of this world: in its pains and problems, beneath the cross. They climb the mountain of their desire – and turn back to the place of their responsibility, which is beneath the cross, in the solidarity of love for human beings.
To transform the world we must start from the bottom, not the top. Just as the story of Moses interrupts the narrative of power and justice from above, we must allow the lives of those at the bottom of the mountain to interrupt the current narrative of power and justice from above. This is exactly what happened in my experience with Jay, and why I think it is a much better representation of what transformation really means and where it is found: if we want to experience God’s presence on earth as it is in heaven, and to ultimately transform the world, we must find it not at the top of the mountain, but at the bottom – we must take the road into Jerusalem, not turn away from it.
The Transfiguration comes between the season of Epiphany, where we celebrate the revelation of God in the Incarnation, and Lent, where we prepare for the death and resurrection of God. It would make sense then that this day, a day of transformation, leads us towards pain and suffering – not away from it – as the place where God is revealed.