Turbulence and Transfiguration
Sermon preached by Jennifer Hudson, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Transfiguration Sunday—February 19, 2023
The first time I went to Los Angeles, I thought I was going to die before reaching the airport. The violent shaking of the plane was accompanied by the pungent smell of smoke. Allowing my imagination to get the better of me, I feared something might be terribly wrong with the plane and that we might crash. Soon the pilot greeted us via the intercom and informed that a wildfire was burning in a nearby area and that, although we were in for a great deal of turbulence, we would land safely at LAX. I should have felt relieved. Yet as the plane continued to feel as though it would drop with each bump in the wind we hit, I clung to my arm rests for dear life, the palms of my hands drenched. To reassure myself the plane was not falling each time it jerked, I looked at the view beyond my little window. In the distance was the skyline of downtown Los Angeles, and behind it, the San Gabriel Mountains covered, in part, by a thick, cloudy haze.
There was something about this sight that provoked a great sense of awe in me. On the one hand, the dense vapors were a bit of a fearsome scene. They looked like the long ghostly fingers of the Grim Reaper himself. However, the ranges were also quite beautiful to behold. Their peaks and summits may have been hidden from view, but their slopes held a kind of majesty that transcended both the neighboring urban terrain as well as the enveloping smoke and choppy air currents. Those mountains revealed a kind of grace in the midst of jeopardy. They were a place where sky and earth and mystery and beauty converged in a stunning sight that seemed almost surreal. I counted myself grateful to have witnessed it—but was thankful to finally land at LAX because, by then, my hands must have sweat out enough to fill an entire pool!
Mountains are important symbols in our collective psyche and are more commonly associated with adventure and the overcoming of challenges. That’s not surprising as climbing a mountain up to its highest point can be quite treacherous. People have fallen to their deaths doing so. But when one has been lucky enough to reach the summit, the bird’s eye view of the land below and of the horizon is as breathtaking as that which I saw from my airplane window, and deemed worth the risk to gaze upon it.
Mountains are also where sky and earth meet. In the Ancient Near East, mountaintops were the dwelling places of the gods and, for our purposes this morning, they are where God connects with humanity and where God’s glory and holiness is revealed.
I’ve never been to Israel, but I do know Mount Sinai is rocky and stands 7,497 feet tall. (I Googled it.) Imagine Moses climbing to its top. It could not have been easy. Now imagine a cloud along with the “glory of the Lord” (which is to say the manifestation of the Divine Presence) descending upon the mountain and covering it for six whole days. It must have been an even more mysterious and unsettling sight than that cloudy haze I had seen covering the San Gabriel Mountains. I wonder what Moses was feeling as an eyewitness to an aura that was like “a devouring fire.” I, for one, would have felt great fear, maybe some awe. Yet Moses kept going when he heard God speak to him on the seventh day from within the cloud. He trusted the situation. He trusted that this “devouring fire,” though fearsome, was really God’s Presence coming to consecrate the place and make it sacred in order to reveal divine instruction that would, in turn, make God’s people sacred.
The kind of trust and faith Moses maintained at Mount Sinai is the same kind that leads Peter, James and John to accompany Jesus to the top of the mountain. Some Christians since the third century have posited Mount Tabor, which stands 1,886 feet tall in lower Galilee (again, I Googled it), as the mountaintop where Jesus took these three disciples. It is worth noting that whereas Moses ascended alone, Jesus does not—that’s because Jesus is not the one who is going to receive a revelation. The disciples are. Jesus, in turning dazzling white, bears the majestic glory, the aura of God, the Divine Presence. Here, Jesus’ true nature is revealed. Just as with Moses, a cloud comes to protect the three disciples from the brilliance and speaks to them, giving them divine instruction: they are to listen to Jesus. Jesus becomes the fulfillment of the law (represented by Moses) and of the prophets (represented by Elijah). Peter, James and John are awe-stricken and fearful. And Jesus instructs them to not be afraid.
What formidable mountains might we be climbing in our own lives? Maybe a health challenge, or the end of a relationship, or the loss of a loved one or a job or a community. Maybe we’re struggling to come out. Maybe we’re mustering the courage to get vulnerable and reveal our thoughts or feelings that we’ve held onto for a very long time about something. The list could go on.
Mountain experiences are not easy. Sometimes they’re cloudy and frightening and what’s on the other side is uncertain. But the challenges and risks they present invite growth and change if we make the decision to move through the fear. As Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor puts it in one of her sermons, the transfiguration story “tells you that sometimes things get really scary before they get holy.”
Well, maybe sometimes things need to get scary in order to get holy. Maybe a bit of turbulence is what pushes us to transformation. Maybe it is what allows us to beat an illness that didn’t have a good prognosis. Maybe it forces us to meet new people or find a better job or stop hiding a part of who we are or speak a truth we might not have dared to before. After all, if fear is the opposite of love, then it can only be movement through that fear which allows us to unlock the power of love. When we do that, that is when the holy happens. That is when what we have been through gets transformed into something sacred. That is when we become transfigured and it is revealed how much we reflect God’s glory, and how very present God is. God is that awesome power of love which pilots us through all of our moments, because God loves us so.
My friends, God asks us to have faith. God asks us to remember we are not alone in our struggles. God asks us to take risks. If we face each day with the courage to move through fear into love, if we truly listen to Jesus’ counsel “do not be afraid,” a counsel which speaks over the intercom of our souls, we can trust that, no matter where, we will always land safely in God’s grace.