Something amazing happens. We have an experience of a lifetime. We reach a goal we have been striving for. We cannot believe what our eyes are showing us or what our other senses are telling us is happening around us. At these times, we often do not know what to say or do, but we feel like we have to say or do something to commemorate the moment we are experiencing.
So what do we do? [we pull out our phones]
As soon as we pull out our phones, what happens to our attention? We are no longer in the moment. We have transitioned from experiencing the moment through our senses, to experiencing the moment indirectly through a screen. Our brains go from soaking up what is going on, to thinking about the best angle to get the best picture to get the most likes on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. This is basically what Peter did at the transfiguration. Instead of simply being in awe and grateful to have stayed awake to experience what was going on, his mind went to what he could do. What he should do. What needed to be done. Build something! Make a permanent reminder of what happened here on the mountain. If he had had a cell phone, he would have had it out. He probably would have googled something like “glowing people on a mountaintop” and tried to snap a selfie with Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. Because, why not?
But Peter gets a wakeup call that comes from a cloud. The voice of God snaps Peter out of his pro-active mode and tells him to listen to Jesus, because he is God’s son. Now, the story just prior to this one in the Gospel of Luke tells us that Peter already knew who Jesus was. Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter replies, “the Messiah of God.” But God stating this fact from the cloud in a moment when Peter needed a reminder to stay in the present moment, gives Peter the chance to reorient himself. He says nothing more about building shrines or dwellings. In fact, he does not even go running down the mountain and share what he saw with the world. Peter and the other disciples finally realize they are witnessing something special, that Jesus intended for them to see and experience. It was not intended for the world in that moment, it was intended for them.
The transfiguration is not the only mountaintop experience we hear about today. In our reading from Exodus, Moses has a mountaintop experience of his own on Mount Sinai. He had gone up alone and was given the two tablets of the covenant. Like Jesus, he was changed by the encounter with God, but the radiance did not fade when he left the presence of God. The people were scared by the way his skin shone, which was a result of his time with God. So he ended up covering himself, so as to not show the evidence of his transformation and closeness with God.
Maybe that is why Jesus only had a few of his disciples with him at the transfiguration. Maybe he knew that it would cause fear and that people would not want to see the evidence of his closeness with God. So, instead, he says to his closest disciples, come. Maybe the disciples did not share the experience right away because they knew nothing they could say would do it justice, and the meaning would be lost in the description.
When I lived in Washington State, I had the opportunity for a literal mountaintop experience. I got a coveted permit to summit Mount St. Helens, the volcano that exploded in 1980. When I reached the top, after hours of challenging hiking, I was tempted to pull out my camera right away. You see, I love taking landscape and nature pictures, and this was a view I had never had before. But I didn’t. At least not right away. I sat on the edge of the crater and I marveled at the view of destruction, power, healing, and growth. I took time to absorb what I was seeing, and what I had accomplished that day. Yes, I took pictures along the way, and yes, I took pictures at the summit. I’ve even told people about it. But I know that the pictures and the stories pale in comparison to what I experienced on that summer day in 2012. And I wonder, do people think they know what the experience is like just because they saw the pictures or heard the stories? Can they really understand what it was like to sit there, overlooking the steaming crater, and seeing the transitions from total destruction to new growth and prosperity spread out across the landscape? I don’t think so.
No matter what the mountaintop experience is, it is your experience to embrace or to ignore. It is your opportunity to feel closer to your creator and glimpse the bliss that is knowing that you are a truly and wholly beloved child of God. Yes, you. Each and every one of you has had and will have these experiences in your life. And whether they happen in a crowd or alone, on a literal mountaintop or in your bedroom, they are your experiences and they make you who you are. The saying “pictures or it didn’t happen” does not apply. With or without physical evidence, allow these moments to write the love of God on your heart and soul.
Sometimes we all need a wakeup call, and we aren’t all lucky enough to hear the voice of God speaking to us from a cloud. Allow yourself to be challenged and woken up to what is going on around you in your life and in the world. One of the wakeup calls for me has been the news that our brothers and sisters in the Methodist church do not get the opportunity to be all welcoming, like we do in the Episcopal Church, especially here in Maine. Last Sunday, our youth worked on a covenant that they will do their best to follow in youth group. One of the items on the covenant is “Free to be you!” I hope this freedom will take root in the youth group, and expand into the rest of the congregation, so that we can continue to expand our welcome of people with differing experiences than ourselves.
Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, which is the 40 days of preparation that lead up to Easter. This Lent, I hope you will challenge yourself to be more in the present moment, to experience life as it comes through your own senses, not through the lens of your phone, and to remember that these experiences are blessings from God to guide, instruct, and illustrate God’s love for you and the world.
And when you do have a mountaintop experience, absorb it, process it, and allow it to become a part of who you are. Because who you are matters to God and to us. No matter who you are, where your are from, or what experiences you may or may not have had, God welcomes you into God’s loving embrace, and so do we at St. Paul’s.