Sandals Flying in All Directions
based on Exodus 24:12-18 and Matthew 17:1-9
By Rev. Thomas Hall, DPS homiletics editor
reading from Exodus and the Gospel of Matthew both mention a very special place:
mountains. The first mountain mentioned is Tabor. Moses and his closest associates make
the ascent "up the mountain of God." Even today, this holy mountain is quite an
ascent. Too steep for tourist buses to ascend, one has to do a lot of walking and praying
to reach the top.
The other mountain Matthew calls simply, "a high mountain." Its a long,
hard, hot climb. But the three disciples-Peter, James, and John-stay with Jesus, in order
to experience an extraordinary encounter with God.
What are your experiences with mountains? Maybe youve read Jon Krakauers
breathtaking account of the worst disaster on Mount Everest in his book, Into Thin Air.
Or maybe youve scaled your own challenging peak or at least skied down a
beginners slope. Of course, theres one in every crowd. The one whose only
hands-on mountain experience is limited to the range of mountains tacked to the health
club wall with inspirational words written beneath them. Yet, however weve
encountered mountains, mountains inspire the human spirit.
Mountains represent a challenge: mountains are to be climbed, and conquered. Mountains
are goals that we seek to achieve, new vistas to arrive at. One mountain climber described
people who scale high mountains as having three things in common: faith in themselves,
great determination, and endurance.
But the poet describes a different understanding of mountains: they are places to go to
get away from routine. "To me," Lord Byron says, "high mountains are a
feeling, but the hum of human cities torture." Mountains are a feeling of being away
from the noise, stress, deadlines, timelines, and projects that come at us daily like wild
That was how I first experienced mountains. When I was married, we chose to honeymoon
on the side of the Beartooth Mountains in Montana. But January probably wasnt the
wisest time to ascend the Beartooths. We were part of a musical company and surrounded by
seventeen colleagues stuffed into a bus and performing in a different town every night.
For us, solitude, not multitude, was what we sought. We hiked in waist-high snow up near
the top of a mountain. The cabin should have been a welcomed sight except that this cabin
had no heat but the fireplace, no toilet but an outhouse far enough from the cabin to
produce frostbite to exposed extremities.
We had no running water, just ice melted on a wood-burning stove. Quite an experience
to leave the world of microwave ovens, television, telephones and neighbors.
It was on that same mountain one summer afternoon five years later that I sensed a call
to leave my job and return to college. Together, my wife and I knew that God was speaking
to our lives. So we made that choice on the mountaintop and have realized many times since
how important that mountaintop experience was; it has impacted our vocation, our location,
and peace of mind.
Mountains arent magical, but for us the mountaintop provided the right
environment to listen. Away from urgent demands, away from daily planners, and schedules
and timelines and projects and meetings, we were able to listen deeply to our lives and to
listen deeply to God and to obey.
Scripture describes mountains as places of encounter. Mountains were believed to be
Gods turf. Occasionally, God would step down from the portals of heaven and inhabit
the mountains. So it wasnt too farfetched an idea to anticipate extraordinary
encounters between God and people way up there in the mountains. Thats what Abraham
experienced on the mountain. On Mount Moriah Abraham encounters the God who substitutes
life for a life. The ram caught in the thicket becomes the sacrificial substitute for his
own son, Isaac.
The ancients called the Temple "Mount Zion." Isaiah says of this holy
mountain, "The mountain of the LORDs house shall be established as the highest
of the mountains, and all the nations shall stream to it." Mount Zion isnt
exactly in competition with Mount Everest which reaches 29,028 feet, but that wherever God
abides, that place becomes for us a "high mountain."
The poet is right. Mountains are a feeling as much as a place. So Peter, James and John
approach the top of the high mountain and suddenly behold two of the greatest figures of
the Hebrew covenant: Moses, through whom God gave the Law to the people on Sinai, and
Elijah, the great prophet who had been carried off in a fiery chariot. Traditionally, Jews
think of the scriptures as the Law and the Prophets. Here the Law and the Prophets appear
in the persons of Moses and Elijah.
And then there is Peter. Peter is a great source of encouragement. If God can make a
saint out of Peter, then God can make a saint out of any of us. Not only is Peter all
mouth, but he has a project. All of us humans have veneer-a part of us that consists of
what we do, what we have, and what others think of us. Well the veneer sparkles in
Peters words. "Lord, it is good for us to be here," he says. "Let us
build three booths, one for you, one for Elijah, and one for Moses." Peter has found
a new project and he will initiate and lead the project through to completion.
We never get to see Peters carpentry prowess, for the Lord overwhelms Peter in
the Cloud and all the disciples are suddenly silenced by the extraordinary Voice and Cloud
and transfigured Jesus. But we can guess what the next scene must have looked like.
So what is the purpose of this strange story? Matthew, is not interested in merely
showing us a glimpse of the extraordinary life of Jesus. The story does that for sure. We
leave Transfiguration with a new sense of the otherness of God in Jesus. Yet the story
also leads us to see that extraordinary life wrapped up in the clothes of a servant. But
theres more here. I think Matthew uses the story as a way to teach us some very
clear steps about how to encounter God in our own lives.
Basil Pennington describes how the transfiguration is portrayed in the iconostasis of
the Byzantine church. As you look at the icon for the Feast of Transfiguration, you first
are drawn to Matthews high mountain; its a steep, pointed mountain. Christ
stands on the summit, clothed in white, with halos of many colors surrounding him. Moses
and Elijah appear in the upper corners of the icon. Moses holds the tablets of the Law and
Elijah in his fiery chariot and both speak to the Lord. But where are the disciples we
wonder. Werent they the center of the action? Well, when the Byzantine artists get
finished with Peter, James, and John, the future Leaders of the church are sprawled spread
eagle on the ground, sandals flying off in all directions.
Is that the kind of spiritual mountaintop experience youd want folks to remember
you by? "Oh yeah, we got the whole thing on digital. Yep, spread eagle and all. What
Ever had that kind of experience? Ever felt like you were flying off in all directions?
Thats exactly how Matthew portrays the Transfiguration. Sandals flying off in all
directions. And thats the lesson. Matthew reminds us that we-just like the
disciples-go flying into all kinds of all directions when we try to bring our projects and
good efforts and agendas and day-timers along with us to meet with God. What pulled the
disciples together and what pulls us together is the same: "This is my beloved Son
. . . Listen to Him." High mountains occur wherever people begin to listen deeply
and to focus intently on the One who towers above all else. Christ pulls us together and
transforms us. And thats what makes the mountain holy.
Not long ago, a neighbor of mine made an unusual request. She wanted to participate in
a Holy Communion Service. I knew that Sally had had both legs amputated; I also knew that
arthritis had so deformed her fingers that she could only grasp with great effort. Now
congestive heart failure was taking her breath.
I entered Room 413 in the Cardiac Wing of the hospital. I was unsettled with all of the
feverish activity around the room-nurses rushing in and out, the constant beeps from
monitors, and the colored lines four-tiers high jumping in wide variation. Yet with her
family standing around her we entered a high mountain through Holy Communion. Her husband,
a Russian Orthodox believer held her hand, a daughter wept nearby, and another daughter
and her minister a thousand miles away listened in via the telephone.
We prayed and blessed and broke and gave of the bread and cup. Max gently placed the
bread on Sallys tongue and raised the cup to her lips. We became oblivious to the
humming and bleeping and the raspy announcements coming through the speaker. It was as if
Matthew were reminding us of Jesus promise: Where two or three are gathered
together in my name, there I am with you. Jesus was in that room-sandals were flying
in all directions, but we were listening as we never had before. Listening in a different
way and to a different person. Right there in Room 413 we were on the mountain of God
through worship, hope and healing prayer.
I recalled the Transfiguration story that afternoon and became amazed at how much
mountains can look like hospital rooms-especially Room 413. Amen.