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Prayer Mountain
based on Luke 9:28-36, (37-43)
by Rev. Thomas Hall

Indelible memories are encounters deeply etched in our minds. An indelible memory is a moment in time and space that we want to freeze and cherish.

Recently, I attended our church's Valentine Banquet-for me, that may well become an indelible memory! I'll never forget flunking the marriage test at that banquet. How was I to know that the first movie I ever watched with my wife was The Bad News Bears and not Jaws? And I was much too nervous to notice if the sleeves of her wedding gown were short or long. Over at a nearby table other indelible memories were in the making--like a couple who mistook their potato soup for creamy Italian dressing and ended up with potato dressing. At yet another table an older couple had logged an incredible aggregate total of 120 years of married life! And there were tender moments when one of them shared some of that wisdom with the rest of us. Great memories.

Less than a month ago I lost my father to an unexpected aneurysm. An unusually healthy man, his sudden death left our family shocked and in deep grief. Weeping spent long nights with all of us. Many of us have experienced that kind of loss and deep grief-and we’ve also discovered what nourishes the soul as none other can during those moments. Memories. Memories of that person with you, driving a tractor, sharing a meal, or just plain being silly. That’s what we did. Laughed and wept together in the same moment. Those memories are precious and help us to remember the past and move on.

It was a brisk chilly morning in Florida, early spring. Nine people walked out on to the launching pad; among them was Judy Resnick, the first Jewish person to enter space. Another woman was a young elementary teacher--most of the school where she taught had come out to give her a huge send off. A sandstorm had already delayed the flight for four days and the crew was clearly getting anxious to get on with the launch. They weren’t aware that they would be facing the most severe winds ever encountered by a space shuttle. Nor had they--or America--ever heard of an O-ring. But at the launch, a pencil-sized wisp of smoke trailed behind the Challenger. Sixty seconds and nine miles into the air, the jet stream hit the Challenger with such force that the O-rings broke and one of the external boosters dangled like a broken arm and slammed into one of the fuel tanks. At sixty seconds, ground control heard the pilot's voice for the final time; he looked out the window and saw the huge fire and uttered "Uh-Oh." And at sixty-five seconds into the flight, the Challenger and its brave crew become a tragic indelible memory in the American dream.

Our lesson this morning carries the foreboding that makes for such indelible memories. Whatever this strange event of Transfiguration means, it made such impression on the gospel writers that years later they could still recall this event. The story of the Transfiguration appears in all three gospels and with little variation. That means that it floated around in many forms and parchments before finally coming to settle in Luke's gospel. The transfiguration is an indelible memory of the Church.

Peter, James, and John journey with Jesus to the sacred mountain. They know what they're there for, to pray. But the disciples soon leave off praying for snoozing. The writer sympathizes with the men; they are after all, "weighed down with sleep." Perhaps the sleep is well-deserved; the journey has expended their energy; the daily grind of following Jesus, of scratching their heads in wonderment, of vacillating concerning who this man, Jesus really is. Clearly, these three disciples have come unplugged from their purpose; overwhelmed by fatigue they succumb to slumber. They're still rubbing their eyes when they catch the tail end of this strange moment-Jesus while praying takes on this unusual iridescence. And Moses and Elijah--both long dead are hanging around on Prayer Mountain speaking with him about the immediate future.

Never one to be caught off guard, Peter blurts out, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three memorials, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." It is amazing what can come out of one's mouth six seconds after awakening from a dead sleep. Hardly finished yawning and he starts talking. Apparently, even the writer is embarrassed by Peter's obtuse response. The writer explains that Peter "did not know what he was saying."

A dense cloud cuts short any other profundities that Peter had planned to offer. Peter and the disciples now realize the immensity of the Experience. They have gotten in over their heads, they have experienced God’s immanent presence. They have beheld the coming together of past, present, and future on that mountain. They have looked with naked eye into the very face of God. Seems Peter wants to turn this sacred moment into a permanent retreat center. But the Cloud has changed all of that. It overshadows them and they're scared beyond their wits. Don't know if they'll die on the mountain or live to tell their grandkids about it. The message is much shorter than Peter's words--"This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" The disciples emerge from Transfiguration with an indelible memory. But not the kind that poets write about, of sunrises, soft breezes, warm friends, music, and quiet times. On this mountain they have experienced the presence of God that has reduced them to silence.

But why did this event become a treasured memory of the Church? What's the point of it? This experience doesn’t ever happen at my church-except maybe with the help of pyrotechnics and strobe lights. How do we relate to it? What does the Transfiguration offer us? Mountaintop experiences? Spiritual retreats? What?

To be honest, this is a never to be repeated experience. No iridescent glows or quivering mountains or speaking clouds. This became an indelible memory because it could never be repeated. Some Christians go to the Bible stories to attempt to replicate what they read. Unfortunately, in the process, the Scriptures are turned into rigid formulae that now dictate our experiences. That's one reason we have so many versions of the Christian faith--we're trying to reduce the stories into rules, truths, formulae, and doctrines. And when we think we've got the truth we become intolerant of others who have discovered a different way to understand the same truth. Even our gospel writers place different interpretations on the Transfiguration experience. Mark sees it as a mountain top experience, Matthew as a vision, Luke as a prayer meeting. So let's be honest this morning and let this memory stand on its own without trying to squeeze it into our personal experiences.

But does that mean we should just write this passage off as bizarre, but not relevant? Not if we walk in the shoes of the disciples. The disciples had heard this stuff before. Remember a couple of weeks ago on "Baptism of the Lord Sunday?" We heard a heavenly voice say almost the same thing-"You are my son, I am well-pleased." The knew Jesus to be Someone who owned a special familial relationship with the Creator. Add to that what they had seen since the voice-a leper healed here, a demoniac delivered there, a couple thousand fed over there. They believed.

But I wonder if maybe recent events had challenged that doubt.-"I must suffer many things," Jesus had been saying, "and I will be rejected and be killed. Those words must have confused and stung. Killed? What good is a dead hero? Why then all the talk these days about suffering, dying, and following him?

So with these sobering words they had come to the mountain to pray. And there it was again. The Cloud. And that unmistakable Voice-"This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!" Jesus receives heaven's confirmation again. So that's it! This death-wish of Jesus, this preoccupation with suffering is part of the plan and this will nourish their faith when things are going to pieces! I don’t think the disciples caught on quite that fast. They won't grasp the full-significance of the Transfiguration until years later when they write their memoirs, but at least they now have something to hang on to-a belief and an experience to anchor that belief.

And so do we. This passage is not primarily about developing a prayer life, or notching mountain top experiences, or even healing little boys in the valley. Luke includes this story because it holds out for us the two principal qualities for our faith. First, Jesus is God's Chosen One; to have Jesus is to have hope and fulfillment and healing and joy and laughter and liberty and new life and fresh starts and forgiveness and love and God's abiding presence. But secondly, that following Jesus will not always take us down the freeway with the speedometer on cruise control, but also down the backroads that lead through suffering, pain, rejection, death, and always to resurrection.

All of this was brought keenly to my mind last week. I was, of all places, up on a mountain for a retreat. Ministers from all over had converged at Blue Mountain Retreat for some brief days away from their congregations. I had arrived late and was just there for an afternoon. So I sat in the back and listen to a fellow minister describe the stressors in Jesus' life and the pressures of our ministries--getting the bulletin done each week, going to meetings, writing sermons, making pastoral calls in the area, and listening to the groaners and moaners in our congregation talk about how wonderful their church was in the 1950's.

Then he told of a young man who was in the last stages of AIDS and lived at least a hour away. He had tried to get up twice a week to see this man; said the distance was too far for most from his congregation to want to travel. And even if he lived closer to the church he doubted if that would make any difference. By now his family had practically disowned him. So on this Thursday, overwhelmed with work he debated whether he should go up and pay a quick visit. The argument lasted for several minutes before he decided to go.

Dressed in the gown and gloves and mask the minister sat with the man. He had a frail body and blotches over his skin. But he could talk a little. The man grasped the minister's hand and then just shut his eyes and slept. Well, the minister sat there for ten minutes holding this guy's hand and beginning to sweat thinking about all of the demands on his time. But he decided to hold this guy's hand anyway. After awhile the man opened his eyes big as half dollars and said, "Rev’d, you're my best friend. Thanks for staying with me."

Luke’s mountaintop is the place of prayer where we will see God and suffering locked in the same Person. You’ll never quite be the same. Amen.