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Sandals Flying in All Directions
based on Exodus 24:12-18 and Matthew 17:1-9
By Rev. Thomas Hal
l, DPS homiletics editor

Our 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." It’s 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 you’ve read Jon Krakauer’s breathtaking account of the worst disaster on Mount Everest in his book, Into Thin Air. Or maybe you’ve scaled your own challenging peak or at least skied down a beginner’s slope. Of course, there’s 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 we’ve 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 animals.

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 wasn’t 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 aren’t 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 God’s turf. Occasionally, God would step down from the portals of heaven and inhabit the mountains. So it wasn’t too farfetched an idea to anticipate extraordinary encounters between God and people way up there in the mountains. That’s 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 LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and all the nations shall stream to it." Mount Zion isn’t 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 Peter’s 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 Peter’s 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 there’s 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 Matthew’s high mountain; it’s 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. Weren’t 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 you’d want folks to remember you by? "Oh yeah, we got the whole thing on digital. Yep, spread eagle and all. What an experience."

Ever had that kind of experience? Ever felt like you were flying off in all directions? That’s exactly how Matthew portrays the Transfiguration. Sandals flying off in all directions. And that’s 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 that’s 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 Sally’s 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.