Sunday, February 15th, 2015 – Transfiguration Sunday
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scriptures: II Kings 2:1-12, Mark 9:2-9
Hymns: “Mighty to Save”, “Immortal, Invisible”, “God of Our Fathers”, “For the Beauty of the Earth”, “Be Thou My Vision”, “Eat This Bread”, “How Great Is Our God”
“Changed on the Mountain”
Chances are, we’ve all heard the phrase “mountaintop experience” at some point in our lives. This refers to a moment in our lives that is so seminal and brings about such profound change that we don’t believe we’ll ever be the same again. Some mountaintop experiences last; some don’t. Today, as we look at the story of the literal mountaintop experience of Jesus and his apostles, I’d like to share with you a few brief stories of mountaintop experiences that actually happened ON A MOUNTAIN.
About three hundred miles north of the Mexican border, there is a town that sits on the Colorado Plateau. At seven thousand feet of elevation, it is surrounded by pine forest, and is situated at the foot of 12,637 foot high Mount Humphreys. The town of Flagstaff, with its sub-freezing winter temperatures and average of about ten total feet of snow per winter, defies the expectation of an Arizona city. Only once in the recorded history of the town has the temperature reached triple digits there, hitting 100 degrees on June 26th, 1990, the day when it reached 122 degrees in Phoenix.
Flagstaff is a resort town, a vacation town, a ski town, a destination town, but more than any of that, it is a college town. Since 1899, Northern Arizona University has awarded thousands upon thousands of bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees to the innumerable students who have spent their days on campus studying away. And in the midst of that campus is a small blue building called the Campus Ministry Center. Come June, our youth will spend two nights sleeping in that very building – one on the way to California; one on the way back – but I spent four of the most formative years of my life participating in one of the ministries that called that building home.
You see, when I arrived in Flagstaff in August of 2000, I had no idea where I was going to go to church. The closest Disciples of Christ congregation was 100 miles away, in Prescott. All the churches in town were off campus, and I didn’t have a car at the time. So, when a few of my friends from high school who had also made the journey to Northern Arizona University invited me to go with them to a campus ministry, I said, “Sure, why not?”
That ministry was Lutheran Campus Ministry, and there is no doubt in my mind that LCM changed my life drastically. That was where I used my knowledge of music theory to play praise and worship music on the piano for the first time. That was where, for the first time, I took a pastor seriously when he told me I should consider going into ministry. That was where I first got involved with an organization that would allow me to be a camp counselor – something that I will do for the thirteenth consecutive summer this year.
Being part of the family in that little blue building on that mountain changed my life forever. It set in motion events I never could have predicted, and my time there ensured that my life would not be the same again.
Part of the reason I was so willing to get involved with that ministry in the first place was that I felt isolated and alone in Flagstaff. I yearned for the community, the familial nature of a church, and when LCM accepted me in, it was as though new life had been breathed into me. What I never stopped to consider at the time was that maybe, instead of being isolated, God had set me apart for a greater purpose.
When we read today’s Gospel passage, we must assume that perhaps the same was true of Peter, James, and John. Why did Jesus take only those three up the mountain with him, instead of all twelve apostles? What was it about Peter, the Rock, and James and John, the Sons of Thunder, that made Jesus want them to witness this event?
Those very nicknames give us some clues. Peter was, of course, the Rock upon which Jesus would build his church, and James and John were the two apostles who would stick most closely to Jesus, would most fiercely defend him, and would most doggedly continue his work after his ascension into heaven. They were the inner circle of the inner circle – after all, Jesus, though God incarnate, was still a flesh and blood human, and still needed his own “best friends”.
And so, these three were set apart for a greater purpose, and accompanied Jesus up the mountain. For what reason, they did not know. In fact, in the account of this story in Luke, it says that they were up there for so long that they began to fall asleep. When they opened their eyes, though… well, what they saw was pretty incredible.
Let me tell you another story. This is the story of Alexandra. Alexandra, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, moved around some as a child, eventually landing in Tempe, Arizona. As she was preparing to enter school at Northern Arizona University, her father took a call in the town of Sedona, just twenty-five miles away from Flagstaff.
When Alexandra arrived at NAU, she, having grown up in the church, was naturally drawn to Lutheran Campus Ministry. She arrived about two years into my time at NAU, and over the next two years would become one of my closest friends. She came to NAU to study music education, but her time at LCM would end up leading her down a slightly different path.
While at LCM, she would discover a calling to music ministry. This calling would eventually lead her to Grace Lutheran Church in Corvallis, Oregon, where she ended up serving as their much-beloved music minister until just a few months ago. It was while serving that church that she met the man to whom she is now married.
Now, this is not to say that all of that couldn’t have happened without the days she spent at LCM… but I can’t help but think that they helped.
And if you think about our three apostles who went up on the mountain with Jesus, it’s possible that they would’ve been the way they were without that mountaintop experience. After all, Peter was brash and bold, always diving into things headfirst, leaping without looking, acting without thinking. Sometimes that’s the way you have to act in the church to accomplish things, because you are heading into completely unknown territory.
But what Peter SAW on that mountain would’ve made an indelible change in his mind and in his soul. What he saw that day was two of the greatest prophets in the history of his people, standing there with his rabbi, talking to him. And then, just when it couldn’t get any crazier, the voice of no less than God spoke from the heavens – “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”
So, like I said, I’m not saying that Peter couldn’t have been the rock upon which the church was built without going up that mountain, but you can’t help but think that it helped! But it was more than just a push in the right direction – this direct observation of the anointing of Christ served as a calling for Peter, a calling into the ministry that would define what we think of him today.
Calling is something that tends to happen on mountaintops. Such was the story of Andrew. Andrew, like me, grew up in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), at First Christian Church of Mesa, Arizona. He arrived at Northern Arizona University to study history in the fall of 2005, about a year after I had left, and three years after Alexandra had arrived.
My first encounter with Andrew was one that I didn’t even know had happened until I saw a picture years later. You see, I had come home from California for Thanksgiving and my birthday, and had gone to Flagstaff to hear Alexandra solo in the annual community performance of Handel’s Messiah. Andrew had, by that point, begun attending LCM, for many of the same reasons I had five years before, and he was among the several LCM students who came to the performance that night to support Alexandra and ended up in the same picture with her that I did.
During Andrew’s time at LCM, he too first experienced the call to ministry. Unlike me, though, he didn’t take the roundabout path to seminary, instead going directly to Tennessee after graduating from NAU, to attend the divinity school at Vanderbilt University. After his graduation, his first call was to a two year educational residency, much like the one that Caitie is currently doing, except his was at a church that is somewhat near and dear to my heart – he was called to be the associate at my home church, Foothills Christian Church, in Phoenix. In fact, if you look at the photo of my ordination service in my office, he’s standing on the right-hand side of the picture – the REALLY tall guy in a robe.
Andrew’s call on the mountaintop was pretty straightforward. But in order to act it out, he had to come down off of the mountaintop.
When Peter, James, and John came down off of the mountain with Jesus, they were specifically told not to tell anybody what they had seen – after all, the resurrected Christ about whom they had been called to preach and teach had neither died nor been resurrected yet. They would have to be committed to this calling through danger and turmoil in order to act it out.
And they remained committed. Though they fled in fear when Jesus was arrested, they returned. At least two of them went to the tomb to see Jesus gone. They all encountered him after the resurrection, and they were present at his ascension into heaven.
All three would endure much for their calling on that mountaintop. Imprisonment at the hands of the Roman authorities, slander and disgrace by the religious authorities, and eventually Peter and James would be martyred for their faith. But their commitment to the calling they received on the mountain that day remained resolute, their resolve strong, to demonstrate the love and grace of Jesus Christ through what they did.
That brings us to one more story. This is a story about Kayla. Kayla is from Prescott, Arizona. She arrived in Flagstaff, at Northern Arizona University, in the fall of 2007, at the same time my youngest sister did. By now, I had been gone for three years, and Alexandra had been gone for a semester, but Andrew was still there, only two years into his studies.
Kayla came to the Lutheran Campus Ministry in the little blue building that fall, and she and Andrew became friends. During her time at LCM, she demonstrated her calling to working with the poor and downtrodden of our world, going on LCM’s mission trip to Guatemala, and volunteering with a women’s shelter and an AIDS clinic in Prescott.
Her time at LCM reinforced her calling to ministry to the poor and needy of our world, and when she graduated from NAU in 2011, she became an international aid worker. She worked in places around the world, from India, to Israel, and eventually to Turkey, where she worked with a Danish group providing assistance to Syrian refugees – right up until August of 2013, when she was taken hostage by ISIS.
By now, we all know the name Kayla Jean Mueller, who after a year and a half in captivity, was murdered by ISIS – and make no mistake, she was murdered, whether by their direct action or by their choice to place her in a building that would inevitably be a target of the Royal Jordanian Air Force. She was where she was because she chose dedication to the calling she had received from God – a calling that developed in a little blue building in Flagstaff, Arizona.
I cannot say with certainty that without that campus ministry that Kayla Mueller, Andrew Shepherd, Alexandra Briskey, or I would not have ended up carrying out God’s call in our lives, just like I cannot say with certainty that Peter, James, and John would not have ended up carrying out their calling just as faithfully.
But I can say with certainty that each of us left Flagstaff following a call placed on our hearts by God. Much like Peter, James, and John, when we came off that mountain, what we had seen and experienced had made a change in us that could not be reversed. Our lives had been transfigured, changed on the mountain.
Going up the mountain with Jesus is never a sure thing. You don’t know who you’ll be when you come down that mountain. But if you trust God and follow the calling you receive there, then the way in which you have been changed might just allow you to change the world.