Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, March 3, 2019 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Amherst, MA Exodus 34:29-35 Psalm 99 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 Luke 9:28-36

Transfiguration and a radiant Earth

We couldn’t ask for more powerful readings than the ones we were given for today, the last and climactic Sunday of the Epiphany season. Today we are summoned to the mountaintop to celebrate the transforming power of God. In our first reading, Moses is coming down from Mount Sinai, carrying the Ten Commandments that establish the covenant between God and God’s people. He has been praying on the mountain, listening to God with the love and attentiveness with which one listens to a friend (Ex. 33:11), and the skin of his face is shining (Ex. 34:29). He is radiant with God’s glory.

Today’s Gospel passage from Luke is also set on a mountain. Soon after Jesus tells his disciples that he will die and rise again, he takes with him Peter, John, and James and goes up on the mountain to pray. In the solitude of that holy mountain, with its long, sweeping vistas and its cold, clean air, Jesus’ prayer grows into an intense religious experience that recalls the experience of Moses. “While (Jesus) was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Luke 9:29). To describe this change, Greek manuscripts use the word “metamorphosis” (metemorphothe); Latin manuscripts use the word “transfiguration” (transfiguratus est). Whatever you call it, it’s the same thing: at the top of the mountain, Jesus is swept up by the love that sustains the universe. What Dante calls “the love that moves the sun and other stars”1 so completely embraces Jesus that who he really is, who he has always been, is briefly revealed. A dazzling brightness emanates from his face, his body, even his clothes. The sacred radiance at the center of reality is shining through him, bursting through his seams, streaming from his pores, and even the three sleepy disciples can see it.
Mountains at sunset
What just happened? The holy presence that secretly abides within every person and every part of the created world has suddenly, briefly become visible to the human eye. The vivid image of Jesus lit up from within aligns with the experience of mystics from every religion who speak of a vibrant, shimmering energy or light that flows through everything, although usually we don’t see it. In Asia, the cosmic life force is called chi in Chinese and prana in Sanskrit, and in many Eastern traditions, enlightenment is associated with a flow of energy throughout the body.2 Christian mystics speak of the Holy Spirit as a Presence or energy that moves through the body, and the body of Creation. For Christians, there is something deeply personal in this energy: it is the dynamic, creative Presence of the Holy Spirit. When we sense its presence in ourselves or in the outside world, God seems to light up the edges of things or to shine out from within them. We see the hidden depth behind the surface of ordinary reality. The eternal makes itself known to us, and we may experience it as light, although it is beyond the reach of ordinary sight. That’s where the language of paradox and poetry comes in, where mystics speak of a “dazzling darkness” or a “dark radiance,” just as in this passage Luke uses the language of paradox when he describes Jesus’ experience in terms of both a dazzling light and an overshadowing cloud (Luke 9:29, 34). Something about perceiving that radiant darkness awakens our love. We may not consider ourselves mystics, but anyone who has ever been overcome by the beauty of the world – anyone who, in contemplating the world, has ever experienced a wave of wonder and gratefulness and awe – anyone who has ever spent time looking into the eyes of a baby or studying the details of a leaf – anyone who has ever gazed for a while at a mountain range or watched the sparkling waters of a river as it rushes downstream knows what it’s like to see the hidden radiance of Christ, whose living presence fills the whole Creation. Whenever we look at the world – whenever we look at each other – with eyes of love, we see the hidden radiance, the light that is shining within each person and each thing, although they may know nothing about it. Seeing the world with eyes of love is to see the world shining – to see its suffering, yes; to see its brokenness and imperfection, yes; but also to see it as cherished by God, as precious in God’s sight, as shining with God’s light. To see the world with eyes of love is to see it with God’s eyes. So as we gaze at Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop, shining with the radiance of God, we see what Moses saw, what Jesus saw, and what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins saw: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
Rev. Randy Wilburn (Intentional Interim Pastor, Immanuel Lutheran Church, Amherst) and Rev. Margaret, after the service
I think this is one of the great gifts that people of faith can offer the world in this perilous time: the perception of Creation as a sacred, living whole, lit up with the glory of God. Let’s be clear: we were born into a society that does not see the Earth like that. Most of us were not taught to see the natural world as sacred and lit up with God’s glory. It’s as if a veil was placed over our minds, just as Moses placed a veil over his face (Ex. 34:33). When our minds are veiled, we no longer see God’s glory. We see the natural world as nothing more than the backdrop to what really matters: the human drama. Nature becomes something to be ignored, used up, exploited at will, dominated and assaulted without a second thought. We experience ourselves and other human beings as basically separate from the rest of Creation, entitled to do anything we want to it, with no regard for its integrity or value or needs or rights. By now we know where that perception of the world has taken us: scientists are reporting with increasing concern that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes and that human civilization is at risk of collapse. Gazing at Jesus shining on the mountain is like medicine for our troubled spirits. It removes the veil from our eyes and restores our inward sight. For we are gazing on the one who loved us into being, the one who tells us that life and not death will have the last word, the one in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:17), the one whose presence fills (Eph. 4:10) the whole Creation. So when we see God’s Creation being desecrated and destroyed – when we see God’s good Earth being poisoned by toxins and pollutants, and laid waste by corporate greed – when we learn from scientists that a mass extinction event is now underway, a “biological annihilation”– when we recognize that burning coal, gas, and oil is pushing the planet to break new records for heat, causing droughts, floods, and monster hurricanes, drowning cities, and accelerating wildfires – when we understand that the people hurt first and hardest by the effects of a changing climate are the poor – when we realize that, unless we change course fast, we will not leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world – then we are moved to take action. For we want to bear witness to the love of Jesus that is shining on the mountain and shining in our hearts. We want to honor the glory of God’s Creation and to protect it from further harm. When it comes to tackling climate change, there is so much that we as individuals can do. Maybe we can plant a tree. Save a tree. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, eat organic, eat less meat and move to a plant-based diet. Maybe we can support local farms and land trusts. We can fly less – and, if we must fly, we can buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. If we have financial investments, we can divest from fossil fuels; if we’re college graduates, we can push our alma mater to divest, as well.
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Amherst, MA
Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we also need systemic change. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made clear, we need to transform our society and economy at a rate and scope that are historically unprecedented. To do that, we need to use our voices and our votes, and to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. So some of us join Citizens Climate Lobby, a bipartisan organization that is pushing for a price on carbon and supporting the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. Some of us join Climate Action Now, our fine, local, grassroots, climate action group that meets every month in Amherst or Northampton. Many of us will be looking with great interest at what happens to the Green New Deal, which is the first big push in years to treat the climate crisis with anything like the seriousness that it deserves. Those of us who are white and privileged listen to the voices of racial minorities, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive. Today we stand on the mountain, soaking up the light of Christ and letting ourselves be filled with his love. Even now, the glory that shone through Jesus Christ is shining in our hearts, longing to blaze up like fire and to melt away everything in us that is less than love. On Wednesday we will follow him down the mountain and into the 40 days of Lent, that precious season that invites us to re-orient our lives to the love of God. Day by day we intend to watch for the light and listen to the love, until the day comes when we “see Jesus in every aspect of existence”3 and perceive at last that even the ashes of Lent – even the dust itself – is shining.   ————————————————————————————————————————————— 1. William Johnston, “Arise, My Love…”: Mysticism for a New Era, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, 115. 2. Johnston, “Arise,” 115. 3. “The paths we travel on our sacred journey will lead us to the awareness that the whole point of our lives is the healing of the heart’s eye through which we are able to see Jesus in every aspect of our existence.” (St. Augustine)  

Here is a story from this week’s trip to Arizona, where I attended a retreat led by James Finley, preached in Tucson, and hiked in the desert.

Twin Peaks before 1948
Twin Peaks before 1948, White Stallion Ranch
© Robert A. Jonas

What value does a mountain have? In 1949 the Portland Cement Company built the first cement plant in Arizona, 20 miles northwest of Tucson. They built the plant about four miles from Twin Peaks, a pair of small mountains that rose side by side from the desert floor, and they set to work extracting limestone from one of them. The business of digging into the mountain proceeded swiftly and efficiently, especially after a covered conveyer belt nearly four miles long was built in 1972: it could transport up to 800 tons of limestone and shale from the quarry to the plant every hour. By then the plant was operating three kilns, each one longer than a football field, and supplying the growing cities of Tucson and south Phoenix with 3 million barrels of cement every year.

Today a traveler visiting Twin Peaks will look in vain for the pair of mountains. One of them has vanished. Not just the mountaintop has been removed – the whole mountain is gone. Even its roots have been excavated. All that remains is an empty pit, an open wound. (For an aerial view, click here.)

There are several ways to tell this story. Is it a tale of humanity’s cleverness and ingenuity? Of how adept we are at exploiting natural resources to satisfy our comforts and needs? Thanks to limestone and the other industrial minerals that are mined in Arizona, consumers enjoy products that we use every day, from cement to brick, from tile, glass, and asphalt to trains, planes, and cars. You might call this is a success story: because of the cement company, countless jobs have been created, families fed, and buildings constructed.

Or is it a cautionary tale? I gaze across the desert, looking at the empty space where a mountain once stood, and mourn the loss. Twin Peaks exists now only in name and memory. A drawing of the two peaks as they looked before 1948 is sketched on the wall of a nearby ranch. Seeing what remains of them now, it is hard not to think of a radical mastectomy.

Remaining Twin Peak
Remaining Twin Peak
© Robert A. Jonas

Meanwhile, the economic engine keeps pounding. Every year in Tucson, more acres of desert are scraped bare, more subdivisions are erected, and more houses clamber up the mountain slopes. Year by year more saguaro are cut down, more animals are displaced, and more groundwater is pumped out to farm the desert and to feed the sewer systems, fountains, and swimming pools that accompany the construction that cement makes possible. The Sonoran Desert is large, and in theory there is still plenty of space for human habitation to expand. But what seems like the possibility of endless growth, a march of Manifest Destiny into the desert, is just a mirage. A few days ago officials in Arizona made the startling announcement that in as few as five years, Tucson and Phoenix could face cutbacks in their deliveries of water from the Colorado River. The metropolis that swallowed up a small mountain is now sucking its water reserves dry.

Is this a parable of a civilization in peril? Of a society that can’t stop itself from gobbling up the Earth upon which all existence – including its own – depends? What value does a mountain have? Does it matter when a mountain is lost?

I walk into the desert to pray. To my right, I glimpse the lone remnant of Twin Peaks, looking odd and forlorn, an amputee. Straight ahead is a grand ridge of mountains that rises near the border of Saguaro National Park. Eagerly I study the ridge’s contours and jagged cliffs. I watch shadows play across its flanks as the sun rises, and I sense its vast and solid bulk. Who are you, Mountain? What is it like to be you? Who am I to you? Who are you to me?

Safford Peak, Saguaro National Park
Safford Peak, Saguaro National Park
© Robert A. Jonas

My interchange with Mountain is carried out in silence by intuition and imagination. I give Mountain my steady attention, observing everything I can. I notice that it is producing nothing, achieving nothing, planning nothing, regretting nothing. By human standards it has no purpose at all; it simply is. I sense its inscrutable existence beyond the grasp of human thought. I sense its silence, and my mind grows quiet. I sense its wildness, and my spirit stirs. I sense its freedom, and my spirit takes flight. In the company of Mountain, I am restored to myself and filled with joy.

It is strange that an impenetrable mountain can become a doorway to the Holy, strange that from arid rock we can drink from a river of life. I wonder if human beings discover our true identity only in relation to something that is greater than ourselves.

What value does a mountain have? From the mountains of Sinai and Zion to the Mount of Transfiguration, Mount Athos, and beyond, we know that mountains are a place of encounter with the divine. Their value is beyond human calculation. It’s no wonder that groups such as Christians for the Mountains are active in trying to stop mountaintop removal in West Virginia, for even more is at stake than protecting clean air, clean water, decent jobs, and public health. What’s ultimately at stake is protecting our relationship with God.

Tucson has lost a small mountain, but, God willing, those who live and work in Tucson, and those who visit, will learn something essential from the mighty mountains that remain. I hope that we humans never lose our capacity to cherish mountains as more than scenic backdrop to a swimming pool and more than deposits of limestone or coal. I pray that we humans rediscover the intrinsic value of wilderness and perceive its holiness. Sometimes such places remind us, as nothing else can, that we belong to a sacred mystery whose wild, more-than-human presence gives value and meaning to our lives.


I am co-leading two upcoming retreats on Christianity and ecology:
“Pilgrimage for Earth: From Loss to Hope”
on Saturday, June 28, 2014, at Mission Farm, Killington, VT; and
“The Heart of Creation: Cultivating Hope in a Wounded World” on the weekend of July 11-13, 2014, at Adelynrood Retreat & Conference Center, Byfield, MA.
See the Events page on this Website for more information.