Readings (click here for full text of the readings):
1 Kings 19:9-18; Psalm 27; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Mark 9:2-9
It’s often said that there are two types of people – mountain people, and water people – and I’m a water person. I’m fascinated by the ever-changing sea, the fount of life. Yet mountains are one of several common threads in today’s readings, and as I struggled with mountains this week, I came to see why they make me uncomfortable – they promise certainty and permanence, and life seems anything but. The sea, on the other hand, would never make such a promise. The sea is full of change – waves rise and fall; the tides come and go at the bidding of the moon and sun; the wind blows and the water is aroar in foam and rage, and minutes later it’s an unrippled mirror. All you can do is look on in wonder, never knowing what’s going to happen next.
Mountains, on the other hand, give the impression of changelessness. Rising thousands of feet into the sky, grounded in the earth itself, reference points in history. Their siren call is a promise of permanence, of always being the same. For even as the sea threatens to overwhelm us in its tempest, mountains seem to offer relief from the ambiguities of this world, as we literally rise above, seeing with a new perspective, the big picture, the deeper truth. At last, we hope, we can know for sure.
But as I read on, as I envisioned Elijah atop Mt. Horeb, which is also called Mt. Sinai, and I walked with Jesus and the three disciples up the slopes of Mt. Tabor, I came to see that mountains are different one from another, and the perspective they offer is anything but permanent and unchanging. For the closer we look at today’s readings from Kings and Mark, the more differences we see.
Mt. Sinai is frightening and desolate. It explodes to over 7,000 feet in the midst of a barren desert. It is a difficult climb, requiring several days, great stamina and perseverance. It’s a place of emptiness and deprivation, the last refuge of a lost and wandering people. A biblical geographer who visited Mt. Sinai 200 years ago went so far as to say that he “had never seen a spot more wild and desolate.” 
Mount Tabor, on the other hand, is gentle and pastoral. It’s covered with woodland trees and wildflowers, often bathed in a golden light that painters of icons of the Transfiguration call la lumiere taborique. The climb is an easy one, and the reward is great. A 7th century pilgrim described it this way:
Around it are springing wells of water and many densely planted trees, which blossom from the rain of the clouds and produce all kinds of sweet fruits and delightful scents; there are also vines which give wine worthy for kings to drink… The path by which the Lord ascended is winding, twisting this way and that; [but] whoever wishes to climb up to pray can easily make the ascent. 
The appearance of the divine on the two mountains couldn’t have been more different, either. On Mount Sinai the experience of God is completely “other-worldly,” beginning with “a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces,” followed by an earthquake, followed by fire. Ultimately, though the Lord was not in any of these; the Lord was in the silence that followed them, speaking in a “still small voice,” as older translations put it. The terrifying and humbling experience on Mount Sinai is all power and no form, underscoring the chasm between humanity and God.
The Transfiguration on Mount Tabor is just the opposite. The face of Jesus shone like the sun, and “his clothes became dazzling white,” as His human details became more specific. It was a “this-worldly” vision of sanctified humanity, emphasizing the intimate relationship of Creator and creation. To illustrate this, in icons of the Transfiguration the lines of the painting don’t converge on some distant point atop Mount Tabor. “Instead, the lines … converge at a point several inches in front of the icon’s surface … as if aimed at the heart of the viewer.” Viewers are thereby led, in the words of a 14th century monk, to “contemplate the divine light within themselves [and thus] behold the garment of their [own divinity].” 
The human response to these mountaintop experiences is very interesting. The disciples want to make the event tangible and permanent and understandable, just as the Israelites did the first time we heard about Mt. Sinai back in the book of Exodus. Whether in the form of Aaron’s golden calf or Peter’s home-building project, their response is natural, because in each case God appears to the lost and searching. The Israelites had been wandering for a long time in the desert, and Jesus has just told the disciples that He will suffer greatly, even unto death. This feels like their last hope, what they’ve been waiting for all their lives, and they just need to be certain that it’s real, that it will stay, that it means what they need it to mean.
We’re much the same way, I think. We want our faith to make sense, we feel the need to stay on the mountaintop a little while longer, to get the perspective we need in order to understand God. Yet every time we think we have a handle on God, God shows us another facet of His character, and the world appears different than it did a second ago. We kneel before the Almighty, who is completely other than we are, and then God Incarnate shines forth in the blinding light of complete humanity. And so we dare to believe that we might be sanctified, too; we feel the warm light of God focus on us like in the icons; and we dare to dream that when the voice of God thunders out, “This is my Son, the beloved,” God might be referring to us, too, if only just a little. But then Jesus orders us not to tell anyone about this momentous event we’ve just experienced, and we’re left to understand it alone, unaided, unverified.
This is what I call, for lack of a more eloquent term, “Parkay/butter theology.” Many of you probably remember those old commercials, where a carton of Parkay margarine insists that it’s butter, and an actor tries to convince it otherwise. After a few of those exchanges, the actor takes a taste, loves it, proclaims it to be butter, only to have the carton annoyingly say, “No, Parkay.”
Now I’m sure the creators of that commercial didn’t intend to convey profound theological insight, but they did. The Church is chock full of contentious issues, and we spend a lot of time duking it out, trying to convince the other side that we’re right. Who’s allowed to be a priest? Who goes to heaven and who doesn’t? Is God transcendent and wholly other, like at Sinai, or immanent and part-and-parcel of this human world, like at Tabor? And just when we think we really get it, God shows us something contradictory, as if to say, “You’ll never totally understand, and that’s not the point, anyway.”
One of my seminary professors often observed that every preacher has just one sermon that he delivers week in and week out with minor modifications. The fact that I’ve used that Parkay/butter analogy once before suggests he was right, and the fact that I’ve quoted his observation multiple times confirms it. I suspect we are all like that, in the sermons our hearts preach to us, that we struggle to hear. For behind the debates about faith & works and heaven & hell, behind the lessons that mountain people and water people draw from their favorite images – behind all that, there’s just the longing of our hearts. And when we finally get a bead on that, the details seem much less important.
So Barry Lopez, one of the great nature writers, describes the challenging quest to find the sacred place which we most long for. These are his “directions” to that sacred place:
There is, I should warn you, doubt … about the directions I will give you here, but they are the very best that can be had. They will not be easy to follow. Where it says left you must go right sometimes. Read south for north sometimes. It depends a little on where you are coming from, but not entirely. I am saying you will have doubts. [But] if you do the best you can you will have no trouble. 
Perhaps that’s what the Sinai and Tabor stories are all about – letting us know that we’ll never be 100% right, we’ll never be 100% certain. It depends a little on where we’re coming from, because if we’re convinced that God is just like us, the Holy One of Sinai appears in the aftermath of earthquakes and fire; but if we’re convinced that God isn’t like us at all, then we see humanity and divinity joined before our eyes in intimate detail.
The God of both Sinai and Tabor is telling us to stop working so hard at analyzing, concretizing, understanding, because all of that won’t get us far. The key isn’t keeping God here longer like Peter wanted to do, or fully understanding what God is all about, which inevitably leads to a confounding Parkay/butter moment. The key lies in the collect: “Behold the light of his countenance … and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.” Don’t categorize or analyze, just behold, be present, experience the glory of God and be changed.
And as we seek to experience God’s glory, we must not be distracted by power and pyrotechnics, by shows of bravado and force. Because although God’s voice can certainly boom with the best of them, He’s as likely to whisper as He is to shout. Elijah’s experience on Mt. Sinai reminds us of that, because of the roaring wind, and the earthquake, and the fire, and the silence, God was in the silence. Only by listening in the silence will we be able to hear the still small voice of God.
These are lessons I first learned (and have since forgotten many times) a few years ago, when my spiritual director gave me this assignment: “Try not to think so much about theology, about the attributes of God, or the should’s and shouldn’t’s of life. Instead, imagine Jesus sitting on a blanket in a field. And see yourself walk up to Him, hand Him a flower you just picked, and hear Him thanking you and inviting you to sit with Him awhile. And just sit in His presence for a while.” I tried hard to do that, and at our next meeting a few weeks later, he asked me how it went. Without thinking, I just blurted out, “It was hard; it felt wrong. It was like I didn’t have to do anything; like I was just supposed to sit there and be with him, and that was enough.” My spiritual director smiled, and I listened the sermon my heart had just preached to my unseeing mind.
The mountain readings are fitting for today, the last Sunday of Epiphany, the season that celebrates the coming of God Incarnate to the whole world. From here we enter the deprivation of Lent, with words of celebration unspoken and the countenance of God more hidden. And so we join the disciples on their way down Mount Tabor, with the vision of God burned upon our senses, starting off on the road of pain and endings. Like life itself, with its highs and lows, like the crests and troughs of waves, like the seasons of change that alternately bring warmth and snow even to the peaks of mountains.
As the light dims, we proclaim together that “Christ will come again,” that Transfiguration is future as well as past, that the glory of God endures even when we haven’t the eyes to see it. And we let go a little bit of our need to have everything just so, to comprehend it all, and instead we hold on to the one true thing, the vision of God deep seared upon hearts that felt so real there’s no way it couldn’t have been. And we look back over our shoulder to the holy mountain we’ve just come from, trusting that we’ll see the face of God soon again, in another such mighty yet unexpected place.
The poet Rainer Marie Rilke describes such leave-taking this way:
And we: Spectators, always, everywhere,
looking at, never out of, everything!
It overfills us. We arrange it. It falls apart.
We rearrange it, and fall apart ourselves.
Who has turned us around like this,
always, no matter what we do,
we’re in the stance
of someone just departing? As he,
on the last hill that shows him all
one last time, turns, stops, lingers - ,
we live our lives, forever taking leave.
 Edward Robinson, Biblical Researches in Palestine, Mount Sinai and Arabia Petraea, Volume I (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1841): 13.
 R.W. Thomson, “A Seventh-Century Armenian Pilgrim on Mount Tabor,” Journal of Theological Studies New Series XVIII (1967): 30.
 Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998): 126. (The other quotations in this sermon were referenced in this work.)
 Gregory of Palamas, Triads, I, 5, in John Meyendorff, ed., Gregory Palamas: The Triads (New York: Paulist Press, 1983): 33. “Deification” is here rendered “own divinity” for the sake of the spoken word.
 Barry Lopez, Desert Notes (New York: Avon Books, 1976): 75.