Of Mountaintops & Moon Missions

This sermon was preached at Knox Presbyterian Church on Sunday Feb. 26, 2017. The Scripture readings for the day were Exodus 24:12-18 and Matthew 17:1-9.

If I said, "I would like to request a few moments of silence … and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way” would you know what I’m talking about?

How about “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”?

Yes, we know where we are now. On the moon with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong.

Can you imagine what it must have been like for Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon? Neil Armstrong stepped out into a place no one had ever been before, and about twenty minutes later Buzz Aldrin followed behind him. Aldrin described the lunar landscape as “magnificent desolation”. Armstrong said the moondust fanned out like rose petals when you kicked it, it doesn’t blow around because there is no air.

Though they landed on a lunar morning, the sky was pitch black with no stars around them. Only the earth was bright enough to be seen, shining bright white and blue overhead. These astronauts saw the earth and the moon from a completely reversed perspective, something almost no one else has ever seen. They only had a short time to take in the grandeur of the moment, though.

Once they were on the moon, they had only about 2 ½ hours, and they had checklists to follow. (According to NASA): “These "honey-do" memos from NASA were jam-packed with activities-from inspecting the lander to deploying the TV to collecting samples. Some of the tasks were as detailed as bending over and reporting to Mission Control how it went. They had a lot to do.

Neil and Buzz deployed a solar wind collector, a seismometer and a laser retroreflector. They erected a flag and uncovered a plaque proclaiming, "We came in peace for all mankind." They took the first interplanetary phone call-"I just can't tell you how proud we all are," said President Nixon from the Oval Office. They collected 47 lbs of moon rocks and took 166 pictures. Check. Check. Check.”

Did you notice how quickly a transformative experience like landing on the moon and seeing the earth lit up in the distance turns into checklists and monument building? Of course, it makes sense, the astronauts were not there on a pleasure cruise. They were there to work and, of course, to plant the American flag and a monument.

Thinking about going to the moon is as close as I could get in my imagination to thinking about what it must have been like for Peter, James, and John the disciples on the mountain with Jesus. Like Neil and Buzz, Peter, James, and John had an unrepeatable experience that no one else could share with them.

When Peter sees Jesus all lit up from the inside, Peter says something that is just so endearingly human to me. He says, “Master, this is a great moment! What would you think if I built three memorials here on the mountain—one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah?”

Peter has an impulse to build a memorial the second he recognizes an extraordinary moment was happening. The word translated here as memorial you might also see translated as dwelling, booth, tent, or tabernacle, sometimes made of green branches or animal skins; the idea being that they might stay there for a while. I think the word “memorial” captures the emotional quality of what Peter wants to do, which is mark the moment as significant.

Peter wanting to build a memorial is not unlike the astronauts setting the plaque and sticking an American flag in the moon for all posterity. We know those markers were very important because NASA had to plan ahead a lot to bring them onboard the spacecraft and allot time for the astronauts to actually set them up on the moon.

Peter doesn’t get the chance to build his memorial though because they get enveloped by a cloud and hear a voice saying “This is my Son”, the same words spoken at Jesus’ baptism, and they’re so scared they fall over, until Jesus taps them and everything goes back to normal. Then, they go back down the mountain, sworn to secrecy until later. We know they tell the story eventually because otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about it today.

If you read commentaries on this story, you’ll see all the notes on what Jesus’ being transfigured or transformed supposedly means. How, on the mountain, the disciples saw Jesus literally in a new light. And, how if we look at the symbolism of the story briefly, we might take away that Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah connects him with the Law (aka Moses of the Ten Commandments and the Prophets, since Elijah was a prophet).

Honestly, scholarly comments aside though, I really just deeply love Peter in this story. He wants to mark the moment, and then he gets scared and can’t. Peter’s reaction seems so authentic and real to me. He makes me feel a feeling we don’t have a word for when I read about. It’s kind of like “sad nostalgia”. There’s a word in Portuguese that I came across “saudade” (sow-da-che) that kind of like a melancholy nostalgia for something that perhaps has not even happened. It often carries an assurance that this thing you feel nostalgic for will never happen again”.

I get the same feeling when I look at photos, especially if they’re ones of happy moments. Like seeing a picture of one the the kids as a baby, at the zoo, for example. I always see how the photo only shows a portion of what was really going on - like you can’t tell it was hot and that my son kept getting sidetracked by the digging equipment instead of the animals - and also am reminded that he will never be a baby again. And I miss his baby self, even though when he was a baby I couldn’t wait for him to get a little older so I could get some sleep.

Looking at pictures reminds me of how everything changes all the time, and how we’re never really fully there when life is happening in front of us.

I can’t say what Peter was feeling in the moment seeing Jesus lit up, putting his head together with Moses and Elijah. I can only say what hearing about Peter makes me feel. I feel love for Peter and sadness knowing that the rest of the book of Matthew is a march to the cross, and sad knowing that Peter will deny knowing Jesus just before Jesus is executed.

For me, there’s not so much a lesson in this Scripture for today. It’s more of a noticing how I feel when I read the story. A noticing that Peter wants to capture the moment and make it last. Noticing that, as Jesus transfigured on the mountain, his true identity is revealed in a fleeting moment. A noticing that we as people, like Peter, want to make the big moments last. A noticing that the moment just doesn’t last.

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is all about this deep feeling of happiness and sadness; about the impermanence of life, and about how we as Christians have faith the the impermanence of life is part of the whole point of life, and recognizing that we just don’t “get it”, we don’t get the whole picture, the whole point. We see one perspective of life, the life we’re living, like we see one perspective of the earth and the moon trusting that their is another perspective that will be revealed eventually.

Like Peter, we want to build our temples and stay still in the big moments. But, like for Peter, the moments just don’t last. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted a flag on the moon, but Buzz Aldrin says that he saw it fall over as they rocketed off the surface.

Everyone knows about the flag, and the “one small step” but there’s one story about the trip to the moon that doesn’t get told very often. Buzz Aldrin was member of his local Presbyterian church. He wanted to mark the moment on the moon with communion, he said, “I wondered if it might be possible to take communion on the moon, symbolizing the thought that God was revealing Himself there too, as man reached out into the universe. For there are many of us in the NASA program who do trust that what we are doing is part of God’s eternal plan for man.”

Buzz knew that in the Presbyterian church, communion is always a community event, never taken in private. We take it together and when we bring home communion to the homebound we always use the same bread and juice as is broken and poured at the table (it’s like bringing leftovers of a delicious meal to a loved one who couldn’t make it out to dinner). So, the pastor of Buzz’s church arranged for him to have communion before he left. Then, he took the shared bread and wine to the moon in his private “carry-on”.

Buzz on the radio from the moon publicly said, "Houston, this is Eagle. This is the LM Pilot speaking. I would, like to request a few moments of silence. I would like to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his own individual way."

Then, there was a radio blackout where he took communion. The very first liquid poured on the moon and the very first food eaten were communion elements. His church took communion as close to the time that Buzz did, so they could be in fellowship with one another. He says, about that moment, “And so, just before I partook of the elements, I read the words which I had chosen to indicate our trust that as man probes into space we are in fact acting in Christ. I sensed especially strongly my unity with our church back home, and with the Church everywhere. I read: "I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me." John 15:5 (TEV) Faith led Peter up the mountain, to see Jesus transformed. Faith led Buzz Aldrin to the moon, to see the earth in a new way. The good news is faith will take us to new places if we allow ourselves to see life from a new perspective.

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