Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Last Epiphany A

Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; Philippians 3:7-14; Matthew 17:1-9

One of the first things I learned when I went to work at a summer camp up in the Blue Ridge Mountains was that I'm not very good at mountain climbing.

During staff training, the camp directors took us on an overnight campout just like the ones we would soon be leading for packs of kids. We hiked all over the camp's property, uphill and down, along wide grassy paths and narrow rocky ones, learning the way to the various campsites we would be using throughout the summer.

I had never been camping like that before, and while I thought the woods and mountains were beautiful, my anxiety increased steadily as the directors pointed out poisonous plants, taught us how to light a fire in the rain, and went over the various types of knots we'd need to know to set up our sleeping tarps. I had never even been hiking like that before - so much walking, carrying a loaded pack, negotiating footholds in roots and rocks and tall grass....

We were going to spend the night at a campsite reserved for the oldest campers - Eagle Rock, at the top of a mountain, with a spectacular view of the valley below. The climb wasn't too bad at first - a winding old dirt road that nature had just begun to reclaim, threading its way uphill at a gentle, easy angle.

Suddenly, without warning, and at a point it would take me all summer to find again on my own, we turned off the gentle road and started climbing straight up. Well, it seemed like straight up until we went around a bend in the path and saw it grow steeper still.

About halfway up, I didn't think I could go any further. My face bright red from exertion and embarrassment, I asked the group if we could stop and rest. Thank goodness they were kind and encouraging as I sat down to regain my breath and drink some water. I dreaded going any further, but we were at that point where it would be just as difficult to go back down as it would be to keep climbing, so....As we resumed our crawl up the mountain, a few folks stayed close by me, cheering me on from behind and pointing out the easiest path in front. In my anxiety I had felt very much alone, even though the very same people had been behind me and before the end, the only reason I made it up to Eagle Rock was because they helped me climb.

Well, I don't know about anyone else, but I feel like I've been doing a little bit of mountain climbing lately. Preparing for an ordination, I now know, takes a lot of work, and preparing a household for visiting family and friends is even more work. By the end of the week, I felt like I was sitting breathless once again on the side of a mountain, unable to go up or down.

Thank goodness I was once again surrounded by kind and encouraging people who were willing to let me rest just a moment and then to help me climb to the top. I am grateful to everyone here who has walked behind me and before me and beside me on my journey to this new vocation.

A mountaintop experience. The air up there is crisp - you can breathe deeply. The noise up there - well, there isn't any, so you can listen quietly. The view up there - you can see, I mean really see. It is illuminating.

It's no wonder, then, that from earliest days, people have climbed mountains to get a new perspective, to literally broaden their horizons, to prevent getting so caught up in the details of life that they miss the big picture their life is a part of. It's no wonder that from earliest days, people of faith have climbed mountains to meet God. Our scriptures are full of such stories, two of which we have heard read this morning. Come up to me on the mountain, God says to Moses. It was not the first time Moses climbed a mountain for God, and it would not be the last.

Jesus was another avid mountain-climber, both figuratively in the sense that his journey was often difficult, and actually in the sense that he just seemed to like to walk uphill. He preached from hilltops, and he often retreated to hilltops to pray, to meet God.

The story of the Transfiguration is the story of a mountain top experience par excellence. Light cuts through the crips air and a voice breaks the silence and we see heaven and earth meet in the person of Jesus Christ, God's Son, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased.

In a lifetime of sermons no preacher could exhaust the significance of the Transfiguration, nor hope to unravel all its mysteries. It is, at least in part, the story of people on a journey, and so this morning, having lingered on my own mountaintop since yesterday, I would like to submit to you two ways the Transfiguration illuminates our journey as people of faith.

First, we all need to climb mountains from time to time. We all need to reach the height from which we can see where we've come from and where we're going to and what the path in between looks like. Perhaps the Transfiguration was intended for the benefit of the disciples, but perhaps the disciples were just in the right place at the right time. Perhaps the Transfiguration was intended for the benefit of Jesus, whose constant uphill ministry must have sometimes drained his strength and his resolve. Crowds followed him everywhere, people in pain and despair tugging at his hands and his heart, religious leaders eyeing him with suspicion and fear, his own disciples uncertain about who he was and what he was there to do....

Perhaps Jesus just climbed the mountain for a little fresh air, for a little silence, to enjoy the view....But when God met him there, the big picture was set before him once again, as it had been at his baptism with which we began this season of Epiphany: This is my Son, my Beloved; with him I am well pleased.

Mark Twain wrote, "You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus." The big picture, that dazzling view from the mountaintop, helps us refocus our imagination. Rather than seeing only two feet and two minutes ahead, as it so often feels down here in the valley, rushing from detail to detail in our lives...on the mountain, we are able to see for miles around. We see that our life takes place in a much larger and more significant context than whether we get from point A to point B, or succeed at a particular task, or accomplish a particular goal. We see that he dead end streets and the roads that seem to lead us in circles are not the only ways open to us. We see that the endpoint of our journey is just as real as the point where we feel stuck, that beyond every obstacle is open road, that not every bridge is out.

If Jesus needed to climb a mountain to get a better view, to remember the big picture, to refocus his imagination in order to better fix his eyes on his work, then who are we to think we can go day after day after day in our uphill battle lives without taking time out to meet God?

A second way the story of the Transfiguration speaks to us this morning is in the way Jesus goes up and down the mountain itself. Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John. Mountain climbing goes much easier when you have someone behind you and in front of you - I know that now. One of the greatest privileges of standing in this pulpit is being able to look out and see the faces of so many people of faith, kind and encouraging people who are helping one another climb mountains. Sometimes we're the ones cheering from behind. Sometimes we're the ones in front searching out the easiest path. Sometimes we're the ones struggling for breath. But as members of the Body of Chrit, joined to him and to one another in baptism, we do not ever journey alone.

Whatever God's purpose in the Transfiguration - to help Jesus refocus his imagination or to help the disciples refocus theirs (perhaps a little bit of both) - whatever God's purpose, when the prophets disappeared and the lights faded and the voice blew away on the breeze, Jesus and the disciples journeyed back down the mountain together, just as they had come, and re-entered the world of details and dead-ends. Mountaintop experiences don't last, but Jesus, God's Son, the Beloved, does. We do not ever journey alone.

It has been a week of uphill climbing. But then, many weeks feel like that, right? Out of breath and exhausted, we make it to Sunday morning and quietly slip into our seats on this mountaintop. We gather here as people of faith to allow scripture, prayer, song, and a sacred meal to illuminate our lives, fill us with light, so that we may see and remember that we, too, are children of God and beloved. Amen.

2 Epiphany A

Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-10; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-41

I have some important advice for all you young folks still living at really do have to clean up your room when your parents tell you to, because they can get back at you! I'm not talking about getting grounded or having your cell phone taken away or anything like that....I'm talking about fifteen, twenty years from now, when you've got a house of your own, full of all your grown-up stuff, which you may or may not keep clean....

It starts so innocently, as though it was a favor to you. When you open your birthday card, you are surprised and happy to see four or five pictures of friends from summer camp, pictures you know were stuck up on a bulletin board in your room back home....Then when your parents come for Thanksgiving they bring along a couple of high school yearbooks, just for fun....Then comes a trophy from a third grade spelling bee, the photo album you made when you got your first polaroid camera....

Then your mom comes to visit you in your new home in Mississippi, and unloads no less than ten boxes from your bedroom back home, and when she comes back for Christmas she brings five more. I've been unpacking boxes forever, it seems, and now the rooms in my house - all of them - are a mess with the things I never would clean up fifteen, twenty years ago....

To be honest, what makes unpacking tough is that I get so wrapped up in the memories bundled in butcher paper, and I dwell over each thing I pull out of the boxes. I read each word, study each picture, hold each figurine and stuffed animal to remember what I loved so much about them when I was younger.

A discovery in one of the Christmas boxes was particularly special. It was a shoebox, filled with letters and cards, packed so tightly that you can't pull one out without upsetting the others. One of them is a birthday card from Kitty and Jerry, my first EYC leaders. They were goofy and kind and faithful, and they made sure this quiet little sixth grader didn't ever feel left out. There are dozens of letters from friends I met at camp and at youth retreats. Hope, who was the first person I remember sitting down to tell me why she believed in Jesus Christ....Pollye, who was inseparable from me for so many years, who was always there when I needed a friend....Kim, who wrote volumes of poetry that I now see traced a profound journey of faith....

I hadn't thought about these people in so long, but as my own journey of faith is approaching a significant checkpoint in the form of my ordination, it has been an unexpected gift to have the opportunity to visit again with mentors and friends whose witness, whose words and example, set my feet on the road in the first place.

Our readings today all speak toward what it means to be a witness, to be one whose word and example are a testimony to the love and saving power of God in the world, in our lives. The prophet Isaiah writes of a servant called by God to be a witness to the exiled people of Israel, to restore both their faith and their land. The Lord called me from before I was born....and he said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified." Our own Paul writes to the people of Corinth, calling them people who were sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints. In today's gospel reading, John the Baptizer can't seem to stop bearing witness: Here is the Lamb of God...This is he...I myself have seen and have testified that he is the Son of God. And Andrew, more quietly, perhaps, than John but no less signficantly, bears witness to his brother, Simon, who will be renamed Peter. We have found the Messiah.

Of course there are many, many other witnesses in scripture, women and men whose very lives, if not also the words from their mouths, spoke of the love and saving power of God. In the Old Testament we hear from Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, a lively succession of judges and kings and prophets, and a smattering of women and men who were on the fringes of the world but whose faith placed them at the very center of the story of creation. In the New Testament we hear from Mary the mother of Jesus, Anna and Simeon in the temple, John the Baptizer, at least twelve disciples, another smattering of folks on the fringe, Paul the convert, the women and men of the earliest Christian communities....They are all witnesses, people whose word and example set others' feet on the road to faith.

I submit to you this morning that we, too, are called to be witnesses - called from before we were born, called to be saints, called to come and see and enter into relationship with and testify about Jesus Christ. Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? At our baptisms, we or someone speaking on our behalf, responded I will....I will proclaim by word and example....I will, with God's help. We are called to be witnesses, called to say something with our very lives, if not also the words from our mouths, about Jesus.

And the world is watching and listening to our witness, just as it watched and listened to the witness of our ancestors in faith. Sometimes it watches and listens in order to catch us in a mistake and show us for frauds. Sometimes it watches and listens in order to meet God. Either way, our lives speak and our words matter and our witness is made.

From time to time, the space between heaven and earth grows thin and people encounter God in profound and mysterious ways. But most of the time people encounter God in perhaps profound, but really quite ordinary ways - in the witness of people like Isaiah and Paul and John and Andrew, like Kitty and Jerry and Hope and Pollye and Kim. In the witness of peoplel like you and like me. God is encountered most often in the space between two people.

God is encountered most often in the space between two people....which means that God is encountered most often in the space between two gloriously unique and yet frustratingly imperfect creatures, called from before we were born to be saints yet born with the seemingly irresistable urge to be sinners. Bearing witness does not depend on our having it all together or having it exactly as good as someone else who is a witness has it. But the world teaches us to measure ourselves against one another, to measure success, to measure results. And so we have learned a tremendous fear of inadequacy and failure. If only I had said this. If only I hadn't done that....

It's nothing new. Isaiah's servant, called to bear witness to a people who had lost their faith, was apparently disappointed with his results. I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity. God's response to the weary servant is stunning. It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

Incredibly, God meets the servant's doubt with faith, with a renewed call to witness even more widely than before. So God meets our doubt with faith, faith in us to be what God calls us to be despite what feels like our inadequacy for the task. God meets our doubt with faith.

It's nothing new. God listened to every doubt Moses had about his ability to be a witness, and then called him anyway. God watched the people of Israel bear witness to other gods, and then called them anyway. Jesus was betrayed and abandoned by his closest followers, and then he sent them anyway to bear witness to his resurrection. God has faith in us. God believes in us. It seems there is little we can do to convice God otherwise. Now there's something to bear witness to.

Our witness is, very simply, our response to our encounter with the One who loves us despite ourselves, who believes in us even when we cannot. For most of us, that encounter was made possible by someone like Kitty or Jerry, like Hope or Pollye or Kim....someone who bore witness to their encounter with the One who loves us despite ourselves, who believes in us even when we cannot. And someone bore witness to them, and someone bore witness to them....and back it goes to the afternoon John the Baptizer pointed at Jesus and exclaimed, Look, here is the Lamb of God!

This morning we will baptize N., and her parents and godparents will promise that, with God's help, they will by their prayers and witness help her to grow into the full stature of Christ. We will all promise to support her in her life in Christ, her life that will one day itself be a witness in ways none of us yet know....

Our lives speak, our words matter, and our witness is made. So let us proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ in every encounter, in our own unique and imperfect ways. God responds to our doubt with faith; let us respond to God's faith with our witness. Amen.