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.

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