Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Last Epiphany A

Homily preached at Middle and Upper School Chapel at Saint Andrew's Episcopal School.

Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 121; Matthew 17:1-9

One of the first things I learned as a camp counselor in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina was that I’m not very good at mountain climbing. During staff training, we went on an overnight campout like the ones we’d be leading all summer. We hiked up hill and down, along wide grassy paths and narrow rocky ones, learning all the trails through the woods.

I had never been on a campout like that before, and while I thought the mountains were breathtakingly beautiful, I was having second thoughts about being able to identify poisonous snakes, light campfires in the rain, tie the knots I needed to know, and do it all with homesick campers clinging to my hands. I had never been on a hike like that before, carrying a loaded pack taller than I was, negotiating footholds in roots and rocks and tall grass.

Late in the afternoon, we started on the trail up to Eagle Rock. The climb wasn’t too bad at first – a winding old dirt road that nature had begun to reclaim, threading its way uphill at a gentle angle. Then, at a point it would take me all summer to find on my own, we turned suddenly off the road and started climbing straight up, it seemed, until the path curved around and rose at a sharper angle still.

About halfway up, I knew I had to stop. My face was red and hot from both exertion and embarrassment – no one else seemed as weary as I was. I asked if we could rest for just a moment, and so brought all twenty or so folks to a complete halt. We breathed a little, and drank a little water. I dreaded the moment we’d start up again, 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 inched our way up the mountain, a few folks stayed close by, cheering me on from behind, and pointing out the easiest path in front. How strange, I thought, that I didn’t notice them when all I could think about was how hard the climb was. But there they were, the same folks who had been with me all along. In the end, the only reason any of us made it up to Eagle Rock was because we helped one another climb.

And when we got there, what a mountaintop experience! The air up there is pure – you can breathe deeply. The sound up there is the sound of the sky itself, of rushing wind and sparkling silence. The view up there… the view – you can see, I mean really see. It is illuminating.

For more ages than we can count, people have climbed mountains to get a new perspective, to literally broaden their horizons, to keep from getting so caught up in the details of life that the miss the big picture of which their life is a part. For more ages than we can count, people of faith have climbed mountains to meet God. Our scriptures are full of such stories, two of which we heard read this morning. Come up to me on the mountain, God said to Moses. It was not the first time Moses climbed a mountain for God, and it would not be the last. Jesus, too, was an avid mountain climber, often preaching from hilltops and retreating to hilltops to pray, to meet God. They went up on a very high mountain where they could be alone, we heard from Matthew’s gospel.

In a lifetime of sermons (which, don’t worry, you won’t hear today), no preacher could ever hope to unravel all the mysteries of the mountaintop experience that happened on that day, an experience that Christians call the Transfiguration. Jesus was completely changed, Matthew writes. His face was shining like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. It is a story about what happened to Jesus on a mountaintop, but it is also in part a story about people like you and me, a story that illumines our lives as well.

First, the story reminds us that we all need to climb mountains from time to time. We all need to reach a 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. We all need to leave the valley where we’re surrounded by the details of life and get to where we can view the big picture of which our lives are a part. On his mountaintop capped in glory and flame, Moses experienced a God who, despite such details as doubt and sin, was determined to set in stone a covenant, a big picture of faithfulness. And on their mountaintop, the disciples experienced Jesus who, despite such details as being every bit as human as they were, was also the God who made heaven and earth.

On the mountain we are able to see for miles around. We see that our lives take place in a much larger and more significant picture than whether we get from point A to point B, or succeed at a particular task or accomplish a particular goal. We see that the 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 every bit as real as the point where we feel stuck on the side of a mountain, that beyond every obstacle is open road, that not every bridge is out. In our uphill battle lives, we all need to climb mountains, to take time out to meet God.

Second, the story reminds us that change doesn’t always mean becoming something we are not. It can also mean becoming more of something we already are. Jesus was not any different coming down than mountain than he was going up it – he always had God’s glory shining in him. If anything changed, it’s that the disciples saw him in a new light. They saw more of who Jesus already was, and it made them more of who they already were, because it wouldn’t be long before they were carrying that light out into the world, shouting it from mountaintops, and bringing it into the darkest corners of the deepest valleys.

And finally third, the story teaches us how to climb mountains, and how to go back down. Jesus took with him Peter and the brothers James and John. Mountain climbing is much easier when you have someone behind you and in front of you – I learned that all those summers ago. One of the greatest privileges of standing where I am right now is being able to look out and see the faces of so many people who are helping one another climb mountains during this particularly hilly school year. Sometimes we’re the ones cheering on from behind. Sometimes we’re the ones in front searching out the surest path. Sometimes we’re the ones struggling for breath.

In the end, the only reason any of us make it up to the top, the only reason any of us get to see the big picture, the only reason any of us become more of who we already are, is because we help one another climb. Amen.

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