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Down from the Mountain

(a sermon for February 23, 2020, the Last Sunday after Epiphany andTransfiguration Sunday, based on Matthew 17:1-9)

One summer several years ago when our children were young, our family did some camping at Mount Blue State Park, located in the beautiful western mountains of Maine; and as part of that experience, the kids and I decided one morning that we would actually climb Mount Blue itself.  On paper, that didn’t seem like a hard thing; the park brochure said that the trail we were going to take was a relatively easy one, and what’s more, you could drive right up to the base of the mountain, park your car and then you only had to walk a mile and a half-long trail to reach the summit; I mean, what could be simpler?  Of course, what they don’t tell you is that’s a mile and a half straight up! 

So I’ll admit, it was an arduous climb for the children and especially for the father(!), and honestly, we spent as much time sitting down to rest as we did actually walking (it’s no coincidence that the gift shops in those parts sell t-shirts, key chains and such that proclaim, “I survived Mount Blue!”)!  Despite the huffing and puffing, however, we did make it to the top, and it was well worth the climb.  The view was amazing, a literal panorama of God’s glory revealed in the beauty of creation, and we pretty much spent the rest of the day just drinking it all in. 

And I have to say, I’m feeling pretty good about what we’d accomplished, even getting a little cocky about it; I remember actually saying to my kids, “You know, this wasn’t easy, but in the eternal struggle of man versus wilderness, we triumphed!” But then I made my real mistake, by adding these words: “…and getting back down is going to be a piece of cake!”

Definitely a mistake!  The fact is, heading back I made the interesting discovery that I was tired, my legs were stiff and hurting, my arthritic knees were starting to kill, and every single step I made walking down the mountain trail felt like it might well be my last!  And adding insult to injury was the fact that Jake (who was, as I recall, 14 at the time) and Zach (who was seven!) fairly well ran down the trail, leaving Sarah and I to slowly, painfully hobble our way down (and truth be told, I think Sarah – my sweet little girl (!) – held back because she felt sorry for me!).  At one point we’re about three quarters of the way down, and we run into some hikers on their way up the trail, and one of them says to me, “There’s two kids down there – a big one and a little one – draped over the hood of a car.  Do they belong to you?”  And I said, “Yesss… Are they alright?”  “Oh, yeah,” he said back, “They’re just wondering if you’re going to make it back anytime soon!”

So much for the triumph of the mountaineer!  Needless to say, we did make it down… eventually; tired and sore, but otherwise none the worse for wear.  It’d been a good time and a great memory for the kids and me, but I did learn an important lesson:  that oftentimes, the hardest part of climbing a mountain is coming back down; and eventually, you always have to come down from the mountain!

It’s a lesson I’ve thought about a great deal as I’ve returned this week to this morning’s reading from Matthew, the story of how Jesus led three of the disciples “up a high mountain, by themselves,” where Jesus was “transfigured before them,” his face shining “like the sun, and his clothes [becoming] dazzling white.”  Actually, it makes sense that the setting for this particular story is a mountaintop, because throughout scripture mountains always hold a place of great significance; basically, if anyone from the Bible goes up a mountain, you know something important is going to happen.  It was on a mountain, for example, where Moses was confronted by the burning bush, and later where he received the Ten Commandments.  The temple was built in Jerusalem on Mount Zion; one of Jesus’ most powerful teachings is now commonly referred to as the “sermon on the mount;” and even his crucifixion took place on that “hill, far away,” Golgotha, “the place of the skull,” otherwise known as Mount Calvary.  In the Bible, you see, mountains are always considered to be places of revelation and clarity and wonder; and more often than not, serve to illumine what happens beyond it!  

And so it follows that it’s on the mountaintop where Peter, James and John see Jesus, bathed in brilliant, dazzling light, and with incredible clarity come to recognize just who Jesus is, standing there and in “deep conversation” with Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet. This was form them an experience filled to overflowing with God’s mystery and power, and it’s awesome and terrifying all at the same time.  And it’s not at all surprising that Peter’s first thought is to preserve the moment forever: “It is good for us to be here,” he says, “if you wish, I will make three dwelling here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  

What’s interesting is that in Mark’s version of this story, we’re told that Peter was so stunned by what was happening that “he didn’t know what to say,” (9:6) and he just sort of blurted this out without thinking; but I’ve always kind of felt like it was a awe-inspired gesture on Peter’s part, an effort to try to hang on to the feeling of this “mountaintop experience” as long as possible!  But of course, the thing about mountaintop experiences is that try as we might for it to be otherwise, they aren’t made to last; and the gospels all make it clear that as suddenly as this one began, it was over; and “when they opened their eyes and looked around all they saw was Jesus, only Jesus.” (The Message) It’d been this incredible, fleeting moment of wonder and terror and divine revelation, but now it was gone.

But here’s the thing: though the disciples’ transfiguration “experience” had passed, their journey – in just about every sense of the word – was just beginning. And we know this because of the very next verse in Matthew’s account of all this: that just as soon as it was done, “they were coming down the mountain.”  You see, this is the other thing about mountaintop experiences: eventually you always have to come down from the mountain; and while that’s often the harder part of the experience, it’s also the place where true faith begins.

It’s worth pointing out here is that biblically speaking, the transfiguration story comes essentially at the mid-point of the gospel.  Up to this point in the story, we’ve learned about Jesus’ teaching and healing acts, and his growing ministry, and even after the experience of transfiguration, all that continues for Jesus and his disciples; except now it’s different.  Now it’s off to Jerusalem, with all that that journey implies.  In other words, we’ve had a moment of glory up on the mountain, but now it’s time to come back down to the valley.  It’s time for us to go to the cross. 

Likewise, it’s no coincidence that this is the story that bridges the boundary between the season of Epiphany, in which we revel in the light of Christ coming into the world, and the season of Lent, when we remember how darkness sought to overcome that light.  Moreover, it serves as a reminder to us that in the Christian life, we always stand on the boundary between mountain and valley, light and darkness, radiance and pain.  In faith, as in life, we cannot avoid the darkness and pain; the reality of things is that we can’t stay on the mountain forever but always to come down into the valleys of life to face all the dangers that dwell there. 

There are those, of course, who would succumb to this notion that the Christian life is simply one mountaintop experience after another; and that a belief in Jesus somehow removes you from things like human hurt, personal tragedy and the many injustices of life.  But the truth is that for believer and unbeliever alike, there is trouble in life, and it does rain on the just and unjust.  And anyone who approaches faith with the expectation that all of life will be all sunshine and roses will either drop out at the first sign of trouble, or else find glean on to some bad theology that convinces them that they are somehow personally at fault for every bad thing that happens; and that’s a burden that some people will carry for a lifetime.

It’s one of the great misunderstandings of the Christian faith, in my opinion, that its power is to be measured based purely on “good things” that happen.  The difference between this kind of thinking and true Christian faith is that we already know there are dark valleys, and that the shadow of death lingers over so much of human experience but nonetheless as we come down from the mountain we walk confidently, because we also know we are not going into this valley alone but in the embrace of God, who brings us safely to green pastures and still waters. 

This is true faith, friends; and what we discover in this transfiguration story we’ve shared today is that this faith finds its assurance in Jesus.

It’s there in the final moment of that wondrous experience, when the cloud overshadows the disciples there on the mountain, and as they hear a voice from heaven say, “This is my Son, the Beloved; and with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  You see, whether they realized or understood it at all, these three slack-jawed, awestruck and fear-ridden disciples had just been given the key to dealing with everything that was to come:  

Listen. Learn. Trust

Listen to what Jesus is saying to you; learn from his teachings; and trust that even now as you’re coming down from the mountain you will be led safely through the dark valleys ahead.

I’m reminded here of something Frederick Buechner wrote some years ago about a time in his life when he’d been filled with despair over his daughter’s ongoing struggle with the eating disorder anorexia.  As you can imagine, this constitutes a nearly impossible situation for any parent, and so it was for Buechner.  In fact, in his book Telling Secrets he tells the story of how one day, driving back to his home in Vermont and sick with worry over his child, was forced to pull over to a highway rest stop so that he might at least compose himself for the remainder of his journey.  And there in the parking lot, Buechner spied a car with a vanity license plate; although, he noted later, this time it really wasn’t a vanity plate.  The plate read simply, in capital letters, “TRUST.”

Buechner saw it as a revelation, and in that precise moment, he said, a great sense of calm swept over his life and he knew he could go on.  Never mind that the vehicle in question was a company car owned by a New England bank trust department officer; it was the word “TRUST” that made the difference:  a simple insight, a little snippet of divine teaching, a vision of what was his all along:  love, strength… and hope.

Every once in a while, you know, we do get a real glimpse of who Jesus is, and what he has to give us:  sometimes it comes in the midst of worship and prayer; other times in the kind of love and encouragement that’s shared between friends; perhaps in the fleeting memory of a particular time or place that stirs our heart just for the thought of it; a singular moment, that mountaintop experience in which we knew we were standing face to face with the Lord. 

This morning’s gospel reminds us to hold on to such things even as we come down from the mountain; for these are the moments that will sustain us as we walk more deeply into life, and as our faith transforms us from those who merely plod along the way into those who walk boldly and in tandem with Jesus Christ; those who understand that even walking through the darkest of valleys, there’s going to be a light leading them forward. 

Beloved, I hope and pray that whether your journey this week finds you climbing up the mountain, or making your way back down, you’ll be carrying that light as your own. 

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. MIchael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2020 in Epiphany, Faith, Family Stories, Jesus, Lent, Life, Maine, Sermon

 

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Moments of Wonder

libertadIn the wee hours of an autumn morning way back in 1980, I was involved in an automobile accident.

It was during my senior year at the University of Maine, where I’d been working as a managing editor for the student newspaper; and in those days long before internet and email attachments made things much easier, it was my responsibility to deliver the layout flats for the next day’s paper to the printer in Ellsworth, a journey of some 40 miles from campus. As I’ve said, it was very late, but I was also wide awake and heavily caffeinated  (not to mention a whole lot younger then!) and doing fine; at least I was until I came around this blind curve and, despite swerving to avoid it, firmly struck a deer that had leapt out onto the road in front of me.

Now, I was not hurt at all and the car was not seriously damaged; even the deer was merely stunned and soon bounded back into the woods, none the worse for wear. Looking back on it, what could easily have been a tragic situation ended up little more than a fender bender, but even now what I remember is that the whole experience left me a bit shaken.

As I recall, however, it also had a rather humbling effect on me, and for an all-too-brief period of time I was not only profoundly aware of the fragile nature of human life (as one might expect), but also cognizant of my  very, very small place in the universe. For several days afterward I noticed the things and people around me like never before: I paid attention to the tiniest nuances of life and living, I wondered at the smell of the air, marveled at the sound of leaves crunching beneath my feet; and even took close notice of the beating of my own heart, all the while pondering who I was amidst all this wonder (I know… it was all rather dramatic, but hey, I was 21!).

Of course, as so often is the case in such situations, a day or two later I was back to “normal,” with all the wonder having melded back into the routine of my daily academic life. But I never did forget what it was to feel, even for a little while, so incredibly gifted with all that life and living has to offer and yet at the same time so utterly unworthy of all of its blessings.

Actually, as it turned out there would be a number of other times in my life that I would feel that way again: the day that Lisa and I were married; the moments when my three children were born; at my ordination to the Christian ministry; and even in those days just before and after my father passed away… in truth, there have been  (and continue to be ) countless moments both large and small – times that were utterly joyful or profoundly sad – when there was this palpable awareness of God’s Spirit moving in my life or in the lives of others in ways that transformed those lives in ways I could never have imagined, much less expected; moments of grace so rich and powerful made even more incredible and precious by the realization that I had absolutely nothing to do with it!

Each year about this time, as the Christian calendar moves from the light-filled season of Epiphany to the arduous journey to the cross that encompasses Lent, we in the church return to the story of Christ’s transfiguration on a “high mountain apart,” (Mark 9:2)  as three of his disciples looked on in awe-struck wonder.  This is a story of the ultimate “mountain-top experience” that points to the magnificence of the divine presence which is seen in Jesus, and it’s filled to overflowing with God’s mystery and power. But amazing as that is, I must confess that every time I return to this story, my thoughts always seem to be on what those three disciples must have been thinking as it happened!

We know, for instance, that Peter immediately wanted to preserve the moment forever by building dwellings on this spot where Jesus was conversing with Moses and Elijah.  But what about James and John; did the sight of Jesus’ face shining “like the sun” with clothes “dazzling white” (Matthew 17:2) open up for them the possibilities of the infinite?  Was every one of their senses suddenly awakened by the presence of the divine in their midst; how did the air smell and how did the light of that transfiguration illumine the trees and rocks that surrounded them atop the mountain?  Did they have an awareness in that glorious moment that there was so much more to their lives now than their fishing nets?  In that fleeting moment, could they have possibly imagined, even in a glimmer, what the future held for each of them?  Almost certainly there so much happening that it was overwhelming; it is no wonder that by the time that voice spoke from the “bright cloud” proclaiming that this was God’s son, “the Beloved,” (Matt. 17:5) the disciples had long sense fallen to the ground in utter fear! For such is what happens when all of the wonder of life as God intends opens up before you!

This story is also a pivotal moment in the gospel narrative; it’s about from this point on that we read of how Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51) with all of what that journey implies.  So even as it’s happening, we know that very soon it will be time for those three disciples to come down from the mountain and continue walking “down in the valley” and ever closer to the cross.  So I have to imagine that the whole experience ended up as bittersweet at best, made all the more so when Jesus instructs them to “tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead,” (Matt. 17:9) understanding that at this point they had barely a clue as to what all of this really meant. And if you read on in the gospels, almost immediately it was back to the work of following Jesus as he healed the sick and brought the good news of God’s kingdom to all the people in every village along their journey, so in truth, there was likely little time for them to consider what had just happened up on that mountain.

And yet… I’m sure they did.  Perhaps in the morning when the bright beauty of the rising sun reminded them of another dazzling light they’d seen; or maybe at the end of a long day when, drifting off to sleep they’d revisit this lingering memory of an event not of their own making… something that was so utterly ethereal and yet as certain as their very breathing…

…something that would define them, and us all, forever.

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2017 in Epiphany, Jesus, Lent, Life, Reflections

 

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Mountains and Valleys


mountainsvalleys(a sermon for March 2, 2014, the Last Sunday after Epiphany, based on  Matthew 17:1-9 and 2 Peter 1:16-21)

Have you ever had an experience – a magic moment if you will – when for you time just seemed to stand still; and in that singular moment everything was

crystal clear?  Have you ever had something happen to you so overwhelming, so utterly beyond yourself that it quite literally filled you with awe and fascination and perhaps even a sense of urgency?  The German theologian Rudolf Otto had a word for that kind of experience: he called it numinous, meaning an experience that goes beyond anything that you and I can rationally describe.  It’s what happens when, without even knowing how or why, suddenly we’re palpably aware of the presence of the divine.

For instance, most of us understand the biology of how a baby is born; but it’s quite another thing to explain the feeling that comes over you holding your newborn child for the first time.  Likewise, I can tell you that while most marriage ceremonies are basically pretty much the same wherever you go, what passes between two people in love as they stand at the altar and repeat those oh-so-familiar vows is unique and powerful and ultimately indescribable.

It happens in a multitude of ways: a “too cool for church camp” teenager reluctantly spends a week at the Horton Center (the New Hampshire Conference’s wonderful summer camping ministry in the White Mountains) and comes home almost bursting with a new-found awareness of God’s love; or, for that matter, a life-long pew dweller is at church one Sunday morning and receiving communion just like she’s done a hundred times before; but this time, suddenly, in the sharing of the bread and cup there’s an intimacy with Christ unlike anything she’s ever known before.

These are numinous experiences; moments that are both spiritual and transforming.  Or, to put it another way, it’s transfiguration: it’s what it means to be up on that mountain when suddenly, without warning, God cracks open the crust that forms over our daily lives, and we get to see, hear and feel with great clarity God’s awesome presence.  It is for us nothing less than the experience of glory!

Of course, the thing about such experiences is that as much as we’d like them to last forever, or at least to hold on to them as long as we can, they inevitably come to an end.  The wonder of holding a new baby gives way to sleepless nights and changing diapers; all the effort in planning the perfect wedding day becomes the hard work required in building a strong marriage! And even the initial rush of having had that incredible faith experience will dissipate somewhat, once the real world barges back in and life goes on!

In other words, you can’t stay on the mountain forever.  Sooner or later the time is going to come when you are going to have to walk down from that mountain and return to the valley from which you came, facing all of its cold and harsh realities. And that can be a scary thing indeed!

It’s traditional in the church on this last Sunday of Epiphany to turn our attention to the Biblical account of the transfiguration of Christ, a true “mountain-top experience” that points to the magnificence of the divine presence which is seen in Jesus.  And what an image it is: the face of Jesus shining like the sun; with “raiment as white as the light,” as the old King James Version beautifully describes it; there’s Moses and Elijah appearing to, and talking with, Jesus; and then, finally, the booming voice from a bright cloud above them, interestingly enough with much the same words as were spoken at his baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  

What we have here is one more divine affirmation of Jesus as the anointed one.  It was for the disciples, and for us, a confirmation of who Jesus truly is: the one who is referred to in our reading from 2 Peter as “the morning star [rises] in your hearts,” the light that comes just before dawn; the light that serves as the herald of a brand new day.  And it’s a powerful, numinous experience for those three disciples who had gone with Jesus up to that mountain; so incredibly awesome, in fact, that Peter wanted to somehow enshrine Jesus, Moses and Elijah so the moment could last forever. But, of course, like all numinous moments, it was not meant to last forever!  In fact, what’s most interesting – and in the end, most important – about this transfiguration story is not so much what happens on the mountain, but what happens after… in the valley!

Let me explain this: you see, as the gospels record it, this transfiguration comes on the heels of Jesus having very bluntly told the disciples of what is to come: how the Son of Man was to be killed at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, “and on the third day be raised.” (Matt. 16:21)  And this, combined with Jesus’  talking to them about taking up their own crosses, and about having to lose their lives in order to save it; well, this was all very difficult for his disciples to even begin to comprehend!  Because remember, up till now, this journey with Jesus had almost all been about the miracles, and the wonder of his teachings and joy of just being in his presence; but now, here’s Jesus telling them that it’s all leading – and pretty quickly, it turns out – to death!

So you can kind of understand why this experience of Jesus’ transfiguration was for the disciples at once amazing and also more than a little bit unsettling. Because these three had seen this life-altering glimpse of the future – their future – and as much as they wanted to hold on to the glory of it forever, they also somehow knew, deep down, that if what Jesus was saying were true, then there was no way they were going to be able to bask in the glow of light and glory, and that to follow Jesus meant following him down from the mountain and into the valley with all its struggle and pain.  So what else could they do in that moment, then, but fall to the ground; which is what they did, overcome not by wonder, now, but by fear.

The story actually serves as a sobering reminder to you and me that while there’s an intense and incredible joy to discipleship, there’s also going to be a cost.  What’s interesting is that all through the Epiphany, the theme is that joy comes in following Jesus:  Come and See, Jesus says; Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people!  But now, here’s the reality check; and that’s to walk with Jesus means walking the way of the cross.  Our discipleship, you see, will be defined not so much by the enthusiasm we bring to our moments up on the mountain but rather by our willingness to follow Jesus where he leads, which will inevitably take us down into the valley.

I’ve told you before from this pulpit that by the time I was 15 years old, I knew that this is where God was calling me in my life, and that I needed go into the ministry.  What I don’t think I’ve shared with you is that for the next several years – right up until the time of my ordination, in fact – my own pastor, who was also my teacher, my mentor and my friend, did his best to talk me out of it!  It’s not that he wasn’t supportive, because he always was, and continues to be; it’s just that he was always asking me the same question:  “Are you sure?  Are you sure you want to be a minister?”  Over the years, it got to be kind of joke between us; but it was grounded in some hard truth.  As he explained to me years later, “I just wanted you to know it wasn’t always going to easy, or fun.”  And you know what, he was right!  Ministry – and not just the pastoral kind – is not always or completely about the joy of worship or the spiritual rush of feeling God’s love surging through you! Sometimes it’s about proclaiming truth when nobody wants to hear it; it’s about standing with the powerless when no one else will; and sometimes it’s about being rejected for simply doing what Jesus would do.

Now if there any of you this morning who are considering a call to some kind of Christian ministry, please don’t let me scare you out of it!  Because in truth, my life is filled to overflowing so many numinous experiences that I can’t even share them all with you (at least not in this sermon!), and I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life than what I’m doing right now.  But the important point here, the one my pastor wanted me to get, what that if we’re going to be following Jesus, that means walking the walk of faith; and that means that we’re going to be carrying all those numinous experiences of God’s presence into to the darkest places of this world, so that in and through our lives God’s glory will be revealed.  As 2 Peter puts it, “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

The good news is that this transfiguration story doesn’t end with the disciples cowering in terror.   For in a verse that’s included only in Matthew’s account, Jesus comes to Peter, James and John and touches them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  Don’t be afraid: the same words with which the angel Gabriel greets Mary; the same assurance that’s given the shepherds by the heavenly host; and eventually, the words the angel of the Lord will say unto the women who came seeking Jesus in the tomb on that morning of resurrection. And Jesus is saying it now to these three disciples terrified at the prospect of what’s coming next: Get up, and do not be afraid.  Understand, there’s no rebuke here; Jesus is not calling them, or us, out for our failures to follow him as we should.  He’s simply pulling us out of our fears and failure to take those first courageous steps into new life restored and renewed.

Yes, it’s true, he says.  To walk with me means walking the way of the cross; but I promise you this.  If you will follow me – if you will go where I go, and take up your own cross as you do – you won’t be walking that way alone.  I will be with you, to comfort you, sustain you, lead you and carry you… all the way, even unto the end of the age.

Beloved, as we have joy in being with our Lord on the mountaintop, may we also have the grace to go with him into the valleys.

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN.

c, 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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