Sunday, February 10, 2013

Coming Down the Mountain

sermon preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
by Josh Hosler, Seminarian
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C/ February 10, 2013

One summer when I was in high school, I experienced a bad scheduling conflict. I had to leave church camp two days early in order to come home and march in a parade with the high school band. I was crushed, but it was a commitment I couldn’t break. I remember the goodbye hugs with my church camp friends when my dad came to pick me up. Everywhere I looked as we drove home, the faces of the young people I saw reminded me of specific kids from camp, and the adults reminded me of the counselors and the clergy. A feeling of sadness settled over me. I had had to leave the most wonderful place in the world, and the most wonderful people in the world, to go back to a place that didn’t even feel like the world anymore.

Back at home, nobody sang songs to God around a campfire. Nobody talked about God at all, at least not in a way I understood. Back at home, other kids sometimes picked on me, but many kids had it far worse than I did. It wasn’t like that at camp. Camp wasn’t perfect, but we knew our ideal: everybody mattered to us, because we knew for a fact that everybody matters to God.

Coming down from that mountaintop experience was difficult for me every year, not just that one. Typically I would experience a day or two of the doldrums. Have you had an experience like that?

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus took his three closest disciples, his three best friends, to the top of Mount Tabor, not a huge mountain by any estimation. But it’s not the height of a mountain that matters as much as what happens when you’re on top. Mountains offer a great view not only of the low countries all around, but also of transcendent experiences.

We read this story every year at the pivot point between Epiphany and Lent. For several weeks now we’ve been hearing stories of Jesus’ earthly actions, of his calling disciples, teaching, and healing. The stories have led us to the mountaintop for the biggest epiphany yet, a vision of Jesus through the lens of God’s glory. On Wednesday it will be time to come down the mountain, into the valley, to begin the forty penitential days of Lent. I’m glad we sang “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” today so we could get our allelu-ya-yas out! Lent is an intentional time of non-celebration, of muted joy, of slowing down more than usual to listen for God at work in our lives.

Why do we transition with this story? For one thing, the Transfiguration takes place at a pivot point in the gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the story is placed right around the middle of the gospel, and it causes Jesus’ ministry to make a notable shift. In all three of these gospels, before going up the mountain, Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah. Then Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection and warns his disciples of the cost of continuing to follow him.

So about eight days after these things (or six days in Matthew and Mark), the Transfiguration story occurs. You might imagine that Peter, James and John are already starting to wonder what the deal is with Jesus. The adventure they have embarked on with him just keeps getting stranger and stranger. And the stakes have suddenly become much higher. Then this incredible experience happens. There’s no explanation for it, but very clearly and without a doubt, just because they happened to stay awake, they have seen Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah. It’s such a shocking experience that Peter (true to form) immediately sticks his foot in his mouth, and they all keep it to themselves for a long time.

After coming down the mountain—again, in Matthew, Mark and Luke—Jesus encounters a man whose son apparently has epilepsy, or something like it. Jesus’ other disciples have tried to “cast out the demon,” but it hasn’t worked. And what is Jesus’ reaction? Extreme frustration. He retorts, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” But he does heal the boy. And then he predicts his death and resurrection a second time.

What are we to make of Jesus’ strong reaction? Is he frustrated with his disciples, with the man and his son, or with the entire situation? Or is his mind on other things? Indeed, it’s not long after this in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus “sets his face” to go to Jerusalem and the ordeal that awaits him there. After the Transfiguration, Jesus holds his would-be followers to stricter standards, and his parables begin to take on a darker, more judgmental tone.

I think Jesus came to a new realization on that mountain. His encounter with Moses and Elijah changed him—transfigured him—and helped him prepare for what lay ahead.  But coming down the mountain meant stepping down into disappointment, and into the million concerns that stood between him and the cross. His disciples still didn’t get it. Maybe he worried that nobody would understand his teachings well enough to act on them, so wrapped up were they in their own ideas of what it means to be a success in this world. Step one in earthly success, of course, is to stay alive. How can anyone call death a victory?

But Jesus had seen a bigger vision, a vision of God’s kingdom, and he knew it could and would come on earth as in heaven. Jesus knew that God would someday act to make it so, but in the meantime, his job was to reveal all the ways it was already present. After giving the people so many parables about the Kingdom of God, Jesus was about to become a parable himself. What would happen if his disciples didn’t catch the vision, too? What if they just thought he’d gone crazy?

When we come down from our mountaintop experiences, the experiences that really change us, it’s easy to feel that there is nothing we can do to express the vision we have received, that there’s no way to use our new insights to transfigure the world. But ever since those church camp days as a kid, I’ve learned a lot. I know now that, again and again, I did my part to bring that world with me, just by becoming the person I was growing into. At church camp, I was learning how to be a person who hoped for a life worthy of God. When I left, I did my best to live that life, even at great cost to my pride and my popularity. How could I not? I had caught a glimpse of something so amazing, so transcendent, that I just had to pass it on. Somewhere along the line I decided to allow God to change me, bit by bit. I’m still on that journey today. It’s the journey we’re all on.

Most recently I have returned from the Dominican Republic, a mountaintop experience of a very different sort. This unique, three-week immersion program through Virginia Theological Seminary gave me a chance to learn quite a bit of Spanish, but it also taught me much about what it means to be the church in a country very different from our own. Many things are more difficult: for one thing, people’s daily needs are greater and harder to meet. Other things are easier: a conversation about God is easier to begin and sustain there than with a typical American. Above all, I developed caring relationships with the people I met and a deeper understanding of the lives they lead. It is tempting just to close that chapter in my story and move on. Yet I know that I am called to share some of what I have learned there, and to do something that will build on the experience. But how can I communicate that to people back home, people who can’t and won’t care in the same way I do? How can I share the good news? I haven’t yet learned how to tell that story.

This is where prayer comes in. Let’s remember that Jesus went up on the mountain to pray. To live a Christian life is to seek transfiguration, so that we may become more and more like Jesus. In our Collect today, drawing on language from Paul, we prayed, “Grant that we … may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.” We can’t be Jesus, but we can reveal Jesus. We can be Christ-bearers to the world.

A priest friend of mine once counseled me: “If you want to track your development as a Christian, check to see how much you actually want to be like Jesus. Be honest with yourself. If you don’t want to be like Jesus, that’s OK. Instead, ask, ‘Do I want to want to be like Jesus?’ It may be that that’s enough for now.”

Do you want to be like Jesus? Do you want to want to be like Jesus? If so, become more and more open to your own transfiguration. And if and when it happens, come down the mountain. After all, if you stay on the mountaintop forever, you’ll be no good to anybody. But be prepared for doldrums and disappointment: they’re pretty common down here in the valleys. The faith we receive on the mountain is meant to carry us through these times. The hard work might not be the work itself, but the way we choose to treat the people who will oppose us in our work.

Lent is a time to draw on the strength we have been given on the mountain. What have been your mountaintop experiences? What have been your valley experiences? Which does your life more resemble today? This Lent, please join me in daily prayer. Set aside some time each day to be still and to know that God is very gradually transfiguring all things and restoring them to wholeness. Amen.

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