Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Mountaintops and Valleys

Transfiguration, February 7, 2016
The Transfiguration from the stained glass windows of Taize (
Luke 9:28-43 28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

The view from the trail on Independence Peak, MT
I have summited precisely one mountain in my life. I’ve hiked a fair bit, probably not as much as a boy scout, but for one reason or another, I’ve only made it to the very top once. It was the summer after my first year of college, and I was a counselor in Montana. Never mind that other people peaked 3 or 4 or 8 mountains that summer. I only got the chance for one. So it sticks in my mind. We started out early that morning, mindful of afternoon thunderstorms and the danger of lightning. We climbed trails among the trees, going up switchbacks in shrubs, finally emerging past the tree line, and scrambling in the dangerous loose rocks called scree. We would pause to drink from our water bottles, look up to see how far we had yet to go and down to see how far we had come, and swat at flies made slow by the lack of oxygen. After making it to the top of the trail, we realized we were at a false summit- the part that looks tallest from the foot of the mountain, but really isn’t. We kept hiking, and what seemed like an hour later, reached the top. We were tired, our muscles sore, our shirts soaked with sweat. But as we gratefully took off our packs and passed around sandwiches and trail mix, we were exhilarated by the view. In every direction for miles, all we could see were mountains- range after range. The Beartooths, the Absarokas, lines and lines of them, hundreds of mountains, countless in our sight. Any inconvenience or discomfort had been worth this view, and we were in no hurry to descend. After all, we were at the pinnacle of our day, of our achievement. We wanted to stay there.
The Transfiguration from (a treasure trove of religious art)
In our gospel today, we hear of another mountain top experience. The riveting view in this case is not what they see from the mountain, but what appears to them on the mountain, namely, Moses and Elijah, the superstars of the Old Testament, show up, and Jesus starts glowing. Those three discuss departures- the departure of Jesus, which is going to happen in Jerusalem, and then the departure of Moses and Elijah. Peter reacts by suggesting that they stay a while longer, offering to build some dwellings so they can stick around for a while.  Peter is in no rush to get off that mountain, to head down to Jerusalem, where that departure is going to happen, and where instead of Elijah and Moses, the people who show up are cranky Pharisees and poor widows and sick children and always the crowds. But who could blame him- meeting Elijah and Moses, clearly being in the presence of God- he was at the pinnacle of his life. He wanted to stay there.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to stay on the mountain. The view is incredible. It’s great to be there, especially when the company is good and the weather is fine. But here’s the catch: life on the mountain is not sustainable. No matter how awesome or incredible it is, you have to go down sometime.
Image result for wedding african american
A picture-perfect wedding day is a metaphorical mountaintop experience
When I counsel couples who are preparing to marry, I sit down with them to plan their wedding and to talk about their hopes and dreams for the life together. Often, they have some beautiful vision of what the day will be like- of a beautiful bride, the groom proud to be marrying that bride- of the two of them, supported by friends or family, the important people in their life. The celebration and joy of the day. It takes a lot to get to that day, no matter how simple the wedding. It’s a mountain top of sorts. It’s exhilarating and memorable- the views are lovely. But a marriage is not made up of a series of days on the mountaintop. It is those- and it’s also the days when you wake up, uncertain of whether you still have anything in common and choose to reconnect. It’s the year when you had no money at all and there was a lot of tension and fear and you chose to figure out a way. It’s the times you choose to tolerate the terrible in-laws or take the job that pays the bills but doesn’t feed the soul or the date night your spouse wanted but you couldn’t care less. A marriage is made with the mountaintop experiences and all the days in between.

Today we have a mountaintop experience for Ed and Marit. It’s their 50th wedding anniversary, which they’re celebrating with flowers and cake, family and friends, nice clothes, and by reaffirming their vows to each other. These are the promises for tomorrow, for the day after tomorrow, for the times that are to come. These words they say to each other are the plan for when they get down off the mountain top.
And maybe that’s the kind of thing that mountaintops are good for- they’re places where memories are made, where God gives us space outside of our normal lives to receive special memories that will give us courage or comfort in the future. Just as Marit and Ed will be able to look back on this day and remember their promises to support one another in all circumstances, so Peter and the disciples and Jesus were able to look back on that day and remember how the voice in the cloud claimed Jesus as God son who was chosen, and that God told them to listen to him.

Each of us have mountaintop experiences- times when we’ve felt close to God or known deep satisfaction and happiness. The memories of those times stay with us through the normal, everyday, humdrum lives. So if you’re on a mountaintop today, enjoy it, give thanks, and hold onto this memory. If you’re in a valley today, this is where real life is lived. There is beauty here, too, even if it’s not as stunningly glorious as the mountaintop. Wherever we are, let us remember that God always goes with us on the journey.

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