The Climb – February 26, 2017

  Posted on   by   No comments

Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
February 26, 2017

Let us pray.
Jesus, take us to the mountain,
where with Peter, James and John,
we are dazzled by your glory,
light as blinding as the sun.
There prepare us for the night
by the vision of that sight. [1] 

It wasn’t August if it wasn’t Cross Country Camp. Every August, just before the academic year started, sixty of my high school classmates and I would rouse ourselves early in the morning, travel to school and board coach buses for an eleven hour journey to North Hero, Vermont, where, housed in rustic cabins on the shores of scenic Lake Champlain, we would enjoy the cool breeze, play games, share meals, run twice a day, and mark the transition from summer into fall.

The centerpiece of Cross Country Camp was always the mountain—an expedition on the Thursday of Cross Country Camp to Mount Mansfield in nearby Stowe. If you were a sophomore or older and deemed ready and able to handle it, you were given the chance to run up Mount Mansfield on a road 4 and a half miles long and straight uphill the whole time. It was a long way, slow and measured if you wanted to do it without stopping, and it was tough, but if you got to the top, you achieved bragging rights, the feeling of well-earned accomplishment, and the opportunity to see the most beautiful view.

The night before the mountain, my coach always brought together the team for an important talk. Coach Ehrenhaft was slim and serious, and when he was not coaching cross country or track, he taught ethics, mysticism, and Eastern religion. Though he was not religious in any way that most of us had previously been accustomed to, he had a kind of aura about him and he always approached this talk with the grace of a guru and the fervor of any Christian preacher.

The mountain, he would tell us, was much more than just a mountain, and our experience of running up the mountain was about far more than just running. The challenge of the mountain was really a training ground for the countless challenges we would encounter far into the future. “All through your lives,” he would say, “you will have to face mountains. And each time you do, you will need to find the strength within you to confront the pain and difficulty and keep on going.” [2]

Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus, when, according to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus was visited by Moses and Elijah, announced by a loud voice as God’s beloved Son, and briefly transformed into stunning brilliance. It is a dramatic and undeniably impressive moment that helps to prove just how exceptional and holy Jesus truly is.

But what is often overlooked about the Transfiguration is that it did not entirely happen out of nowhere. The Transfiguration may seem like a sudden, miraculous message sent directly from God, yet it comes at the conclusion of a long hike that Jesus, Peter, James and John took up a high mountain. I have climbed up a few mountains in my day and even run up one a few times, and I don’t know any mountain—much less any high mountain—that can be climbed as part of a fifteen minute stroll. Climbing mountains requires time, energy, and exertion. The Transfiguration, we should remember, only happened after four eager seekers made a large effort to transport themselves from one place to another.

It’s quite possible that in doing so our four friends knew exactly what they were getting themselves into. Far before Jesus’ day, mountains were thought of as holy places within Judaism and across cultures and religious traditions. Moses did a lot of his communicating with God on the top of a mountain, Micah and Isaiah both imagined the nations coming together on a holy mountain at the end of time, and our psalms repeatedly invoke mountains, from Psalm 99’s exhortation to worship God “upon his holy hill” to Psalm 121’s declaration of “I lift my eyes to the hills.” I think it’s pretty likely that Jesus and Peter and James and John walked up that mountain because they expected to have a religious experience there.

And why wouldn’t they have wanted to? Don’t we all at some level want to have a religious experience, whether we would call that it or not? Don’t we all want an earth-shattering encounter with beauty and holiness that affirms our faith in some sort of meaning behind this whole mess? To me, there seems to be no shame in this yearning.

However, sometimes our fascination with spiritual heights can obstruct us from seeing the whole mountains we have to climb in order to reach them. We suppose that the divine manifests itself spontaneously in our lives, with no connection to our everyday existence, but the reality is that every aspect of our lives has contributed to and informed the religious and spiritual episodes we experience and it is unlikely that God will appear to us in a manner that is completely alien to our current context and situation.

Our romantic infatuations with our spiritual mountains can also encourage us to become so attached to the sacred that we have already experienced that we give up any future striving or endeavors. We have reached the peak, we think; where can we go from here? Like Peter, we express a hope to stay and preserve what we have been shown for years and ages to come. But we set our selves up for disappointment when we insist on bottling God up and staying put—because God has already moved on and so, God says to us, should we.

Any hesitation we may have about moving on is understandable, though, as there are indeed great losses and setbacks ahead. Peter, James and John, when they leave the mountain where Jesus was transfigured, accompany Jesus not just to a physical valley but also to a spiritual valley of persecution, capture and death. When we dare to leave the mountain on which we have seen the fullness and majesty of God, the hill on which everything for once seemed lovely and perfect, we open ourselves up to the pain, sorrow and dread of the future. [3]

Yet we also, of course, open ourselves up to the greater wonders ahead. If Jesus had not traveled down the mountain and walked into his crucifixion, he would not have had the opportunity in his resurrection to defeat death and enter triumphantly into the greater mountain of heaven. If Peter, James and John had not left with Jesus and instead stayed on the mountain to fossilize the Transfiguration, they never could have spread God’s love to the whole world or played their part in building the witness to that love called the Church. If we refuse to leave one mountain, if we remain fixated on one particular triumph we have achieved, we might miss our opportunity to climb the even higher mountains on the waiting horizon. Matthew tells us that the four men came down the mountain, but maybe what they were really doing was continuing to climb the mountain called life.

Two years after I graduated high school, I offered to return to cross country camp as a pseudo-chaperone, which afforded me the chance to see the experiences that were so meaningful to me a few years before from a different, more distant perspective. Since my last time running the mountain, Miley Cyrus—that great sage—had released her top-selling song from the Hannah Montana Movie called The Climb, and, I hesitate to admit, I happened to like the song. As I sat in Coach Ehrenhaft’s mountain meeting for a fifth time, this time as an adult climbing new mountains of my own, I couldn’t help but notice the resemblance between the inspiring message Coach Ehrenhaft had been giving his runners for years and the main message of Miley’s catchy if treacly ballad. Miley was not as wise nor did she have the gravitas or eloquence of Coach Ehrenhaft, but the central point still came through, loud and clear:

There’s always gonna be another mountain
I’m always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be a uphill battle
Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose
[it] ain’t about how fast I get there,
[it] ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side
It’s the climb

Keep on moving
Keep climbing
Keep the faith.
It’s all about
It’s all about
The climb.

[1] From a hymn by Jaroslav Vajda.

[2] This is a paraphrase of my best recollection.

[3] Here I recall Auden’s line: “Remembering the stable where for once in our lives/Everything became a You and nothing was an It.”

Categories: Sermons