We’re on the mountaintops today. High up, above the everyday world. Where you look down and see everything in miniature, like tiny toy farms or houses or car sets. You feel differently up here. You have a different view of things and seem to be above the rest, not only physically, but in some kind of existential or mystical way as well. Unless you came up on the gondola you put a lot of effort in getting here. Your legs are probably aching a bit, stretched beyond their normal daily routine. Your breathing is deeper and of course the air seems sweeter up here even though the poison we are putting into it reaches up even to these heights. And, as has often been said, we feel a little closer to God when we are up here. Mountaintops are numinous places as is said in Celtic spirituality. Those places where heaven and earth seem to meet, what George Macleod, founder of the Iona Community, described as “a ‘thin place’ – only a ‘tissue paper’ separating the material from the spiritual”.
That’s what mountaintops are in scripture as well. Whenever a story locates you on a mountain, be prepared. You are likely to have some kind of experience of the divine. Some new and challenging experience of the divine, mystical, revelatory, awesome, life changing. After you have been on the mountaintop you will not be the same again. In the story of the people of Israel’s escape from slavery in Egypt, Moses needs to go up a mountain to have his close encounter with God and receive the law that would shape and mould the life of the people in the new land and community to which they were headed. All of the time spent walking and wandering in the wilderness was not where the glory of the Lord was going to be revealed. Moses had to go up the mountain, into the clouds, into the terrifying storm of lightening and thunder on the mountaintop to find God in a different way. Those looking on from below probably thought that he would never survive – in fact later in the story we find out that they couldn’t wait for him to come back and started down a different path with a golden calf – but that is a digression.
For the last few Sundays, the readings from Matthew’s gospel have taken us up a different mountain. Chapters five to seven contain what is often called the “sermon on the mount”. In its ethical teaching for the new community of the followers of Jesus, it parallels the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. In Matthew’s account it was important that Jesus went up a mountain to teach and instruct the people. This is where God’s will was revealed and where the radical implications of following in Jesus’ way became clear. As we have heard, beautiful but difficult words for those of us who would be disciples.
Today we shifted quite rapidly to another mountain, this time probably Mount Hermon to the north of the Sea of Galilee, in the disputed territory that is called the Golan Heights today. Jesus is ready to begin his journey to Jerusalem. Already people had been sent from Jerusalem to check out his teaching and to find out for themselves what all the fuss was about this preacher from Galilee. Already they were becoming worried about the implications of his teaching and what it might mean for the carefully balanced relationship with the occupying Romans. Already Jesus was talking to his followers about the need to follow in the way of cross. The pieces were all coming together and he was seeing the path he would need to take. And in the midst of this, he goes up a mountain and he takes his closest friends with him – Peter and James and John. Up to one of those numinous places where heaven and earth meet. And they were not disappointed. They met two others who had had experiences with the divine on mountains, Moses and Elijah. Those are the kinds of people who inhabit mountain tops. Perhaps in todays world we would expect to find Master Yoda or Albus Dumbledore. People who know what mountaintops are all about.
Jesus is right at home. In fact he becomes one of them in dazzling white and easily falling into conversation. For the disciples though, this is something completely new and different. This takes them far out of their comfort zone and they don’t really know what to day or do. But that never stopped Peter before. He wants to preserve this moment somehow. He wants to build shelters for all of them, shrines, so that this moment will be captured for all of eternity. But then there is another level of mystery and wonder as they are covered by a cloud and they hear a voice which is very much like the voice they heard when John baptized Jesus in the Jordan, “”This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Well that was too much. They fell on their faces in fear. The mountaintop had overtaken them.
And then it was over. As quickly and as strangely as it had begun, it was over and they were alone with Jesus. Have you had times like that? Moments when you feel ecstatic or outside yourself and then it is over. Resonating with that last exquisite chord of Bach’s cello suite #1, or the taste of the bittersweet Maracuya, passion fruit, gelato lingering on your tastebuds, or the ball, almost in suspended animation, sitting on the rim of the basket before tipping in to win the championship game, or dancing down the aisle of the church dressed for Mardi gras until that last note of the trumpet tells you to stop. You want to hold on to that mountaintop moment. Even if it has frightened you somehow and taken you outside your comfort zone, you do not want to leave it. But you have to open your eyes, inhale, exhale, breathe, look around you and know that you are back.
Peter could not capture that moment in the booths he wanted to build. And we cannot capture and contain those moments no matter how many hundreds of selfies we click and store in our electronic devices. Maybe they will get a few likes on Facebook but we will move on. The world will move on. Other things will begin to occupy us again. BUT we will never be the same. We will never be the same. In those moments of transfiguration as it gets called in scripture, those moments of ecstasy, of mystery, of awe and wonder, of holiness, of bliss, we are changed. They live in us and move us along our life’s journey.
Jesus and his disciples needed that moment of transfiguration. It is what enabled them to begin the journey to Jerusalem. They see more clearly what lies before them. They are given strength for that journey where they will be called to take up their crosses in order to respond to God’s call on their lives. Something to hold on to, that helps to make sense of life when things begin to fall apart. When you find yourself down the mountain again and those things that seemed like miniatures when you were on the mountain are life-size and sometimes bigger than life size and many times are threatening and needing to be manoeuvred or challenged. You need the mountaintop experience to get you through and to know that it is possible to carry on.
We are coming to the end of black history month. We haven’t spent much time reflecting on it in our community here. Early in the month I was reminded of that, that remembering and celebrating black history and addressing the on-going struggle for life and dignity and rights in the persistence of racism doesn’t occupy a lot of our energy or time. Shortly after that, when I first looked at the readings for today, I thought about Martin Luther King’s famous speech given the night before he was assassinated. It was a long speech given at Mason Temple Church in Memphis at the time of a sanitation workers strike. In it King talks about an experience when he was stabbed in the chest in Harlem and was almost killed but that he was grateful that he lived to see many of the momentous changes that the civil rights movement brought to the United States. The movement had come to a crucial juncture and King was under threat. He knew that. Like Jesus, turning his face to Jerusalem, he knew what the consequences of his actions could be. He knew the viciousness of the fear and hatred of racism and that it would not easily be overcome. Unfortunately, we still know that today. In a time when race should not even be a question for us, the fear and hatred that fuel racism are deepeing again and are being given a space to grow in the United States and in our own country and around the world. Just as in 1968, it is hard to know where we might go now. What the journey to Jerusalem might entail. Although I cannot in any way match the oratorical skills of Dr. King, I wanted to quote what he said in the speech that might give us courage as we leave our mountain top:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
We cannot stay on the mountain top. It is too much. But we need the mountaintop. We need those transfiguring, transforming, awesome experiences when heaven and earth meet to let us live our lives and to follow in the path on which God calls us. It never ceases to amaze me that someone like Dr. King, who for all intents and purposes in the America of the 1950’s was a nobody, did not have privilege or power, always faced a struggle simply to live and to live with dignity, was the person who inspired millions of African Americans and so many others, to follow a different way and to not give up despite the adversities and suffering that might be found along the way. That thin tissue that was torn apart on the mountaintop that enabled him to have a vision of a different way, a different world, a different power at work, a beloved community in which all were welcome, enabled him to journey on and enabled millions of others to join him.
We’re on the mountaintops today. We hear the voice again, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” But we can’t stay here. We must move on. We must come down the mountain. On the journey to the promised land. On the journey to the cross. On the journey to the beloved community.
Thanks be to God.