To the Mountain and Back — A sermon for First Parish in Newbury

Sermon

Text: Matthew 17:1-9 The Transfiguration of Jesus

Grace to you, and peace, from God our creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen

Mountaintop experiences. We’ve all had them. I invite you to think about your personal mountaintop experiences. They could be anything. Maybe yours was something huge and visible and shared like a wedding or a graduation. Or maybe it was more personal like the birth of a child.

To be real, these mountaintop moments don’t have to be loaded with drama.  Maybe you went to a wonderful event or read a book or saw a movie that changed your outlook on life.

Maybe you actually climbed up a mountain. Maybe the view from up there changed the way you look at the world and at yourself.  A few summers ago I walked up Mount Washington. It was really quite amazing, during the climb, to see the shape of the world becoming clearer with each step higher. At the beginning of the hike I couldn’t even see the forest because all the rocks and trees were in the way. As the trail got higher, there were occasional glimpses of nearby slopes. Then the trees thinned out and the mass of the great mountain started to emerge. The place of my little the trail on the mountain, first in a valley, then up a ridgeline, then across a rock-strewn meadow, became clear. The higher I got, the more I could see. The higher I got, the more I felt like I understood the mountain as a place, as the force of nature it is. It’s a mind-opening experience.

Have you ever walked up Mount Washington in the summer? If so, you know what happened next. The end of the trail is quite steep. I was tired so I was taking it slow, step by step. And with one of those steps I could suddenly see the parking lot up close. There, right before my eyes, was a pair of feet wearing fuzzy pink slippers. Lifting my gaze, I saw they were attached to a person who had just gotten out of a car to look at the view. It’s quite the carnival in the summer at the top of the Mount Washington road.

When I’m on a mountaintop I like to take a moment to look in all directions, to enjoy the experience of seeing a long way. That’s a lot of work on Mount Washington to see those sights; there are buildings to walk around and crowds to peer through. It’s not quite a pure hiking experience. But it’s worth it to gaze east and west a long way.

Washington didn’t leave me with the same kind of pure memory I have from climbing other mountains. But it’s still the kind of experience that opens up my heart to the landscape and the people of New England . I just didn’t expect it to be quite as much about the people as it turned out to be. The memory I carried down the mountain wasn’t what I thought it would be.

What has been a mountaintop experience for you? How do your mountaintop experiences engage you like seeing that vast landscape engaged me? How do they surprise you like that lady’s fuzzy pink slippers surprised me? How do they open up your heart? Were your memories what you expected them to be?

Let’s turn our attention to our gospel reading. How did their mountaintop experience engage the hearts and souls of those disciples, Peter, James, and John? How did it surprise them? What does it have to teach us in the 21st century church?

On our schedule of readings for this morning is Matthew’s account of what happened on top of the mountain. And, today at First Parish we added a little more of the Gospel than just the mountaintop part. We heard what happened before and after they went to the mountain.

Mountaintop experiences do something. They’re intended to work on our hearts and our minds, and to change us. They work better when we’re prepared. And, sometimes their effects stick with us. Other times, as I’m sure you know, we quickly forget. So it’s helpful to consider what happens before and after we go to the mountain.

Before they went to the mountain, Jesus began to prepare his disciples for what his future held in Jerusalem: suffering, death, and resurrection. We know Peter couldn’t deal with it; so as usual for him he started talking.  “no no no this will never happen to you.” Peter expected Jesus to wipe out the bad guys and rule in glory, so he tried to talk his way out of the reality of the crucifixion. We also know Peter’s attitude was a threat to Jesus’s mission. Jesus called him Satan, and said his attitude was a stumbling block. Harsh words those were, enough to get Peter to be quiet for a while.

We hear Jesus try to teach his disciples about the paradox of Christian life. You gain life by giving it up, and you lose it when you hang on to it.  We know those are hard lessons to learn; Jesus has to repeat them over and over.

At any rate, it’s from those conversations that Jesus takes the three disciples up to the mountain. They left the others behind and went to the mountain.

Their messy world fades into the distance as they climb. The view is astonishing from up there. They see a long way. They see the future: They see the Jesus of Easter Sunday, the Jesus who overcomes death and the grave, the glorious shining beacon of hope for all ages. They see the past: as they gaze down through their people’s history, there stands Jesus, perfectly at home as an equal in the company of the ancient prophets Elijah and Moses.

And, they hear and see the present: the bright cloud overshadows them and the divine voice speaks of the Jesus of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. God speaks of Jesus the teacher, Jesus the Word made flesh, Jesus the one who suffered and died. God’s voice says, “This is my son, the one who I love. Listen to him.”

Quite a view from up there: “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.”

We don’t know how James and John took all this in. But Matthew, and the other gospel-writers, tell us what Peter did. He picked up on part of the mountaintop vision, but, maybe, not quite all of it. True to form, he started talking. He’s so predictable it’s funny.  “Hey, Lord, this is terrific. Let’s make something great out of this. It will help our cause! Let’s put up tents. I know, I know, one each for Moses, Elijah, and you. We can get people to come up here and see and blah blah blah” While he was still talking the divine voice interrupted, speaking from the cloud. And Peter was quiet for a while, for the second time in a week.

(Maybe some of Jesus’s miracles happen when he gets Peter to shut up and actually listen for a minute or two.)

The disciples are awestruck by the voice of God and fall down on their faces.  Jesus intervenes. It’s important that he intervenes. He helps them to their feet and tells them, “don’t be afraid.” We can guess Jesus wants to teach them something practical. Because of this visit to the mountain, they’ve learned they live and move and have their being in the presence of God. And, they may as well actually live and move in God’s awesome presence, and not just lie there on their faces quivering.

The disciples have been to the mountain. They’ve seen the view. They know, in a way they can only know from the mountaintop, that everything is changed for them.

That’s true of our mountaintop experiences too. We gain life-giving new perspectives. We come away from those experiences awestruck, and full of joy and resolve. But our mountaintop experiences don’t change the world. We know this. I knew I had to go back to the road at the foot of Mount Washington. I had to find a place to eat, and a place to rest my weary legs. When I told a stranger about my climb, he was dismissive … “oh yeah, I’ve climbed Washington a few times.” Ouch. But it’s reality.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this on your journeys back from your mountaintops too. You leave the summit with all kinds of resolutions about living a new way, but by the time you get to the valley they’re just memories. Sometimes it can seem like you’ve never been away.

That definitely happens to Jesus and the disciples. A few minutes ago we heard about their return to other disciples and the buzzing crowd of people around them. Their clear vision of the past and future fades away. The clarity of the divine voice becomes fuzzy. The urgent needs of the present crowd in. People anxiously crave Jesus the miracle healer, and they mob him and make demands of him. And, he gets back to work, with only a little grumbling.

This mountaintop experience has everything to do with you here at First Parish. I think it’s fair to say you, as a church community, know some disappointments. I suspect some of you have been with Peter, saying “no, no, no, this cannot be” when you hear that church attendance is declining.

You’ve been to the mountain together, many times. When you go to the mountain you get a view of your past and future. Hundreds of years ago you built the community of Newbury around this congregation. The church sustained you in this new world when you needed to be sustained. More recently, you’ve made some great plans and carried them out: the food pantry, the school.  I suspect some of you, like Peter, try to capture your mountaintop moments – “hey, let’s put up tents.”

But you’ve taken the advice of the divine voice from the bright cloud. You’ve listened to Jesus, saying “let the little children come to me” and “I was hungry and you gave me food.” Like Jesus, you come down from the mountain into the messy world and do the work of mercy.

 

May I speak personally for a moment? Serving Jesus beside you these few months has been a mountaintop experience for me (but without the fuzzy pink slippers). It’s been a privilege to stand here and gaze into the history of the church here in Newbury and New England. It’s been inspiring, in the Holy Spirit way, to share your clear vision of the future of the church in this age where Peter’s bad attitude could easily take over. And most important I’ve felt that bright divine cloud shining in your hearts.

I know, and hope, you will travel again and again to the mountain together. Those mountaintop experiences work for you, and make you instruments of God’s peace in our world. May it be so, yesterday, today, tomorrow, and forever. Amen.

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