Sunday, March 6, 2011

I've been to the Mountain Top

Well friends, it's been ages since I've posted. Life in Cambridge has been rushing by, so fast I can hardly keep up with everything. I blink and another week slips away. Here we are, on the edge of Lent. Ash Wednesday is just a few days away, and I know that all of you are planning to indulge in whatever little luxuries you're giving up for Lent over the next couple of days! I am paying the price of procrastination and haivng to lock myself away to write essays (like I should be doing now...).

BUT, I wanted to announce that I preached my very first ever sermon this morning (first in my WHOLE life, can you imagine I got through 1.5 years of seminary without having to!). It was for Transfiguration Sunday, and it was to our little Chapel congregation - which had swelled this Sunday for some unknown reasons (or I'm just that awesome!) from our normal 10-12, to about 25. It was great. I only stuttered once, and got through it okay. I have my official assessment on Thursday where I get feedback from my professor about how well I did (content and delivery). Hopefully that all goes well. I feel pretty good about it, all in all.

Now, I can just hear y'all, itching to get your hands on this epically awesome work of theological genius (right?). So I'm going to be benevolent (vain?) and post it. :)

I hope all of you are well! I have video footage that, as soon as I get a spare minute (afternoon, rather) to edit, I'll have a video posted. Also, I'm going to Paris in 3 weeks (!!!!!), and I'll be sure to take LOTS of pictures.

All my love!

Our Readings were Exodus 24: 12-19 (Moses up on the mountain) and Matthew 17:1-9 (the Transfiguration).

Imagine for a moment you are surrounded by forest. You are carefully picking your way through the dense growth of Central American jungle. It is hot and humid, you are covered in a sticky film of sweat; insects buzz around your head and there is the constant chatter of bird calls. Imagine the toiling climb, up and up, feeling the pop of your ears drums as the altitude changes, and the soreness of your feet from hours on the trail.

Then, imagine them moment when the tree line breaks and you are greeted with a rich expanse of bright blue sky. No office buildings or cell phone towers obstruct your view; it’s just pristine, perfect blue. Imagine your sense of awe as you gaze upon a sky which seems to stretch out into forever. What a reward for the strenuous work of climbing all that way!
It is no coincidence that revelation can take place on a mountain top. Here we are removed from the busy to-and-fro activities of daily life. Here we are raised up, closer to heaven, closer even to God in some sense. Here, after the labor of climbing up and away from the mundane do we encounter God’s unfiltered glory.

I have been blessed to have had such a “mountain top” experience – and, as my illustration may have clued you in – it was actually on a literal mountain in Central America – Guatemala to be exact. I was 19 and on my very first mission trip. I was a brand new, baby Christian – having come to faith less than a year before.  After a day climbing up to one of the villages we were visiting, I stopped and looked out across the great wide horizon, seeing the cloudless sky, watching the way the trees rolled down into the valley, and how seamlessly everything came together. In that moment, I experienced an unexpected revelation – God wanted me to be a servant. God wanted me to be God’s hands and feet. God wanted me to be excited about God’s glory and to share it. The revelation lasted only a moment, but a spiritual “high” if you will, stuck with me throughout the rest of the trip. It was a moment of clarity – an epiphany where I understood something of the nature of God and my relationship to God.

Lots of religious folks have these “mountain top” experiences. Rarely, though, do they occur on literal mountains – they can happen quietly on a ship taking an itinerant preacher to America (in the case of John Wesley). Or they can come loudly on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus (like the Apostle Paul). Or they can happen in the instant of communion – as it did to Sara Miles, who felt God call her to reform the food pantry system in California.

The mountain top experience is a space where God’s glory calls to us, removes us from the present reality, and lifts us. It’s intense, and awesome – in the truest sense of the word. It’s unusual, and can’t be manufactured or prepared for. And, it is transformative.  

Both our Old Testament and Gospel readings for this morning are about that moment of Divine revelation. That is what the Transfiguration is – Christ illuminated revealing his true identity to Peter, James and John. Revelation is what happened to Moses when he ascended into the blazing cloud where the glory of God beckoned him.  There God disclosed the gift of the law. This is a moment of being overwhelmed by God’s glory, and being changed because of it.

A few verses before the Transfiguration in Chapter 16 of the Gospel of Matthew, we see Peter confess that Jesus is the Messiah and is the “Son of the living God.” But when Jesus predicts his death in verse 21, Peter rebukes Jesus. He denies that the Messiah can or should suffer. He doesn’t see clearly. He doesn’t understand.

The moment of the Transfiguration is when it all comes together. We see Jesus with Elijah and Moses. Jesus is the inheritor of the prophetic tradition and the fulfillment of prophecy. God’s glory surrounds them in a cloud and a voice from heaven proclaims “this is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased, listen to him.” 

This directly parallels the baptism narrative earlier in the gospel, with the added emphasis of heeding Jesus’ instruction. This is the moment which crystallizes Jesus’ identity and shifts the focus of the gospel.  If you can imagine, it is the hinge and pivot.

We celebrate the Transfiguration as the culmination of the season of Epiphany. We celebrate the Transfiguration as the final Sunday before Lent. Here we shift; here revelation does not rest, but moves us from the bright glow of Epiphany to the shadow of the Cross. To know the truth of Jesus’ identity is to know that what must follow is the crucifixion.

Revelation is impetus to action.

Jesus didn’t take his friends to the mountain and reveal his true identity for them to stay there. They must descend again and go back into the world, back to the disciples who would squabble about greatness, back to a Palestine occupied by the Romans, back to the reality that Christ must suffer unto death. When Moses returned with the revelation of the law, he was met with the scene of his people worshiping the golden calf, there at the foot of the mountain. When we return from our moments of divine clarity, we return to a world racked with imperfection and sin. It can be tempting to run from that world, to look for the mountain top while we are in the valley.

It wasn’t for me to stay up on that mountain in Guatemala, marveling at the beauty of God’s good creation. That moment was perfect and peaceful, yes, but it was a moment. It was an encounter with God to shape my steps and shift my focus. It wasn’t for Peter, James and John to stay on the mountain, either, building shelters for Elijah and Moses, basking in the literal glow of Jesus illuminated. It wasn’t for Moses to horde the law to himself, lingering in God’s presence away from the waywardness of Israel. And, it isn’t for any of us to stay in the space where God brings clarity. We are not meant to linger in the glow of the mountain top experience; we are meant return to the world transformed by it, renewed by it, and inspired by it.

So, as we approach the season of Lent, preparing to walk with Christ toward the Cross, let the actions of our lives reflect the revelation of who Christ is. And, in knowing that, who we are called to be.


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