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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 13, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  1 Kings 19:9-15a and Matthew 14:22-33
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Before I get into my sermon, I need to say some things about what has transpired over the past 40 hours in Charlottesville, Virginia.  As you know, a group of at least a thousand white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Klu Klux Klanners gathered there, along with five to six thousand counter-protestors.[1]  It did not take long for things to turn violent, but then the mere rallying of white nationalists is in and of itself violent for people of color.  According to the LA Times, the violence started within the white supremacist rally.[2]  The violence peaked when a car was driven at high speed into a crowd of counter-protestors, apparently on purpose by a white supremacist,[3] killing one and injuring many others.

I suspect that the vast majority of the white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville consider themselves to be Christians.  But “supremacy” is the precise opposite of Jesus’ message.  Jesus calls us to love one another – even our enemies – and to place others’ needs before our own, even to die for one another.  The idea of ‘supremacy’ is absurd to Jesus.  Racism goes against everything that Jesus taught.  It promotes hatred, not love; anger, not compassion; vengeance, not mercy.  It is a sin.

“So,” as Father James Martin put it, “‘Christian white supremacist’ is an oxymoron.  Every time you shout ‘White Power!’ you might as well be shouting ‘Crucify him!’  And any time you lift your hand in a Nazi salute, you might as well be lifting your hand to nail Jesus to the Cross.  And lest you miss the point, your Savior is Jewish.”[4]

Now, I don’t think there are any who disagree with what I’ve said.  There may be some who are uncomfortable with the tone or the framing, but I’d be very surprised if any of you disagree with the substance.  So, why did I say it?  Because I needed to.  Week after week, I get up here in this pulpit to preach the gospel of Jesus and when something is happening in the world that violates the gospel, I need to say so.  To be silent is insufficient.  White silence is violence.  To be silent is to offer my consent.  And I do not consent to racism.

The events of the week, and especially of the last day and a half have left me wondering what else to say to you.  I usually have a good idea of where my sermon is going by Tuesday.  I typically have the main points figured out by Wednesday or Thursday.  All that changed for me yesterday as new from Charlottesville, Virginia – that had started showing up in the Twitter feed the night before – was reported on NPR and I started reading more online.  Yesterday afternoon, I pushed the work I had done on my sermon aside and started over.

And it wasn’t just Charlottesville.  The news of the dangerous posturing of the President of the United States and the ruler of North Korea tilled the soils of my heart and left me feeling a low-grade anxiety.  I can’t help but wonder about how those of you here and throughout our country – throughout our world – who deal with chronic conditions of anxiety and/or depression and/or post-traumatic stress are coping.  I pray that you are doing the self-care that you need and I hope that the rest of this sermon may even be a balm in some small way for you as writing it has been for me.

As I went back to the texts yesterday, I found some comfort in the reading from 1 Kings and the verses that come before it.  Elijah is depressed.  “Elijah has come to the wilderness to die, certain that he is the only faithful one left in Israel.  His orchestration of the upstaging of Baal – when, quite against the odds, the fire of the Lord consumed Elijah’s water-soaked altar – caught the attention of Queen Jezebel, never one to suffer humiliation gladly.  Now he has a price on his head.  Exhausted, despondent, and somewhat resentful over this turn of events, Elijah sits ‘under a solitary broom tree’ and [turns to God in prayer and] asks to die (1 Kings 19:4).”[5]

Talbot Davis calls Elijah’s prayer “the worst prayer in the Bible.”  “[Elijah’s] trauma piles up, the weight becomes unbearable, and Elijah wants to end it all.  And although it is the worst prayer in the Bible, I’m really glad it’s here.  Because I know some of you have prayed it.  Or [maybe, even now,] you are praying it.”[6]  When hope is gone, when madness seems to surround you, when the pain is relentless, it can seem like there is only one prayer to pray, “Take my life.  Do it now.  Instantly.  Painlessly.  Fix it, take it, do it.  I’m tired of being responsible for it.”[7]

That is certainly where Elijah was.  But listen to God’s response.  “All at once an angel touched [Elijah] and said, ‘Get up and eat.’  [Elijah] looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water.  He ate and drank and then lay down again” (1 Kings 19:5b-6).  “And in case you missed it the first time, the same thing happens in 19:7-8a:  ‘The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched [Elijah] and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”  So he got up and ate and drank.’

“And the repetition is the key.  The answer to this painfully large prayer is massively small:  bread, water, and a bed.  Elijah wants a snap answer, a quick fix, and God grants the start of a slow process – bread, water, bed.  [It is] As if recovering hope can never be a matter of great leaps, but always involves small steps.”[8]

Davis points out that God puts a burden on Elijah.  It’s not a big burden.  It’s a manageable burden, but it’s on Elijah.  “God sent the provision but Elijah has to act on it to receive it.  It’s not like the [angel] put an IV line in and Elijah will receive nourishment whether he wants it or not.  He had to act.  He had to own.  He wanted to be totally passive – wanted God to do something instantaneous for him.  Either kill him or make him all better in a snap.  But instead God gives a task, a massively small task:  Get up and eat.  I’m sending bread, water and a bed but you’ve gotta get up and take advantage of what I’m providing.”[9]

So, here’s my takeaway from this exchange (and I realize I haven’t gotten to the reading yet, but bear with me):  God won’t do for you want God wants to do with you.

Well, Elijah does get up and eats, and wanders the hills until he gets to Mount Horeb.  And he finds a cave there and spends the night.  And the word of Yahweh comes to him saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah says (and I’m paraphrasing here), “I’ve been faithful, but look at what they’re trying to do to me.  They’re trying to kill me!”

God does not say, “Dude, you were just asking me to kill you,” which I think is awfully nice of God.  Instead, God says, “Time for an object lesson.  Get out of the cave and stand on the mountain.”  Then there is a mighty wind, and an earthquake, and great fire.  Surely Elijah recognized these signs, just as Moses had when he was on the mountain.  “But this time, God is not in any of them.  God has changed languages – speaking now in the ‘sound of sheer silence.’”[10]

It is in the silence that Elijah realizes the presence of Yahweh.  In is in that profound stillness that Elijah realizes he is in the presence of God.  And he goes and stands at the entrance of the cave.  The voice comes to him again:  “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

“I have been faithful, but the people of Israel have not.  I really think I’m the only faithful one left, and they are coming to hunt me down.”

And God says, “You’re not done.  I’ve got more for you to do.  Get going.”

And here’s take away number 2:  Even when we’re at our lowest, God has work for us to do.

If you were here last week, you’ll remember that the reason Jesus went off into the wilderness was because King Herod had executed John the Baptist.  The principalities and powers of his day was doing their best to silence God’s truth and so they killed John.  Jesus, another proclaimer of God’s truth, knew he could be next and he went off to do a little self-care.  He went off to pray.  It didn’t happen.  The crowd followed him.  He fed them.  Jesus ordered the disciples to get in a boat and go away.  Then he dispersed the crowd.  And Jesus finally got some time to himself to pray.

The night falls and the boat is out there on the lake when a storm kicks up.  Waves batter the boat and even the wind is against them.

Even the wind is against them.  When things are bad, it really does seem like things can pile on.

In the midst of all this, Jesus comes to them, walking on the water.  Laurel Dykstra notes that the disciples’ fear and Jesus’ response is striking in this passage.  “Although the boat is battered by waves and wind, the disciples are not ‘troubled’ (tarasso in Greek) until they see Jesus (Matthew 14:26).  Certainly they are afraid to see someone walking on water, but the only other place in Matthew this word appears is when Herod learns that Jesus is born (Matthew 2:3).”[11]  It seems to me that Jesus showing up in turbulent times is not necessarily comforting.  In fact, for those of us who would follow him – and even for those who oppose him – Jesus showing up can be upsetting, even troubling.

And then there’s what Jesus does.  Jesus doesn’t respond to the troubled disciples by stilling the storm.  Instead, he just says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).  Dykstra points out that this echoes what the Israelites are told when they are backed up against the Red Sea and the Egyptian army is closing in on them. “Do not be afraid.  Stand firm,” Moses tells them (Exodus 14:13).[12]

“Do not be afraid.”  These words are so common to the biblical narrative that we almost don’t hear them.  The Israelites are told, “Do not be afraid,” as they are backed up against the sea.  Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and the shepherds in the fields are all told, “Do not be afraid” leading up to and at the birth of Jesus.  In Luke’s gospel, those words are part of Jesus’ invitation to Peter to become a follower.  In a couple chapters from where we are today in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will speak these words to the disciples who are with him at the Transfiguration.  And at the resurrection, the first thing the angel tells the women who come to the tomb is, “Do not be afraid.”

But of course I’m afraid, Jesus.  Have you been listening to what Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have been saying this past week?  Have you heard the hate being spewed by the racist, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klanners in Virginia this weekend?  Of course I’m afraid.

But it’s not just that, Jesus.  I know that when you show up, you’re going to lay claim to me and ask me to do something risky.  Of course I’m afraid.

When Peter stepped out of the boat to walk toward you, of course he floundered – and not just because he took his eyes off you.  He floundered because he became afraid.  And, quite frankly, that fear was justified.  “It’s a storm, for heaven’s sake, raging powerfully enough to sink the boat, let alone drown a single person.  He has, in other words, perfectly good reason to be afraid.”[13]  And so do I and so do the rest of the people here today.

Of course we have reason to be afraid.  “Whether it’s a fear of the return of illness, of the stability of a fragile relationship, of loneliness after loss, of not being accepted by those we esteem, of whether we’ll fare well in a new chapter in our lives,… of the direction of our country”[14] – you name it, there is a lot in our lives that gives us reason to be afraid.

So, of course Jesus needs to tell us, “Do not be afraid.”  Fear is debilitating.  “It sneaks up on us, paralyzes us, and makes it difficult to move forward at all, let alone with confidence.  Fear, in short, is one of the primary things that robs the children of God of the abundant life God intends for us …”[15]  I agree with David Lose:  When Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I think it’s more of a lament than a rebuke.

“In response to Peter’s fear, however, Jesus doesn’t simply urge him to [have] courage [nor does he] instruct Peter to keep his eyes on him.  Rather, when Peter begins to sink, Jesus reaches out and grabs him, saving him from drowning and restoring him to his vocation as disciple.  And so also with us!  Jesus will not let us go.  Jesus is with us.  Jesus will not give up on us.  Jesus will grab hold of us when we falter and restore us to where we can be of service.

“This the promise at the heart of this story, all of Matthew’s Gospel, and indeed of our faith:  that God will never give up, that God is with us and for us, that God, in the end, will do what we cannot.  And this promise is the one thing I know of that helps us cope with and transcend fear.  Transcend, not defeat.  Fear is a part of our lives, and we should take care that being fearful is not equated with faithlessness.  Courage, after all, isn’t the absence of fear but the ability to take our stand and do what needs to be done even when we’re afraid.”[16]

So, in the face of the news, let me say this to you – and to me:  Do not be afraid.

Amen.

[1] Connie Larkman, “Charlottesville state of emergency ends ‘Unite the Right’ rally,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/news_charlottesville_state_of_emergency_ends_unite_the_right_rally_08122017 (posted and accessed 12 August 2017).

[2] Matt Pearce, Robert Armengol, David S. Cloud, “Three dead, dozens hurt after Virginia white nationalist rally is dispersed; Trump blames ‘many sides,’” Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-charlottesville-white-nationalists-rally-20170812-story.html (posted 12 August 2017; accessed 13 August 2017).

[3] Michael Edison Hayden, Adam Kelsey, and Lucien Bruggeman, “Man charged with murder for allegedly plowing into crowd in Charlottesville following white nationalist rally,” ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/US/car-hits-crowd-protesters-white-nationalist-rally-virginia/story (posted and accessed 12 August 2017).

[4] James Martin, SJ, Facebook post https://www.facebook.com/FrJamesMartin/posts/10154669492056496 (posted and accessed 12 August 2017).

[5] Kari Jo Verhulst, “Recognizing God’s Presence,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/recognizing-gods-presence-0 (accessed 12 August 2017).

[6] Talbot Davis, “How God Answers the Worst Prayer in the Bible,” Ministry Matters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8345/how-god-answers-the-worst-prayer-in-the-bible (posted 10 August 2017; accessed 12 August 2017).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Verhulst, op. cit.

[11] Laurel Dykstra, “Here Comes Trouble,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/here-comes-trouble?parent=51401 (accessed 12 August 2017).

[12] Ibid.

[13] David Lose, “Pentecost 10 A: Something More,” …in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/08/pentecost-10-a-something-more/ (posted 7 August 2017; accessed 12 August 2017).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 15, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: 2 Kings 2:1-12 and Mark 9:2-9
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I’m glad you’re all sitting down, because I’m going to do two things in today sermon that some of you will find shocking. First, I’m going to talk about football. I know, I know. What does Jeff know about football? The answer is, “Not much.” But something happened at the Super Bowl a couple weeks ago that is really important, and yes I did grow up in Massachusetts, and no it’s not the fact that the Patriots won the game.

In the final seconds of the game, New England Patriot Malcolm Butler intercepted a pass from Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson on the one-yard line, keeping the Seahawks from scoring a touchdown. This play sealed the deal. It was a case where the Butler did it. Malcolm Butler’s interception guaranteed the Patriots their win. Even on YouTube for this non-football-fan, it’s an exciting play.[1] I imagine that if you were watching the game live and were emotionally invested in the outcome, there would have been screaming in your house – elation or devastation.

Of course, there was rejoicing on the field. From a television sports reporter’s point of view, Malcolm Butler was the interview to get. An NBC reporter got next to him and ran beside him until the control room went to her for a few-second interview with Butler. They stopped and she asked him, “What happened on that play?”

“I just had a vision that I was going to make a big play. And it came true and I’m just blessed,” he said. “I can’t describe it right now. I’m just …”[2] His voice trailed of.

“I had a vision … I’m just blessed … I can’t describe it right now.”

If you watch the video of this very brief interview with the sound down, you’ll see interesting body language. Butler barely glances at the reporter; he is not smiling (he just made the game-winning play and he’s not smiling); his head is shaking back and forth as if he’s saying “no”; his eyes are almost shut or are shut, as if he’s seeing something inside, there in the dark, that the light outside will hide. With the sound up, his voice is winded, breathless, but still steady. There is a calmness, a deliberateness, as he tries to put words to his experience.

Rod Dreher wrote about this for The American Conservative. Yes, that’s the second shocking thing I’m doing in this sermon. I’m quoting from a website called The American Conservative. “[Butler] just pretty much won the Super Bowl for his team, yet he was not filled with customary exuberance, but with a sense of awe. I wanted to know more about what he meant. Was he talking about an episode of precognition? Of what did this vision consist? Where did it come from?”[3]

When a colleague shared this story a few days after the Super Bowl on Facebook, tongue in cheek, I suggested that maybe we should have spiritual directors on the sidelines of sporting events instead of reporters. Today’s scripture readings make me wonder if I might not have hit on a good idea.

Our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures is a story of transition. Like almost all of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, Elijah focused on fighting idolatry and injustice. I think Elijah is most famous for a confrontation he had with the prophets of Baal during a drought. The story ends with the prophets of Baal slaughtered, Queen Jezebel ordering soldiers to pursue Elijah, and Elijah running off into the mountains for safety.

Today’s story is the fourth of the four major Elijah stories told in 1 and 2 Kings. As I said, this is a story of transition. The Elijah era is ending – prophets from around the country are aware of this – but the Elisha era hasn’t begun. In the story, we are entering an in-between time, and in-between times can be filled with uncertainty. God was clearly present in the prophetic ministry of Elijah, but when his ministry ends, will God still be present? If so, how?

Ancient icon of the Elijah and Elisha story.

Elisha, Elijah’s servant and student, wants to be as faithful as Elijah. He asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. I’ve always heard that as asking for a faith as strong as Elijah’s. Elijah’s response to this request is an enigmatic, “maybe, if you see this thing through to the end.” And then the end comes. As they’re walking along, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separate the two of them, and Elijah’s ascends into heaven. Elisha watches Elijah disappear, and tears his clothes in an act of grief as his mentor disappears.

Some scholars claim that this story has no historical basis, that the story is a literary device only. They say that “[t]his story [is only] … aimed at binding together two great prophets of the past.”[4] I think the story has additional meaning and purpose.

Whether is happened or not, it raises some interesting points about profoundly spiritual experiences. Sometimes they can happen in the midst of deeply troubling events. Here, it was the disappearance of Elijah. The fact that he ascends into the heavens rather than dying becomes important much later. For now, the separation by the chariots and horses of fire can represent any sort of separation from a loved one any of us experiences. The implication of the story is that God can be at work in the midst of those separations, that God can be at work through our grief.

How we grow to be aware of how God is working, well that’s the second point I think this story raises. Listen to what happens next in the story:

“Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’ When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.
“When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, ‘The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.’ They came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him.”[5]

“Where is God?” Elisha cries out.[6] It is the company of prophets who are able to answer the question. It is the company of prophets who can help Elisha process the spiritual experience he has had. “God has gifted you with Elijah’s spirit.” Elijah benefited from a community to help him process what had happened spiritually. I hope Malcolm Butler has a community to help him process what happened to him at the Super Bowl.

Peter, James, and John could have benefited from a community to help them process the profound spiritual experience we heard about today, too. There’s a lot going on here, of course, and I think the context is important. Immediately before the passage we heard in Mark’s gospel, Jesus asks his disciples who the people say he is. Some people say that he is John the Baptist come back to life. Others say that he is Elijah, returned from the heavens. Others say he is a prophet.

Jesus asks them who they say he is. Peter says it clearly: You are the Messiah (in Greek, the Christ). Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone this. Then Jesus starts teaching about his death. It’s almost as if, upon hearing someone outside himself say that he is the Messiah, Jesus realizes what that means – that he’ll go to Jerusalem, challenge the principalities and powers, and be executed by the state.

Peter won’t have any of that. There is no way Jesus is going to be killed. So he raises an objection, which is met with a stern rejection: “Get behind me Satan.”

“The Transfiguration” by Rafael

The story continues. It’s six days later, and Jesus has Peter, James, and John join him on a retreat. There, while Jesus is in prayer, the disciples have a spiritual experience. Mark says they see Jesus transfigured and the two great prophets of Judaism standing with him. What do we do with this terrifying weirdness? Peter decides he has to say something, so he suggests that he build some tents, some booths, some sort of dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Then a cloud overshadows them, they enter into the darkness, and they hear the voice of God say words Jesus heard at his baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved.” And God gives them some advice: “Listen to him.”

And as they’re coming down the mountain, Jesus orders the disciples not to tell anyone about what they experienced until after he has risen from the dead. Don’t talk about it, you guys.

I find it interesting that the story – not in this version nor in the versions in Matthew or Luke – does not say anything about what Jesus experienced. It just talks about what Peter, James, and John experienced. Perhaps Jesus never talked about it. After all, he’d asked the others not to talk about it, so why would he?

And maybe they followed his directions and didn’t talk about it until after the first Easter. Then, finally, they could start to process the experience with their friends. “We were up on a mountain, and Jesus started praying, and I swear he changed. Something happened. It was like all the law and the prophets were there along side him and he …

“And then we heard the voice of God. That’s what it had to be. It called Jesus ‘beloved son,’ and it said that we should listen to him.”

I don’t know what they would have said, but I suspect it would have been something like that. They would have talked about it and tried to make some sense of it.

We have a need to process our spiritual experiences. Maybe not always. Sometimes what’s happening and what God’s doing and what God’s saying can be crystal clear. But most of the time, we need to tell the story and in the telling we can understand what’s happening. And sometimes we need to be intentional about creating opportunities for God to act. It’s not like God isn’t always at work, but sometimes it’s helpful to intentionally create an opportunity in which we will have our eyes and ears and hearts open to God. Really, this is part of any spiritual discipline.

This Lent, a group of us are going to create these opportunities by performing what we’re calling “spiritual experiments.” We will meet this afternoon at 2:00 at the Masonic Home to get started and to hand out the books we’ll use. Throughout Lent, Pastor Brenda and I will preach a sermon series on themes coming out of the Lord’s Prayer. And the members of the group will undertake spiritual experiments during the weeks on those themes and gather again to process our experiences. The hope is that we’ll get a sense of what God’s doing in our lives.

Whether you participate in the small group or not, I hope you have or will create a group of people with whom you can process your spiritual experiences so that you can get a better sense of what God’s up to in your life. When you do this, I think you will discover ways to walk for faithfully in the way of Jesus.

Amen.

[1] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7rPIg7ZNQ8 (accessed 10 February 2015).

[2] Quoted from this clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpzFYrNGK9s (accessed 4 February 2015).

[3] Rod Dreher, “Malcolm Butler’s Miraculous Vision,” The American Conservative, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/malcolm-butlers-miraculous-vision/ (posted 2 February 2015; accessed 4 February 2015).

[4] Achtemeier, P. J., Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature. (1985). In Harper’s Bible dictionary (1st ed., p. 257). San Francisco: Harper & Row.

[5] 2 Kings 2:13-15, NRSV.

[6] Elisha’s question, “Where is God?” is one that I frequently ask in spiritual direction: “Where (or how) did you experience God in that situation?”

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Transfiguration Sunday, March 2, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 17:1-9 and Exodus 24:12-18
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“The Transfiguration” by Raphael

There are three groups in Raphael’s “The Transfiguration.”[1]  At the top of the painting is the mountaintop group.  We see Jesus in super-clean white, floating above it all, above the fray in the lower half of the painting.  Floating with Jesus are Moses and Elijah.  I’m not sure which is which, but I think Moses is on the left because he seems to be carrying heavy, large stone tablets.  And we see the three disciples, Peter, James, and John, on the ground in fear.

On the lower left, we see a group of men.  Two are pointing up at Jesus, pointing up at what’s happening on the mountaintop.  Given the book in the lower left corner and the fact that the group is all men and there are nine of them (9 in this group plus the 3 on the mountaintop equals 12) and where they are pointing, I assume they are the disciples.  But pay attention to where they are also looking.  They’re looking at the third group, on the lower right.

This third group is people, ordinary people.  And the people are pointing toward the boy.  In fact, the disciples aren’t just looking at this third group.  They’re looking at the boy in the group.  And there’s something that’s not quite right about the boy.  It’s as if the man in green has brought the boy to the disciples.  “Him, here – he needs your attention.”  And the disciples are pointing to the action on the mountaintop, as if to say that up there is where the people’s attention needs to be.

Drama up on the mountain.  Drama down below in the valley.  In the background, is the sun rising or setting?  Is this the beginning or the end?

In the scriptures, mountains are often the places where people most vividly experience the presence of God.  It was on Mt. Sinai that Moses spoke with God.  It was there he received the 10 Commandments, given to help the people of Israel live in freedom.

The prophet Elijah also journeyed to Mt. Sinai when he was discouraged and afraid for his life.  There, God spoke to him, giving him encouragement and direction for the tasks that lay ahead.

For Moses and Elijah, the mountain-top experience of intense communion with God was an event with a purpose:  to equip them to be leaders of God’s people in the valley, in the ordinary places of life, down here where the presence of God is usually less vivid.  For them, the mountain was the place where God gave instruction and encouragement, and then sent them back into the world.

The geographic imagery of the mountain as the place of communion with God is understandable.  On top of a mountain, heaven seems closer and the cares and concerns of the world seem farther away.  The mountain offers a place of quiet and peace, of sanctuary, of escape.  There, one cannot help but realize the vastness of the universe, and stand in awe of its Creator.  There, it seems as if the world stops spinning, and time stands still.

While the gospels don’t explain his motivation, I have long thought that what drove Jesus to the mountain was the realization that his earthly ministry was nearing and end.  The time had come to set his face toward Jerusalem – there to suffer and die.

Six days earlier, he had told his disciples about the fate that awaited him in Jerusalem.  And he told them, challenged them, warned them:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

The Gospel of Matthew does not tell us what happened during those six days between Jesus’ announcement about his suffering and the trip up the mountain.  But I can imagine the disciples, confused and frightened, bombarding Jesus with questions and proposing alternatives to the way of suffering and death.  And, when every alternative was rejected by Jesus, I imagine a dark silence falling upon the group as each disciple and Jesus himself wrestled with their private doubts and fears.

And perhaps that is why Jesus went up the mountain.  Perhaps it was those private doubts and fears.  Perhaps it was a need to pray in a place that felt closer to God than down in the valley, down here.  He took Peter, James, and John with him.  And on this mountain, something extraordinary occurred.  Right there before the disciples’ eyes, Jesus was transfigured!  He face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

You see, when people experience real communion with God, a transformation takes place – a transformation that is visible in their faces and evident in their lives.  How and why this happens remains a mystery, but what happens is clear.  Close communion with God empties one of oneself, in a sense, and fills one with the glory of God.

As Jesus’ transformation took place, two other figures appeared in glory – Moses and Elijah.  Men who represent the law and the prophets, who had known close communion with God in their mountain-top experiences appeared.  And they spoke with Jesus.  Whatever they said, it is clear that, for Jesus, this mountain was like theirs – a momentary respite, rather than a permanent escape from the world.

Peter wanted to make it something more permanent:  “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  One can almost hear the thoughts behind Peter’s suggestion:  At last, an alternative to the way of suffering and death!  Here we can capture the moment, commemorate the glory!  People will come, away from the cares of the world, and see and know the true majesty of Jesus.  Surely this, and not the cross, is the full revelation of Jesus as the Son of God.

But God rejected Peter’s plan.  A voice in a cloud said simply, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well please; listen to him.”  When the disciple’s heard this voice, they fell to the ground in fear, realizing they were in the presence of God.  But Jesus came and touched them, healing their fear and raising them again, as if from death itself.  And when they looked around, they saw no one on the mountain except Jesus.  The moment of glory had past.  The mountain top experience was over.  And they made their way down into the valley once again.  After all, there’s a boy waiting down there and he needs Jesus’ healing.

And apparently it was enough.  Apparently it was what Jesus needed.  And I guess it was enough for the Peter, James, and John, too.  For Jesus did go to Jerusalem and his disciples went with him.

It is as if that holy moment on the mountain, that deep communion with God, was a foretaste of what was to come.  It is as if, in that moment, Jesus knew in his whole body that death was not the final word.  He knew that if he went to Jerusalem and confronted the principalities and powers with the truth, they would kill him.  But there, on that mountain, he also knew – not just in his head, but in his heart and bones – what the resurrection meant.  “Tell no one about the vision,” he told his disciples, “until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

On that mountain, Jesus got a sense of the future.  Then he came down to the valley, down here, and picked up his cross so he could get to that future.  Raphael’s painting demonstrates the tension between the call of the mountaintop and the call of the valley.  We are called both to the deep reassuring experiences of the presence of God and to the needs of the world.

But do we really want the mountaintop experiences?  I mean really want them?  I suspect the answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’  Yes, because we desire communion with God.  No, because we know, “Holy ground is not safe.  It is full of mystery and magic and power.  We aren’t in control … on the mountain.”[2]

Annie Dillard describes how dangerous it can be to experience the full mountaintop communion:  “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”[3]

If there is one constant in life, it’s change.  How much more exciting if the change is God drawing us to where we can never return.  And how much more scary and dangerous.  After all, we’ll be asked to take up our crosses and follow.

For some in our community, some elements of the changes we are experiencing are painful, even cross-like.  Yet, I am convinced that the changes are the result of hanging with God.  Yes, the hanging with God may have looked more like the way Jacob did it at Jabbok than the way Jesus did it on the mount of the transfiguration.  It may have resembled more of a wrestling match than a moment of awe and glory.  But I am convinced it is the result of hanging with God.

It is important for us to remember that, as we move through and into these changes, we need to keep returning to God.  Hanging with God will empower and ground us, help us to hold steady and remain faithful.

Sociologist Daniel Chambliss did a three-year empirical study of excellent swimmers.  He found beyond natural differences in ability, the one thing that made the winning difference was commitment to “those little things, each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit, an ordinary part of life.”[4]  He calls this “the mundanity of excellence.”

Commitment to the little things is crucial to the religious life as well.  We don’t often think in those terms.  We are more likely to focus on the importance of the mountaintop experiences – dramatic conversions, overwhelming encounters with God, powerful moments of prayer.  We search for peak experiences and fear that some people have talent for religious life, a talent that we are somehow missing.  But the truth is, in our life of faith, our task is to come down from the mountain and transform the holy moment into a holy mission of daily commitment.

Faithfulness down here consists of tending to the mundane activities of faith until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit, an ordinary part of life:  praying and doing laundry; offering signs of mercy and signs of justice; listening to one another and studying the scriptures; journaling at home and sharing the Lord’s supper in worship.  The major difference between many of the saintly figures of the church and us is not their “natural talent” or disposition.  Rather, it is the way their habits, disciplines, and practices prepared them, in gracious openness to God’s work, to live extraordinarily faithful lives.

This is a good time, as we enter Lent, to start our practice sessions of tending to the average, daily hanging with God.  May we each put extra care into the ordinary activities of faith, so that we may become extra-ordinarily faithful.

Amen.


[2] Anthony B. Robinson, “Have You Been to the Mountain?” Stillspeaking Daily Devotional email dated 10 February 2013.

[3] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.

[4] Daniel Chambliss, “The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers,” Sociological Theory, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring, 1989), 85, available at http://www.lillyfellows.org/Portals/0/Chambliss-Mundanity%20of%20Excellence.pdf.

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