Embracing our mountain top journeys February 15, 2015 Rev. Anne R. Atwell When I was a kid growing up in Pennsylvania, we went to Sunday School every week at our home church – the Brockway Presbyterian Church. The weekly Sunday School class was held before the church services so it was my job as the […]
Embracing our mountain top journeys
February 15, 2015
Rev. Anne R. Atwell
When I was a kid growing up in Pennsylvania, we went to Sunday School every week at our home church – the Brockway Presbyterian Church. The weekly Sunday School class was held before the church services so it was my job as the oldest child to pick up my younger sister and brother from their classrooms before we would go into the big church.
I remember one Sunday morning, I went to get my brother and I could tell just by looking at him that he was very unhappy. He had his arms crossed and he looked more than a little angry. He was just about 5 years old at the time so it didn’t take much for Scott to be upset. My sister and I tried talking to him before we took him into the sanctuary but he was just really unhappy and there wasn’t much we could do. So we went into the sanctuary and took our seats with our parents. I remember my sister and I were on the one side of our mother and my brother, being the youngest, sat in between my parents. My mother saw immediately that Scott was not happy and she began to ask him questions. “How was Sunday School?” Scott just shrugged his shoulders and didn’t say anything. “Did you sing?” and he nodded his head, “yes.” “Did you color some pictures?” and again he nodded his head, “yes.” My mom said, “Scott, what is it? What’s the matter?” To which my brother announced to everyone within earshot….”I’M JUST SO SICK OF THOSE OLD JESUS STORIES!!”
What my brother hadn’t yet discovered is that the bible is full of really really interesting stories, and truly, that is what they are. I mean snakes really don’t talk. And bushes generally just don’t burst into flame. We have to remember that much of what we read in the bible is simply meant to teach us a lesson.
In the reading from Mark’s Gospel this morning, we hear of a rather amazing event in Jesus’ life and ministry. It is a story that appears in all three of the synoptic gospels – Mark (which we heard) and Matthew and Luke – but it isn’t a story that is often recognized for its importance. For those churches and faith communities who follow the Common Lectionary, as we do, this Sunday is referred to Transfiguration Sunday. It is the last Sunday before the season of Lent begins and it is the day in which we reflect on the transfiguration of Jesus – the recognition of Jesus’ divinity by his friends and followers.
In this story, we hear how Jesus went to the top of a mountain with Peter, James, and John and there Jesus was transfigured before them. His friends saw a cloud overshadow them, they heard a voice coming from this cloud – “This is my beloved – listen to him.” Note that this voice of God or the Divine, does not say, “Listen to me!” but “Listen to him.” That’s something new! In the Hebrew Scriptures, it is always God speaking…fast forward to the New Testament and it is Jesus bringing the transforming love as a messenger of God’s hope! This idea of the voice of hope coming to people who are so oppressed was often the only thing that they could hang on to. They had nothing else but that hope. And we know from our studies and from other messages that Rev. Durrell has preached, many people living in ancient times were horribly oppressed. Sadly, that is still the case today. These people, all people, were looking for something – someone who could give them the hope they desired.
Now, I have to imagine that the followers of Jesus who were with him on that mountain were absolutely startled by what occurred! This transfiguration is a moment of revelation –a time when the heavens are torn open and the voice of God is heard! God has entered into the story to reveal what has been hidden from human perception. This person…Jesus…is someone truly important – someone to whom we must pay attention. And the scene of the transfiguration is guiding those with Jesus, his friends and disciples, to see Jesus’ true and full identity – as a person filled with divinity and as fully part of God. When this voice tells them to pay attention to Jesus, the disciples witness that the realm of God has come with power and with peace and with hope!
In Mark, Chapter 8, the section just before today’s reading, Jesus explains to his followers that the good news he brings could cause them to lose their life. He shares with them…if you lose your life for this reason, you will save it. Let me explain. When we don’t live our lives authentically, when we bow to what other people want, we can feel confused. We can feel lost. We can feel totally disconnected from who we really are. But if we live in a way in which we are genuine and honest and when we act upon our concern and compassion for others, we will feel whole, we will feel saved in whatever way that is meaningful for us. This idea of losing our lives to save our lives is really less about having regret for the past and is more about agreeing to a change of our minds and a change of our hearts. It is about sharing light and love and hope.
And the story of transfiguration is a powerful message to each of us….that to follow the message of Jesus is to exhibit Divine love in the midst of wrongdoing. We are reminded that Jesus didn’t die because his suffering could purge the world of sin and darkness. He was executed because his message of love and peace was transformative and redemptive and it absolutely threatened the Roman Empire. Jesus’ mission was not to make a big deal of himself or to elevate his followers to positions of power, authority, and prestige. On the contrary….Jesus’ task was to point beyond himself, to reach out to those in the margins of society, and to remind us of God’s unconditional love for all. That kind of message in any society is absolutely transformative.
There is one image in the transfiguration story which really resonates with me and that is Jesus and his friends going to the top of the mountain. An innocent image…but filled with great meaning. In ancient times, people would go to the top of a mountain in order to be closer to God. Of course, ancient people believed that the earth was flat and that there was a big dome over the earth and above that dome was heaven – and God resided up there! But this idea of mountain top experiences has become a part of our society’s vernacular. When we speak of encountering the Divine and when we refer to times in our lives that are most important – we call them peak moments or high points – or mountain top experiences. They are moments of transcendence in which the answers to our questions become very clear.
These peak experiences don’t often come easily. When we are searching for that something special that gives more meaning to our lives, we yearn for an experience that will clarify our existence – we search for that understanding which will guide us. I would guess that many of us have certain moments in our lives that we consider to be those peak moments and everything seems to make more sense. This search for transcendence may require us to crawl up those mountains crying out for our lives. When we reach it, the mountain top –we may want to stay there – simply relishing, simply enjoying this new found understanding. But as Jesus’ disciples soon found out, and as we often find out, you just can’t stay where you are. That isn’t what we are called to do. We’re called to walk out to the edge of the mountain – to step out on to the precipice – and to go where we are led.
I remember finding this church, Sunshine Cathedral, and how transformative it was for me. I had been searching for quite a while for a faith community that would welcome me for all of who I am but honestly, I wasn’t having much luck. When a friend told me about Sunshine Cathedral and I finally attended and heard the message that I had been seeking – that message of inclusive love and welcome – I knew that I had really had what you might call a mountain top experience – an experience which is life changing. I was filled with hope and joy – and I thought to myself for just a while, “Ok, I guess I’m good. I’ll just stay here.” But after visiting Sunshine Cathedral for some time, I could see that simply attending church wasn’t going to work for me. I needed to do more. I knew that I had to help share the message of this ministry. So I began volunteering until I found what worked for me.
I had a mountaintop experience by finding the church – but I knew after some time that I couldn’t just hold on to what I’ve found and keep it for myself. I knew that there had to be more. I knew that my experience was good – and I knew that it could be better. I stepped out on the precipice and made some pretty serious changes in my life. And so here I am,preaching on a Sunday morning.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a famous speech to support the Memphis Sanitation Workers, stated the night before his assassination, “I just want to do God’s will. And (God has inspired) me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land.”
And the author Zora Neale Hurston shared, “I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp…in my hands.”
And actress Cicely Tyson tells us, “I think when you begin to think of yourself as having achieved something, then there’s nothing left for you to work towards. I want to believe that there is a mountain so high that I will spend my entire life striving to reach the top of it.”
These peak experiences show us there is always something greater – something better – something we can strive towards. I would guess that Jesus’ friends wondered what this transfiguration was all about. They had been to the top of a mountain, they heard the voice of the Divine, they left that “safe” place, and they went back down the mountain to begin doing the hard work. This work that is often difficult and unappreciated – and is most important.
What is it that you are being called to do? What does your transfiguration look like? As we prepare for our Lenten journey, let each of us focus on our own transformation. And if you’re not sure what it is that you are to do and if you’re looking for ways to deepen your journey, take part in our Lenten study series which begins next Wednesday. Be intentional about your own spiritual practices. Look for ways to make your lives more meaningful. To me, Lent isn’t about giving up something – it is about transforming our lives – it is about crawling to the top of the mountain and finding your promised land – the work you are called to do. And when you do that, when you are willing to embrace your mountain top journey, listen for that still small voice…the voice that will tell you……..You are my beloved.
And this is the good news. Amen.
God’s light works through me.
God’s hope works through me.
God’s love works through me.
I am open to new experiences and I embrace the journey.
And so it is!