Sunday, February 19, 2012

Standing on the mountain, looking into the valley

Mt. Tabor, Israel
Today is the Last Sunday of the Epiphany, also known as "Transfiguration Sunday." The readings are 2 Kings 2:1-12Psalm 50:1-62 Corinthians 4:3-6 and Mark 9:2-9. Here is my sermon for today:
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Today we stand on a mountaintop, gazing across the valley. The mountain on the other side of the valley is Easter. Soon we will get into the valley, where we must go before we get to that mountain beyond.

Today we also stand at the exact halfway point in the Gospel of Mark.

If you read Mark on a literary level, everything until now has led up this mountain beginning with the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, the lowest place on earth.

Then comes the gathering of disciples, the teachings and healings, and casting out of demons.
Everything has led upward in Mark to this shimmering moment on the mountaintop where Jesus is flanked by the two great Hebrew prophets: Moses and Elijah.

Soon, very soon, Jesus and his followers will descend back down the mountain into the shadows of a very deep, deep valley.

Soon. But not yet. Today we linger awhile longer in the brightness.

It is tempting to dismiss this story of Jesus glowing on the mountaintop as a neat literary device, or as a metaphor for something else, or as pure science fiction.

And yet, the story keeps showing up in the accounts of the life of Jesus, and the story has its own peculiar power that won’t let us go.

Something very life changing happened on this mountain, and something happened to these first followers of Christ, and they never shook it off. The more they tried to understand their experience, the less they did.

I know from my own encounters with people who live in the desert – and I mean the real desert, not the metaphorical desert – that these kinds of inexplicable numinous encounters happen to people who live in the desert.

So I find it easy to believe that James, John and Peter witnessed this vision of their rabbi, Jesus, glowing in the clouds, and it was both awesome and terrifying.

It was so frightening they said nothing of it until long after Jesus died. Their experience on the mountain became known as “the Transfiguration” as if that single word could contain what they saw.

But we know from the story that the disciples really had no idea what was happening.
Peter blurts out the first thing that comes to mind: “Hey, I know – let’s make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Peter goes to the only reference point on his mental map he’s got, the scriptural stories of the prophets.

For those who might be unsure what these dwellings are, the dwellings are “tabernacles” – or tents – that devout Jews erect once a year for the Festival of Tabernacles.

Peter declares his devotion and respect for Jesus and the prophets by proposing to build tabernacles to house them.

But, as Peter soon finds out, his idea misses the point entirely. Their experience cannot be housed.

Instead of tents, God calls to them, and maybe only in a whisper: “This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him.”

Peter, don’t try to contain this experience inside a tent. It won’t fit. Listen. Just listen. And see.

But listening and seeing comes hard to Peter, and to us.

Humans seem always to be containing religious experience inside human categories – inside tents. That was true then, and true now. But these experiences don’t stay contained inside the tents.

Last summer Lori and I went to the top of Mount Tabor, the peak where legend has it the Transfiguration took place. It is the highest mountain for miles around and the view is stupendous. The most frightening thing today about Mount Tabor is the twisting road up that guides drive at 75 miles per hour without slowing down.

There is an irony on top of Mt. Tabor: Although Jesus ordered his disciples to build no dwelling, the Church built a beautiful basilica on top of the mountain with side chapels, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Jesus and the prophets got their tabernacles whether they liked it or not.

Do you notice something else about the story?

Only three disciples went up the mountain with Jesus. What about the others? Where were they?
Back down in the valley.

The shimmering vision on the mountain is wonderful but it is fleeting. It is not enough.
To really understand the identity of Jesus, and our own identity with him requires going into the valley.

I would suggest it is not the mountain that is the most important part of the story. It is the valley.

The most powerful experiences people have with Jesus are not on mountaintops. They are in the valleys.

Jesus feeds the thousands near the Sea of Galilee, one of the lowest places on earth.
He heals the lepers and the possessed by the pools, in the low places. Even the Sermon on the Mount was on a hillside in Galilee, way below sea level.

Jesus by his actions is saying you can’t really know who I am, or what the Kingdom of God is about, until you get off the mountain and walk with me through the valleys where people dwell, and the valleys where people hurt. That is where you will find me – in the valleys.

In a few days, we will descend into the valley of Lent, a time of simplicity, of introspection, and confession. I hope this will be a time not of obligation, but a time for you of renewal and recommitment to the health of your soul.

Lent does not have to be an artificial experience of “giving up” something for the sake of giving up. It can be a time of giving back to the world around us by reconnecting with the God who creates all things and us.

Lent is a time when we can look into the valleys of our own life and discover how to climb to the mountaintop of Easter and beyond.

Lent can be a holy gift to ourselves and everyone around us.

Lent is also a reminder that we are not alone, that many people live in valleys near us and far away.

When we walk with into those valleys with those in the greatest need, we are truly walking with Christ, and truly keeping a holy Lent.

Our journey in the Valley of Lent can be a time for re-commitment to the values of justice, peace, and equality for all – a time for rediscovering how to truly love our neighbors as ourselves.

Our time in the Valley of Lent is near, and it can, if we let it, be among the richest experiences of our life.

To walk through this valley takes really only one thing – to listen the beloved Son – to hear him in our hearts, and hear him with all our soul, and hear him in each other.
May it be so for you this Holy Lent.


J. Lloyd Snook, III said...

oftfoyJim: Mt. Tabor is apparently 1,750 feet tall, not 9,000 feet tall.

The Rev. James Richardson said...

Oh goodness, not sure where I got that footage. I've deleted the reference. Thanks for the heads up!