Have you been to the mountaintop?
In our gospel story, Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up a high mountain and is transfigured before them — “his clothes became dazzlingly bright, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” And suddenly the religious biggies appear with Jesus - Moses and Elijah. They look in awe and wonder at their teacher, leader, and friend. This experience gives the disciples a new understanding of how Jesus fits into the story of God, and maybe even a new understanding of how they fit into that story too. They are forever changed by having been invited into this moment.
But there are lots of ways of getting to the mountaintop, and there are lots of different experiences up there.
I think of the speech Martin Luther King gave about his mountaintop experience. In the midst of all the trouble and confusion broiling around him, in the midst of death threats and uncertainty, he spoke of having been to the mountaintop, of looking over the edge and seeing the Promised Land. What he saw on that mountaintop was the cumulation of all of the strikes and sit-ins and voter registrations, all the prayers and marches and imprisonments and deaths, all the blood and sweat and tears. A vision of hope for the future that sustained him through it all.
But mountaintop experiences don't always involve visions of dazzling light; they aren't always remembered and replayed 50 years later. Often they are just times when you feel close to God, or are caught off guard by unselfish love, or catch a glimpse of meaning that changes how you see the world. It might be as simple as a quiet walk in the woods that puts things in perspective, or a poem that makes new meaning, or watching a child discover some fascinating piece of their world, or discovering some new passion. We've all been to the mountain top in some way or another
I’ve had mountaintop moments along the way but none as prolonged as during my sabbatical. It was a time of discovery and learning and prayer. A time when scripture came alive and God was with me all over the place.
And I was feeling great coming back. I was fed and renewed by those months of prayer and sabbath. And confident that I would be able to keep all that going as I moved back into work, and the regular business of juggling that is ordinary life. I was going to keep that fulfilling prayer life, keep my sabbath time, keep my relative peace and patience in parenting.
I was planning to stay up there on my mountain, thank you very much. Just like Peter and the other disciples in our story this morning, I was going to hold onto that special transfigurative time with Jesus in the clouds. Like Peter, I was out there with my measuring tape, ready to build a permanent dwelling to mark the experience. A place where I could plunk down and enjoy the view whenever I wanted.
But just like I think we’ve all had some kind of mountaintop experience, I think we also all know how fleeting they can be.
As you can see, I fell down my mountaintop. Literally. 5 days after starting back at work I fell while hiking down a hill and broke two bones in my arm. It was painful right from the start, but the worst part came a few days later when that continued pain combined with lack of sleep, inability to exercise, frustration of not being able to do anything useful, and the prospect of Holden going out of town for a month for a work training.
All the beautiful spiritual practices that had been sustaining me so well during sabbatical failed me. I couldn’t walk, which had become one of my primary prayer times. I couldn't draw, or write in my journal, or even read very well with just my left hand. I couldn't sit in silence without focusing on the pain. I was horrified by how easily I could lose my grounding, even after shoring it up over the last four months.
And it was all made worse by my knowing how silly it was, in the long run. It was broken bones, not the death of a loved one or a sick child or a chronic disease or a spouse deployed to a war zone. Nothing that time won’t heal.
But sometimes it isn't about rationality - you just feel how you feel. And I felt overwhelmed. Finally one day I found myself breaking down and sobbing in front of pretty much everyone that asked me how I was. My family, John and Eileen, Peggy Trumbo, Lisa Richard, my next door neighbor, and friends at school pick up.
You all know this, and I can definitely attest — it’s no fun coming down the mountain. At best, it’s a let-down returning to normalcy. At worst, it’s a time of real struggle and test.
It was the same for the disciples. In Mark’s Gospel, this story is the turning point for Jesus as he gets closer and closer to crucifixion. Jesus is going to die and he knows it. He's been predicting his death to disciples who have been fighting that news with all their strength. Hard times - impossible times - are waiting for all of them at the bottom of the mountain. Sure enough, when the disciples hike back down they go back to arguing, and failure, and misunderstanding. In fact, right after this story, they are confronted with a boy convulsing that they are unable to heal. And it only gets worse before it gets better as they see their beloved Jesus arrested and tortured and killed.
And of course it was the same for Dr. King, assassinated the day after his mountaintop speech.
And yet, down the mountain they all came.
But they didn't come down alone.
It took me a while to catch on to that part. It took about a week of exhaustion and self-pity and teariness. But then, with a little distance, and a little less pain, and a little more sleep, I could begin to make out the edges of the dazzling brightness still surrounding me even at the bottom of the mountain.
I could begin to appreciate the grace even in the unexpected — and certainly unwanted — chaos around me. After a while, I was able to see that Jesus had indeed come down the mountain with me. The light was dimmer down here, sure, more diffused. But still, signs of God’s love were everywhere.
In the sympathy and helpfulness of my children
In strangers rushing to open doors and pick up things I drop
In the meals you all have brought for us with such care
In the outstretched arms of needed hugs
In kindness from people I wouldn't have expected
In the help I was too embarrassed to admit I needed
Even in the vulnerability, the honest to God powerlessness and humility
Jesus was in all those places — shining in the dark and fearful places in my life just as surely as in those moments where everything was going along swimmingly. The Kingdom of God was unfolding all around me. It just took me a while to see it.
The truth is, most of life is lived in the valleys, not in the peaks. But we aren't ever down here alone. Our God isn’t limited to mountaintop experiences, or to particular places or times or people. We have a God who came down from the mountaintop of heaven and became human out of love for us. A God who shared our experience of pain and frustration, and walks next to us as we hike — or sometimes careen madly out of control — down the mountain. That’s what Jesus does. That’s who he is.
And maybe that’s who we can be to each other too.
As much as we might like to stay safe above it all, those mountaintops are just resting places, giving us strength for the journey down below. We are needed "down here.” We take what we’ve found in the mountaintops and we bring it down into the trenches of every day life. Into the messiness and pain and imperfection of this often overwhelming world. We learn to recognize the bright light of God shining through all the other broken, hurting people around us. And hopefully, slowly but surely, we even begin to believe the truth that we too are the filters through which God’s light shines. Amen.