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Last Sunday after Epiphany
I had my first mountaintop moment on a real mountaintop. Nestled in the shores of Saranac Lake in upstate New York, I was attending a Christian camp for high school kids. High school kids are notoriously difficult to impress, but this place pulled out all the stops – our daily activities included canoeing, swimming in a pool with a 50-foot water slide, parasailing, ropes courses, and more. But these thrilling activities, designed to allow us to enjoy God’s creation, were not the transformative part of the week; it was the nightly “talks” where a pastor would talk to us about faith. I was transfixed by the message, so much so that one night I found myself waiting until the hundreds of teenagers had cleared the room so I could talk to the pastor. I told him that I’d been feeling really distant from God, and his talks had made me realize just how distant I’d gotten, that I wanted to reconnect to God, and I had no idea how to do that or even if God would want me back. He listened gently, and then he took a piece of paper, wrote something on it, and handed it to me, and said, “Take this, grab your bible, and find a quiet spot to sit for a little while.” As I walked away, I looked at the paper, which had one simple question written on it: “How does God feel about Julie? Luke 15:11-32.”
With my Bible in hand, I climbed onto one of the rocks lining the lake, and under the moonlight, I opened it to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 15, verse 11. I was only one sentence in when I realized I was reading the parable of the prodigal son. As the soft evening breeze whispered through the trees, it felt as if God herself was whispering to me to return home, to return to God’s loving, open arms. I wept. Never before had Scripture felt so deeply personal; never before had God’s unconditional love for me felt so real. It was a tremendous mountaintop moment, on a literal mountaintop, a profound experience of God’s loving presence in my life, and a transformative turning point in my own faith. I climbed down from that rock feeling like a completely different person, and returned home with a vigor and joy I hadn’t had in a long time.
A few days after I’d returned home, I was talking with my mother, about how amazing this retreat was and how much it had changed me, how on fire for God I was. She said, “I remember going on retreats and coming home feeling like that, you’re on a spiritual ‘high’ for a little while afterwards. It doesn’t last, but it feels good for a little while.” In the moment, it upset me, like she was completely invalidating my experience – “gee, thanks for being a buzzkill, mom.” But of course, she was right. Those mountaintop moments are profound, but fleeting.
Perhaps that’s why Peter, James, and John wanted so desperately to capture their mountaintop moment with Jesus. This Messiah, this leader they’d been following, who had caused a lot of stir and quite a bit of controversy, was revealed for who he really was – God incarnate. Literally standing in the dazzling presence of God, with God’s voice booming overhead, who can blame them for wanting to capture the glory of that moment forever?
Religion is designed, in some ways, to give us mountaintop moments. And sometimes I worry that this is where religion fails us. It gives us the mountaintop, an escape from the valleys and harshness of he world we live in. We worship in a sanctuary – literally and legally, a safe and protected space. We construct temples and sacred spaces and erect works of art and tiffany windows and pray liturgies and sing hymns that are ancient and comforting. We come in our Sunday best, or our Sunday comfortable, we celebrate the diversity and the good will here, and for a brief moment, we can have a break from the brokenness that surrounds us.
But as much as religion acknowledges the valleys we inhabit, I wonder if it truly prepares us for them.
I wonder if we come to religion for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.
Like Peter, James, and John, we would prefer to set up camp in the safe and happy places. We are still living in the valley of the shadow of the pandemic, in the dark shadows of police brutality where unarmed Black men continue to be murdered, in the sinister wells of white supremacy, in the literal earth-shattering devastation of natural disasters, in the valleys of our own grief, and fear, and anxiety. I don’t know about you, but those are some valleys I’m happy for Jesus to lead me out of and away from.
But like my mother said to me so many years ago, Jesus says to his disciples, “Get up,” and when they look up, it’s all gone. What a buzzkill Jesus was (I think he learned from my mom), and how disappointed his disciples must have felt (I can relate). Their Lord and Savior gave them this amazing moment of grace – and it was so fleeting they were barely able to enjoy it before he forced them to get up and face reality.
The tension point of the Transfiguration is that Jesus leads his disciples up to the mountaintop … and then, he leads them back down away from it. He leads them to something glorious and wonderful. Then, he leads them back to the valley. Back to the place where there is illness, and poverty, and all manner of difficulty. The disappointing truth is that if we follow Jesus, all our mountaintop moments will end.
But is that really disappointing?
Let us not forget what really happened on that mountaintop so many years ago. Jesus’ disciples had a profound, transformative moment with their Lord and Savior, a moment where they experienced the deep love, abiding hope, and steadfast faith that comes from God. They want to remain in that moment, on that mountaintop, and Jesus says, “You cannot stay here.” And if that was all Jesus said, it would be very disappointing indeed. But that’s not all Jesus says. The gospel account says that “as they were coming down the mountain,” Jesus spoke again to his disciples. Jesus does not send his disciples back down the mountain alone; he accompanies them. Not only does he accompany them; he leads them. He says, “Follow me back down the mountain, and together, let’s get to work.”
Last week, Fr. Frank gave us a good word and reminded us that the greatest gift God gives us is the power to make choices. I wonder how each of us, in our own way, consciously or not, are choosing the mountaintop and avoiding the valley. I know there are valleys I avoid.
But we are about to enter the season of Lent, a time we often take up a particular discipline or practice. As you consider what will your Lenten discipline be, I wonder: How will you encounter the world more, in all its brokenness? What can you do that will build the practice of walking into that world with Jesus by your side?
How will you let Jesus lead you – and trust that even if it is to a place you do not want to go, that he is there with you, the whole way?
It might not feel like good news to know that Jesus doesn’t lead us to mountaintops and let us stay there. But it is good news that he leads us no matter the altitude. The promise is true: God will not leave us or forsake us.
Now let us walk into the valley. Amen.