“Down from the Mountain”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

March 2, 2014 – Transfiguration Sunday

Scripture:  Matthew 17:1-9

 

In Jaffrey, New Hampshire, not far from my hometown of Keene, there is a particularly special mountain.  Taller by far than anything else in the area, yet hikable in just a couple of hours, Mount Monadnock is, they say, one of the most-climbed mountains in the world.  (I know some of you have been there.)  Thirty-five miles of trails crisscross its flanks, ranging from the straight-up, straight-down scramble on the rocks of the White Dot Trail to the more gradual walk through the woods of the Pumpelly Ridge.  You can come at it from almost any angle—north, south, east, west, and everything in between.  You can start your hike in a campground, or at a roadside trailhead, or even at the peak of another local mountain.  You can hike it year-round, though only the most intrepid hikers attempt it in the winter.

No matter which trail you take, you start out in a classic northern New England forest, walking through stands of beech and ash and hemlock, birch and maple and pine.  As you climb, the vegetation changes; it thins out, and eventually, you find yourself surrounded by scrubby shrubs and stunted, wind-twisted spruce trees.  The top is bare rock with unobstructed views.  If you’re there on a clear day, you can see from Mount Washington in the White Mountains to Mount Mansfield in the Greens, from Mount Greylock in the Berkshires to Berlin Mountain in the Taconics, and all the way to the Boston skyline.

Once you’re up there, if it’s a nice day, you just want to stay there forever.

 

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In the Sawatch Range of Colorado, in the San Isabel National Forest, not far from the mining boom town of Leadville, there is a particularly special mountain.  The second-tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, yet still hikable in a day (though a lengthy and strenuous one), Mount Elbert is the highest of Colorado’s 53 “Fourteeners,” mountains over 14,000 feet high.  (Maybe some of you have been there.)  Though it is substantially more remote than Mount Monadnock, there are several trails that lead to its summit.  You have to leave early in the morning, around sunrise or even before, so that you can safely complete your climb, or at least the exposed above-treeline part, before the afternoon thunderstorms roll in.

When you climb Mount Elbert, you start out in western mixed forest, climbing through pines and spruces and aspens and firs.  Before too long, you emerge beyond the timberline and find yourself surrounded by alpine grasses, wildflowers, and lots of bare rocks.  The air is thin, and the wind is cold, and the sun is strong, but boy is it beautiful.  From the summit, can see a 360-degree panorama of mountains beyond mountains beyond mountains—the San Juans, the Sangre de Cristos, the Mosquitos, the Front Range.

Once you’re up there, if it’s a nice day, you just want to stay there forever.

 

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In the central highlands of Costa Rica, not too far from the city of Alajuela, there is a particularly special mountain.  Volcán Poás, the Poás Volcano, sits in one of the most-visited national parks in the country.  The park is home to several ecosystems, a wide variety of flora and fauna, and two crater lakes.  The old crater, which hasn’t erupted in many thousands of years, contains a crystal-clear mountain lake.  And you can walk right up to the edge of the active crater, a mile wide, with a bright turquoise, sulfurous pool at its bottom and geysers of hot water and steam shooting into the air.  In addition to the otherworldly view of the crater, you can see vivid green, forested mountainsides stretching off in all directions, and patchwork farmland far below.  And if you’re there on a clear day, you can see all the way to both coastlines—the Atlantic to the East and the Pacific to the west.

Once you’re up there, if it’s a nice day, you just want to stay there forever.

 

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There’s something particularly special about mountaintops, isn’t there?  There’s something about being high up, with a view out across the land, that provides a certain perspective.  There’s something about being high up, bathed in sun and wind, that offers a certain clarity.  There’s something about being high up, hoisted out of everyday worries, that lends a certain peace.  Do you know that feeling?  There’s something about being high up on a mountaintop that feels close to heaven, close to the presence of God.

The Bible tells of many such mountaintop experiences, and our reading today is one of them.  The story of the Transfiguration is a strange one, with Jesus becoming full of brilliant light, and Moses and Elijah mysteriously appearing, and a voice from heaving echoing the words from Jesus’ baptism:  “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”  It is a story that defies rational explanation, but that’s okay, because rational explanation is not the point.  However we make sense, or not, of the events this story describes, what is clear is that Peter and James and John felt close to heaven, close to the presence of God.

Peter said, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”  Although it was mysterious and confusing and even terrifying, there was something wonderful about being in that place, in that presence.  Peter wanted to stay.  He said, “If you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  Let me build a monument, let me build a town, let us stay here where we are high above the land, surrounded by sun and wind, hoisted out of everyday worries, filled with perspective and clarity and peace.

Once he was up there, he just wanted to stay forever.

 

You can understand where Peter was coming from.  It sure would be nice to live in that mountaintop experience all the time.  But Jesus said to Peter and his friends, “Get up, and do not be afraid,” and he led them back down the mountain.

Because here’s the thing about Jesus.  His internal compass pointed resolutely earthward.  His path of choice led directly into the stickiest mud and the thorniest briars and the fiercest poison ivy.  His course of action aimed straight through the thickest confusion, the deepest despair, the most violent conflict.  He did not insulate himself from the world’s suffering.  He did not protect himself from the world’s pain.  He did not stay high up on the mountain, but headed down, down, down into the valley of the shadow.

And because he did, we need not fear abandonment when our path leads in that direction.

Because he did, we need not fear that we must walk our journey alone.

Because he did, we know that Jesus goes before us and beside us, even when the road is rocky and the light is fading and there seems to be no way through.

And not only that.  Because he did, because Jesus went down from the mountain and brought his disciples with him, because he went down from the mountain and brought us with him, we can go as companions to all who find themselves on rocky roads with shadows closing in.  We can go into the sticky mud of racism, and the thorny briars of warfare, and the deep despair of poverty, and we can lead a way through.  Because we know that even when there seems to be no way out, even when the way leads to the cross, there is no such thing as a dead end for God.

 

There is something particularly special about mountaintops, about a view that spans multiple states, multiple mountain ranges, multiple oceans.  There is something particularly special about being high up, bathed in sun and wind, hoisted out of everyday worries, gifted with perspective and clarity and peace.  Once you’re up there, you just want to stay there forever.

But as Christians, as followers of Jesus, we are called to follow that internal compass that points resolutely earthward, down into the muck and the mire, the confusion and conflict, the suffering and pain.  We are called to follow the way of Jesus, which leads to the mountaintop but does not remain there, but bears that glory down into the valley, bears that blessing down into the struggle, until that day when every valley shall be exalted, when the rough places shall be made plain, when the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.