"Up a high mountain"-A sermon for Epiphany Last, Matthew 17:1-9:
So perhaps you have noticed that babies and toddlers seem drawn to steps and stairs. I mean if there is something to climb up, they will make a bee line to it and begin their fearless ascent. For parents, there may be nothing more harrowing and frustrating than turning your back for what feels like a second to then turn back around and discover a toddling child who is half way up a set of stairs or perched precariously on the back of a couch or chair. All of a sudden, every adult in the room is in fight or flight mode with the adrenaline pumping throughout the body followed by a mad dash to the child…to grab him or her as quickly as possible, before their underdeveloped sense of balance leads to a fall. I’ve lived that moment only like a hundred thousand times with my own two girls. I googled the questions of why babies and toddlers climb and though I did not discover any science behind it…I did find like dozens, maybe hundreds, of parenting blogs and websites talking about the challenge of children’s compulsion to climb…some with links to baby gates…and others extolling the virtues of encouraging children to be adventurous and safely seek opportunities to explore the physics of their own bodies and material world around them. One parent quipped, “I thought I gave birth to a human child, not a mountain goat.” Even with older children, I have noted that if there is a playscape around…it takes only seconds for many of them to shimmy their way to the highest possible place standing on the very top of the playscape without anything to grab onto if their balance is lost. And in this moment, my heart always skips a beat, and I just want to look away, close my eyes, stick my fingers in my ears, and just say la, la, la, la…out of sight…out of mind. And even for adults, or many adults, their just seems something within us, a gut level call, a compelling desire to climb. This is demonstrated by the fact that people risk life and limb to conquer Mt. Everest and other dangerous mountain heights and peaks. We seem drawn to the mountains…like a moth to a flame…almost like they would indeed bring us closer to God…closer to heaven…like there is something essential to discover at the top of the mountain…something fundamental to who we really are.
My family and I love to climb or, at least, love to hike…and when on a hike…if I see a point a bit higher up in the distance, I find myself drawn to it. I want to see the view from that point. I want to push myself onward and upward to that next level…that next view…to push myself physically and mentally to stand at the top of the world…or at least the top of the world in that particular place. Sort of knowing in a place beyond knowing that there is indeed something for me to discover there…that I can maybe only discover there. And the question is why? Why is climbing so compelling? Why risk life and limb? Why push ourselves physically and mentally…when good sense might suggest that such risks are not worth the effort. And I would suggest generally speaking that there are some very good reasons to do so…that there is indeed something to discover about ourselves there on the mountaintop…something important…both during the journey itself and at the journey’s completion. For in doing so, we are provided many blessings. To begin with our bodies, hearts, minds and spirits are completely connected…so a well-cared for body, as science suggests, leads to being healthier as a human in our entirety. When our bodies are healthy, our hearts and minds become more robust, active and impactful. Moreover, physical challenges that require courage and risk-taking lead us to be more courageous and more willing to take risks in every facet of life…including courage and risk-taking when it comes to loving boldly and generously…courageously risking life and limb for the sake of justice, the care of those who are vulnerable, and speaking truth to power.
Lastly, there are often intangible benefits of great import that come with standing on the mountaintop. For once the journey is complete…the exhaustion behind us…the heart rate begins to settle…there remains the blessing of the view…the uninterrupted view…not congested with people…not full of noise and chatter…cell phone service is often blessedly unavailable…our view is not hindered by tall buildings…or even stones, boulders or tree trunks…you can just really see. You can just really see the magnificence and majesty of creation…take a long view…get lost in largeness of the world. I call this perspective taking. And perspective taking is really good for the soul. Perspective taking allows us to begin to understand who we really are, what we are really capable of accomplishing, understand that our one solitary life matters and has substance. Perspective taking allows us to remember that though we are a little thing when placed next to the expansiveness of time and largeness of the world around us, we are still loved by God entirely and capable of conquering all sorts and types of challenges that life throws our way.
I find that when I have ascended a mountain height, even with others, there is little need to communicate, all fall to silence…and I find, every time, that I begin to pray…without thinking about it…without choosing it…I feel closer to God…I begin to have a conversation with God…a conversation that includes expressions of gratitude for the life I live and am blessed to share with others, a conversation that leads me to think about who I am called to be and the things I am called to do…with the long view in mind. This is indeed perspective taking, for I am provided a moment of silent reflection and sweet conversation with God that begins to make sense of my life and the world around me…and understand who I am called to be and how to use my life well in the world…the life I have been so generously given. There are indeed many blessings found by ascending to the mountaintop…there is a unique and needed perspective to be found there…a perspective that leads and prepares one to really live.
And I place these reflections in the background of Jesus’ own mountaintop moment in our Gospel lesson today. Jesus’ own life and ministry are about to take on new meaning…to head in a new direction. His face is set to Jerusalem…his path is leading to the cross…his life is headed toward its own dramatic conclusion. In a relatively short period of time, Jesus will make a final ascent onto the hard wood of the cross on which he will indeed be lifted up, giving his life courageously, generously for the sins of the whole world, even me, even you. And I find it to be no accident that to prepare himself to become the person he is called to be, to live fully into his own destiny and special life…that he climbs a mountain. And in doing so, I think he is preparing his own body for his own unique journey. He is bolstering his own courage and ability to be a risk-taker to speak the truth of God’s love in the center of power in his own day, which is always hard and often not well received. And he is doing his own perspective taking…taking his own long view that indeed includes the pain filled, hate filled cross, but also the empty tomb that follows. His own transfiguration, the moment on the mountaintop, when he assumes all his divine glory, his clothes becoming dazzling white and his face shines like the sun, in that moment, he is foreseeing the Easter that is coming…the long view…that always sees the beauty that lies at the end of all things…that life and love win…that life and love stand at the end of all that is. And he speaks to God. We even get to hear some of God’s words of love and encouragement, when those with whom he has climbed the mountain hear God say, “This is my son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.” And I suppose I believe that Jesus needed, really needed to climb this particular mountain at this particular time. That he needed to prepare his body, and thus his heart, mind and spirit…for the journey that remained before him. That he needed the encouragement to be courageous and be willing to take risks…for the journey that remained before him. That he needed that conversation with God that affirmed who he really is, God’s beloved…for the journey that remained before him. That he needed a moment of perspective taking that reminded him of the beauty in this world, that long view that saw resurrection and love at the end of all things…for the journey that remained before him. I believe that this moment on the mountaintop was essential for Jesus to live fully the life, with all of its challenges and chances and moments of wonder and pain…that remained before him.
And the same is true for each of us. Lent begins Wednesday…and though the image of wandering in the desert is often synonymous with Lent…I think there is nothing wrong with at least beginning it with the image of the mountaintop. For I believe Lent is an invitation to create some mountaintop moments for ourselves. To go on a adventure. To tend to our bodies recognizing that our bodies, hearts, minds and spirits are entirely connected. To nurture in ourselves courage and the willingness to take risks. To do some perspective taking…taking the long view of our lives. For in doing so, we will discover something there on the mountaintop…discover something of who we are…discover once again that we are loved by God entirely…discover something of what we are made of and what we are made for.
And so, my challenge for you today is to consider, during this season of Lent, how to take this time for yourself and what that looks like. It surely won’t be climbing a mountain for most of us. But it may for some…or it may look like a retreat…or a quiet day…or a weekend of camping…or committing to 15 minutes of prayer and contemplation each morning…or yoga or gym time…or a daily thirty-minute walk, run or bike ride. But whatever it may be for you, perhaps Lent can be an invitation or just even excuse to find your own mountaintop. Jesus needed it and so do we…for their remains a journey before each of us. A journey that though good is full of challenges and chances, moments of wonder and pain, and to be fully present in it, to be the agents of love in the midst of the lives we live, requires these mountaintop moments…these moments of preparing the entirety of our lives for the journey that remains before us. Amen.