2018-2-11, “Mountain Climbing”

“Mountain Climbing”
A meditation based on Mark 9:2-9 (NRSV)
February 11, 2018
Rev. Victoria Freiheit
This is the day in the Christian year set aside for mountain climbing—I’ll bet you didn’t
know that. This is the day we set aside to climb Mount Sinai with Moses and the
Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus and three of his disciples. Are there any
mountain climbers in the congregation today? Many people are into mountain
climbing and claim it is quite exhilarating. Other, however, have a fear of heights and
say, “I wouldn’t go mountain-climbing for love nor money.”
Willie and I recently read Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods.” His description of
walking the Appalachian Trail left us wondering why anyone would do it. After only a
couple of days he compares hiking with a 40-pound pack to the time you were at the
zoo and little Jimmy was too tired to walk so you put him up on your shoulders. For a
couple of minutes it is actually fun—you pretend like you are going to tip him off, or
you walk his head toward some low-lying object before veering off at the last instant.
But then, little Jimmy starts getting heavy. You feel a twinge in your neck, a
tightening between your shoulder blades, and the sensation seeps and spreads until it
is decidedly uncomfortable, and you announce to little Jimmy that you’re going to
have to put him down for awhile. The 40-lb. pack is like two little Jimmys, but inert. I
remember when I was going down the Grand Canyon with the Sierra Club, and I
practiced with every heavy thing I could think of in my backpack. When I would get
back to the car after a hour or so of practice, I’d lift that pack off and I felt like I could
fly—that burden off my back was wonderful.
People go mountain climbing all the time—even higher than the Appalachians.
Leonardo Diaz was climbing at 12,000 feet in the Andes when got stranded in a
blizzard near the top. True story—he tried to call out , but couldn’t as he had already
used up all his prepaid minutes on his cell phone. But he was saved two hours later
when his cell phone company called him to ask if he would like to buy some more
prepaid minutes. “It was the work of angels,” he said–he was rescued 7 hours later.
Few scenes are more dramatic in the Bible than the one about Moses’ journey to the
mountain where he received the Ten Commandments. The writer of Exodus says it
like this: “Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.
The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on
the seventh day God called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the
glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the
people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was
on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.” 60 years ago Cecil B. DeMille’s 10
Commandments movie was pretty graphic. But, I wonder what a modern film-maker
could do with that scene, given all the special effects that film-makers use today.
Many years later Moses makes another appearance on another mountain. It is the
Mount of Transfiguration. This time it is Jesus who is mountain climbing. He takes
with him Peter, James and his brother John. When they get to the top of the
mountain the Gospel of Mark tells us “that Jesus was transfigured before them. And
his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And
there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
“Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three
dwellings, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say
for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them and from the cloud there
came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly, when they
looked around, they saw no one with them any move, but only Jesus. As they were
coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen,
until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
I’ll bet, in all your mountain-climbing days, you never had an experience quite like this.
Yes, I know, you have had mountain-top experiences—so have I. Maybe even not on
a mountain-top, but at the beach, or at a sunset, or at a time of deep prayer while
driving in the car on a lonely road. Those times were times of worship for you, for me.
The Transfiguration was a time of worship. Mark tells us that the disciples were
terrified. And why not? They had known Jesus as their good buddy, their rabbi, their
teacher. Suddenly they discovered they hadn’t even scratched the surface of who
Jesus is. They were standing in the presence of God, and did not know what to say,
for they were terrified. I imagine this was particularly hard for Peter, as he usually had
something to say about everything. And Peter doesn’t disappoint this time either—he
said that whole thing about the three dwellings.
In the Bible it says that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Do you
think it means that we should be cowering in fear? I think fear, in this case, is more of
a feeling of awe, of knowing that we may be made in the image of God, but we are
not God. And never will be. As humans, we can do wondrous things—we can land
on the moon, build dams to hold back millions of gallons of water, communicate with
each other across the world in seconds. But we are not God. And never will be.
We can go up a mountain and have a wonderful experience. We may even want to
build something on that mountain to commemorate our experience. And if we are
wise, we will worship God on that mountaintop. The fear of the Lord is when we know
we are so powerfully in God’s presence that we are awed, and we feel unworthy.
Discovering true worship is one of the great needs that each of us has whether we
are conscious of it or not.
I’ll tell you a story about worship. Craig Larson remembers when “the world watched
as three gray whales were icebound off Point Barrow, Alaska. Under the ice, they
floated, battered and bloody, gasping for breath at a hole in the ice. Their only hope:
somehow to be transported five miles past the ice pack to the open sea. Rescuers
began cutting a string of holes for them to breathe—about 20 yards apart in the sixinch-
thick ice.”
Can’t you just visualize those three whales seeing light and going toward it to breathe,
over and over again, mile after mile. One didn’t make it. But the whales Puto and
Siku swam to freedom with the help of the Russian icebreakers. In a way, Craig
Larson reminds us, “worship is like a string of breathing holes that God provides
God’s people. Battered and bruised in a world frozen over with greed, selfishness,
and hatred, we rise for air in church, a place to breathe again, to be loved and
encouraged, until that day when the Lord shatters forever that ice cap.” What is your
personal experience of breathing feely in church, like nowhere else you have ever
been? What is your experience of worship, of awe, of the fear of the Lord?
The Transfiguration was not only a time of worship, it was a time of discovery. A
time of discovery for the disciples, when they had a whole new understanding of who
Jesus is. He had been their teacher, their friend, their inspiration. But nothing could
have prepared them for this experience on the mountain. You know that it is always
difficult to judge a person by a casual relationship with them. People can fool you.
An illustration of this is about a businessman who checked into a fancy hotel in a big
city. The next morning, the maid came to clean his room. He was brusque, almost
unkind with her. He felt justified, after all, he was well paid and successful; and she
was just the maid—poorly educated, poorly paid—a lowly hotel maid. What he didn’t
know was that this maid spoke five languages. She had her Ph.D. She had friends
back in her home country who were outstanding people in government and the arts.
But she was forced to flee her country and seek asylum in this land. And the only
place she could find employment was as a maid in this hotel. This businessman, who
was treating her like a mere object, could not touch her intellect or her abilities. We
make superficial judgments about people without knowing the whole story. The
disciples were still learning who Jesus was. They were on the mountain with their
friend Jesus, but amazingly also with them was Moses and Elijah. Then they heard,
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” This was a time of discovery for them.
The three disciples were confronted by Christ’s deity. They knew they were on holy
ground. It was a time of discovery and a time of worship. And one thing more: it was
a time of defining who they were and what they were all about. Peter wanted to
build three dwellings, one for Christ, one for Moses and one for Elijah, and stay there
on the mountain. We can appreciate that. What a grand experience—a tough act to
follow, as they say. Who would wish for the madness of the world after being in the
splendor of the divine presence?
When I first met Willie he told me about a retreat he went on in the mountains north of
Los Angeles. It was a silent retreat in a monastery. He said how hard it was to come
down to the city and be in the traffic, the noise, the workaday world of conflict–major
and minor. He wanted to turn around and go back up the mountain.
You and I face the same temptation. We might prefer to spend all our time here in the
house of God where we are loved and where we feel the assurance that comes from
faith in God. But that is not who we are and it is not what we are called to do. Jesus
led the disciples back off the mountain and into a life of service—a service of teaching
and healing and showing compassion for all people.
It is easy to delude ourselves that by coming to worship once a week, we have
fulfilled our commitment to Christ. Worship is where we prepare ourselves for service
outside these walls. In 2001, Allison Levine led the first all-woman team to climb Mt.
Everest. The reason Allison is such an inspiring leader is that for most of her life she
was unable to take on physical challenges. She was born with a heart defect. She
never played sports because any exertion would cause her heart to jump out of its
regular rhythm. But she became a dedicated athlete after surgery at the age of 30
when they repaired that heart defect.
Allison agreed to lead the Mt. Everest expedition on one condition, that it be a fundraiser
for good causes, like cancer research or building girls’ schools in Nepal. She
didn’t want to climb Mt. Everest for her own or the team’s glory; she wanted to give
back to the less fortunate. She said, “What’s the point of taking risks if nothing
changes on the earth below.”
I couldn’t have said it better. What’s the use of climbing mountains if when we come
down we are still the self-absorbed jerks as we were when we went up? Jesus is calling
us to leave this worship service committed to living a life of service. He does not
call us to come out of the world, but to serve the world even as he served the world.
An old story tells of a Congregational man who visited a Quaker meeting. People
were sitting in silence. He whispered to the person next to him, “When will the service
start?” The person replied, “After the meeting is over.” The time spent on the
mountain was a time of discovery for the disciples. It was also a time of worship—a
time of meeting God. After the meeting was over though, it was time for the service to
begin–as it is with us. Our time of worship is nearly over. Let the service begin.