What Lies Beyond Mountains

by | Mar 3, 2019

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”–not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
 Luke 9:28-36

I am honored to worship God with you, All Saints’ Church, and to be among your gifted clergy whom I often turn to for inspiration. Thank you for welcoming me so kindly.

For the last month in my writing and preaching, I have been exploring from a variety of perspectives a central theme: Living a Called Life.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, in his book The Prophetic Imagination, writes that the greatest heresy of our time is the notion that any of us can live an “uncalled life.” That is, a life with no reference point beyond the self, no sense of vocation or greater purpose given to us by God. Conversely, the experience of feeling oneself called to something, or somewhere, is among the most powerful and persuasive of spiritual encounters.

It begins, I believe, with a sense or conviction that we’re being summoned, somehow, either by our life circumstances or an internal, driving energy that all spiritual traditions attribute to the voice of God. In the Christian life, Jesus is the one who calls. We hear him call us by name into relationship with Him and to follow him, as his disciples, according to his teachings and wherever he leads.

The call can lead us virtually anywhere: deep within ourselves in prayer, boldly out into society to serve the least of God’s children. It can be a call to devote the greater portion of our life’s energies to the raising of children, the care of a loved one, or to walk courageously through a door into the unknown, leaving for a time the comforts and intense commitments of home. The call can come by way of joy and the fulfillment of our greatest dreams; it can come to us in response to tragedy or heartbreak. But there we are, and the call has come to us.

To be called is a uniquely human experience, because of the element of choice. Even when it feels as if we have no choice, we can, in fact, choose to say no to the summons, or refuse to give our hearts to what our bodies are forced to accept. Conversely, we can say yes, give our consent and whole-hearted engagement, even in response to a call we would have given anything to not to receive, and in so doing become fully alive.

To feel oneself called is also a universal experience, and therefore a powerful point of contact for us with our non-Christian friends and family, where we can begin conversation about what it means to feel oneself into relationship with Christ.

Many of the classic stories of Scripture are call stories. Think of Moses’ call, when God spoke to him from a burning bush and told him that he was the one to go to Pharaoh and liberate God’s people from slavery in Egypt. Or the call of Esther, a Jewish woman who found herself in the Persian King’s court at the precise moment when the Jewish people living in exile were threatened with genocide. “Who knows?” her uncle Mordecai said to her when she insisted that she could not do what was being asked of her. “Who knows, perhaps you have come to your royal position for a time such as this?”

Nearly every biblical character resists the call at first. The prophet Isaiah responded with an acknowledgement of his own sinfulness:  “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” Simon Peter said much the same thing when Jesus called him. We heard his story in church a few weeks ago. You may remember how when Jesus told Simon Peter to put his nets down for a catch and there were so many fish that the nets began to break, Simon’s response was: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” He was certain that if Jesus knew who he really was, he wouldn’t want anything to do with him. But Jesus did know him; he knew all about him, and it was Simon that he wanted. “Follow me,” Jesus said. “From now on we’ll be fishing for people.”

Coming to terms with our imperfection comes with the territory when living a called life, and Simon Peter is the patron saint of imperfection. Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton has recently published a book about Simon Peter entitled Flawed but Faithful Disciple. Simon Peter gave his heart to Jesus, but time and again, he would get things wrong, say the most inappropriate things, even fail spectacularly in his efforts to be faithful. We heard a bit of his fumbling this morning when he was on the mountain with Jesus, so wanting to be helpful, yet entirely missed the meaning of what was happening. Nonetheless, Jesus turned to Simon more than any other disciple, as if to say to all of us, “I do not expect perfection from you. Embrace the path of imperfection.”

What makes Simon’s example so compelling is his perseverance, a willingness to get up every time he falls, acknowledge his failings and accept Jesus’ forgiveness. Remember that he was the one who denied even knowing Jesus three times on the night of Jesus’ arrest. How could he ever forgive himself for abandoning his teacher and closest friend? Even then, after his resurrection Jesus seeks Simon out to make sure that he knows he is forgiven, and still called to be a witness to Jesus’ way of love in this world.

We’ll hear more of that part of Simon Peter’s story with Jesus at the end of the season we’re poised to begin in church. For today we stand on the threshold of Lent, the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, patterned on Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness and his journey down from the mountain of his transfiguration to his entry into Jerusalem.

This morning I invite you to linger a bit with Jesus, Peter, James and John on the mountaintop where Jesus had gone to pray, and in so doing, call to mind our own mountaintop moments. We often use the phrase “mountain top” to evoke that feeling of arrival, clarity of vision, and sense of coherence to our lives that can be hidden from us in the valleys of daily existence. From a mountaintop, we also see our destination, where, in the language of faith, God is calling us to go. Mountaintop experiences are gifts of sheer grace, although often hard won, in that it takes effort to climb a mountain. Once there, we are touched by a power and presence that gives meaning to all that has gone before and all that will come afterwards.

On the mountain of his transfiguration, Jesus was filled with light and surrounded by the love of God. His spiritual ancestors joined him there and spoke to him about “what he was about to accomplish,” our translation puts it. Other translations are more specific: it was to be his exodus, harkening back to the exodus from slavery that Moses led, bringing to all humankind a deeper freedom from sin.

His experience on the mountain seemed to negate all the harsh premonitions that Jesus had about his future, and had spoken about to his disciples about time and again, warning them that he was to go to Jerusalem to die. Simon Peter must have been so relieved! No wonder he wanted to build a shrine to mark this pinnacle of glory, so that they could bask forever in the light. Maybe the exodus wouldn’t be one of suffering after all. If only that were so. But Jesus knew that for all the power of that holy mountain, his destiny lay below, in Jerusalem, the seat of political and religious power, where prophets must go to speak, and almost certainly, to die.

But what a gift that moment must have been for him, and how important a memory it was for those who were there with him. The text tells us that they didn’t dare speak of it at first; I suspect that it wasn’t until after the resurrection that the three shared with others what they saw. Only then did the experience make sense to them–it wasn’t a lightning bolt from the sky, changing Jesus’ course. It wasn’t an isolated event, but more a resting point in a longer journey of faithfulness to his call. So these experiences often are for us.

Years ago, when I was a young priest about to accept my first call as a rector, I spent a weekend with my family at our diocesan camp. The executive director of the camp was also in transition as he was leaving the camp to accept a position as the director of a residential home for teenagers in juvenile justice system. He was beaming as he told me of this change, which clearly wasn’t a step up in prestige or pay, as vocations go. He said something I’ve never forgotten, one of the best expressions of a mountaintop I’ve ever heard: “I have been preparing my entire life for this job.”

What an amazing thing to be able to say–and I knew that he was telling me a lot, about his own life, perhaps his own struggles, and clearly he was overjoyed to be called by God for such a time and place.

I never saw him again, and so I don’t know how things turned out. But I would guess that it wasn’t any easier coming down from that mountain of clarity than it was climbing up it. Mountaintop experiences, wonderful as they are, are both preceded and followed by a lot of not knowing and many small steps of persevering faithfulness.

I suppose that’s one thing we know for sure about mountaintop revelations: they come to an end. Sometimes something happens on the way down the mountain that calls into question everything about our experience.

Once, when struggling to make a decision of real consequence, I went for a swim at a nearby recreation center. Somewhere in that timeless zone of swimming laps and praying for clarity, clarity came with a rush of euphoria. I knew exactly what I was to do and why. I remember feeling so relieved to have reached a decision, knowing in my bones that it was right. But no sooner had I stepped out of the pool and dried myself off when all my uncertainty came rushing back. It took every ounce of faith to stay with the decision I had made. This memory remains a touchstone for me; every time I have a similar experience of insight followed by doubt, I remind myself to hold steady, not let the forces of ambiguity blow my life off course, and to trust whatever glimpses of direction I have received.

So it is for all of us: we come down mountain, get hit with reality, take a deep breath, and go on. Life looks pretty much the same on the way down as it did on the way up, and maybe that’s the point. After Jesus comes down from the mountain, he sets his face toward Jerusalem and all that awaits him there. On the journey, he does what he did before: heals the sick, feeds the hungry, preaches good news to the poor. He did his day job, and so do we.

The sweet, rare moments of clarity and affirmation are wonderful when they come, but where life gets interesting is what happens next, when we re-enter the world as it is and do our best to live according to the clarity we received. As the Haitians say, what lies beyond one mountain is another mountain. How we walk the path between them is most important, giving thanks for the sweet moments of illumination when they’re given us, but remembering how we live both before and after is what matters most.

I invite you all to take the Scripture home with you today, find a quiet place, and ponder your last significant mountaintop experience, or any that comes to mind. Consider how and where you’ve traveled since then, and what Jesus might want to say to you about that journey, in gratitude or encouragement, in consolation and love. If you are in need of such an experience–one of greater clarity and affirmation–ask for it in your prayers.

Name for yourself the ways you feel your life called by God, or by the circumstances before you, and pray for strength and confidence to be faithful to that call. And if you, like all of us, are wondering what the call might be now, ask for guidance and the prayer support of your faith community and your spiritual leaders.

We aren’t meant to walk the road of faithfulness alone. We aren’t meant to be perfect. There is love and support all around you, beloved All Saints’, as you strive to follow the one who calls you each by name. Know that your bishop is praying for you, and giving thanks for your faithfulness.