Which Mountain Are You Climbing?

by | Feb 23, 2020

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” 
Matthew 17:1-9

Good morning, everyone. If I’ve not yet had the chance to greet you personally, my name is Mariann Budde and I have the honor of serving as your bishop. My job is to offer spiritual leadership and oversight to congregations and clergy within a given geographic area known as a diocese. St. Mark’s belongs to the Diocese of Washington, which includes all the Episcopal churches in the District of Columbia, and 4 Maryland counties. You are one of 88 churches in our diocese, and among the healthiest. You’re blessed with a gifted and passionate rector. Your lay leaders are also gifted people who give tremendously of themselves in service to Christ, this congregation, and beyond.  I’m proud to be your bishop, always looking for ways to support and amplify what God is doing with and through you, and I’m grateful beyond words for the ways St. Mark’s shows up in collaboration with others in the diocese and the world in the conspiracy of goodness. Thank you. I’ve been looking forward to today, especially as we celebrate baptism, confirmation and reception. If you are a guest or visitor today, welcome. You have come to a very special place. 

Taking inspiration from the gospel text, I’d like to reflect with you about climbing mountains. But first let me thank the preachers and education leaders of St. Mark’s. If you’ve been in church for the last several weeks, you know that sermons here have focused on the care of creation, one of the more urgent issues of our time. Some of you have taken time to read a book on creation care from the perspective of the Christian tradition that  traces its inspiration back to St. Francis. In Franciscan spirituality, care of creation is not just a good idea for human survival; it is an act of faithful response to God. For the natural world is, according to St. Francis, the first Incarnation, or embodiment, of God. In other words, for Christians, before God came to us, as we celebrate at Christmas, in the person of Jesus, God revealed, and continues to reveal, God’s very essence in and through the natural world.

I read the book you’ve been reading, and two rather observations the author makes haunt and convict me personally. The first is simply the devastating reality that given current consumption and pollution trends, those who come after us–our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will have less soil, clean air, water than we do. If everyone in the world consumed as much as Americans do, we would need four additional planets full of resources to supply us. (Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth, Delia, Ilia Franciscan Media. Kindle Edition.) One of my goals as your bishop is to deepen the capacity in and among our congregations to address urgent social issues like creation care in ways that can have significant impact. I’m grateful for St. Mark’s for helping to lead the way. 

Back to climbing mountains: All one has to do is look at a mountain to experience its symbolic, spiritual power. Even more spiritually compelling, I suggest to you, is the act of climbing a mountain. 

Climbing a mountain isn’t a casual endeavor; it takes effort and endurance. You don’t always make it to the top. Think of all those who have perished climbing mountains. Thus there’s a great sense of accomplishment in reaching the summit. From there, weather permitting, we can see far and wide. When we make our way down, we take with us whatever perspective we gained from the heights. 

We speak of mountaintop experiences that have nothing to do with climbing an actual mountain. “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” Martin Luther King famously said the night before he died, “and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.” He was alluding to another mountain referred to in Scripture–the one the prophet Moses climbed before he died, from which he could see the land he would never enter, but where the people of Israel would find their freedom. King identified with Moses: “I may not get there with you,” King said to his African American congregation wanting their own freedom, “but I promised you, we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”

Like Moses; like Jesus, we climb mountains–both physical and symbolic–for all sorts of reasons. I’d like to briefly describe three types of mountain climbing experiences, and as I do, listen for the one that most resonates with what’s happening in your life right now. I pray that God might speak to you there, giving you insight or courage as you make your way. 

One reason we climb a mountain is, as George Mallory famously said about Mount Everest, “because it’s there.” This is the mountain of adventure, the kind of opportunity that doesn’t come around every day, and when it does, something in us immediately  knows that we want to take it. We want to climb the mountain and we’ll do whatever it takes to make the journey. I remember when I arrived as a student at Virginia Seminary over 35 years ago, prepared for a 3-year commitment in that residential academic setting, which to my 24-year old self felt like an eternity. Then I learned about a woman two years ahead of me who had taken a year off in the middle of her studies to live and work at an Episcopal school for abandoned boys in Central America. As soon as I learned that was a possibility, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. And 2 years later I did, bringing my brand new husband along with me. 

The thing about mountains of adventure is that they are often far more challenging than we realize. In fact, if we knew in advance how hard they would be, we might never climb them. That was certainly true about our experience in Central America. I don’t regret that we went, but it was not an easy year. I remember one day fighting back tears of frustration and asking God if it was always going to be this hard. The answer came back immediately (which rarely happens to me in prayer) “Yes.” That got my attention. Then I heard: “But I will be with you.” That was enough for me to keep going. 

It’s good that we don’t know when we begin what our adventures will cost us. Otherwise we might miss the personal growth and transformation that can occur when we step out in faith on journeys that take us beyond our capacity. That’s how we learn to rely on God, and grow into the kind of people capable of finishing what we started or accepting failure with grace. 

Remember that a lot of people who try to climb mountains never make it to the top, but they’d rather fail than never make the effort. Because mountains of adventure clarify our vocation–why we’re alive and why our lives matter. 

If you’re around my age it probably won’t surprise you to know that as I prepared this sermon, one of the songs running through my head was “Climb Every Mountain” from the Sound of Music: 

Climb every mountain, ford every stream, 
follow every byway, till find your dream. 
A dream that will take all the love you can give, 
every day of your life, for as long as you live. 

The second kind of mountain climbing experience is similar to the first, with one important difference: you would give anything not to make the journey, but you have no choice. The mountain is before you, and there is no turning back. Think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and how he prayed, “Father if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. But your will, not mine be done.” 

A few years ago I went with a friend to her doctor’s office for what would be the first of many treatments for cancer. The diagnosis had taken all of us by surprise, because she was a healthy person, and it was a surreal experience to listen as the nurse oncologist described what lay ahead. The nurse was attempting to be both positive and honest: the prognosis was good, but my friend was in for a rough year, maybe more. The good news is that she made it through and is fine now, but the year of treatment was terrible. I remember as she went through it thinking back to what the nurse had said: this was her mountain, and she just had to climb it. It was our job, as friends and family, to be her sherpas, and help get her to the top and back down. 

Back to the song from the Sound of Music: The first time we hear the song in the musical, Maria is a nun who has fallen in love with an distinguished Austrian general, a widow with a houseful of children. The song points her to a new life, outside the convent, married to her love and raising his children as her own. But at the film’s end, the song is reprised as Maria and her new family are climbing a mountain in the Alps. Why? They are fleeing the Nazis with nothing but what they can carry with them.  

Climb every mountain. Ford every stream. It doesn’t sound as romantic when it’s a matter of life and death. Yet life is often a struggle, and we simply need to keep climbing. There’s a saying in Haiti, a country whose people are no stranger to hardship: “Beyond the mountain lies another mountain.” It’s a hard sentiment, but mountain climbing is hard, and when life puts mountains before you, there’s nothing to be gained by pretending that it’s easy. I happen to be in a stage in my life and ministry where there’s a lot of work to be done, mountain upon mountain. That metaphor gives me perspective; it reminds me to pace myself, eat well, and ask for help. Another mountain song has been in my head this week by the musical group Nickel Creek. The refrain is in the form of a prayer: 

You don’t have to move that mountain, but help me, Lord, to climb it. 
You don’t have to move that stumbling block; just show me the way around it.

The third and last mountain climbing experience I’ll mention today is the kind that Jesus took when he climbed Mount Tabor with his friends in search for clarity and direction. Jesus often climbed mountains to pray, and we can understand why. From the top you see in a way that only height and distance provide. We don’t need to climb an actual mountain for that kind of perspective–a retreat of any kind can provide needed distance.  It can happen in smaller doses in a practice of silent prayer, or by taking a walk. Like your good rector, I love riding a bicycle for the gift of perspective it can bring. Especially on long rides, when exertion has worked out all that’s front and center in my brain and in the emptiness that comes afterwards, God sometimes speaks to me with a bit of clarity that either keeps me on a course I’m on, or helps me change direction. 

What happened to Jesus on the mountain of his transfiguration was what he himself needed to stay on course. He saw the writing on the wall, and he knew that if he kept going, his life was not going to end well. But what God gave him on the mountain was a vision of why his life mattered, the cosmic implications of the gift of his impending sacrifice. This story is also meant to assure anyone who feels drawn to him that Jesus is, in fact, one we can trust and follow even especially when life is hard, that there is a meaning and purpose to our struggles that we may never fully understand, and that as he promised, he will be with us to the end of the age. 

To bring this sermon to a close, let me simply ask again: what mountain lies before you, or are you climbing now? Is it a mountain of adventure you must or want to climb–a vocation? Is it a mountain that you’d rather go around, but can’t? Is it a mountain that you need to climb, or are climbing now, in search of clarity and direction? Whatever your path, whatever your climb–I pray you might know, deep in your bones, that Jesus is right there with you, as a friend, and guide, and source of abiding strength. You can lean on him, ask for his help and presence. You can lean on this community of fellow Jesus followers. 

We aren’t meant to climb our mountains alone.