Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Down From the Mountain Top

All Saints Church, Pasadena
The Last Sunday of Epiphany: February 26, 2006

Lent Looms. As we gather for worship this morning the Mardi Gras crowds are gathered in New Orleans -- committed to wringing every last bit of revelry out of these final days before the dawn of Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of our 40 day Lenten journey. And is it just me or does it seem to come around a little more quickly every year? It was somewhat shocking to realize that we have already come to the end of the Epiphany Season -- the season full of the stories of the "aha's" of the people of God who encountered Jesus and knew somehow something different was going on.

Years ago … when our now Diocesan Bishop Jon Bruno was a parish priest and I was a parish secretary… Jon explained to me that an epiphany works like this: God is forever tapping on my head … saying, “Susan!” … “Susan!” … trying to get my attention. Everyone once in awhile I look up and say, "Huh???" -- and THAT’S an epiphany! And so, when we celebrate "epiphanies" we celebrate not the fact that God occasionally "shows up" -- but the fact that someone noticed! We celebrate the relentless love of the God who is our Creator … forever “tapping on our heads”… and calling us again and again to be partners with God

So if epiphanies are a "tap on the head" this morning's gospel -- the one we always hear on this last Sunday of the Season of Epiphany – must have felt like a whack upside the head. We call it "The Transfiguration" -- the great “aha” moment when Peter, James and John saw in a miraculous and transforming instant the transfiguration of the dusty, travel-worn rabbi from Nazareth who was their friend and teacher into the dazzling Christ figure holding his own in conversation with Moses and Elijah. Talk about a “mountain top experience!”

Every time I hear this story I think two things: no wonder they were terrified and God love Peter! If I got to actually PICK a "patron saint" I think it just might be Peter -- at least in part because I identify so much with him. I not only find comfort in the not exactly seamless quality of his dogged discipleship, I appreciate his outspoken extroversion. In fact, at the just completed vestry-staff conference while we were in the middle of a workshop on communication I had a little epiphany of my own – or, as Ed who never met a noun he couldn’t turn into a verb might say, “I epiphed.” And I decided Peter probably had the same “communication style” as I do.

It's what they call “an expressive” -- and one of the key identifiers is that we often speak first and think later. And that's precisely what happens here. Note that the gospel writer says, "Peter did not know what to say ..." and that it didn't slow him down for a second in saying something anyway. "Let's build a dwelling ... No, let's build THREE dwellings -- one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah. And we can all hang out here and it'll be really great -- none of those pesky crowds or uptight temple leaders or IRS agents -- we can just stay here and enjoy this amazing moment forever!"

And the clouds parted. And a voice said "This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him." And what I imagine Jesus -- the Son -- the Beloved said next was "Back down the mountain, boys -- we have work to do." They had work to do. And so do we. And to do it we have to leave the mountain top. And sometimes that’s a tough thing to do.

We’ve all had them … the “mountain top experiences” … a moment when it “clicks” -- when you “know” -- when it works -- when it’s suddenly all clear … and it’s tempting, tempting, tempting to want to stay there – at least for awhile. Sometimes the mountain top moments come unbidden and surprising – I remember a particular retreat weekend many years ago now when I had the amazing, transformative, life changing experience of what I’ve described as “having Jesus come out of the prayer book and into my heart.”

Other mountain top moments come after long months of thinking and planning, organizing and anticipating. The birth of a new baby comes to mind. Not surprisingly perhaps, so does … a wedding. Louise and I had a “mountain top experience” a week ago Saturday when we stood in this very church full of many of these very same people in a service of love and commitment that exceeded even our highest hopes for how we wanted to begin living happily ever after until death do us part. In fact, I think I still detect a little “eau d’ mountain top” in the air – maybe even the echo of a Trumpet Tune somewhere in the rafters. We will be forever grateful to everyone who made our “mountain top experience” so memorable!

All Saints Church itself is a “mountain top” to many people. It is a place where “ahas” happen on a regular basis: those epiphanies that let us know that we were loved – REALLY loved … just as we are. For some it is the place we encountered Jesus -- maybe for the first time ever or maybe transfigured from the Jesus of judgment we grew up with into the Lord of Love we celebrate here every time we gather here at All Saints.

Having had that experience there is -- or can be -- the very real temptation to be like Peter … to metaphorically “build a dwelling” and just hang out … basking in the glow of the great music, beautiful sanctuary, caring community and stay on the mountain top.

Truth to tell, it’s scary down there – out there. It’s hard WORK to talk about this turning the human race into the human family stuff outside the community where it’s safe – where you’re agreed with – where people “get you.” And yet it’s what we’re called to do. The “me and Jesus” moments on the mountain top are precious parts of our spiritual journeys and are crucial parts of our spiritual growth ministries here at All Saints Church.

I believe the critical mountain top question is not one of time but one of motivation: if our mountain top moments become ends in themselves then they become idols we worship rather than the God who created us instead of the icons they are meant to be to call us to the full stature of our life in Christ. No one has the right to decide for another person when it’s time to step out in faith – to leave the comfort zone and come down the mountain. Five minutes, five months or five years – whoever you are and wherever you are on your journey of faith there must be the room for you to nurture that critical spiritual core that gives each and every one of us the strength and power – the courage and resolve – to reach out in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us. It is a critical “both/and” that the institutional church too often tragically ignored.

Verna Dozier, the 20th century prophet and biblical scholar said this about that: “I believe Jesus is the Word made flesh, the definitive action of God for our age to offer human beings a new possibility for participating in the dream of God. And I believe the church missed its high calling to be the new thing in the world when it decided to worship Jesus instead of following him.”

Worship instead of follow. Build a dwelling instead of coming down off the mountain. Staying in our comfort zone instead of reaching out across whatever divide there is between us and the rest of God’s beloved human family. In Jim Wallis’ most recent book: “God's Politics: Why the Right gets it wrong the why the Left doesn't get it” he critiques “private spiritualities that have no connection to public life [leaving] spirituality without social consequences” concluding “Spirituality without social conscience abandons the prophetic tradition.”

That’s building a dwelling on the mountain top rather than coming down the mountain and getting to work.

So what do we do when we get DOWN the mountain?

Well, for starters: Lent Looms – and with it the annual Lent Event – our opportunity to come together as a community of faith AND action as we begin the 40 day Lenten journey toward Easter. This year we are blessed to have Chris Hedges – best selling author, award winning war correspondent and dedicated peace activist -- as our mentor and motivator. Coming from a place of deep faith and mature spirituality, Chris is someone who has not only been to the mountain top but to the valley of the shadow and we will have much to learn from him and from each other on what I know will be a “mountain top” weekend.

One final pre-Lenten piece of advice: Whatever you do, don’t give up epiphanies for Lent! Don’t give up the expectation that God can and will continue to tap on our heads trying to get our attention – luring us toward all that is good and right and holy and life-giving … for us and for the rest of the human family.

And remember Paul’s words to the Christians in Corinth: It is not ourselves we preach, but Christ Jesus as Sovereign, and ourselves as your workers for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts, so that we in turn might make known the glory of God shining on the face of Christ.

Make known the glory of God by following Jesus rather than settling for worshipping him by proclaiming the core values he embodied – values of justice and peace, love and inclusion, compassion and grace. That, my brothers and sisters, is work worth doing … even if we have to come down off the mountain top to do it.


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