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Mountain Climbing: Transfiguration Sunday

February 17, 2015

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Transfiguration Sunday, February 15, 2015. This was also the occasion of our annual Mardi Gras covered dish meal.

Mark 9:2-9

Many of you know I love to hike. From early spring through the fall I often spend my entire Sabbath day hiking or climbing; and on my blog I detail many of the hikes I’ve taken. I love doing all-day hikes because the intense physical experience of walking or climbing for hours, attending to my breath and the steady beat of my heart, and being conscious of earth upon which I am walking, is conducive to mental alertness and spiritual awareness. I am very mindful of being alone in what all the saints knew as “God’s first book,” the Book of Nature.

A couple of summers ago I hiked the Camp Smith Trail, up Manitou Mountain. It was one of my more satisfying experiences when I first began hiking in Westchester. It was a vigorous 4.8 miles of steep climbing and great views, and entirely fun. (I even startled a family of grouse). It was a humid day in June and I had set aside six hours for the adventure. Noelle and August dropped me off at the Bear Mountain Tollhouse on Route 6/206 with my backpack and cell phone, and I began my climb. It is said that the more difficult climb northwards provides more invitations to stop and take in the view than the same trail heading south, and I believe it. The first ten minutes were an exciting series of rapid ascents higher and higher above the road. And then it became work. Alternately walking and then scrambling over rock, I was glad for my Merrill hiking boots, my careful preparations in rationing water and trail mix, and my map.

My goal was to make the climb up Manitou Mountain, reach the summit at Anthony’s Nose, take a sweaty selfie for my blog, descend again to the highway, cross the bridge and walk into Bear Mountain State Park on the far side of the river. Noelle and August were going to play over there and take out a boat on Hessian Lake, and when I arrived, they would drive me home. When I reached the peak several hours later, the view of the Hudson River was breathtaking: sweeping vistas of rolling green and shimmering blue, the gateway to the Hudson Highlands. To the south, I could see Bear Mountain (where Noelle and August were hiking), Thunder Mountain, Iona Mountain, and far to the south I knew was the ocean. The satisfaction I felt as I took that selfie was profound. I was extraordinarily grateful that all this beauty existed in the world and that I was living here. It was a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he 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 more, but only Jesus.

You know, I’ve preached on this passage for almost 20 years and it was only this week as I read it that I thought of Jesus and his three friends as mountain climbers. I mean, the mountain is a great spiritual metaphor, but before that it is a mountain: ancient, inviting, and requiring real effort to climb. Ascending Mt. Tabor, or the Mount of Transfiguration, would have been an all day affair, requiring them to set out before dawn and return well after sunset. This was no afternoon hike, the kind of thing what might decide to do; it was an all day affair, the kind of thing one trained to do. I am not surprised at all that when they reached the summit, Peter, James and John suddenly found themselves in the company of other great climbers, and understood Jesus in this same light. I would have (and have) done the same myself.

Mt. Tabor is located about 11 miles west of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus ministry began. It’s name, Tabor, means navel, as in the bellybutton, as in the center of the earth. And indeed, it stands alone: a huge, but gentle, rounded form in the middle of a wide plain north of Megiddo. It is covered in bright green mosses under stands of pine, oak, and cypress trees. And it has attracted climbers since the beginning of human history. Egeria, the Spanish nun and inveterate traveler concluded her famous pilgrimage in the year 384 with a climb up Mt. Tabor. Saint Helena, the wife of Emperor Constantine, shared Peter’s impulse to build booths, and built a church there. A group of Carmelite monks still occupy the chapel they built there in the thirteenth century. And in the seventh century, an Armenian pilgrim named Elisaeus kept a journal about his own ascent:

Concerning the beauty of the mountain and the delightfulness of the spot, if you wish to lend me a willing ear I shall briefly describe the appearance of the charming place. Around it are springing wells of water and many densely planted trees, which blossom from the rain of the clouds and produce all kinds of sweet fruits and delightful scents; there are also vines which give wine worthy for kings to drink. . . . The path by which our Lord ascended is winding, twisting this way and that; [but] whosever wishes to climb and to pray can easily make the ascent.[1]

holy-land--mount-tabor-munir-alawi

Of course, Mt. Tabor has an elevation of nearly 1900 feet, whereas Anthony’s Nose on the Camp Smith Trail is a mere 900 feet. The ancient saints had a very different notion of what made for an easy ascent. As I said, this was not a relaxing stroll with Jesus – it was a physically taxing all day enterprise. It’s the kind of climb where you are with your friends, but you’re not chatting along the way. You’re focusing on your breathing. Perhaps you stop a few times for brief water breaks, but not conversation; you have to keep going. Your time is spent placing one foot after the other and paying keen attention to your surroundings. And when you get to the summit, you’re not on retreat, sitting around praying, you spend maybe an hour or so taking in where you are and what you have done, and then heading back down in order to reach the bottom by dark. This is an intensely physical experience.

But it IS a mountain, and when they get to the top, they can see … everything. From 1900 feet, the Jezreel Valley sweeps out for miles in every direction. And beyond that:

  • Gilboa, to the West, where King Saul met his end;
  • Carmel, to the southwest, home of the prophet Elijah and site where he defeated the prophets of Baal;
  • Gilead, with its famous balm, to the east;
  • All of Upper and Lower Galilee to the northeast, the place all four men called home.
  • And far, far in the North, visible on a clear day, Mt. Hermon, whose winter snow and summer dew are the source of the Jordan River and all life in the valley.

It must be breathtaking.

And they sense themselves in the company of Moses and Elijah. And that doesn’t surprise me at all. Not simply because these were prophets whose home or final resting places are in view, but because they were mountain climbers too! Moses and Elijah ascended and descended, scrambled and exerted themselves in their quest to see, experience and understand God. Moses ascending the Sinai to receive God’s words and coming back forever changed; Elijah also climbing Sinai to hear God’s still, small voice.

Peter, James and John have just climbed seven breathless hours behind Jesus to the top of Tabor, the navel at the center of the world. And as the world spreads out all around them, they realize they company they keep. Here is one like the prophets of old. But not only do they understand Jesus something of Jesus, that he is a mountain climbing prophet beloved of God, but they come to understand themselves in this same light. They feel a kinship with everyone those who have made this climb before them. They stand in the company of Moses and Elijah. Of course they do. That’s part of the reward for all the hard work. Heck, I’ve felt like Moses when reaching a summit and looking out at what looks like promised land all around me. I’ve heard God, like Elijah, in that quiet peace of just sitting still, very still, high above the noise of daily life. Whenever I work hard on a hike I feel a sense of kinship with everyone who had come this particular way before, often adding my own stone to the Ebenezer’s raised by fellow hikers and pilgrims before me. And increasingly I feel this kinship with all who have trekked up trails in their search for God: the desert father and mothers, the Spanish mystic John of the Cross, and John Muir, the preacher’s kid whose worship of God’s natural temple would led him to found the Sierra Club. For just this reason, I’m going (indoor) climbing with my sister Janel and my nephew Caden this afternoon.

There is a profound connection between physical exertion and spiritual ecstasy. We often have spiritual experiences at times of heightened physical pleasure or pain. It can happen when we experience bodily illness, physical suffering, or during the hard work of rehab; it can happen during physical training, athletic competition, and even during sex; it certainly happens during shared meals, like the one we will share today, and when we share the very real bread and juice at this table. Our encounters with Christ or experience of divine power is wrapped up with physical experience.

Now, our physical bodies are not simply empty receptacles into which spiritual stuff, the real stuff, is poured. Rather our physical bodies are the conduits for our spiritual life. For those of us who are struggling with limitations or illness, this does not always feel like a blessing. We may wish to be rid of our bodies, because they cause us pain, they stop us from doing what we want to do, they sometimes fail and betray us. But in saying that our physical bodies are the conduits for our spiritual life, I do NOT mean to say that poor health or injury is some kind of punishment. Or that fit, healthy people are somehow more spiritual. Rather it is simply to state the fact that as human beings we are embodied. We know through our bodies. And we can know all kinds of things. Some people have felt God’s closeness during pain, others God’s acute absence. Either way, our bodies matter.

In a few moments we are going to ordain a new class of ruling elders by laying hands upon them. Through this ritual, physical act, we connect ourselves spiritually with all who have been ordained before, from the time Jesus first laid hands upon Peter, or Elisha laid hands on Elisha, or Moses laid hands on Aaron and Joshua. The touch of these hands, conveying blessing and purpose across thousands of years, knits us together as one community across time and space.

And the voice of God speaks: here are my beloved children, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to them.

[1] Cited in Belden lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. (Oxford, 1998).

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