Monday, March 3, 2014

Terror on the Mountain
(How to Need a Miracle for Lent)

Homily for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, preached at Trinity Episcopal Church, Wauwatosa, and St. Francis House. March 2, 2014.

[Good morning! It’s wonderful to be with you. My name is Jonathan Melton. I am the the Chaplain at St. Francis House, the Episcopal student ministry at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. UW-Madison, whose notable alumni include Frank Lloyd Wright, Ron Dayne, Olympian Suzy Hamilton, Pulitzer prize winner Eudora Welty, film maker Errol Morris, and - squarely on the list - Kyle and Kristin Oliver. Other Badgers - raise your hands. Y'all look around. 

Shady characters, I know. And what a joy for St. Francis House to share with Trinity a legacy like this one. 

True fact: Joanne Oliver, Kyle’s mother, and Jill Paradowski were the very first first people to show up at the newly opened St. Francis House, ready to lend some order - some much-needed TLC - to the heart of any campus ministry: the kitchen. Joanne and Jill spent a full day sorting through and organizing our new kitchen. I am also particularly grateful for the friendship of your Rector, Father Gary, who has been a good friend and encouragement to me in my year and a half now as Chaplain. So it’s good to be here, worshiping the living God with you this morning and, being with you, to be among friends.]

We Episcopalians are a scripted people. A Captain Obvious thing to say, perhaps, but it is easy to forget the uniqueness of one’s own tradition. It’s not everywhere the way it is here, and that’s good to remember. But we Episcopalians are scripted: we like our prayers in books and our liturgies in our hands, out in plain view, where we can read the prayers closely and the worship can be kept honest. Don’t let God sneak anything by you. If we were playing the Family Feud with friends and the question or clue was “Denominations most comfortable with ad libs in worship,” Episcopalians probably don’t make the top five. This isn’t good or bad; it just is. At our best, we embrace this. There is wisdom in the script. And this Sunday in particular has its own special script; and the script for this Sunday goes something like this: 

(Help me fill it out.) Today is the Sunday that belongs to the week of this Wednesday. This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, which means 1) we’ll all eat too much this coming Tuesday, and 2) next Sunday is the first Sunday of Lent. Because next Sunday is the first Sunday of Lent, this Sunday - by definition - is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, at which the Gospel of the Transfiguration is always read: Jesus transfigured on the mountain. 

Transfiguration, according to the script, gives us a light, a picture, to hold onto as we prepare for the darkness of Lent. One last vision to remember before we hit the wilderness. When Jesus on the mountain is revealed as Jesus really is, we are meant to find in the vision courage and strength for the pilgrim journey that will take us to the cross and, in God’s good time, to the glorious light of that first Easter dawn. So today’s episode with Peter, James, and John on the mountain with Jesus both anticipates the Easter light and braces us for Lent. Don’t be afraid of what you’ll see in days ahead, says the gospel; you already know who Jesus really is.

In keeping with the script, a few minutes ago we asked in the collect that God would “Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross.” That’s the script in a nutshell: we behold this light and are strengthened to bear our cross. Behold the light. Be strengthened to bear. Behold and be strengthened.

It’s not unlike the practice this time of year of looking back at pictures of yourself from better times last summer. Pictures of you in your t-shirts, with shorts, surrounded by sunlight and this mythical green vegetation that, as you look out the window today, you think can’t possibly be true. And these pictures aren’t from far-off places like Florida; you look at the picture, and it’s here. Your own home. The one right now covered in snow. Like a dream. But it is true. The picture’s in your hand. And so you know what the future will hold, despite all present evidence. Look back at the light. Be strengthened to bear. That’s the familiar script.

It’s not a bad script. The wisdom of the script is its anticipation of Easter. Anticipating Easter is what Christians are about, especially as we enter the season of Lent. God forbid we take on the disciplines of Lent as projects in self-improvement, as apart from the eager longing for the “Alleluia!” shout of Easter morning.

Still, the script is misleading, I think, in one crucial respect. The shortcoming of the script that says you will be strengthened for the valley by the glory of the mountaintop is that this script doesn’t know what to do with my mother-in-law. My mother-in-law hates mountaintops. My father, too, is afraid of heights - really of anything more that about ten feet high. And, let’s be honest, you’re not here, living in Wisconsin, because you love climbing mountains, either. One time, in the Badlands of South Dakota - a far cry from mountains - a hike-gone-wrong left me prematurely reflecting on mortality and the limits of my very bodied self as some combination of ash and ground slipped out from under my feet, and I grasped for anything - root, rock, or vegetable - that might allow me simply not to fall. Forget finding level ground again. I’d given up all hope of that. I’d settle for “not falling to my death.” I will hold onto this root forever. Collapse me to the soil, where gravity’s effects are less a matter of negotiation. 

That’s just to say that mountaintops don’t always inspire. Mountaintops can be treacherous places. And because mountaintops can be treacherous places - hard to get to places - mountaintops can be lonely places. Mountaintops can be frightening. One unexpected surprise can send you reeling. 

The disciples in our gospel know these things about the mountaintop. The glorious, so-called mountaintop experience in Matthew’s gospel leaves the disciples convulsing face-first in the dirt, cowering on the ground in fear. Sure, the surprise appearances of Moses and Elijah had been impressive, but the disciples quickly transition from impressed to confused when Jesus rolls his eyes at Peter’s ill-conceived capital campaign suggestion. Then the Sunday school celebrities disappear. It’s just Jesus and the cloud. The terrible cloud. And that voice, raining down. And there’s no one else to hear. That’s when they lose their composure for good. They’re alone on the ground, and they’re terrified.

And indeed, this isn’t the first time God’s glory on a mountain has proved too terrible. Moses, on Mount Sinai, came down with the law, glowing like a lightning bug, and the people were afraid, not comforted. The glory was too great. They asked him to hide his face, and he did. 

Seeing the terror of the disciples and remembering Moses and the people, it occurs to us that maybe comfort or strength has never been the mountaintop’s intent. Rather, the terror of the mountaintop stands as a reminder that the living and life-giving God is not the disciples’ possession to control. We see this same tension earlier, just a chapter before, when Peter calls Jesus the Messiah of God, only to be reprimanded seconds later for forbidding the death of the Messiah of God. While we can understand the love that motivates Peter’s outburst, we realize, too, that Peter’s objection has revealed his own unnamed expectations for who, in Peter's life, God is allowed to be. 

And I wonder what ideas you have for who God, in your life, is allowed to be.

Read in light of Peter’s earlier confession, the mountaintop, at least, marks progress. For example, when Peter makes his bizarre offer to build three booths, he adds in Matthew’s gospel, “if you wish,” as if to say, while he still thinks his own ideas are pretty darn good, he’s beginning to see the place of the prayer, “Not my will, but thine be done.” The more Peter learns about the Messiah of God, the less he presumes to know about the Messiah of God. And there’s a loneliness, a disconnect, that enters his relationship with God.

Maybe, then, the mountaintop is not the glorious and inspiring counter to the ghastliness of Lent that we first thought it was. Maybe, instead, the mountaintop is the very thing that makes Lent possible. Maybe the mountaintop is where the disciples learn to let God be the terrifying God they cannot control, even the God who will die for them and the world on the cross. In any case, now the disciples have died to themselves. In the presence of the God they cannot control, they are lost without hope, buried in the dust of the mountain. That’s when the miracle happens.

Jesus comes over to his friends and touches them. “Get up,” he says, but the Greek is better put “be raised.” “Be raised and do not be afraid.” Nearness to God had shown the disciples that they did not really know who God was. But Christ now shows them that not fully knowing who God is is not as crucial as their being known, their being touched, by the living God. Be raised and be not afraid! These are words for the mountaintop. These are words for surrender. These are words for life’s treacherous, lonely, and hard to get to places. Places where the vision of God has buried you in the dirt.

I wonder if you’ve known a mountaintop like that. I wonder if you are on one now.  

“While Peter 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 (be raised) and do not be afraid.’”

O, believer! Do you know that Jesus still comes and touches his disciples?


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