The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley
Summer seems a perfect time for “mountaintop experiences”. When I served in West Virginia several of our young people attended the Diocesan Camp. I knew they would have the time of their lives. Peterkin, like the Barbara C. Harris Camp here in the Diocese of Massachusetts, was a great place to be. There would be time to make friends, a plethora of opportunities to be outside, swimming, hiking, campfires with the requisite silly songs and smores as well as fantastic worship. I confess, I sent these kids off with a mixture of happiness for them and chagrin at what would I knew would transpire once they descended from the mountain and returned home. When the glow had worn off I’d be visited with the following remarks: “Why can’t church always be this way?” They had ascended the mountain (true enough—after all, this was West Virginia), and had now descended into the valley and determined that the valley had a lot left to be desired.
Mountains rise up from the plains of our lives and invite us to majesty, wonder and awe. If you think about it, this makes sense. Stand upon a mountain and behold, you have achieved perspective—the vista of hills and valleys below lends a panoramic view that is elusive to those on the ground beneath. The truth is, we need these types of experiences. They give meaning to the tableau of our lives. A view from the mountaintop can change your way of seeing the world as well as your place in it. Ultimately, a “mountaintop experience” holds within itself the possibility to transform you.
Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord. In the lesson for this morning Jesus, along with Peter, John and James ascend to the mountaintop for prayer. It is a time away from the increasing demands of the world. While our Savior is praying, he is transfigured. The face of Jesus changes and his clothes become dazzling white. And, suddenly, there appears with him Moses and Elijah. The three begin speaking of his departure (a rather elegant way to talk of crucifixion), which Jesus was to accomplish at Jerusalem. We, the listeners, gather that what we are witnessing is intended to be something of a private conversation because the Gospel tells us that 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 them.”
The Transfiguration, then, is a glimpse—it’s a moment of insight not only as to the person of Jesus, but also his mission. It is a snapshot of a larger reality which, in the experience of every day, lies just beyond our limit of sight.
The Transfiguration is recounted in three of the four gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. In Matthew and Mark, what follows the transfiguration is a theological dialogue about Elijah. Luke allots no time for this. What follows the mountaintop experience of the Transfiguration in his gospel is an urgent summons to a healing: “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child…”
In truth, I prefer Luke’s version of events to Matthew and Mark. Why? Well, because it smacks of reality. Here, the mountaintop experience of Jesus, James, John and Peter is interrupted by the pressing need of a father who loves his son. And what does Jesus do? He heals the child and gives him back to his father. And (the Gospel tells us) “All were astounded at the greatness of God.”
Here’s the thing about mountaintop experiences. They are fleeting. That is their nature. We need them, certainly, but we don’t need them all the time. Why? Because life is lived in the trenches, not on the peak. The climb to the mountaintop is an exercise in gaining two vital things: perspective and strength—it’s a necessary accompaniment to the work we do in the world.
You may ask: How do we achieve perspective and strength for our ministry in the world? One way, I suppose is to take time out; head to the beach, a lakeside lodge or a mountain retreat—or, if you’re a young person—to camp. But these times of rest and refreshment are fleeting and all too few. With months or years in between experiences such as these—what do we do to get through the week-to-week slog of life? Here’s a thought. We worship. Worship is meant to be a time of reflection, immersion, companionship and prayer. Not solely for its own sake, but so that we might be strengthened to embrace our callings in the world and respond to the needs which surround us—and do so with renewed energy, confidence and determination.
Worship can be the place where we hear God’s voice, where we focus on the nature of grace as we experience it in the cross. This is the place where we meet one another in prayer and song, and where we leave with a renewed sense of fulfilling our unique purpose in the world. Worship, one hopes, can be a weekly experience of gaining perspective and finding oneself renewed.
Pastor David Lose writes: “A number of years ago a young couple that was relatively new to the church I was serving explained to me how important church had become for them. Whenever one of them could not make it—if, for instance, one of their children was sick—they’d do a quick two-minute drill to check in on the week they’d just been through and the week about to come to determine, as they said, “who needed church more.” “Church is what helps us make sense of our lives, they explained, “it’s that pick-me-up that connects us with God and our calling and sends us back into the week.”
Now, as to why worship each week can’t be like Peterkin. Well, in some ways, it can. While we can’t match the grandeur of actually standing on a mountaintop—and alas, there is no campfire in the sanctuary, there is the opportunity for awe and wonder in this place as well. What it takes is a willingness to reach for the mystery in the midst of the ordinary. To listen for that note in the music that has the capacity to lift the heart, to hear a word of grace in an otherwise plodding sermon that helps us to makes sense in our lives; to experience grace in a moment of touching hands while sharing the peace or receiving the Eucharist. Mystery, awe and wonder are here, in this place, just as they are on the mountaintop. Ask yourself what it is that you need to experience in worship to make this a time for gaining perspective and an opportunity for renewal. Ask God for this, and see if the week ahead isn’t just a bit more joyful in return. In Jesus’ name. Amen.