Leaving the Mountaintop

Epiphany Last, Year C

February 7, 2016

St. Thomas, Newark, DE

Good morning, St. Thomas! I am so thrilled to be here this morning, and I would like to thank Father Paul for lending me this pulpit. I guess the first thing to know about me is that Father Paul knew me when I was 14 years old — more than half my life ago — and still asked me to come preach to you all this morning, so he is a good and trusting man, and sees potential in teenagers who are  … I’ll say precocious.

I actually knew about St. Thomas before Father Paul even got here because my older cousin was a student at the University of Delaware. She is someone who would self-identify as “not into church,” but once she told my “very into church” mother that she would come to dinner here on Wednesday nights when she was feeling low and she would always leave feeling better. She said, “I’m still not a church person, Aunt Nancy, but I’m glad that it’s there.” So I have known for a long time that you are a very welcoming church and thank you for having me today.

Let’s talk about Moses. I am having so much fun picturing Moses this morning, trudging down that steep mountain lugging two tablets. And he doesn’t even know it, but the skin on his face is shining. It’s shining so intensely that it’s scaring his friends. And his face is shining this way because he had been talking with God.

I think we’re all familiar with the idea of having a “certain glow.” Sometimes you can tell if people are drinking enough water and taking care of themselves, because they have a bit of extra shine to them. “Oh, you’re positively glowing,” is something you maybe don’t hear as often as I’d like.

But have you ever, in all your days, been glowing this intensely?

Have you ever been up to a mountaintop that transformative? The effect of this mountaintop and his talking with God was so great on Moses, the shining on his skin so obvious, that the story tells us he developed a system of covering his face with a veil.

Why did he do that? Maybe his skin was so bright he was hard to look at directly, like a solar eclipse. Or maybe Moses was shy, maybe he didn’t want to get a lot of stares as he walked along the street. Whatever it was, it’s kind of a curious image isn’t it? If you really think about it, you might realize it’s not typical to see a man in a veil. We think of women: in wedding veils, or religious veils, or even high fashion hats with delicate veils; but a man in a veil subverts our expectations. It’s a bit topsy-turvy.

Jesus goes to a mountaintop, too, and just like Moses, Jesus starts glowing. What is with all these mountaintops? What’s going on up there?

Jesus has taken his disciples Peter, John, and James up to the mountaintop to pray when his glowing starts happening, and Moses and Elijah appear — prophets whom we know to be long dead at this point. Again, it’s topsy-turvy. It’s not what the disciples expect. But it is so dazzling to them — what does Peter suggest?

“Master, it is good for us to be here,” he says. “Let’s build three little houses and stay here forever!” That’s basically what he says.

In the bible, we have different locales that come up over and over again. There is the mountaintop. Moses goes up that mountain so many times. And if you know the end of his story, you know it has a poignant ending. Moses goes up the mountaintop one last time and glimpses the promised land, before he dies. He never quite makes it there. We can remember it every time we think of Martin Luther King, Jr. who said “I’ve been to the mountaintop” in his last public speech before he was killed. He, too, glimpsed the promised land. But have we made it there yet? I think, not quite.

I think when our water is poisoned with lead in Flint, Michigan,

I think when children of color are disproportionately affected by gun violence,

I think when our prison system upholds our nation’s history of clinging to white supremacy,

I think we are not quite at the promised land.

Jesus goes to the mountaintop to pray, too, where he, too, like Moses, starts glowing. The church word for today is, of course, Transfiguration, a word that has kind of been taken over by Harry Potter in our current culture, but which means a metamorphosis. And, yes, it’s magical. But it’s also physical. A physical change. Your very own figure, your face, your body, in transition. Glimpsing God. Glimpsing the promised land. Not there yet. But you are changed.

So there are mountaintops in the bible, but there are also vineyards where we toil, and seas where we fish and walk across them and part them, and then there are wildernesses, where we are alone. Hagar and Ishmael make their way in the wilderness. Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness. And these wildernesses lie on the edges always waiting to lure us into them. The wilderness is creeping its way in today, on this last Sunday before the season of Lent begins, the season we are all in the wilderness together.

Do you feel like Peter? It’s good for us to be here! On the mountaintop! Let’s build our houses here and stay forever!

I’m thinking about my cousin who came to St. Thomas seeking comfort. It’s a natural impulse, it’s a good thing to seek from church. A cozy house up on the mountaintop where we are with God. Where we are all glowing. Where we don’t have to look out upon the wilderness but can tip our eyes over to the promised land.

But God’s plan for us, my friends, is not always comfort. God, instead, gives us change. God gives us transfiguration. And it’s not always totally comfortable. We might be tempted, like Moses, to search for a veil.

I work at a church called St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn, NY and it is affectionately known as a “dinner church.” I tell that to people and a lot of times they will say, is that like a dinner theater?

There is dinner, yes, but it’s, in fact, very different from a dinner theater — where you buy a ticket and eat a meal that is served to you and you take in a show. Dinner church is about making church together — cooking the meal, setting the tables, eating across the table from someone you might never sit across from otherwise. Cleaning up together, and going out into the world, changed.

It’s what we do every week at “quote, un-quote” normal church, non-dinner church. It’s what you do at St. Thomas when you come up for communion and reach out your hands for that bit of bread and sip of wine. But at St. Lydia’s, the symbols for things and the things themselves get flattened, the distance between symbol and what you can touch and smell — steaming plates of food and crusty bread that rips in half and lies warm in your hand — the symbols become real.

This is a transfiguring way to do church for so many people who have otherwise felt pushed away — for whatever reason — from the circle around the altar of a church-y church. And it’s not always easy. Sometimes you find yourself at a table that’s not very comfortable. Think about being at a dinner party where truly everyone is welcome. Not just people who live on the fringes but also maybe Donald Trump. Maybe you’re at table with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Perhaps not the most pleasant meal of your life.  But the idea is that, whatever happens at dinner church, you will leave changed.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? When we come to the mountaintop–when we come together in worship and prayer hoping to glimpse a bit of God, hoping to get that extra glow, we are changed and then we always have to leave. We can never build our little houses directly on the mountaintop. We can keep coming back, but we keep having to leave.

I’m here to tell you today that this is a good thing. Sometimes, we will go out into wildernesses that are waiting for us, and it’s scary. But God gives us everything we need on the mountaintop to survive them. God gives us what we need to do the work in the wilderness. The work of change — the work of transfiguration. And one day, my friends, what will wait for us when we come down the mountaintop will not be the wilderness. It will be the promised land. AMEN.


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