note bene: a major pillar of the congregation I serve, August “Augie” Petersen passed away this past week after a 2 year battle with stage 4 bone cancer. Augie was not only a member, but so are several of his family members. Everyone loved Augie and this death has hit the congregation hard. His passing was on my mind as I wrote my sermon this past week.
Mountaintop experiences are strange things, really. I’ve had a few myself and no matter how hard I try and make sense of them, usually they end up not making sense and I just rely on God instead (as I always should). That’s what’s happening in today’s reading: a mountaintop experience. Let’s back up a little bit. Maybe I should first define what I’m talking about as far as a “mountaintop experience.” We’ve all had one. In our reading today, the disciples are having one–literally. They literally travel to the top of the mountain. They went up there at the request of Jesus to pray and be alone. Then, some pretty crazy stuff happened at the top of the mountain. They saw Jesus change. They heard voices. Jesus glowed. Seriously….crazy stuff.
Usually with mountaintop experiences, they are life changing. I’ve had mountaintop experiences where I don’t want to come down from the mountain because things are so amazing at the mountaintop. I’ve also not wanted to come down from the mountaintop because I don’t want to face the “real world” waiting for me at the bottom. What inevitably follows a mountaintop experience is a valley and those can be tough to negotiate. I’ve been to 3 National Youth Gatherings with the ELCA (similar to what I’m taking our 4 youth to this summer) and that was a total mountaintop experience. I didn’t want to leave our locations because I was feeling so filled with the Holy Spirit and I didn’t want that to end. When I graduated from college and seminary, I felt like those were mountaintop experiences. When we finally realized we were pregnant with Ellen was a mountaintop experience. I hope you can see what I’m getting at and I hope you’re able to recognize a few mountaintop experiences in your own life.
I had a mountaintop experience this past week but with a different twist. See, I didn’t want to come back down from the mountain because I knew I would have to face reality and reality looked really ugly. Monday I was honored to sit around a big conference table at the West Wing nursing home as the Petersen family gathered to talk about Augie’s future. We sat in semi-comfortable board chairs that swivel waiting for the unknown. Farmers, for the record, prefer the chairs in combines and tractors to fancy gold boardroom chairs. The hospice social worker walked in and talked us through what hospice does. I was there to take notes, and be a support to the Petersen family. By the time the meeting was done, the decision had been made to place Augie into Hospice Care. And there it was–a mountaintop experience. I led the family in prayer and we got up to leave.
But I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to move out of my chair. I didn’t want to exit the room. I knew the Holy Spirit was in that room; I had felt it. I didn’t want to come down from the mountain into a valley where the idea that Augie and Hospice resided. I knew what that valley meant–death. So I know how Peter felt when he wanted to stay on that mountaintop with Jesus. “Let us make three dwellings” Peter says enthusiastically. “Let’s stay in this room–in these fancy chairs. We could stay here for a while. We could order pizza. Happy Joe’s isn’t that far away.” That’s what I thought but, of course, I didn’t say it. I got up and I left. Descending down the mountaintop I knew that I was headed down into a valley.
I felt something. I had felt something Holy and I wanted to hang onto it with every fiber of my being. I wanted to claw and grasp at it and claim it all as mine. The holiness that I encountered felt so good. It felt wonderful because it made me feel naive. Normally naive is a bad thing. But as long as I stayed in that room, on that mountaintop, I could pretend that I lived in the world where death doesn’t exist. Because even as someone with a lot of schooling and as someone who has read the Bible, and as someone who is supposed to be some sort of “religion expert” sometimes death still doesn’t make sense. And I knew that’s what was waiting for me in the valley.
I didn’t want to leave that mountaintop. I had a semi-transformative experience myself. I didn’t want to enter the valley of figurative and literal death. But I did, obviously. I entered into the valley, walked down the mountain just like those disciples. Except instead of Jesus telling us not to tell anyone, it’s almost as if we get a different message: go, and tell everyone what you’ve seen and heard. And if the darkness of the valley doesn’t seem like the most perfect place to talk about Jesus or to tell others about Jesus or to experience Jesus it actually is. The reason to talk about Jesus in the valley is because he’s already there when we come down from the mountaintop. He’s waiting for us, to comfort us, to be the light in a dark place. Christ does some of his best work in the valley.
It’s okay to be on the mountaintop. It’s an awesome thing to experience the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s work. But we eventually have to come back down from the mountain. I had to leave that boardroom. Whatever mountaintop experience you’ve had, you’ve also had to leave behind. What is good for us to remember is that Christ walks down that mountain with us. Christ is in the valley with us. Christ is always transforming us. And sure, you can try and avoid leaving the mountain but that means avoiding the risen Christ. It means avoiding seeing light in the valley. Avoiding the risen Christ means not being able to taste and see forgiveness in not only yourself but those around you. The way of Christ is the only way. But here’s the thing: “you can’t confess Jesus is the way unless you’re willing to confess you’re lost.” (John Caputo)
So, people of Christ, welcome. If you’re on the mountaintop, then welcome. If you’re on you’re way down the mountain, then welcome. If you’re in the valley, welcome. Welcome to the land of the lost. Welcome to the place where nothing, including death, makes sense. Nothing makes sense, that is, but Jesus. Jesus is the only thing that makes sense. And really, that’s pretty much the only thing we need to make sense.