In the course of my life, I have moved around a lot. By the time I was in third grade, my family had lived in four different places. By the time I was ready to head to college, we had lived in three more. From college until now, I have lived in five more places. Having lived in so many new life situations, I have picked up a few tips about integrating into a new community. One of the most important things to remember is that you only have a few months’ permission to reference how your last community did something. So sentences that begin with, “At my old school…” or “At my last parish…” have a short lifespan. For the first few months, people will tolerate and maybe even enjoy these stories because they are a way of learning something about you – what you prefer, what gives you joy, and what you do not like. But the window for sharing this way does not last long. When you share in this way for too long, people begin to wonder if you are dwelling on the past, not letting go of your old life and actually joining them in this stage of life. When they hear you say, “In my last home town…” they now roll their eyes, thoroughly expecting you to tell them how perfect your life used to be and just how lame your – and consequently their – life must be now. Only after years and years of experience have I developed the keen sense of when the looks of interest and engagement have turned to eye-rolls of impatience.
Of course, this reality is true of every single church. The longer someone belongs to a church, the more often they can be found saying, “Well, when Father So-and-so was here, we used to…” Whether the experience was a beloved mission trip, a particularly meaningful spiritual event, or even the old softball team, those events become legend among a parish – and become a sort of measure or even icon of how good life can be in church. Anything new that happens is measured against this old, significant experience.
This habit can create all sorts of challenges. For those who lived through the experiences, they become something that we cling to as so good and holy that we cannot open ourselves to something new. In fact, nothing will ever match up to the memory because we have built up the memory so large in our minds that we probably block out anything negative about the older experience. This kind of habit is a challenge for newcomers too. Since the newcomers to church can never relive the event with us, they are forever excluded when someone starts telling these stories. Sure, they enjoy learning something about the parish through these stories, but eventually they come to see these stories as a reminder of how they are still new, never fully belonging to the group. Finally, the glorification of these old experiences tends to prevent us from lifting up the incredible experiences that are happening right here and now – hindering us from seeing the sacred experiences in our midst. And lest anyone think I am picking on the long-timers in church, know that no one is exempt from this tendency; I have even seen children and teenagers catch on to this practice.
This same very experience happens to Peter on the mountain today in Luke’s gospel. Tired and weary from an exhausting schedule, Peter, John, and James go up the mountain with Jesus to pray – and maybe even get a bit of rest. In this exhausted haze, they see the glorious transfiguration of Jesus and the appearance of Moses and Elijah. Blown away, Peter does the first thing that comes to mind – suggests they stay there, building dwelling places for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Surely something this incredible should be held on to and preserved, remembered and treasured. Peter’s idea is not inherently bad. Mountaintop experiences are blessed gifts from God, meant to be savored and enjoyed for years to come.
But what Peter reminds us today is that holding on to mountaintop experiences with a desperate clinging does not actually feed us forever. As one pastor reminds us, “if we build a booth to [those mountaintop experiences], erect a frame around them and enshrine them, we can end up worshiping those moments or memories or persons to the extent that they become a hindrance, a stumbling block or even idolatry – rather than unmerited gift from God and resource for service to others.”[i]
This is one of those lessons that keeps coming back to us. A few years ago, I was brought into a parish’s mission program to reform and revitalize the mission trips they had been taking to the Dominican Republic. I immediately recognized all sorts of missing components – preparation and formation before the trip; fundraising that brought others into the experience; and meaningful worship and reflection during the trip, just to name a few. I pulled from the myriad resources I had gathered from years of doing mission trips, including what I thought was a pretty dynamic daily worship liturgy – one through which I had had a few mountaintop experiences. So imagine my surprise when half-way through the week, one of the teens approached me and explained that the liturgy was not working. He wanted something a little more fresh, and had some suggestions if I was open. I winced, realizing how I had become Peter once again – building a booth around a liturgy, instead of noticing the new ways that the Spirit was moving on that trip.
We have choices about how we respond to the many mountaintop experiences of our lives. “We can ruin them with ‘if onlys’ (if only I could stay here longer; if only things would never change; if only I could relive that experience). We can reminisce about our experiences, caressing and massaging them as an excuse to disengage from the world. Or we can allow them to prepare us for what God calls us to do next.”[ii] We always have a choice.
The great thing about our gospel text is that the text gives us some clues about what Jesus wants the disciples to do with their mountaintop experience. The lectionary gives us the choice of ending the gospel lesson at the end of the Transfiguration event, cutting out the next seven verses of Luke’s gospel. But the story of the Transfiguration loses some of the story’s power if the story does not include the experience of coming down the mountain.[iii] The text tells us two things. First, the disciples keep silent about what they see. They do not run around boasting about the story or lingering there too long. Instead, they go back down the mountain and continue Jesus’ work of healing. This is the second thing the text tells us. Sometimes the best way to share our mountaintop experiences is not to rehash them, but to simply serve those who we encounter, our actions being the greatest way to multiply our mountaintop experience.
As we celebrate our fifty years of ministry in Plainview this year, our gospel lesson today challenges our patterns. Those moments of baptizing individuals in this building when the walls were not yet finished, of finally obtaining parish status, of bowling leagues, of Cursillo groups, of conquering dark times, and yes, even of welcoming our first female rector – those moments are not moments where we invited to linger today. Instead, as we look back at the last fifty years, we celebrate those moments not as “the good ol’ days,” but instead as the mountaintop experiences that keep pointing us back down the mountain. Those experiences remind us of times of great intimacy and joy so that we can continue to name the presence of the sacred in our midst at this moment, and the ways that we are being transfigured everyday. There will be moments, when like the disciples, we will need to keep silent about those times so that we can go down the mountain and let those moments manifest into the service of God in new and life-giving ways. Our invitation today is to come down the mountain, celebrating the ways that our mountaintop experiences enable us to see God right here and now. Amen.
[i] Phyllis Kersten, “Off the Mountain,” Christian Century, vol. 118, no. 5, February 7-14, 2001, 13.
[ii] Kersten, 13.
[iii] Lori Brandt Hale, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 456.