Sunday, March 02, 2014

Here on St. Paul's Mountain

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
March 2, 2014

Year A: The Last Sunday after Epiphany
Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 84
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

Here On St. Paul’s Mountain
            This past Wednesday night I had my first meeting with a couple whose wedding I’m going to officiate in a few months.
            Usually meeting an engaged couple is a wonderful experience – and this was no exception.
            It’s always joyful and inspiring to be with two people who are in the midst of the mountaintop experiences of falling in love and deciding to make a lifelong commitment to each other.
            When I meet with a couple for the first time, I try to learn about them – about their families, their backgrounds, what they love about each other, and how God fits into their lives and the love that they share.
            On Wednesday night, when talking about his faith, the groom mentioned that he had attended a Catholic high school out in the suburbs.
            I told him that I am an alumnus of St. Peter’s Prep – which happens to be a sports rival of the school that he went to.
            Suddenly there was tension in the room. He looked nervously at his fiancée. Quickly, I assured him that I would still do the wedding and we could still be friends. And then he said something that surprised me.
            He said that his high school wasn’t particularly religious.
            That surprised me because St. Peter’s Prep was and still is a religious school. His remark surprised me and made me a little sad because it was at St. Peter’s Prep that I really began to think seriously about God, about Jesus, about my faith and my doubts. It was at St. Peter’s Prep that I began to wonder what God’s call to me might look like.
            The highlight of that time was the retreat I went on in junior year. Then, as now, the retreats are called “Emmaus.” (At Prep for some reason they pronounce it EM-OWSE rather than EM-AY-US like the rest of the world.) The name comes from the story in Luke’s gospel of Jesus appearing to the disciples on the road on Easter Day.
            The retreat was held in a rambling, old yellow Victorian house owned by the Jesuits in Sea Bright, right on Ocean Avenue just across the seawall from the beach and the Atlantic.
            During those couple of days some of my fellow classmates and I along with a few upperclassmen and adult leaders, really reflected on God’s place in our lives. There was powerful sharing about hard experiences that some of us had – the deaths of family members, broken relationships, absent or over-demanding parents, and so on.
            It was intense and powerful and moving.
            It was a mountaintop experience right there at sea level.
            And then, those few days of retreat were over and we had to go back to our lives. We tried to hold on to the experience by wearing our Emmaus crosses around school but the grace of those few days faded as we came down the mountain to the less than holy challenges of Pre-Calculus and trying to get a date for the prom.
            I hope that you’ve had a mountaintop experience or two in your life. They don’t have to be especially religious or church-related. Like the couple I met this week, it could be the experience of falling in love, finding “the one” and making a lifelong commitment. It could be holding your child in your arms for the first time. It could be reconnecting with an old friend. It could be getting that promotion at work or just knowing that you’re good at what you do. It could be asking forgiveness and receiving it. It could be forgiving someone, letting go of an old hurt.
            The Bible, of course, is full of often quite literal mountaintop experiences. We heard about two of them today: Moses on Mount Sinai and, in today’s gospel lesson, the story of the Transfiguration. Jesus and his “inner circle” of apostles, Peter, James and John are up on the mountain when suddenly we’re told that Jesus is “transfigured before them and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
            That would be enough to qualify as a mountaintop experience but then Moses and Elijah appear beside Jesus. Most commentators think that Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents the Prophets. And there were old traditions that both Moses and Elijah hadn’t died but had been taken up into heaven.
            And then, finally, there’s one last great epiphany. The voice of God speaks, echoing the words heard at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.”
            On the mountain at the Transfiguration, Jesus and the apostles are given a sneak preview of the Resurrection. They are given a glimpse of heaven.
            And then, it was over. Peter wants to memorialize the event by building a shrine but it was over.
            It was time to come down off the mountain.
            And we know – and Jesus knew - what awaits Jesus once he comes off the mountain – betrayal, arrest, mockery, blood, pain, and death.
            I like to think that through those hard days ahead when all hope seemed to be lost, Jesus and the apostles managed to hold on even just a little to their mountaintop experience.
            I like to think that even surrounded by despair and death, they managed to remember Moses and Elijah and most of all the voice of God recognizing Jesus and telling the apostles to listen to him.
            And then, finally the sneak preview of Resurrection and glimpse of heaven they received on the mountain comes into full, glorious view on Easter morning when Jesus’ tomb is empty - when love defeats death once and for all.
            Easter – Resurrection - is the ultimate mountaintop experience.
            Although we may not think of it this way, each Sunday here in church we get to have a mountaintop experience.
            Here on St. Paul’s Mountain we are hopefully able even for just a few minutes to set aside the burdens and worries of our lives.
            Here on St. Paul’s Mountain we can hear the voice of God, can experience God’s unconditional love, we can get a sneak preview of Resurrection and a glimpse of heaven.
            Here on St. Paul’s Mountain we meet Jesus in Scripture, in one another and most especially in the Bread and Wine.
            And then, each week it’s over.
            And then, we come down off the mountain and face all the trials, challenges, and fears of our lives – many of them much more frightening than Pre-Calculus, more challenging than finding a date for the prom.
            But, like Jesus and the apostles, we can hold on, at least a little, to our mountaintop experiences – we can remember what we experience here on St. Paul’s Mountain and carry it with us through our week and our lives.
            And I know that’s possible because of that retreat I went on back in high school. That was just about thirty years ago now, and yet over the years when I’ve lost my way or been frightened I still draw on that experience in the rambling, yellow Victorian house in Sea Bright.
            And, to this day, my Emmaus cross sits on my desk reminding me of my long ago mountaintop experience at sea level.
            Now, we’re here having our own mountaintop experience.
            In the words of St. Peter, “It is good for us to be here.”