Sermon by Rev. Bethany Ruhl, our 2018 Martha Stearns Marshall preacher.
Cover art by Armando Alemdar Ara: La Transfiguration.
Coming Off The Mountaintop: Learning to Witness What Is Hidden in Plain Sight
Tell me, what is it in your soul that is longing to be born? We are about to enter into Lent now, a chilly winter season of wilderness and wandering. So, tell me, during this season of gestation and revelation, what is it that is forming in the decaying leaves of your soul, soaking up their nutrients and dreaming of spring when they will burst forth into life? What buds are chilling underneath the snow of your spirit? What are the fields of your life that need tilling and tending? And which are the areas that are most fertile? Tell me, who is it that will accompany you during this season of birth giving and blossoming?
Author Margaret Guenther writes about a mysterious figure she names only as the Appalachian Granny Woman. She is the archetypal midwife figure who has all but disappeared from the horizons of our modern life. Described as wisdom embodied, she is resourceful and experienced. Guenther tells us that the Appalachian Granny Woman “assists at the births of babies at cottages and shacks that are hard to reach.”. But what are we to do today with the remote shacks and villages of our own souls?—Those places of spiritual impoverishment where the wind howls and there are broken branches strewn throughout the path. Maybe there are places in our souls that lay in ruin, or maybe that there are places so hidden away that the light can’t get in to wash away the shame. Maybe there are places that are painful to touch or tread upon. Perhaps there are places so difficult to get to that we must climb over mountains and back down the other side, which is the most difficult part of the journey. Who is it that will help us navigate these harsh landscapes and wildernesses of the soul when figures like the Appalachian Granny Woman have all but disappeared?
My friends, in the face of such wilderness experiences, it is easy to give way to fear and defeatist thinking. In fact, our text from today tells us that the disciples were taken in by fear during their journey into the wilderness with Jesus. They had just gone over what was a very treacherous landscape, when suddenly Jesus burst into light and was transfigured before them. Now I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t quite know what to say either if this happened to one of my friends while we were on a journey together. The disciples seem both dumbstruck and awestruck at the same time.
Finally, Peter realizes that they are having one of these so-called mountaintop experiences, so he manages to mumble to Jesus “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He knows that they are experiencing a very sacred moment, and he wants to stay there and live forever. But friends, we all know that this is not where the story ends. Life is not a pie in the sky happy mountain top experience all of the time. In fact, much of what it means to be human is journeying through the muck and the mire of life, still convinced that God’s unconditional love will help us and redeem us, perhaps in the places where we stumble and falter most of all. The most difficult part of the wilderness is the journey back down from the mountaintop and into the daily realities of everyday life.
Sometimes I think that the church can be a mountaintop experience. We come here every week to be safe, to hear messages that make us feel good and to be around people who are just like us, but friends this keeps us from acknowledging the pain that others face that is hidden right in front of us, and sometimes it is even a way for us to distract ourselves from the pain in our own lives.
Friends, Lent is a journey into the wilderness of our souls and the wilderness of the world towards the passion and suffering of Jesus Christ, BUT it is also a journey towards God’s ultimately redemptive and unconditional love for the world, but how is it that we are supposed to make it back down the mountaintop and into the world, in search of this ultimately redeeming love?
At one point or another in our lives, it becomes clear that in order to find wisdom as a community that we must go on a journey. However, journeying into the spiritual wilderness is not something to be done alone, and we must be very careful and discerning about whom we choose to accompany and companion us on this journey. I am a firm believer in the statement that “When the students are ready, a teacher will appear.”. This has happened many times over in my own life, so how is it that we can begin to notice these things that are hidden right in front of us, whether it is a homeless person on the street experiencing injustice, or a side of our own souls that needs some tilling and tending?
Guenther argues that to successfully navigate this season of wilderness that we must learn to reclaim the wisdom of the elders of the community. Now oftentimes elders are people who are advanced in age, but sometimes they are younger people too who have much to teach us. Guenther says that we must listen to these elders because they are the best midwives when it comes to the art of soul-making and community making, bringing the new life in our communities fully to term. It is they who will lead us towards the love of Christ. How might we go about seeking some of these wise people in the modern world? Who is it that will become our spiritual grandmothers and grandfathers on this journey?
You know, the disciples were probably leading very ordinary, safe and privileged lives until Jesus showed up. Going about their daily lives was probably nothing special, but it was also probably devoid of a deeper meaning and purpose, but God knew it was time for them to go on a journey, but friends, in my opinion, the turning point of the story is not when Jesus is transfigured before them. They already know that he is somebody very special, but to me the story begins when they take their first tentative steps down the mountaintop and into the world.
Have you ever been outside hiking and started down a particularly steep slope? It takes much effort and concentration not to slip on the mud or step on an unstable rock. I bet that some of you can identify with aches and pains in your knees as going back down from a mountain or hill puts more strain on the knees going down than it does climbing up.
Seeking wisdom as a community is certainly a journey, but Guenther tells us that it is impossible to make this journey without faith and without guides to point us in the right direction as Jesus did today with the disciples. Guenther tells us, “If the journey goes on for long enough, you will need the care of a host, someone who offers a temporary home as a place of rest and refreshment.” We all need those places of safety and respite in our lives. So tell me, who are those people in your life and in this community who offer you rest and refreshment? Perhaps these people are folks from your church family, maybe it is the administrative assistant where you work or maybe it is a trusted mentor. Maybe it is even the person who cleans the toilets. (In my experience, the people who clean and take out the garbage have much wisdom and hope to offer to us, even during the very dark seasons of our life, if we are just willing to stop and listen.)
So I invite you to picture who this wise person is for you in your own mind, and I invite you now to set the intention to seek them out sometime this week. After all, we must make a deliberate effort to seek out hope and peace during this darker winter season because as Jesus promised the disciples, even greater glory is awaiting us if we are willing to join together as a community of Christ and follow him. We must simply look for the hidden signs and find companions for they journey.
So whether we are visiting the wildernesses of our souls or the wildernesses of our own communities, our barren wastelands, we must find places of shelter along the way, otherwise we may be eaten up by the psychic elemental forces of the wilderness, rather than being able to transform these psychic elements into a fertile field for the soul and the wider community. Guenther writes, “Even the most self-sufficient among us cannot escape this need for hospitality. In the harsh circumstances of the desert or the frontier, hospitality offers more than just comfort, it also ensures physical survival.” As with any journey, it is important to plan for places of shelter along the way for your personal safety and the safety of the community.
So as you plan your wilderness journey of Lent over the next few weeks, I in invite you to name 2-3 places where you will receive rest and refreshment, whether it be on a physical, mental, emotional, spiritual or soul level. I invite you to plan this part of your journey for the next few months with the same care that Jesus took while he was calling his disciples to make the journey back down the mountaintop.
Once we have set up camp in the wilderness of our souls, Guenther tells us that it is time to begin doing the work of spiritual housecleaning. It is time to start rummaging through the garbage of the soul AND of the community and putting things back in order. In order to find peace and wisdom, Guenther says we must feel a deep sense of safety and homecoming so that we can begin to sort and sift through our spiritual junk when we make this journey deep within our souls and deep within the confines of our community. Which pieces of our personal history or doctrine do we need to throw out, which are the pieces that have not been used for ages?
Who are the people amongst us who are the hidden treasures? And which pieces are the hidden treasures of our community which needs to be repurposed and maybe even reborn? It is when our spiritual companions bring us back to this sense of safety and homecoming that we will find the inner wisdom and peace that the season of Epiphany promises to us by doing our own spiritual and community housecleaning.
So friends, in order to find the Lenten wisdom that awaits us on the other side of the mountain, we must first find a guide for the journey community, we must pitch a tent in this wilderness with our guide, or the angels among us, and finally, when we are safe from the elemental forces of our psyche, or maybe even internal sources of anxiety, fear or oppression, we must begin the process of housecleaning the soul AND our community and finally, rebirthing it into something new and fruitful on the other side of the mountaintop.
Change can be really hard and really scary, but it is only through change and spiritual housecleaning that we can remain vital, alive and spiritually relevant in today’s world. Now I am not asking you to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As I mentioned before, many of our most treasured parts of our faith or practices in our community that we hold dear are still incredibly useful and valuable. We just need to decide what we are willing to discard or part with to keep moving forward as a community in order to journey down the other side of the mountain towards God’s justice and unconditional love. The glorious community of Christ is there waiting for you because God knows each and every one of you by name and wants to be in relationship with you, but he also wants us to be together in relationship with EACH OTHER as a community. The journey awaits and so does the guide, but it is you who must take the first step during the season of Lent, along with your trusted spiritual elders, towards the peace of Christ, rebirth and the reclaiming of your souls and of your community. Amen.