Life Between the Mountaintops

Sermon Preached February 19, 2012                                        
TransfigurationSunday at St. Mark's                                                            

When you are standing on a mountain it is easy to see where you’ve been. You can see the end of the trail emerging through the woods or the rocks. Maybe you can see the lake at the base of the mountain where you left your car or your bike. You can look out and see the horizon – perhaps a small town in the distance – or if you are a fan of Acadia National Park – the vast ocean before you. If it was a particularly arduous journey up the mountain, you might even think back on all that you’ve done and endured to prepare yourself for this moment on the mountain – the blisters on your feet as you were breaking in the new hiking boots, the hours spent studying trail maps to pick just the right route up the mountain for your skill level, the shopping expedition – for protein bars, water bottles, sunscreen, bug spray, binoculars. Yes, from the top of the mountain, all that you’ve done to prepare for this moment comes into view – it is easy to see where you’ve been.
When you are standing on a mountain it seems easy to see where you’re going as well. Maybe you’ll take a different path down the mountain; perhaps you’ve met some fellow hikers on the mountaintop who will accompany you on the rest of your journey. You are in good spirits because you have accomplished what you’ve set out to do – you’ve arrived on the mountain and are now ready to head home. As you begin the trip down the mountain, you begin to notice some things you hadn’t noticed on the way up – or at least things that you were able to put out of your mind because you had an exciting goal in mind – the summit. You notice that your knees and hips are a bit sore, your back aches from carrying a pack filled with a few more things than you really needed, you notice that despite the sunscreen and bug-spray, you’ve gotten sunburned and are covered in bites. As time passes, it is easy to forget the mountaintop, easy to forget the exhilaration, the thrill of the great accomplishment – all forgotten as you realize that you’ve got blisters – again!
That mountaintop experience, it turns out, is as elusive as it is short lived. One cannot remain on the mountaintop indefinitely and when one leaves the mountain, the memory of the moment never fully satisfies. If only we could stay on the mountain forever.
In today’s gospel reading, Peter, James, and John accompany Jesus up the mountain. When they arrive, we can perhaps imagine them resting a while, discussing the amazing things they have experienced together in such a short period of time. “Just think about it,” Peter perhaps says to James and John, “Just a few weeks ago we were trying to make a living as fishermen and now, here we are, following a man who can heal the sick and cast out demons. Unbelievable.” Maybe James or John asks, “Peter, do you really think he could be the One, the Messiah?”
We don’t know what conversations they had or what thoughts were running through their minds. But Scripture tells us that they are here now on the mountaintop with Jesus when suddenly Jesus “was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”  Then, Peter, James, and John witness the unimaginable, Moses – the great liberator and lawgiver – and Elijah – the great prophet who dared to speak truth to powerful kings - standing right there, talking to Jesus.[1]  Peter – not having packed his camera for the trip –says 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.’”[2] Let’s capture this moment. Let’s build monuments. Let’s find a way to make it permanent in our memories.
If only they could stay on the mountain forever.
But they cannot – nor can we. This Sunday – Transfiguration Sunday – stands as a peak between the incarnation – Christmas – and the resurrection – Easter. We look back and perhaps think about the baby lying in the manager, we remember his baptism at the Jordan and the words of the voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[3] Like Peter, James and John, we remember the call of the disciples; we remember the remarkable healings. Because today, we stand on the mountain and take stock of what has happened. But while we are up on the mountain, we can also look forward. Unlike those first disciples, you and I have a unique vantage point toward the future as we stand here on this mountain. We can see Easter - the empty tomb, the resurrection, and the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples.
Christmas, Transfiguration, Easter – each a mountaintop experience in its own right. And for many, this is the sum total of the Christian life. Is it any wonder that the Christian life is marked by joy and hope and, in our more inspired moments, by bold action?
But is that how others see us? Perhaps there is a more serious question we ought to be asking: is it any wonder that the majority of Americans no longer look to the church as a place for spiritual transformation – in fact, for many, it is not even seen as a spiritual resource. Because a religion that lives mountaintop to mountaintop and ignores the valleys in between risks confusing real joy with the temporary energy high offered by caffeine or chocolate, risks replacing real hope with unrealizable dreams and risks disconnecting bold social action from the life of Christ. And it is for all of this that you and I must travel down the mountain.
We must go with Peter, James and John. We must, more significantly, go with Jesus as he comes off the mountain and begins the journey to the cross. The placement of Transfiguration on this Sunday – the last Sunday before Lent is an intentional invitation to travel through the wilderness, to bear witness to the despair of the world, to shoulder the cross through Lent and Holy Week, to notice that your knees and hips are getting sore, to be aware that your back aches from carrying a pack filled with a few more things than you really needed for this journey, to notice that despite all of your preparation, all of your faithfulness, all of your prayerfulness, you still get burned along the way. The invitation that is offered on the mountaintop of the Transfiguration is an invitation to live life – real life. To decline the invitation is, in the words of Dr. Donald Armentrout, to risk moving directly from the gloom of winter into the doldrums of summer.[4]
Christian hope – real hope – finds its inspiration on the mountains. On the mountaintop of faith we are greeted by a God who wants to be with us, to be God with us, Emmanuel, and so comes to live as one of us in the person of Jesus. On the mountaintop of faith we encounter Jesus in all his glory, the full manifestation of his Messiahship and so discover that Jesus is fully human and yet, fully divine – truly God is with us. On the mountaintop of faith we will be surprised by the empty tomb, the resurrected Christ. But these mountaintops are not the whole story – they are the motivation for the rest of the story. Because the rest of the story is lived in between the mountains and God is with us there as well.
In 2010, you may recall that Haiti was hit by an earthquake.  Just one month after the devastating event, The Rt. Rev. Jean Zaché Duracin, Bishop of Haiti, shared a reflection about his experience with Episcopal Life Online:

“My wife was injured in the earthquake and left to seek medical care. I cannot visit her. I miss her and wish she were here with me. It is difficult to be separated. But this separation has given me solitude and has enabled me to reflect in a new way about how to proceed in a life founded in God as a Christian.

It is natural to question, but we hold on in faith to God – God who is always good, the God of infinite compassion. That we were struck by this tragedy does not mean God is not with us. He is here. We must always remember that God lives in this world. There is pain, but there is also joy. He gives us assurance not of the life that ends, but the life that is eternal.

The earthquake did not diminish our worship, though it altered the places where it takes place. The church has not faltered and must now rise to a new role. Belief in Christ and love for our Lord carries us into a new phase of construction. We will raise new places to worship God.

We are looking forward to a celebration of Easter; familiarity of religious practices sustains us. We give glory to God. We sing within the church of the world. We celebrate life with the same spirit we were given it. In the middle of all the deaths, there is a God of love and of life, and we must shout Alleluia with the living.”[5]

“We must always remember that God lives in this world.” It is this knowledge – that God is with us, in the here and now, between the mountaintops of our faith - that will ultimately sustain us and keep alive Christian joy and hope and bold action rooted in the Gospel of Christ. And it is this knowledge that will, in the words of our opening collect, strengthen “us to bear our cross . . . [so that we might] be changed into God’s likeness from glory to glory.”[6]  I invite you to journey to the cross during the season of Lent beginning with this Wednesday’s services of Ash Wednesday. Let us travel down the mountain together with the confident expectation that Jesus will be with us every step of the journey.

[1] Mark 9:2-4.
[2] Mark 9:5.
[3] Mark 1:11.
[4] Armentrout is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at The School of Theology at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee. This quote is found in Synthesis for Last Epiphany (Year C)
[5] Jean Zaché Duracin, “A Lenten Reflection from the Bishop of Haiti,” Episcopal Life Weekly (February 21, 2010), accessed online on February 12, 2010.
[6] Collect for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 217.


Absalom Jones & Richard Allen

Sermon Preached on the Occasion of the Celebration of the Feast of Absalom Jones
at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Evanston, Illinois
Sunday, February 12, 2012

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.[1] Paul writes with a sense of urgency to the Christian converts as they have fallen victim to an intra-Christian dispute between Paul’s missionary message and the missionary message of other Jewish Christians.   At the heart of the dispute is whether it is necessary for gentile converts to take on the Jewish laws and practices in order to really belong to God’s people.  And in the letter to the Galatians we have Paul’s response: a resounding No!  These words from Paul’s letter to the Galatians are as important to us today as they were when they were written.
Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.[2]  Paul tells the Galatians that they are justified – that is, set in right relation to God – right now, as they are. That is the gift of God – true freedom.  To attempt to become justified through the law is to reject God’s gift.  Any conditions that are placed on a people in order that they might be full members of the body of Christ are a perversion of the gospel – a perversion of the Good News of God in Christ Jesus that Christ alone has set us free.  Period. 
Absalom Jones and Richard Allen[3], were among the earliest ordained black ministers in the United States. Jones was born a house slave in 1746 in Delaware and sold to a Philadelphia storeowner at age 16. In 1770, Jones married Mary King, another slave.  By 1778 he purchased her freedom so that she and their children would be free.  Seven years later he purchased his own freedom. Both Jones and Allen were educated by Quakers in Philadelphia where they were students at antislavery activist Anthony Benezet’s night school for Blacks. 
At St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, Jones served as lay minister for its Black membership.  The active evangelism of Jones and that of his friend, Richard Allen, greatly increased Black membership at St. George’s. This growth in membership alarmed the all-white vestry who voted to segregate Blacks into an upstairs gallery of the church.  When on the following Sunday, ushers tapped Jones, Allen and others on the shoulder during the opening prayers, and demanded that they move to the balcony without waiting for the end of the prayer, they walked out in a body.
In 1787, Black Christians organized the Free African Society, the first such organized society, and Jones and Allen were elected overseers. Members of the Society paid monthly dues for the benefit of those in need. The Society established communication with similar Black groups in other cities.  Under the leadership of Jones and Allen, plans were made to transform this mutual aid society into an African congregation. Although the group was originally non-denominational, eventually members wanted to be affiliated with existing denominations.  Jones and Allen chose to proceed in different directions; however, they remained lifelong friends and collaborators. 
Allen formed the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1793 and by 1816 the African Methodist Episcopal Church was recognized as a separate denomination from the Methodist Church. 
Jones, on the other hand, wanted to affiliate with the Protestant Episcopal Church and in 1792 founded the congregation of the African Church in Philadelphia. The African Church applied for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania on the following conditions:
1.            That they be received as an organized body
2.            That they have control over their local affairs
3.            That Absalom Jones be licensed as lay reader, and, if qualified, be ordained as minister
In October 1794 the African Church was admitted as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Bishop William White ordained Jones as deacon in 1795 and as priest on September 21, 1802.
More than two centuries later, you and I join together for worship and to celebrate the life and legacy of Absalom Jones and Richard Allen.  That Paul’s letter to the Galatians is appointed for this day is no accident for it stands as a reminder that Christ’s death upon the cross is, as our Rite I Eucharist proclaims, “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”
Any conditions that we place on a person or on a people in order that they might be considered full members of the body of Christ are a perversion of the gospel – a perversion of the Good News of God in Christ Jesus that Christ alone has set us free. 
You are welcome in Christ’s church, but only if you sit in the upstairs gallery.  The yoke of slavery - a perversion of the Gospel!
You are welcome to be a part of the body of Christ, but only if you vote like we do. The yoke of slavery - a perversion of the Gospel!
You are welcome to be a part of this community, but only if you have the right clothes, the right amount of money, live in the right neighborhood, . . . [you get the idea]. The yoke of slavery - a perversion of the Gospel!
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we are welcome in Christ’s church because Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Through the grace of God, we are free.
What is the nature of this freedom?  If we read Scripture with care, we will see that this is not about nationalistic pride and it is not about individual liberty. The freedom of the Gospel is a communal freedom and as the Church we are invited to embody that freedom in the very life we live together. 
Our Catechism teaches that “the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” and goes on to say that “the Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.”[4]  When we do this work, we live out of the freedom that God has given us.
When we open our doors to our homeless brothers and sisters, then we are living out of the freedom that God has given us.
When we collect food or clothing and share it with our brothers and sisters who have need, then we are living out of the freedom that God has given us.
When we talk openly and honestly about ongoing racial tensions that persist in Evanston and when we hold one another accountable for ensuring that each one is treated with justice, peace, and love, then we are living out of the freedom that God has given us. 
And when all divisions are overcome in the sharing of the bread and the wine at this one table – where everyone is welcome - we are living out of the freedom that God has given us. 
How could anyone ever tell you
You were anything less than beautiful?
How could anyone ever tell you
You were less than whole?
How could anyone fail to notice
That your loving is a miracle?
How deeply you're connected to my soul?

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore. . .

[1] Galatians 5:1
[2] Galatians 5:2
[3] The historical overview is a compilation of materials from the following sources:
·         Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (New York: Church Publishing, 2010), p. 220.
·         Joe Lockard, “Introduction,” Annotated Edition of a January 1, 1808 Sermon by Absalom Jones, preached on January 1, 1808, and published by the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church of Philadelphia, Antislavery Project. Accessed online February 9, 2012. 
·         James Kiefer, “Absalom Jones (13 February 1818), and Richard Allen,” Christian Biographies accessed online on February 11, 2012.
·         “Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania,” “Richard Allen,” and “Absalom Jones,” Wikipedia accessed online on February 11, 2012.
[4] Book of Common Prayer, 855.
[5] Words by Libby Roderick, 1988.