Text: Exodus 24:12-18
This morning I want to talk about climbing mountains and I want to begin with two stories from my life. The first story: the year is 1990 and the location is Ridgecrest Conference Center—the Southern Baptist Conference Center cradled in the spectacular Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. For generations, since 1909, Baptists have gathered at Ridgecrest to share with other Baptists the journey of faith. In the summer months these gathering would include youth groups from Southern Baptist churches. In 1990, I was the Minister with Youth and Young Adults at St. John’s Baptist Church in Charlotte. It had been the tradition of the St. John’s youth group to attend summer camp at Ridgecrest. Having started at St. John’s in the fall of 1989 I wasn’t about to mess with tradition my first summer. So I made all the necessary arrangements for our group of some 80 youth to go to summer camp at Ridgecrest.
Now, if you grew up Southern Baptist you know that Ridgecrest was one of the best Baptist retreat centers the Baptists had. And, if you grew up Southern Baptist you will also know that it was long about 1989-1990 that the fundamentalist took over all the Baptist institutions and retreat centers, Ridgecrest included. That year, the summer of 1990, the youth program for summer camp at Ridgecrest dramatically reflected the change in leadership within Southern Baptist life. And so, as it turned out, my work that week at Ridgecrest was helping my youth understand that they didn’t need to be saved again for the 3rd time, or rededicate their lives for the 14th time, or adhere to some randomly decided doctrine in order to be a Christian.
In the midst of trying to manage the theology of the week, I was also trying to manage the freedom of 80 junior high and high school youth. As it happens on youth trips, sometimes, some of the youth missed curfew. Not by a little but by a lot—like they showed up the next morning. Having been up all night trying to find these curious youth who decided to go exploring in the dark of the night in the spectacular Blue Ridge Mountains, needless to say by daybreak when they decided to reappear I was not in a good place. And that, my friends, is what sparked the next part of this story that I call “climbing the mountain.”
Determined to not let my new youth group get the best of me, I rounded all 80 kids together and explained to them how, as a group, we would not be attending breakfast that morning, rather we would be climbing to the top of the mountain. Immediately, the defense arguments began. Those who had not skipped curfew and stayed out all night thought it unfair that they would have to climb the mountain, too. The ones who had stayed up all night could barely stand up, so they wanted to negotiate the consequence. But I stood firm. We are a group and we are all responsible to each other I reminded them. Therefore, we will climb the mountain together. There was protest. All 80 kids sat down in the middle of the road and refused to walk. But I stood firm. We could sit in the road all day or climb the mountain. It was their choice. One brave youth finally stood up and declared, “Well, if we are going to have to climb this mountain let’s do it.” With that, one by one, the youth stood up and we began our climb up the mountain.
It was not an easy climb. Sections of the trail were steep and the climb itself took about an hour. The first 20 minutes or so all I heard were complaints. “This is too hard.” “I can’t make it.” “I need water.” But somewhere along the way past that 20-minute mark there was a shift—a transformation of sorts. The youth began noticing the beauty of the trail—the plants and animals. They began laughing together and helping one another along the way. They spoke encouraging words to each other. As we rounded the last turn of the trail and entered the open space at the top of the mountain a silence fell over the group. The view that stretched miles across those Blue Ridge Mountains was breathtaking. We stood there, together, in awe—80 teenagers and 10 adults transfigured. Some would later say by the presence of God.
The second story: the year is 2006 and the place is The Republic of Georgia. Jack McKinney, former Pullen co-pastor, and I had just arrived in Georgia some five hours earlier. Barely had we laid down in our beds and closed our eyes when the knock on our doors came that the van was waiting on us to take us to meet up with Bishop Malkhaz and the church group for the Day of Ascension pilgrimage. Blurried-eye and hung-over from 24 hours of travel—during which we missed every one of our connections—we steadied ourselves and boarded the van. Oh, also, our luggage had not made it with us so we had no way to freshen up. After a 15-minute or so ride, we arrived at the foot of the mountain. It was there that about 60 or so members of the Peace Cathedral church in Tbilisi waited on us to begin our climb up the mountain where we would celebrate the Day of Ascension. It was clear after about the first 5 minutes that Jack, who struggled with asthma, would not be able to make the climb. He would ride up the mountain in the van that was carrying all the worship supplies. I, on the other hand, would continue climbing with the group. This mountain was so steep that the climb/walk/pilgrimage had been designed so that we would stop at certain points for meditation, readings, and prayer just to rest and catch our breath. There must have been about 6 to 8 such places of reflection along the climb. At each of these stops, someone different in the group would offer me a drink of water or a hand to help steady me or a caring gesture to make sure I was okay. And like that moment in those Blue Ridge Mountains when we came around that last turn on the trail and stepped into the open expanse of God’s creation, we came over the last hill and onto the peak of that mountain and I could see before me the vastness of a strange land that was every bit and more as magnificent as my home land, I was transfigured.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. The lectionary texts for this Sunday transition us from the season of epiphany and prepares us for the season of Lent. It does so by drawing our attention to two transfiguration stories: Moses’ transfiguration on Mount Sinai and Jesus’ transfiguration moment on the mountain known as the Mount of Transfiguration. Each narrative details the events of Moses and Jesus being transfigured in the presence of God. In these stories both Moses and Jesus are called to go up on a high mountain. On the mountain they experience clouds— bright clouds, and fire, and from the clouds a voice. And in both narratives something mysterious happens and people are changed, transformed, transfigured.
As I studied these narratives this year I noticed something that I had not ever noticed or thought about before. Year after year, I have read these stories about Moses and Jesus being on top of the mountain and being transfigured. But I had never thought about how each of them had to actually climb the mountain to get to the top to experience that moment of transfiguration. Sometimes the biblical text can leave us thinking that these types of events happen in some kind of magical way. All of the sudden Moses and Jesus are on this mountaintop being transformed and transfigured. And we miss the important details like the fact that they had to literally climb the mountain first. That their legs got tired. That they had to stop along the way to rest. That they were not alone climbing the mountain—they had others to lean on and steady them.
And that made me think of something else that I find true in my own transformation and transfiguration experiences: the transforming and transfiguring actually comes in the climbing of the mountain as much as it does in what happens on the mountain. Yes, in both of my stories—of the Blue Ridge Mountains with my youth group and on that mountain in The Republic of Georgia—I felt transformed and transfigured as I experienced the vastness and magnificence of God’s creation and how significant and insignificant I felt in those moments when I was on the mountian. But I would argue, too, that the journey of climbing those mountains with others was what offered transformation and transfiguration. I was transformed and transfigured by the people with whom I climbed those mountains—our shared complaining and laughter, our shared struggle and compassion for one another all woven together. It was the climbing the mountain that changed me. And once I reached the top I could feel the transformation within me. Maybe that’s why our text begins: “God said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there…but a little bit later it reads: “Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God.” We have to go into the mountain to get on the mountain.
Twenty-five years ago this congregation climbed the mountain. God summoned you to come to the mountain—the mountain of justice-love and radical welcome and acceptance. The climbing wasn’t easy but together you climbed. There was complaining and protest. Some got tired and others held out a hand to steady the tired. But you didn’t stop climbing and when you reached the top of the mountain you, Pullen, were transformed and transfigured; and ever since that moment the face of this congregation has shone like the sun for others longing to be transfigured and transformed.
There were other mountain climbings and transfiguring moments before February 1992 and there have been others since. And, for certain, there are more before us. We have mountains to climb with our transgendered sisters and brothers. We have mountains to climb with our Muslim sisters and brothers. We still have mountains to climb with our black and brown sisters and brothers. We still have mountains to climb with our Jewish sisters and brothers. We have mountains to climb for this planet we live on. We can be sure of this: God is always calling us to climb the mountain for justice-love. And God promises us that when we do we will be transfigured, changed by God’s presence among us. And so, as we celebrate that transfiguration moment that happened 25 years ago let us set our minds and hearts and souls on the mountains we are being called to climb today knowing that in the process we will meet God and we will be changed, transformed, transfigured once again!