January 29, 2008 Tuesday Chapel Service, The Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
Anticipating the Last Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany
“The Roof of the World” (II Peter 1: 16-21)
The title of my sermon is intended as an homage to Sir Edmund Hillary, who died on the 10th of January, in New Zealand--and who is remembered for an event of 15 minutes’ duration on the 29th of May, 1953 (which was just five weeks before my birth), when he and his Nepalese fellow-climber Tenzing Norgay stood as the first to reach the summit of the highest mountain peak on earth, Mount Everest. A headline writer called it, “the Roof of the World.”
This what we might call the ultimate “mountaintop experience,” a phrase that is particularly appropriate to the readings appointed for this coming Sunday, the Last Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany and the Sunday before Lent, marked by the story of another summit, the Mount of the Transfiguration.
We know the story: how Jesus, Peter, James, and John, retreat to the mountain, and how there at the top the disciples are gifted with this vision, Jesus in a shimmering halo of light joined by Moses and Elijah, and that word from above (which I always imagine as the voice of James Earl Jones), as at the Baptism in the Jordan, proclaims, “This is my beloved Son.” This moment, as the divide between this world and the next narrows, and with their own eyes the disciples catch a glimpse of the heavenly reality, with their own ears hear the voice of the Father. Thus Peter in the selection Lexi just read for us: we didn’t read about this stuff in some textbook--we were “eyewitnesses of His majesty . . . and we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain” (II Peter 2: 16-18).
A powerful moment, and I confess always one that makes me a little nervous. As I often say, I am descended from a long line of introverted Northern European males. Not really a breed known for emotional peaks and visionary exuberance. And as a priest of Anglican heritage and the Rector of our little Highland Park neighborhood Episcopalian parish of St. Andrew’s for almost 14 years now I would I suppose represent more a kind of Christian life characterized in an almost Benedictine way by the gradual shaping influences of daily and weekly sharing of prayer and scripture and sacrament, pastoral care and community relationships, sacred calendar and holy architecture. To use a domestic image, not a “microwave” of sudden peak experiences, transcendent mystical illuminations, and charismatic conversions, but a long, slow simmering and gradual formation in what we might call a “crock pot” of Christian life.
But this is simply to say that the Mountain of Transfiguration rises before us this morning as an invitation, that overcoming any reluctance, we would strap on our climbing boots, that we would put aside for this moment whatever fear we might have of high places, and set out for the summit. Joining Peter, James, and John as spiritual mountaineers.
An invitation at this moment before the unfolding of Lent and with the drama of the Passion and Holy Week and Easter appearing on the distant horizon—an invitation to put down the books for an hour and to come up higher, and to see for ourselves. To open our eyes to see Christ as he truly is, in the majesty of his holiness, to look across the divide, and even into heaven, to open our ears to hear the voice of God rumble through the whole of creation with this great announcement of commitment and love. He will be there for us. Even to say that he is there, waiting for us. That we would find a quiet place to enter into a prayer of receptivity and openness. Emptying ourselves and inviting him to show himself to us, to come and be with us and in us. By whatever discipline of contemplation. Simply to sit quietly and spaciously, and to wait with patience. To open ourselves, and to renew at the mountaintop our commitment to him as Master and Savior, our commitment to follow him in the days ahead and every day of our lives to Jerusalem and the Cross, and to the ends of the earth.
The invitation, that we would open our eyes and our ears and our minds and our hearts to see him, to welcome him, to know him for ourselves, that this place, where we are today, at this moment of our lives, would be our Everest, our Mountaintop of Transfiguration, and as the old Irish hymn says, that fresh and new and breathtaking in his glorious majesty, as if for the very first time, he and he only would be our vision, transfigured before us and within us.