I’ve done the hardest hike of my life twice. The first time was in 2009. One summer in seminary, I went on a road trip with two buddies of mine. From Louisville Kentucky, we made our way west through the flyover states and national parks. It was a trip of a lifetime. We learned our own limits and the limits of each other on the trip. But eventually we made our way up into high sierras, and that where I would first see the gem: Yosemite National Park. My friends and I would begin an ascent up the Yosemite Falls trail I can say I wasn’t prepared for, so thank God one of them was (here’s to you Michael!). Now, I feel like I’ve done some hard things in my life, but my God, that was hard. Not only did we ascend 2700 feet,
we had a permit to sleep at the top of the mountain that night, so we were packing all of our gear as well. By the time we reached the rocky switchbacks near the top of the mountain, I thought, “I’m good. I’ve seen. I’ve conquered. Let’s turn back.” But am I so glad I didn’t.
The hike itself is only 7.2 miles round trip according to Yosemite National Park’s estimation, which doesn’t sound too bad. But when you ascend 2700 feet into the air by the sheer power of your own two legs, it makes it a bit of a difference.
The views from the top are astonishing. The pride I experienced that first time was something from which I will never recover. When we made it to the top that hot August day, we swam in the cold snowmelt, prepared a meal for the night and then watched the sunset over the valley. It was an experience I will never forget.
The second time I hiked the same trail was in 2016 with my wife, Ashley. We too road-tripped across the country, but this time to commemorate our first year of marriage. We showed each other parts of the country that were meaningful to us and took in new sites together. Ashley hadn’t ever been to Yosemite, so I wanted to show what I
had seen. So we made our way up the same Sierras and took the winding roads down to the valley floor. The next morning we got up early and made our way to the trailhead of Yosemite Falls.
I was older, more aware, and with a life partner who I knew I could trust and lean on in ways I couldn’t with my seminary buddies. The hike was the same, but different in all the right ways. Even without a pack, it was still the most difficult hike of my life. We made our way up the same thick forest, into the clearing where you see the upper falls. We made our way up the same switchbacks that nearly had me 7 years before.
Does everyone know what a switchback is? It is named that because you literally switch back and forth from side to side. It is a trail that makes a zig-zag up the mountain because it is too steep of an incline to go straight through.
And while we also struggled through those switchbacks, we finally reached the edges of the stone that indicated we had made it. We inched our way to the edge of the summit and took in a view that I can’t quite describe. I am changed by it. I am still moved by the experience.
When we arrived, other hikers who made it to the summit before us smiled as we settled into a comfortable spot to eat some lunch. The spirit in the air is contagious up there. We knew that everyone up there has just endured the same thing we just endured. It is a community. Ashley and I took a couple of hours to take in the views, to revive our spirits and bodies, and then made our descent back to the valley below.
When we finally made our way back to our campsite for the night, we made the biggest and baddest quesadillas you can imagine, well-earned food from a hard day’s journey. But we were on a hiker’s high: muscles aching, blisters forming, but endorphins flowing and so excited to tell about what we had witnessed. It is a feeling that is almost indescribable.
Rene Daumal says, “You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. It is the end of the Epiphany season and perhaps where we get the greatest epiphany of all. We’ve been talking about epiphanies this season as these “aha” moments. Moments when we see more clearly, focus in a different way, a way we didn’t know before, catch a glimpse of the possibilities. We climb up the mountain and see things– things that change us.
So in today’s gospel lesson from Luke, we encounter Jesus as he ascends a mountain with three of his disciples. The text says he took Peter, James, and John up the mountain to pray and has Jesus prayed, his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling, like lightning. And all of a sudden Elijah and Moses are there with him and talking with him.
The disciples are astonished and Peter suggests that it is good for them to stay there and suggests that they make dwellings for the three of them, Elijah, Moses, and Jesus. And then the voice of God comes thundering down on the mountain and says, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”
What a story.
Now with this story and a lot of stories in the bible, we can get caught up in the factuality of the story. Do you really think Jesus, James, John, and Peter saw Moses and Elijah? Well, to be honest, I don’t know. I don’t know that I can’t make factual claims about this story. But what I do know is that this story is true. Because with stories like this, the truth they communicate doesn’t depend on factual correctness. Their truth is bigger than that. God’s spirit is bigger than that.
Because as it goes, Jesus and his disciples overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the crowds, the people, the noise, the streets, the vendors, the demands of life, left seeking the wilderness. They climbed a mountain and they had an encounter with the holy that forever changed them. They willingly entered the wilderness and found Holiness in a transfiguring way.
And, as Brene Brown says, “belonging… to yourself … is a wilderness– an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can’t control it, or what people think about our choice of whether to venture into that vastness or not.”
Jesus and his disciples have entered the wilderness and have this holy encounter and then Peter says “Teacher, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
But Jesus doesn’t even entertain the conversation, but rather leads his disciples back down the mountain where they are immediately met by the pleas and demands of the crowds, the hustle, and bustle of everyday life.
You cannot stay on the summit forever. You have to come down again. So why even climb? Because it changes the way you carry yourself in the lower regions by what you have seen in the higher regions.
But Peter isn’t unlike any of us. When we have had these “aha” moments, a spiritual awakening, you want to freeze time and create dwellings. “It is good for us to be here” Peter says. The feeling of an encounter with the holy can have us attempting to hold on to a feeling or an experience, but leave us grasping at fading mist.
They’re called mountaintop experiences for a reason. But life doesn’t happen up there. It takes us up there but it also takes us down into the deep valleys. A friend of mine this week said that parenting is experiencing the highest highs and the lowest lows. Isn’t that the truth about life? As we journey this path, we are taken to the highest peaks and taken to our knees with soil in our mouths. But it is our work to allow those mountaintops to inform how we move below.
And there is a difference between trying to hold onto and lock up those feelings of epiphany, and then there is moving in such a way that we are informed by them. And my friends, that is where the hard work is. Being informed by what we have seen requires us to try on some new habits, and let go of old ones. It asks us to take some risks. Letting the mountaintop change the way we view our life is risky business.
And I am immediately reminded of my friend Shelly. As many of you know, this week the United Methodist Church, one of the largest denominations, voted on Monday to uphold a “traditionalist plan” in regards to same-sex married and gay ordination. Essentially, according to the Methodist Book of Discipline, LGBTQ folks cannot be married in the Methodist church, pastors are not allowed to perform same-sex weddings and members of the LGBTQ community will not be ordained.
For many, this decision has brought immediate chaos. Churches must now decide whether or not they will stay in fellowship with the UMC with these upheld standards, or if they will choose to leave and enter their own great wilderness. My Methodist colleagues and friends have either buried their heads in the sand or have begun their journey into the wilderness.
Now as for my friend Shelly. Shelly is a pastor of the Methodist congregation of people who were all but done with the church. It’s a church of progressives, entrepreneurs, gay and straight alike. A year ago, Shelly ended a 14-year marriage after reconciling with herself that she was in fact, gay. An epiphany. Deeply understanding things as they hadn’t been before. Through her divorce, she quietly led her congregation as she began understanding what life would look like now. This week, though, after the General Conference vote, Shelly just couldn’t sit quietly anymore. Things shifted. Serving a church of folks already fed up with the BS of church, she knew that her epiphany wasn’t now just hers. She felt God calling her to tell her story, “I love to tell the story” to her congregation.
This past Tuesday, Shelly drafted a letter to her church. She came out through a letter to her church– A group of people for whom this Methodist decision would have been the last straw that broke the camel’s back– she came out, she breathed life into her epiphany in the face of uncertainty and scarcity of the UMC. And now like Moses, is leading her congregation into the wilderness, out of slavery and KNOWING freedom lies ahead.
Shelly has been to the mountaintop. She has seen. She knows of what is above. And now Shelly is conducting herself in the lower regions by what she has seen above.
Friends– we have choices about how we conduct ourselves. We have choices. We can choose to stand at the trailhead imagining what might lie ahead. We can choose to try to stay on the pinnacle, to never descend again. Or friends, we can choose to climb. We can choose to see. We can choose to open ourselves to experiencing the Holy and come away changed. And then, we choose to come down again to choose to conduct our life in the lower regions by what we have seen on the mountain top.
As MLK says, “I just want to do God’s will. And [God’s] allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.”
How will you use the epiphanies of the mountaintop to shape the world around?