Monday, February 8, 2016

Sermon: "Climbing Everest"

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
February 7, 2016 – Transfiguration Sunday
Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36

“Climbing Everest”

The summit of Mt. Everest is 29,000 feet above sea level.
This majestic peak has long stood as a challenge for us as human beings as we strive to see how far, how fast, and how high we can go. 

But climbing earth’s highest mountain is not a matter of simply starting at the bottom and climbing straight to the top.
The trek to the summit requires arctic climbing gear, oxygen tanks, and multiple ascents and descents to allow the climber’s bodies to adjust to the thinning air.  The entire trek can take six to nine weeks.

The first week is spent hiking to the Base Camp located at 17,000 feet above sea level.
After a few days, climbers then ascend to Camp One at 20,000 feet.
But first they must cross the Ice Fall – a huge expanse of sheer ice cliffs and crevasses some of which can only be crossed by doing a tightrope walk across narrow metal ladders laid precariously over gaping holes in the ice and snow.  

Once the climbers reach Camp One the ordeal is not over, because they must then turn around and descend back down to Base Camp,
crossing the ice falls yet again.
Climbers spend three to four weeks yo-yoing up and down the mountain between Base Camp and Camps One, Two, and Three, which takes them to 22,000 feet, some 7,000 feet below the summit.

This constant ascending and descending is necessary to allow the brain, heart, and lungs to adapt to functioning with less oxygen and to prevent altitude sickness. Pounding headaches, disorientation, blindness, and death can result if a climber pushes himself higher then his body is prepared to go.

Once a climber is acclimated to Camp Three, the push is made to Camp Four, located in the area of Everest known as the Death Zone.
This is where the atmosphere thins to next to nothing. 

It’s only 3,000 feet to the summit, but more climbers die here than on any other place on the mountain.
Here the combination of low oxygen supplies and having the summit within sight can result in poor decision-making.
Climbers have only a small window of time to make it to the summit at this point.
Even in ideal conditions, it typically takes hours to climb only a few hundred feet and wind and severe weather can swoop in and close the window of opportunity at any moment, sometimes for good.  

The summiting season on Everest is only open for two months out of the year, in the spring.  If you don’t make it before the storms move in, you have no choice but to turn around and try again next year.  
With each climber paying $45,000-$100,000 per attempt, it’s understandable why many are reluctant to give up before the goal is reached.

In May of 1996, the yearly window of opportunity was closing fast, when several teams of climbers were approaching the summit.
A storm was moving in and the climbers were told that if they didn’t summit by 2 p.m. that day, they were to turn around and go back.  
Their climb of Everest was over.
At 2:00 the weather was clear, the summit was within sight, and the climbers ignored the warning.  
At 4:00, teams were still summiting when the storm hit.
Hurricane force winds and white out conditions made it nearly impossible for the climbers to find their back down to Camp Four, and rescues at that altitude, even in good weather, are not even attempted.
Twelve climbers lost their lives that day.
And now, twenty years later their bodies remain on the mountain – frozen in time. Serving as ghoulish reminders of our human fragility, to those who dare to risk it all to stand on the top of the world.

The summit of Mount Sinai stands at 7,500 feet above sea level –
only ¼ of the size of Everest.
But for Moses this was highest place that humans could hope to reach – to come face to face with the presence of God. 
On his trek up the mountain, Moses didn’t carry a 40 lb pack and an oxygen tank, like our Everest climbers, but he did carry with him the burden of knowing that he and his people had disappointed God.

His people had built a golden calf, and they worshiped it in place of God, because they had given up hope that they would ever find their way out of the wilderness.
And Moses, in his anger at their lack of faith, had taken the tablets that God had given him and smashed them on the ground.
God’s sacred law written in God’s own hand, now lay in a thousand dusty pieces at the foot of Mount Sinai.

But this God whom the people saw as a punishing God was also a forgiving God.
And Moses returned from the mountaintop with a fresh set of tablets and a brand new covenant – a promise that God would never leave them, if they promised to never leave God.

Moses took another souvenir with him from that encounter – a divine glow that burned his skin and made his face shine – not unlike those of us who have stood on top of snow capped mountains where the wind and the sun redden our cheeks as we move ourselves closer to God.

From Moses, we fast-forward over a thousand years and we find Peter, James, and John following Jesus up yet another mountain.
The burden they carry is the growing fear that they have no idea who this man is that they are following.
Their heads are spinning from all they have witnessed in the previous weeks.
Jesus healed the sick. He brought the dead back to life.
He fed 5000 people with just 5 loaves of bread.
Then he told them that he was NOT the messiah they had expected,
Instead he was destined to endure great suffering and be killed, and on the third day he would rise again.
Who was this man they were following and why were they following him?
Nothing he did or said made sense any more. 

But when they reached the summit Jesus stopped to pray and they saw his face change right before their eyes.
He began to glow with a blinding light….and their eyes grew heavy with sleep.  Suddenly Moses and Elijah were there.
And the voice of God said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

Now when we hear these stories of encounters with God that resulted in glowing faces and Transfigurations we may wonder if Moses and the disciples were not suffering from altitude sickness themselves.

It may be hard for us to read these ancient texts and sift out a meaning that is applicable to our lives today.

But who among us hasn’t wanted to find a way to move closer to God?
Who hasn’t climbed a mountain, or hiked into a forest, or sailed out on the ocean, or looked towards the heavens, hoping to encounter God?

We often talk about finding God in the mountaintop experiences – as if God can only be found in the thin places, in the holy places, in the quiet and faraway places that require physical effort or intense spiritual focus to reach.

We also talk about finding God in the valley experiences –
How it’s all well and good for Peter to want to linger on the mountaintop, building a dwelling to remember the moment, but as Christians we have real work to do down below.
After all, Christ doesn’t want us to be transfixed by the dazzling white of his robes, instead he calls us to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty, by doing the work of the church.

The problem we encounter when talking about the Transfiguration in either of these ways is that they both can make us feel pretty inadequate – as Christians and as human beings.
Perhaps because we don’t feel holy enough or focused enough or spiritual enough to have a mountaintop experience – to encounter God in the thin places – the sacred places.
Or conversely, perhaps we’ve grown weary of feeling like we’re not doing enough work to please God, because for as much as we do, we’re always being reminded that we’re not spending enough time in the valley getting our hands dirty in service to others.  

This is the byproduct of the Puritan work ethic and sense of righteousness that we’ve inherited from our Congregationalist forbearers -  the belief that unless we’re toiling away in the trenches during the week and presenting ourselves spit shined and spotless on Sunday morn, we’re not earning God’s favor.

The truth is, God encounters us – and we encounter  God - wherever we are in whatever we’re doing.
In our mountaintop experiences – our joys, our celebrations, our accomplishments, our spiritual awakenings.
In our valley experiences – our suffering, our grief, our illness, our addictions, our fall flat on our face failings.
And every point in between – in the grocery store, when we’re stuck in traffic, when we’re surfing the internet, when we’re having lunch with a friend, when we’re standing in a voting booth.
God is with us, always. 

The high places and the holy places may have fewer of the distractions that keep us from noticing God.
And the low places and the sorrowful places may have more of the emotional upheaval that pushes us to look for God.
But God is all around us - and with us - no matter where we are.
Guiding us, inspiring us, speaking to us, listening to us.

I want to share a mountaintop experience that I once had.
It happened on Watchusett Mountain in MA in July of 1997.
I was in a 50-mile bike race that included 4 laps of the lower hills before the road took a hard left and headed up the mountain in a series of increasingly steep switchbacks. 

As a bike racer, I was a sprinter, not a hill climber.
I grew up on Long Island where the steepest hills I encountered were the overpasses on the Long Island Expressway.
On Watchusett Mountain I was undertrained, overgeared, and out of breath. 

It took every ounce of my strength, my will, my being just to turn the pedals over.  And I knew if I stopped pedaling for even a second, I would tip right over and never get going again. 
Thankfully, there were spectators stationed at every switchback, who clapped their hands and urged me on, “You’re almost there!” they shouted.
“The finish is just around the bend!”
They lied.

Over and over again, I rounded each corner only to find yet another switchback and the road going up and up and up.
So I made a deal with God.
I said, “God, just get me to the top of this mountain and I promise I will go back to church.”
Well, I made it to the top of the mountain and I finished the race.
But I didn’t go back to church.  
I was much too busy for that. 

A year later, in July 1998, in that same race, I crashed my bike while going downhill - and broke my pelvis.
THEN I went back to church.

We don’t have to reach the summit to have a mountaintop experience.
And when we’re gasping for air –
thinking that God will be there if we can only reach the top –
or that God will reward us if we can manage to pick ourselves up off the ground – we need only think of Peter, James, and John
as they watched Jesus be transformed in the presence of God. 

All Jesus did was pray.

He had to take his disciples up the mountain,
and away from all the distractions to get them to take notice,
but all it took was the act of prayer for them to see his face begin to change, and to hear the voice of God say, “This is my son, listen to him.”

Jesus was transformed by God – Moses was transformed by God.
And those of us who stand by as witnesses are transformed as well.
Not through their encounters, but through our own. 

I leave you with this prayer, written by Catholic monk and mystic, Thomas Merton:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.

Thanks be to God and Amen.