My church is in the process of preparing to partner with a new minister, after our Reverand of 34 years retired this spring. I was asked if I’d be willing to do a service this summer as we get ready to call an interim minister, and of course I said yes. The following are my notes for the sermon. The actual delivery varied slightly.
Last week I picked up my son Grey from a week at Camp Wilmot, a Presbyterian run summer camp in the wilds of New Hampshire. Burlington Presbyterian has a long history at Camp Wilmot, but it’s been many years since we’ve sent a contingent. How many of you here have been to Camp Wilmot? How many here have heard of it? It was a great experience for Grey, and I’m hopeful next year the BPC contingent will be even bigger?
We got the packing list for the week at camp a few weeks before the first day. It started with a copy of the Bible and ended with bug spray and sunscreen. Reading it over, it was pretty much identical to the packing lists I’d had for summer camp in my day! As we were getting Grey ready to go, we called my brother and sister, my mom and dad, to talk about our experiences at Christian summer camps. All this summer camp talk got me reminiscing about some of my favorite experiences.
When I was teenager, the Presbytery of Olympia had two summer camps to choose from. There was Sound View, on the scenic shores of the Puget Sound, and there was Buck Creek nestled up against Mt. Rainier National Park. My sister went sailing and cycling at Sound View, but my heart was given to Buck Creek. One of the most exciting camp offerings was a backpacking camp. I went four years in a row.
The second year may have been the best. We hiked the East Side of the Wonderland Trail surrounding Mt. Rainier. I remember climbing the high paths to Summerland, on the sunrise side of one of the world’s iconically beautiful mountains. Summerland is an alpine meadow, full of lupine, columbine, heather and buzzing bees. The winds that blow there come directly off the glaciers a few hundred feet distance and down to the desert country that grows the apples and cherries we all love. We campers were jubilant in our conquest of the mountain. We prayed together, read the scripture together, sang by the laboriously brought guitar, and saw more stars in that perfect night than I’d ever known had existed. My heart was unbearably full of the glory of God. In that beautiful place, and beautiful time, I could feel the Holy Spirit as a joy. I almost cried at the thought of ever coming down – and it wasn’t because the climb can be tough on the knees.
I remember asking one of the counselors why it had to be this way. Why was it so hard, and so rare, to feel the joy of the spirit? Why did we have to go back down to the “real world”? Why couldn’t we just stay here?
That wise counselor brought me back to the story of the Transfiguration, which is as follows:
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.
Jesus didn’t have summer camp, but as he went through Israel he climbed his own high mountain – distant and remote. As I imagine this story, it was also beautiful. In that high and lovely place, he also experienced God’s touch in a remarkable way. Moses and Elijah! There, and talking with Jesus! The voice of God speaking praise of Jesus’ work! And Peter had the exact same thought I’d had – this is awesome. Why can’t we just stay here and keep doing this.
But Jesus did not stay on that holy mountain. Instead, he went down to Jerusalem and started the hardest work of his ministry – being obedient to God even to a painful, criminal’s mocking and execution. He had his mountaintop moment, and then he came back to earth to do the things that need doing.
This story has stayed with over the ensuing decades for three reasons.
Now that I’m on the teaching end of the equation, I’m astonished and impressed by Keith’s command of the Bible. He had such a perfect scripture to answer my question in a profound and meaningful way. Clearly it was memorable, for me to be talking about the impact of that lesson 20 years later. It is a reminder to all of us that continuing to study and learn God’s word might mean that we have that word ready to go when our children ask us a hard question.
The second is that we are needed in this prosaic, dirty, sometimes unlovely and difficult world because we have work to do here. Jesus healed, taught, prophesied and sacrificed himself. We are also called to God’s work in the thick air of the cities. As Amy Grant sang in the playlist of my youth, “But you got to come down from the mountaintop to the people in the valley below, or they’ll never know that they can go to the mountain of the Lord.”
The third part, the one I hold on to most tightly, is that you also have to go up to the mountaintop in the first place. Jesus took time for work, but he also took time to rest and to be available to listen to God’s word. I yearn for summer camp, and wish I could go back and reclaim some of those mountaintop moments. I think it is hard for us, as grown people with responsibilities and expectations, to put ourselves somewhere quiet and beautiful to think and pray and listen to God’s call. I find it very difficult. And I find it very hard to carry the passion of the Holy Spirit with me without those moments. Our church does try to find ways to encourage it – we’ve done retreats, and our services sometimes create mountaintop moments. We should all work to create those moments – both for ourselves and for those around us.
As for me? I’m hoping that next week I’ll be on those same trails on Mt. Rainier, in the sunset-shadow of mighty Tahoma where I once felt the Holy Spirit move. And I hope I find a way to open my heart to feel it again.