The last Sunday before the beginning of Lent, Transfiguration Sunday, is a strange Sunday indeed. Strange because of the Transfiguration story which is usually read this day—a story that you did not hear, but I will remind you of…
Jesus and a couple of the disciples (James, John, and Peter) decide to hike up a mountain one day and Jesus somehow changes up there in that thin air and high altitude. Not only that, Moses and Elijah, prophets from long ago appear from the dead at Jesus’ side. A strange story because something completely unexplainable happens with all that glory shining and such among the mist and clouds.
How are we to relate to such tellings? Similar to our Contemporary Reading, I wonder what was happening down there at base camp with the folks who couldn’t or weren’t chosen to go mountain climbing that day. This weird story of the day tends to focus on how Jesus changed and how we humans are tempted, like Peter, to build countless monuments to the past and our futile attempts to freeze time or return to some past that only seemed to be less complicated than today.
Maybe because of the news or the pandemic or the sheer every-day-ness of our lives, my heart lies more with the rest of the tale in which Jesus, after coming down a mountain, casts out an evil spirit and heals a child. It’s a part of the story that often remains in the shadows as it were, for most of us get distracted by all that Jesus-glory up there on the mountain. We tend to pause wondering how we might feel if Jesus were suddenly transformed before our eyes and what that might mean for us personally. It’s much, much harder to look at a left-behind child who hurts at the base of a mountain—whether a mountain in our bibles, a mountain of obstacles in our world or the mountain of obstacles and pain that is war.
Today, as I leave you, I wonder about what is happening in the valley, away from all the glory shining round that mountainside. Most of life happens in the valleys, doesn’t it? It’s in the valleys where most folks need daily encouragement to keep going, to keep trying their best for those who have lost heart or lost passion or feel lost, period. In the valleys, we encounter some of our hardest moments— when children suffer, when the diagnosis takes us by surprise, when a sibling becomes entangled in some crisis, or the addiction tries to get the upper hand, or a wayward child stumbles in some way, or we just fall unwittingly into some ditch by the side of the road.
There is a Jars of Clay song that speaks of this. In “The Valley Song,” the lyrics go like this:
While we wait, for a rescue, with our eyes tightly shut, face to the ground, using our hands, to cover the fatal cut.
And though the pain is an ocean, tossing us, around, around, around,
You [God] have calmed greater waters, and higher mountains have come down.
I will sing of Your Mercy, that leads me through valleys of sorrow, to rivers of joy…
Did you hear the promise??? The singer proclaims that there will be rivers of joy in those hard valleys.
Perhaps the songwriter was thinking of these words from Deuteronomy 8:7 : “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills…” Those underground waters are not from some broken water pipes under our building but from God’s waters springing forth…
When folks climb mountains, at least those that require training, a lengthy trek, medicine for cramping muscles, and bandaids for blisters, the group will often begin from a base camp. The base camp is the place from which the hikers can explore or venture out, but return for sustenance. The base camp signals a place of rest, encouragement, restoration, and resources. Some of the people at the base camp do not actually do the day’s hike, but instead provide shelter, medical assistance, and shelter to those who are attempting the heights.
Sometimes I think of “church together” as a kind of base camp. Oh, not as a solitary place focused on helping people to climb “spiritual mountains” just to see some kind of momentary God-glory, but an intentional movement to better assist folks to venture into the valleys. A place of equipping persons to face spiritual hardship, need, or difficulty. A base camp to nudge folks, both curious and comfortable, into those valleys into which they might not otherwise go. Church base camp becomes a people on the move, like the disciples, to venture down mountains into mission and to engage with the hurts, injustices, and pain of the community and the world.
When I walk across 355 in Gaithersburg to Bohrer Park, the land is uneven, though landscaped beautifully. There is a steep hill where both kids and adults go sledding in the winter and where geese flock in the fall. It was a former farm as I understand. A winding path wraps itself around two low-slung ponds with tall cat-tails and resident, plodding turtles. But near the back of the park, there are a couple of oddly placed hills. I mention them because they appear like bumps on the otherwise dipping ground and they resemble small lookout posts for imaginative kids or steep grass huts where gnomes might play. I have always found them oddly placed and strangely shaped. I wondered if they served any purpose, like ground turf covering pipes or some kind of raised surface for the 4th of July fireworks held at the park each year. I don’t know.
But these odd hills remind me of the unexpected beauty and “raised” perspective that our metaphorical valleys can bestow, a visible reminder that our lives are not always and forever a series of depressions, but they give to us moments of insight and higher ground where we can gain our bearings, renew our courage, and strengthen our resolve.
And if a “hill-within-the-valley” has no other reason for being but to encourage passersby and give children a chance to roll down its grassy slopes then that is most assuredly purpose too. I wonder how many of us have such promontories in our lives, those slight rises in our daily landscape that we would miss if they were not there.
Today, Church, we stand on such a promontory, even as we part. Pick your valley—that of war, of pandemic, of personal loss, of racial pain, of injustice, of ecological devastation, or some other valley of tears in these times. The church is a base camp and a promontory within those valleys of misfortune, difficulty, and sheer human madness.
Yet, even within the valley, we stand together on a slightly raised mount, like that odd hill I described. Here we have found, in the madness, companionship, a communion of souls, and God, and we make a choice to strengthen one another and the community at large. For that is what a church does, to help people to find those raised places of respite and renewed meaning where they might see Jesus and God working alongside of them and inside of them. Here you give people strength to make courageous decisions in their everyday lives and within those valleys that surround, confound, and astound them, trusting that God’s Spirit will lead them to waters of joy and springs of peace.
They say a preacher has but one sermon within her and that she preaches it over and over again. If that is so, then I have been preaching the same sermon now for more than 21 years. I leave you to decide what you have heard, the main message if you will, here in this place over the last 8 and ½ years. I pray that I have helped you to see Jesus more easily and your own belovedness. I leave in gratitude for the promontory you have been – the raised place in my life and many others—even in the midst of countless valleys in our society and in the world over BUCC’s history. I urge you to keep your attention on the children in the valleys – those who, like the young person in our gospel, need healing and companionship. But more importantly, I hope that you will remain open to the children who continually show us those pressing issues and concerns that require our attention, our resources, and dedication.
Finally, a story for you from George Everett Ross, an Episcopal priest from years past. He writes:
“I shall always remember a certain Idaho holiday at Sun Valley. The snow that night was deep and crisp. We had gone for the annual ceremony of the lighting of the ski slope. At the top of a particular mountain, as we looked at it from the lodge, we could see a faint light, and then another and then a lot of them. Gradually, down the slope the skiers with their torches came and, as they descended, they lighted other torches along the way, until a lovely design of warm, glowing light stretched across the frozen snow. We could not see the torchbearers, but we could see the progress of the light. I hold that image, my friends, in my mind as an image of the Christian Church. We ourselves may not be seen. No distant preacher will use our name. But believe this: Each one of us has a light to carry and a torch to light. All that matters is whether we leave some light behind us as we go.”
My dear friends and family, may you leave some light behind as you travel about your valley. All places and times are holy, and you are too.
Thank you for letting me share in the landscape and holiness of your lives, and for keeping the faith.
 George Everett Ross, “When Did We See Thee,” Akron, Ohio. Recounted in homileticsonline.com.