Mountains are not exactly practical places. They’re steep and craggy. You have to watch your step, or, chances are, you’ll stumble – with serious consequence. There’s usually no water nearby unless you have a way to melt snow, and no comfortable place to sit, much less to build a house.
But the view.
It’s good for you to be there, when you are.
Good enough, in fact, for the time you’re there, to make a person forget the precariousness of it, forget the lack of easy footing, forget thirst and the wish for a comfortable place to sit.
And I have to say, I find it kind of delightful to talk about mountains here in Illinois, which as it turns out is the second-flattest state in the country (thank you, Curious City). The flattest? Florida, it turns out. But that’s a different podcast for another day.
Anyway. In this story of the Transfiguration, Peter and James and John go to the mountain to pray. As Jesus prays, his face changes and his clothes turn white. Moses and Elijah show up with him in glory, they talk about Jesus’ departure from Jerusalem. Peter and James and John see this through some kind of a sleepy haze – “It’s good for us to be here,” Peter says…like he does…”let’s build three dwellings.”
Many of us have places we have returned to over the course of our lives, land that we have known with parents and grandparents, places we tell stories about as we put our children’s feet on ground that we have walked.
My family has camped at Paulina Lake in Eastern Oregon since my Great-Grandmother Hazel took her children there when my grandmother was five years old. Hazel was trying to keep her children safe during the influenza pandemic in 1918, so she took my grandmother and her siblings away from Portland and to this remote place far from the city. They would return to the Lake every summer of my Grandma Rae’s childhood, and she would in turn raise her own children there in the summers as well – my dad and his brothers, Dick and Pete, their sister Molly. Paulina Lake is where I learned to fish, where I got lost in the woods more than once, and where Grace walked on tiptoe as a Native American Princess Hunter. Paulina Lake is where we scattered my grandfather’s ashes, and a few years later, my grandmother’s with him.
The lake is set inside a dormant volcano crater, with a peak high up above it. Every time we’re there, John and I make a point of hiking all the way to the top, all 7,994 feet of it. You can look out and see everything, it seems like…miles and miles and mountains and mountains and mountains.
After the work of that journey, it’s good to be there.
Peter didn’t know what he was talking about with those three dwellings up on the mountain, through his sleepy vision – the author of this gospel makes a point of saying so. A cloud overshadows the disciples, and they’re terrified, and voice inside the cloud says, “This is my son, my chosen…listen to him.” And then Jesus is alone. And they don’t talk about it at all.
The last time we hiked Paulina Peak was nearly four years ago. I had just met several of you in the interview process, put everything I had in the months leading up to it in discerning this call telling me that you were the church God was leading me to serve. There was still snow on the Peak as we hiked it in July – John threw snowballs at me from the trail when I started to lag. We found some German tourists to take our picture at the top, next to the elevation sign. And it was good for us to be there, good to look out on land that I have known my whole life and before, even as I knew in my bones that we’d be leaving again.
There’s a part that gets left out of this gospel, that second half about the next day. It’s bracketed off in our lectionary book, an optional thing to include after the shining and the white clothes and Moses and Elijah and that “It’s good for us to be here” business from Peter.
It’s the next day, when Jesus and the disciples have come down from the craggy precariousness of the mountain. And there’s a crowd, with somebody’s kid needing help. The disciples can’t do it themselves. But Jesus can, and he does, and he chastises those disciples just a bit, and then he gives the boy back to his father.
John and Grace and I left the next day after our hike in 2012. We said goodbye to our family, gave thanks because it had been good to be there, drove our rental car back around the lake and down a dirt road, out of that sleeping volcano.
In the shadow of another mountain a little while later, I had a phone call from Karl Anderson. He was head of the search committee here at St. Augustine's, calling to let me know that the committee had recommended the vestry call me as rector. Did I mention that we were in the shadow of the mountain? That was important in that moment, because as soon as Karl shared the news, my phone went dead…cell service interrupted by a very large hunk of rock looming over me. (And they kept silent, the scripture says…) John has pictures of me walking around a country highway holding my phone out trying to pick up a signal so I could call Karl back and say YES – it would be very good for me to be there.
We need both of those pieces of the gospel story, it seems to me. We need the precariousness and impracticality of a mountaintop in our lives – even the hard work of getting there and the confusion that sometimes comes. We need to take in the mystery and the majesty of a God who has known us since before we were born, a God who can take our breath away…and then, when we find it again, to find it with the whisper: “It is good for us to be here.”
And we need those otherwise bracketed verses of ordinary time on the next day – the call to come back down off that mountain, to return to life among the people, hear our own needs and respond to other people’s. We need the practical, the earthy, the reminders of our own limitations that we really can’t do this all by ourselves. But we can, with God, with one another.
It is good for us to be there, on the mountain.
And it is good for us to be here, on this flat land, with each other.