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Climb Every Mountain

Speaker: The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph

February 14, 2021

Sermon, Sunday, February 7, 2021
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Mark 9:2-8 NRSV

Climb Every Mountain

As someone who spends a lot of time in religion and church (as you can imagine), I pay close attention to how we Christians are portrayed in popular culture and literature. It is always so interesting and serves as a professional mirror of sorts. 

There are many sermons and speeches in popular culture in books, movies, and television with religious figures making proclamations or ethical pronouncements. Many of them are not so flattering or endearing like Salem Congregational’s Rev. Parris in the Crucible who doesn’t have really anything nice to say. Others are just silly or comic, like the minister in the 1987 film The Princess Bride whose “Marwaage” sermon is a pop culture favorite depiction of a clergyperson at a wedding. Do you know how often that movie comes up when I have been planning weddings with millennial couples? Every. Single. Time. That is the power of popular culture to influence a whole generation.

Then, occasionally, there is a lesson that resonates so deeply, so truly that the song, sermon, or good word from the pop culture minister or religious figure speaks through time, across generations, and difference to a real deeper truth. One of my favorite examples of a pop-culture sermon which resonates deeply for our times, and especially for Transfiguration Sunday, comes from the 1965 film adaptation of Rogers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music starring the one and only Julie Andrews. Have any of you seen it? 

It is a movie set, like the passages in the Bible with dramatic revelations, in the mountains of transformation. This classic musical opens in the Nonnberg Abbey in Salzburg, Austria with a young nun named Maria, played by Andrews, dancing through an alpine meadow—high above the mountains—loudly singing, “the hills are alive with the sound of music!” She is devoted to God, but the life of religious cloister and isolation isn’t working out so well for her. She is lonely. Even her dance on the mountaintop was officially verboten. This leads the nuns back at the abbey to sing a chorus which asks, “How do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?” Finally, the wise Mother Abbess, sort of the lead minister of the community, sings a song which is a sermon for Maria. It is also a sermon for us today us on this mountaintop Transfiguration Sunday. She sings:

Climb every mountain, Search high and low,
Follow every byway, Every path you know. 
Climb every mountain, Ford every stream,
Follow every rainbow, 'Till you find your dream.
A dream that will need All the love you can give,
Every day of your life For as long as you live.

In this sermon-song, “Climb Every Mountain,” after Maria’s experience on the mountaintop, we are offered the metaphor of the mountaintop journey to a place of belonging, family, home and wholeness. I don’t think it is any accident that the imagery of climbing a mountain was used by the Mother Abbess to mean seeking transformation of faith, self, and truth. She suggests that the journey of life is to make every effort, no matter how hard (fording a river is no picnic), to find something or someone to love. For some of us on the climb of life this might be the journey to self-love, and for others it might be finding a place of home to love. As the movie continues, as Maria finds a family, as culture and trust are tested in the early days of WWII, and as people change and transform for better and for worse, it is Maria’s rootedness in the song of the mountain… the metaphor of the climb with Christ offered by the Mother Abbess that sustains and guides her. The fact that this song returns as the closing chorus hints that director Robert Wise sees it as the central message of the movie.  

Climb every mountain, Ford every stream,
Follow every rainbow, 'Till you find your dream.
A dream that will need (a warning—dreams take work)
All the love you can give,
Every day of your life For as long as you live.

It is almost immediately after the Transfiguration hiking with his favorite Disciples that Jesus turns towards Jerusalem and his destiny. From this point onward, the road shifts towards the horizon of forever. This is the pivot for the difficult journey ahead. Jesus reveals his true, dazzling, fabulous, shiny, bright nature. His invisible companions, the prophets of old (who are probably always with him), also make themselves seen.

And how do the disciples respond to the mountaintop moment? They are terrified, yes Scripture says that, but they also do not want to leave. Interesting. It is a dual response to finding the mountaintop: terror and wonder! “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 

They are ready to set-up camp. They want to stay. They want to hold onto the transfixing moment. There is no indication that they want to go back down the mountain. Maybe they aren’t sure what they will find when they go back down or who they will be after the mountaintop, so they would rather build a tent city and keep the love revealed to them for their own. We know from the end of the passage, like with Maria’s opening scene dance on the mountain top, that they cannot just stay up there. Life is never static. As suddenly as the apparition started, Jesus goes back to wearing his regular street clothes, and the ancient prophets vanish before their eyes as quickly as they appeared—BUT the shift in perspective remains. They can never unsee what they have witnessed. We always think that the transfiguration refers to what happens to Jesus on the mountain, but this year I think it is about what happens to the disciples. The disciples are the ones transfigured in perspective! 

Transfiguration or Transformation Sunday is one of my favorite Sundays of the year for us in the United Church of Christ because it takes us out of our comfort zone. We are really good at Jesus as a teacher (Shaman), example, Historical Jesus, and the parts of faith that take study. Today’s passage is about going deeper with God, looking for the mystical and the magical and the question mark spaces. Today, we think about times and places that offer us a sense of authentic relationship with a transformation God. 

While it could be a church building or a visit to the ocean, or spring on the open prairie, or meditation within, I understand why throughout the Biblical Narrative, like in The Sound of Music, transformation of perspective—life giving new visions of hope—often come from the mountaintop. Growing-up in Colorado exploring the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the Great Tetons of Wyoming, and the Black Hills of South Dakota, the stillness and presence of the sacred in the mountains resonates with me. I find that also here in the ancient, brooding granite mountains of Connecticut. Last summer, when all we could do was hike, I found the same level of transformation at the top of Sleeping Giant Mountain on a perfect October Day and after a long summer hike up Mohawk Mountain. Elevated spaces, no matter how tall, in the Bible often contain the sense of closeness to God. 

But after the hike, after the new perspective, after any experience of deep closeness to God (on a mountain or in our own homes), then the real work begins. The disciples are not permitted to build a tent city for the Sacred and campout. There are no s’mores. There are no baked beans. Jesus doesn’t want tents.

Climb every mountain, Ford every stream,
Follow every rainbow,
'Till you find your dream…. And then the real work begins… 
A dream that will need All the love you can give,
Every day of your life For as long as you live.

I believe that the Coronavirus time has been a year of a pause on the mountaintop of transfiguration of who we are, what our roles are in life, and our sense of the Sacred—for better (new ways of connecting and rethinking our old patterns) and for worse (in many ways it was and is terrifying)! We all see things clearly for what they are and differently now. It is now time to go back down the mountain and take what we have learned and transform it into a new normal now on our way to Jerusalem with Christ. All the love you can give, every day of your life, for as long as you live. 

Here is the point of all this today: We all have, no matter our hiking ability (because of the profound and unexpected nature of this year) experienced Transfiguration since this time last February. On the verge of a full year of pandemic, we have been transformed in the concurrent wonder and terror of it all. Like the Disciples, it contains both terror and stunning new visions of God. Transfiguration, as the text shows and as Mother Abbess warns us in her song, is both beautiful/ inspiriting and terrifying.

My take-away from the text is that while the experience of watching their friend transform into a Greek-style demigod and the ancient ghosts of prophets appear around them was terrifying, it was also beautiful—so beautiful that they never wanted to let it go. This past year has been like a giant Transfiguration of our lives and perspectives. We see things, our country, our families, our relationships, maybe even our own capacities and abilities and also our limitations and mortality in new ways. By golly, we made it a full year! And it was a terrifying and horrible experience like getting caught in a lightning storm on a mountaintop. Beauty and terror—and we will never be the same.

Mother Abbess shared a final sermon to the young Maria before sending her to live as a nanny in the von Trapp household. In it she shares a traditional Biblical image as old as time - of the mountain climb - looking for our destiny, for truth, for God. In this pop culture song, is so much of the truth of the Transfiguration as we have experienced it in ourselves and the Divine Spirit at work in the world over the past year. How have you changed? What new visions of God have emerged for you? It was terrifying. It had its moments of unspeakable beauty and peace. Now, how will we give what is emerging all the love we can give, every day of our lives, as long as we live?

Climb every mountain, Ford every stream,
Follow every rainbow, Till you find your dream.
A dream that will need All the love you can give,
Every day of your life, For as long as you live.
Climb every mountain, Ford every stream,
Follow every rainbow, Till you find your dream.

And then, don’t ever let go.  Amen.

The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph

Associate Minister

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