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The Disciple Who Went Up a Mountain But Came Down a Hill

In the movie "The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain," two English map makers arrive at a Welsh village to measure the town's mountain. After several days of meticulous calculations, the measurers sadly report to the townsfolk that their mountain is, in fact, only a hill. It lacks the mountain designation by 16 feet. Devastated, the people fret and worry and try to convince the Englishmen to call their hill a mountain.

"It's a mountain to us!" they exclaim.

"Ahh, but it's not truly a mountain, is it now?" comes the reply.

And so the people do the only thing that's left to them. Pail by pail they began hauling dirt up the hill to increase its height to mountain status. After several days and hundreds of trips up the hill, the townsfolk at last succeed in creating a mountain.

Why go to all that trouble over 16 feet of dirt? If you've ever been on a mountain, you know why: Mountains are magical. Hills are part of our everyday lives, but mountains-when you get to the top of a mountain, you see the world in a whole new way.

The biblical writers know the importance of mountains. When big things happen in Scripture, they often happen on mountains. After the flood, Noah parks the ark on a mountain. Moses goes up a mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. And, then, at the end of his life, Moses scales Mt. Nebo to get a glimpse of the Promised Land. In the Bible, big things happen on mountains!

Today's scene from Luke is no different. Jesus takes Peter, John, and James up a mountain, and something big happens. In the midst of praying, Jesus' countenance changes, his face looks different, his clothes glow. Then Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus and the three of them talk together about Jesus' coming departure. Certain that something big is happening, Peter blurts out the first thing that comes to mind. "It is good for us to be here," he said. "Let us make three dwellings-one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." Peter was right. Something big was happening. Jesus was, after all, glowing, and he was hanging out with Moses and Elijah. Something big was happening, but the really big thing was about to happen. Because as soon as Peter stopped speaking, a cloud descends on the mall and they hear a voice. "This is my Son, the Chosen, my Beloved. Listen to him." Then, suddenly, it's just the four of them again-the disciples and Jesus alone. Yes, this is definitely something big. This is definitely a mountaintop experience. Or is it?

I wonder what Peter meant by that comment about setting up tents to Jesus and Moses and Elijah. The Bible says he didn't know what he was saying, and that's probably true. But, still, you wonder why he blurted out the thing he said rather than something else. There's no way for us to know for sure, but I wonder if it was all just too much for Peter, seeing Jesus transfigured, seeing Moses and Elijah, glimpsing God's truth as no mortal ever had before. I wonder if it was all too much for Peter, if the experience was just too big. I wonder if he needed to whittle it down a little, to domesticate it. Let's set up some monuments to this experience we've had. Yeah, let's create some dwellings for Jesus and Moses and Elijah. That way we'll always know where they are. We can visit them at our convenience. They can be part of our everyday lives.

Maybe Peter is trying to make the magical mundane. Maybe he's trying to domesticate the Deity. Perhaps Peter is the disciple who goes up a mountain, but overwhelmed by what he experiences there, comes down a hill.

But before we go too hard on Peter, let's think about this thing for a minute. He's been living and working with Jesus for a while now. He's gotten to know him pretty well, and all of a sudden, this one he thinks he knows looks completely different. He sees him hanging out with people he never imagined he'd hang out with. On that mountain, Peter sees Jesus literally in a new light. His being overwhelmed kind of makes sense.

What happens when we see Jesus, this one who shows us best what God is all about? What happens when we see Jesus in a place or in a way we've never seen him before? What do we do when we see Jesus hanging out with people we've never imagined him hanging out with before? What do we do when we see Jesus in someone of another race or from another country or of another political party or of another economic status? What happens when God shouts to us from some strange, new place or person, "Here is my child, my Beloved. Listen!"? What do we do when we see Jesus as we've never seen him before? Do we allow ourselves to experience the mountain, to see the world in a completely new way? Or do we try our best to whittle the experience down to the more manageable size of a hill?

In her memoir, "Traveling Mercies," writer Anne Lamott tells the story of one who allows herself to experience the mountaintop. Ranola is a backbone of the church she attends. She sings in the choir, teaches Sunday school and is there every time the doors are opened. Everybody loves Ranola, and Ranola loves everybody-well, almost everybody. Ken also attends the church. Ken has AIDS. Ken also is gay. Ranola, raised by conservative Baptists in the South, never knew what to do with Ken, so she usually just ignored him. Ken attended the church faithfully for a year, but then got very sick and had to miss several weeks. On the Sunday he came back to church, Ranola continued in her standoffishness until they sang "His Eye is on the Sparrow." As they sang, Ranola looked out from her place in the choir loft and saw Ken, his body devastated by disease. He was sitting because he didn't have the strength to stand, but still he sang with great joy: "Why should I feel discouraged? Why should the shadows fall?" And as she looked, and as they sang, Ranola left the choir loft and went to where Ken was sitting, and she reached down and lifted him up and held him as they sang.

Now I doubt that when she got up that morning Ranola imagined that by noontime, she would have held a gay man with AIDS and sung a song. But, somehow, from her perch in the choir loft, her mountain, if you will, Ranola looked out at the world and saw it from a completely different perspective. She looked at Ken and she heard somewhere deep inside her, "This is my child, my beloved." And Ranola listened and her life was changed. Ranola had been to the mountaintop.

In the final scene of "The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain," the narrator says that just before filming, the mountain had been measured again. Alas, after decades of settling, the mountain was, once again, just a hill. As the camera fades, the descendants of the original townspeople begin bringing dirt up the hill pail by pail having decided once again to recreate a mountain.

Our faith lives provide us with a similar choice. In our encounters with Jesus, will we allow ourselves the magic of the mountaintop or will we choose instead the manageability of the hill? When we look at others, will we see Jesus? Will we hear God say, "This is my child, my beloved. Listen!"?

Will we be the disciple who goes up a mountain but comes down a hill or the one who goes up the hill and comes down a mountain?

O God, help us to experience the fullness of your love from wherever and from whomever you send it. In the name of our God who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.