Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 14, 2010

2010.02.14 “Spiritual Geography”

Central United Methodist Church

“Spiritual Geography”

Pastor David L. Haley

Luke 9: 28 – 43a

February 14th, 2010

       “About eight days after saying this, Jesus climbed the mountain to pray, taking Peter, John, and James along. While he was in prayer, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became blinding white.  At once two men were there talking with him.

       They turned out to be Moses and Elijah — and what a glorious appearance they made! They talked over his exodus, the one Jesus was about to complete in Jerusalem.

       Meanwhile, Peter and those with him were slumped over in sleep. When they came to, rubbing their eyes, they saw Jesus in his glory and the two men standing with him.  When Moses and Elijah had left, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, this is a great moment! Let’s build three memorials: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He blurted this out without thinking.

       While he was babbling on like this, a light-radiant cloud enveloped them. As they found themselves buried in the cloud, they became deeply aware of God.  Then there was a voice out of the cloud: “This is my Son, the Chosen! Listen to him.”

       When the sound of the voice died away, they saw Jesus there alone. They were speechless. And they continued speechless, said not one thing to anyone during those days of what they had seen.

When they came down off the mountain the next day, a big crowd was there to meet them. A man called from out of the crowd, “Please, please, Teacher, take a look at my son. He’s my only child. Often a spirit seizes him. Suddenly he’s screaming, thrown into convulsions, his mouth foaming. And then it beats him black-and-blue before it leaves. I asked your disciples to deliver him but they couldn’t.”

Jesus said, “What a generation! No sense of God! No focus to your lives! How many times do I have to go over these things? How much longer do I have to put up with this? Bring your son here.”

While he was coming, the demon slammed him to the ground and threw him into convulsions. Jesus stepped in, ordered the vile spirit gone, healed the boy, and handed him back to his father. They all shook their heads in wonder, astonished at God’s greatness, God’s majestic greatness.” – Luke 9: 28 – 43a, The Message


When I’m not here, but off on a trip somewhere as time and finances allow, one of things I love doing is exploring sacred places.  Sometimes those sacred places are cathedrals, such as Chartres in France, sometimes they are historical sites, such as the birthplace of the Buddha in India, sometimes they are sacred mountains.  Two immediately come to find.

        The first is Bear Butte, South Dakota (1,253 ft.), the sacred mountain to the Lakota Sioux.  It’s right outside of Sturgis (now known mostly for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally).  I got there late in the day, at almost dusk, after the park office had closed, and no one was around.  There was an eerie quietness, and here and there near paths on the base of the mountain, prayer flags were flying, something I hadn’t seen since Nepal. I don’t know if you will believe me when I tell you that there was a palpable sense of sacredness to the place; I could feel it.  Which made me think I’m doing what I ought to be doing (holy man.)

        The second such mountain is St. Patrick’s holy mountain in Ireland, Croagh Patrick (2,500 ft.), near Westport in County Mayo.  I remember a few years ago while on vacation with my family, and stopping and looking longingly up its paths. At the time it was raining, (rain in Ireland?), and because of the clouds you couldn’t see the top, so there was no enthusiasm for climbing it from the other five members of my family at all. (Now I’ll have to go back).  But each year almost a million people do climb it, as many as 30,000-40,000 people on the last weekend in July alone, some of whom do it barefoot, as a sign of penitence. Are you starting to get this sense of holy mountains? Perhaps you yourself have climbed one?

        So it is with this sense of spiritual geography that we hear today’s Gospel, a story about Jesus climbing a holy mountain with three of his disciples, traditionally Mt. Tabor (1,886 ft.), where there on the mountain they catch a glimpse of his glory.  (By the way, it took about 500 years, but they did follow Peter’s advice and build at church on Mt. Tabor.  The current one is The Church of the Transfiguration, pictured here.)

        We hear this story on the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany, in which, Sunday by Sunday, we have glimpsed the glory of God in Jesus the Christ. First at his birth, then in his childhood visit to the temple, at his baptism, at the wedding of Cana, in his visit to his hometown synagogue, and through the calling of his disciples. Today, through Jesus’ transfiguration, we get the culminating glimpse of his glory, and hear again the Voice that spoke at his baptism: “This is my Beloved Son, listen to him!”

        The usual way we deal with this story is – as Barbara Brown Taylor says – “to go pawing over it”, to see what remnant, what residue, what ember we can still find of what happened there, mysterious as it was. That is, after all, what we humans do with such high and holy experiences.

        But this morning I would like to back the camera up a bit to look at what I call the spiritual geography of the story. They climbed – they went UP the mountain – to have a spiritual experience; they came DOWN the mountain, to minister to human need. 

        In fact, though we don’t always pay attention to it, the Gospels authors – Matthew, Mark, and Luke in particular – all frame the story in this way.

        Just before, Jesus had told them about how it was necessary for him to “suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and how he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Bummer! Downer!  In fact, they didn’t want to hear it. 

        Then he had said to them: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”  Bummer! Downer! They didn’t want to hear that, either.  So after this “downer” they went UP the mountain, to have a mountaintop experience.

        But after that experience, they had to go back DOWN the mountain, where – in the midst of a crowd – they were confronted by a screaming demoniac, against which they were powerless. (So much for mountaintop experiences.) In exasperation, before taking care of it himself, Jesus said: “What a generation! No sense of God! No focus to your lives! How many times do I have to go over these things? How much longer do I have to put up with this?”  (If he said that about them, I wonder what he would say about us?)

There is an old spiritual, “Nobody Knows The Trouble I See,” of which one of the verses says: “Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down, Oh, Yes, Lord.”

So what I’m saying is that this song – as this story – describes not only a spiritual psychology but a spiritual geography of our lives, which is not only descriptive, but essential.  Some we are up, and sometimes we are down: Oh, yes, Lord!

        Sometimes we are up, sometimes we need to and we get to have a mountaintop experience, glorious and memorable. Sometimes those experiences are private and personal, sometimes they are experienced with others.  Sometimes they are in church, or centered in spiritual disciples such as reading the Bible and prayer; sometimes they occur in the most unexpected of places, beyond our creation or control. That’s why I appreciated Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World, in which she not only reminded us that most of the great spiritual experiences recorded in the Bible had nothing to do with synagogue or church, and that if we think that is the case, we blind ourselves to most of the ways God is speaking to us.

        When, through any means, a profound spiritual experience occurs, is it any wonder that we – like Peter – want to “save” it, to build a shrine, to record it on a piece of paper? The 17th French mystic Pascal once wrote down on paper such an experience he had; so important was it to him that he sewed it in the lining of his coat.  Or what about our founder John Wesley’s heartwarming experience at Aldersgate, which he diligently recorded in his journal, which has continued to inspire generations of Methodists ever since?

        Where do you seek your mountaintop experiences? I’m afraid we’re in short supply of sacred mountains here in the Midwest; so where do you seek “UP” in the spiritual geography of your life?  Where is your altar in the world?  Here in church?  In your private prayer and devotions? I suggest that if we don’t have such a place, for the sake of our life and ministry, we’d better find one.

        The reason we need such experiences, and the reason they are so important, is because they prepare us for the DOWN experiences, which inevitably follow. How does the Old Testament Book of Job put it:  “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.”

        In fact, that’s what happened in the Gospel. After the mountaintop experience, lead by Jesus, they had to go back DOWN in the valley, back to the needy crowds, back to the sea of human trouble.

The British New Testament scholar, and the Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright (whom I once met in another sacred place, Westminster Abbey), once wrote:

“The more open we are to God, and to the different dimensions of God’s glory, the more we seem to be open to the pain of the world. We are right to be wary when we return from some great worship service, when we rise from a time of prayer in which God has seemed close and his love real and powerful. These things are never given for their own sake, but so that, as we are equipped by them, God can use us within his needy world” (Luke for Everyone).

        What I’m saying, Church, what I’m saying to all of us, Christians, is that we need and must have both experiences.  We must have our UP, we must have our worship, we must have our mountaintop experiences. But to authentically be the Church, to be the followers of the Christ in the world, to bring the kingdom Jesus initiated, we must also go DOWN the mountain to confront human need, even the screaming demoniacs of the world, in whatever form they present themselves.  It is there among the crowds, as surely as in the clouds, that God’s glory in Christ was also manifest:

“Jesus stepped in, ordered the vile spirit gone, healed the boy, and handed him back to his father. They all shook their heads in wonder, astonished at God’s greatness, God’s majestic greatness.”

        Where is your valley of service? Where in the great sea of human need – amongst what demoniacs of the world – are you bringing God’s liberating, healing power?  What manifestation of the saving work of God is causing you to shake your head in wonder, astonished at God’s greatness, God’s majestic greatness?

        As much as we might want to stay here in church, seeing the signs of God’s glory and singing the songs of praise, as much as we might want to stay on the mountaintop, we cannot; Jesus summons us to back down the mountain, that’s where the need is.

        In our own time, there has been no more powerful example, no mountaintop/valley experience more analogous to that of Jesus, than the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. Particularly his speech at Mason Temple, in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated. For what: do you remember why he was there? A strike by the city’s sanitation workers, protesting low pay and poor working conditions. If that’s not down in the valley, I don’t know what is. Here’s how that speech, Dr. King’s “mountaintop” speech – the last speech he ever gave – ended.  Obviously, as he was speaking, he seemed to have a premonition1:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” 

        As we end Epiphany and embark on our Lenten journey, as we come down from the mountaintop and down into the valley, as we leave worship to go back out into the world, I suggest we ponder these questions2:

  • Where were mountaintop moments when we caught a glimpse of God’s glory? 


  • How are we obeying the Still-Speaking God’s command: “Listen to Jesus”?


  • Are we awake to what God is doing in the world, in the life of our congregation, and in our lives?


  • Is transformation really a sudden thing, or a day-by-day, perhaps even hour-by-hour process?


  • How do we integrate our glimpses of God’s love, our tastes of God’s glory, into the everydayness of our lives? 


  • How do read and hear this text as a call to take what we have experienced out into the world? 


1This part of Dr. King’s speech may be seen here on YouTube:

        2These questions were posed by Rev. Kate Huey in her weekly commentary on the text, “Astounding Glory,” found at


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