You can t stay on the mountaintop. Sooner or later you have to make your way back down into the valley. This is just one of the lessons the disciples learned in our gospel for today. On the mountaintop they had a powerful experience, they saw Jesus real identity Jesus the teacher, healer, preacher, leader was revealed as Jesus the Son of God and they heard a voice from heaven proclaiming, This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him. It must have been an overwhelming encounter, a spiritual high, to have their hopes confirmed, to see Jesus standing with the two great figures of Judaism Moses and Elijah. In that moment on the mountain they were given a vision, a spiritual moment, a divine pep-talk, which confirmed for them that they were indeed giving their lives to a man worthy of their loyalty, that they were indeed engaged in God s work in the world. But this moment was fleeting. It didn t last. In spite of Peter s understandable, but misguided, attempt to immortalize the moment by building three shrines, they had to learn that mountaintop experiences are fleeting and eventually you have to go home, you have to come down from the mountain and get back to work.
For the 15 of us who just returned from the youth mission trip in Alaska, we learned this truth as soon as we stepped off the plane in Richmond and were greeted by our lovely 100 degree heat. Everything comes to an end, even the best of adventures. You should be proud of our group. They did a great job on this mission trip and all of them handled themselves beautifully. Twelve of our youth ranging in age from 15 to 18, along with Erin Wright, Chris Edwards and me spent 10 days working and playing in Alaska.
Chris put the entire trip together and he did a fabulous job. Most of our time was spent living and working on the grounds of the new camp and conference center for the Diocese of Alaska being built in a village called Manley Hot Springs. Manley is in the heart of Alaska s interior about 150 miles North West of Fairbanks, 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle, at the end of an 80 mile dirt road. The village population is a booming 85, if you don t count the several dozen Husky sled dogs, and the diocese is building a small camp and conference center there on five acres of land donated to the church. Volunteers are doing all of the construction and this is St. James s second year to help with this project. The kids lived in two unfinished cabins and the adults pitched three tents. For six days we dug holes, poured concrete, built decks, and constructed three of the four walls of the center s chapel and parish hall. With no plumbing and no running water we cooked all our own meals, hauled all our own water and became quite comfortable with outhouse living. Armed with at least 20 bottles of Deep Woods Off we learned to live with mosquitoes that seemed as big as Cardinals and more yellow jackets than I have ever seen in my life. During the day the temperature ranged from the high 50 s to the high 70 s. At night the temperature often dipped into the mid 40 s.
Most days it rained at least some of the time but with 22 hours of daylight this did not stop us from working hard. In the evenings with no showers or running water we would bathe in the slough of the river Tanana. Some nights we were treated to long soaks in the hot springs the town is named for, jumping in and out of three different large concrete spas filled with hot water of varying temperature each fed by the spring. One of the tubs was so hot I thought my toes would boil. We worshipped together every night, giving God thanks for our day, each person having an opportunity to share their high for the day as well as their God moment. It was a special time. We laughed almost constantly. We sang, made jokes and encouraged one another. We learned about ourselves. We learned about each other. We developed a little skill as builders and we grew close as a community. All of our youth handled themselves beautifully and I was proud to be with them.
Last Sunday we held the first Eucharist service ever on the roofless floor of the new chapel and then cleaned up, packed up, and headed off to Denali National Park in two big, white, rental vans. We arrived in Denali about 10 at night, which for those of us not used to Alaska looks a lot like two in the afternoon. Chris had arranged with a rafting company for all of us to enjoy some time whitewater rafting in the park and so we spent Sunday night huddled together in sleeping bags on the porch of the rafting company. Bright and early Monday morning our guides outfitted us in dry suits so we could tolerate the glacial fed, 37 degree water and we headed off. All that day we rafted down the Nenana River, breaking for lunch along the riverbank. We paddled and laughed, took pictures and jumped into the water to test out our dry suits. That night we camped on the river, cooked over an open fire, picked wild blueberries, watched a moose swim against the current, and after a rain shower were treated to a double rainbow set against the backdrop of the Alaskan mountains. The next morning we got back in our suits climbed on our rafts and had a blast riding category 3 and 4 rapids. That afternoon we reluctantly left the river, took our second shower in ten days at an RV park and headed back to Fairbanks where shortly after midnight we caught the first of three flights back to Richmond. Wow, what a trip. Needless to say, while we were glad to be home, arriving in Richmond was definitely coming down from the mountain.
Our gospel lesson for today works beautifully as a way for me to share with all of you something about the Youth Mission trip. For us it was definitely a mountaintop experience. We saw God in each other. We saw God in our work. We saw God in the majesty of the Alaskan wilderness. Like the disciples we were afforded a glimpse of something special, something very memorable. But my point for this morning is not just to tell you about our adventures in Alaska. Rather, I think all of us have on more than one occasion had our own mountaintop experiences. The special vacation, the big family gathering, the laughter filled hours with close friends, the birth of a child, the wedding, graduation, that once in a lifetime perfect sunrise or sunset – moments of joy, deep meaning and the realization of God s majesty experiences that can be life altering. But they are not the norm in life, they are the exception. Peter tried to lock in his experience of Jesus on the mountain, he tried to enshrine it, save it, encapsulate it. But he couldn t. Instead God told him to listen to Jesus and Jesus was calling them all back down the mountain, back to work, back to ministry, back to the mundane but important tasks of everyday living. And so it was for us coming home from Alaska and so it is for all of us who have to come down from our own mountaintop experiences. Sooner or later these brief but important occurrences come to an end and we have to deal with life as it usually is.
But what is important for me in this passage is that God is not just to be found on the mountain. Sure the disciples have to come down but Jesus comes with them. That s the significant part Jesus comes with them. God doesn t say I m up here and when you can climb high enough you can find me, but I am staying up here, high, distant and remote. No Jesus says I am going with you. Step by step, day after day along the journey I will be with you. I will be with you in the work you do. I will be with you in the meals you share. I will be with you in the people you encounter, the tears you shed, the laughter you discover. That is one of the most unique aspects of our faith Christians believe that God is not some distant deity but our creator who loves us so much that he became one of us. It was the last thing Jesus said to his disciples and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20)
The Alaska trip is over, life has returned to normal. But I know that with Christ by my side even the most mundane parts of life have a holiness if only I have the eyes to see and that God can be found in everything you and I do. We may have to come down from the mountain, but we are never alone because the mountain man comes with us. Amen.