Monday, February 3, 2014

SERMON: "Let's Go to the Mountains"

"Let's Go to the Mountains"
Micah 6:1-8 Matthew 5:1-12

"Maker of mountains -
Creator of their beauty and their might,
I lift my small and human heart to thee.
Fill it, I pray, with something of their might,
Their steadfastness, their high serenity;
Sweep it with canyon winds, and wash it clean
With clear cold water from the eternal snow.
Let these bright torrents purge it, let all mean
Desires and passions leave it - let me go
Back to the lowlands, back to crowded days,
Poised and sustained, and ready for my part.
Let me go back, schooled in the mountains' ways.
Bearing their old vast secrets in my heart." (1)

So reflects Grace Noll Crowell in one of my favorite devotional/reflection books "Prayer at the Feet of the Mountains." What is it about mountains that beckons us to come to them? What is it about them that creates in us a desire to climb to the top of them? What is it about them that has us poking our children and exclaiming, "Look over there - have you ever seen anything so beautiful?" What is it about them that causes us to behold them with awe?

There surely is something sacred/spiritual about mountains. I grew up in the flatlands of northwestern Ohio - I only knew mountains from pictures; they were pretty, but I really had no appreciation for what they really were. I remember my first drive through the Smokies on our way to Florida on a family vacation after my graduation from high school (a trip with its own set of memorable moments) – wow! Being in the midst of the mountains was a whole lot more impressive and different than looking at them in a book. They were so big – so beautiful – how? Who?

Over the years I’ve returned to the mountains again and again. And each time I’ve found myself in more of a reflective mood than in my daily living. I pay attention to the nature that surrounds me. I sense another aspect of me, something deep inside and I wonder about the existence of it all.  Sometimes it happens as I walk the trails deep within the mountain or along its ridges; sometimes it happens as I reach the top and look out over what it gets to look at every day of its existence. No matter where it happens, there is this reality that there is something more to life than what I normally perceive and I’ve come to believe/ponder at least, that it is the awareness that God/something more powerful than me is present that is different.

There is something about the mountains that elevates our spirits/souls: their stillness, their permanence, their majesty. Our senses are stimulated by them. Whether we are climbers or not, there seems to be an awareness that there is something from beyond ourselves, something mystical that pulls at us when we are in the vicinity of mountains.

The two scripture readings I'm considering happen on or around mountains. The situation in Micah is that Yahweh is upset with his people because they have forgotten the blessings in the past and they have forgotten what God requires of them. The scene Micah describes has Yahweh taking his people to court for their unfaithfulness and it has God inviting the people to “…plead their case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice.” God gives to the mountains power; God makes them witnesses, to not only hear the charges but to hear the peoples’ case - sort of a cosmic court session. God invites us to come to the mountain; to shout our complaints where no one but God can hear; to cry where no one but God can see; to scream and laugh and shout for joy and pray at a level we do not normally allow ourselves.

And then God says in Micah, “Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord.” God not only invites us to express ourselves before the mountain, God also entreats the mountain to listen. Micah leaves no doubt that he believes God has set the mountain up to play a key role in the communication between the creator of the universe and humanity.

In the well-known Matthew passage reading we hear about Jesus and His disciples also on a mountain. And Jesus is teaching: teaching about the New Life. Teaching about being poor in spirit, about mourning, and being meek, and hungering and thirsting, of being merciful, of being a peacemaker – and the basic idea is that we are blessed for identifying our walk in the faith in these ways. Now there’s a lot more that can be gleaned from each of these Beatitudes but what I suggest we think about is the idea that Jesus chose the mountain setting because there is a receptiveness to the things of the Spirit upon a mountain. Nowhere else in all creation would the disciples – would we – be able to understand the uniqueness of the teachings of Christ. On the mountain – in the mountains – we can be taught; we can learn; God can get through to us.

In the book "Meditations in the Mountains", the author writes about a scientist who was trying to band birds on the crest of a mountain in the Allegheny range of West Virginia. She later reflected on the annual ten thousand mile migration of these little creatures – wintering on the shores of the Caribbean and then unerringly retracing their flight back to the mountains for the rest of the year. And the author writes, “Sometimes I feel a great affinity for my friends the birds, who fly so unerringly to their mountain habitations in spite of the vagaries of the weather or the interference of bird-banding humans. The tiny winged beings seem to know that beyond these present distractions lies a place of refuse.”

“I have distractions, too,” she writes. “There are deadlines to be met, household tasks to be completed, and duties to be performed with family and friends. If these come along in orderly procession, they are pleasures. If they all occur at the same time, it is easy to become distraught. It is then that I think of the Psalmist’s remark, “Flee as a bird to your mountain.”

“We cannot always literally escape to the mountains, for the nearest are more than one hundred fifty miles away. However, having been there, I can recreate their quietness and strength within my heart. I can find a quiet corner in my home, shut my eyes, and recall the sense of peace and serenity found among the mountains. I can see once again the mountain streams dashing joyously downward over granite rocks. I can smell the tall pines in the thick forest. I can hear the twittering of birds in the branches and recall the vastness of the view from the crest.”

“From some source, I cannot define, but which never fails, a sense of peace and quiet descends, and I am thankful that I too, like my feathered friends, can flee to the mountains.” (2)

Many of us, like the author, are a long way from the mountains – even for those of us in central Ohio, the Hocking Hills (hills) are a little too far away to bring immediate contact with our God. But we do have the ability to recreate the setting within our own hearts, not just the mountains, but any place where we have especially noted a healing presence.

I’d like to end this blog post by suggesting an experience you might want to use when you're in need of a mountain-type experience but no such place is nearby. It’s a short meditation designed to allow us to flee to the mountains or wherever our private place is, wherever we are. (This is another one of those times during worship when I won’t suspect you are falling asleep if you close your eyes.) I’m going to give you some ideas to help you in the meditation and after each you might to pause and reflect.

Begin by thinking of a mountain you have visited; recall a place on the mountain where you found yourself resting; it may have been along a trail; it may have been in a picnic area, or on top of the mountain. Wherever it was imagine yourself there again; see if you can recall the smells. Is it hot or cold? Is it raining or is the sun shining? Are you leaning against a tree or sitting on a rock? What are you thinking about? Are there things you would like to share with God? Are there hurts? Joys? Wants? Needs? have that you would like to let God know about? While you are thinking about what you want to share with God, you notice someone is approaching, and as he gets closer you recognize him as Jesus or a friend who has been especially supportive or encouraging in your life. When he/she arrives, he/she sits down beside you and invites you to share with him/her what’s on your mind. And as you talk, he/she listens…

After a long while, you pause; Jesus places his hands on yours and says, “I am with you. Peace be with you.” And you sense the burdens of your life being lifted off of you. After a little while longer Jesus stands, places His hands on your head and says, “The Lord be with you.” And then He turns and slowly walks away. You stand and begin to follow Him and as you do you find yourself returning to your place of sanctuary, confident that Jesus/God is with you. Let us pray.

PRAYER:  O Creator of the mountains, and Creator of us, we know that You are more ready to give guidance and direction than we are to receive it. Help us to understand that mountain vastness, both present and remembered, can aid us in finding your will for us and in charting life’s course; we give You thanks for the mountain respites in our lives and seek your guidance in making use of them in our daily living.

O God, whose vastness is incomprehensible, our faith, as a dormant seed, awaits your nourishing strength. In the outpouring of your truth, transform our thinking into action. Then we can continue to grow and to live with purpose. In Christ's name. Amen. (3)

1. Grace Noll Crowell, "Prayer at the Feet of the Mountains."
2. Martha Vullemeier, "Meditations on the Mountain."
3. Unknown. I used this the first time many years ago before I was properly footnoting. My suspicion is it comes from either Crowell's or Vullemer's books.

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