Let’s Live Here
I want you to take a minute and think of your most profound positive religious experience. When was it? How old were you? What did it change about your life? Where was it? Was it here?
Maybe? Maybe not. It wasn’t, was it?
You’re not alone. Mine neither. Most of my profound religious experiences were in places that were distinctly different from my every day life. Church retreats. Summer Camp. Youth Conferences. Mission Trips. Religious experiences are much more common in retreat than in every day life. Christians from the beginning have taken time away be in communion with God. And in those spaces, freed from the stress and frustrations of our lives, we’re truly able to commune with God. It might be that you’ve got a place in the Poconos you like to go. Might be a mission trip, or a worship conference, or something you did as a teenager, Triennium or a mission trip. But wherever it was, you had an encounter with the living God.
I call these experiences mountaintop experiences. Old Testament spirituality often spoke of holy places as “high places” because they were often on mountaintops. Moses went up on Mt. Sinai where he encountered God and received the Torah and the Ten Commandments. Solomon went up to a high place to ask for wisdom.
But altitude is not a necessity. The story of Pitman is the story of one such place. A beautiful lake, a lovely grove. The perfect setting for a Methodist Camp meeting, where people would leave the stress of their every day lives to be caught up in a religious experience. They came back year after year. And they said, it is good for us to be here. Let’s live here. Let us build ourselves a dwelling place. Nothing could be better than to bask in the glory of God in this place. And tents turned into platforms turned into cabins turned into homes.
I’d bet if you’re here on Sunday morning, it is because at some point in your life you have had a mountaintop experience. Might have been on a mountain top. Maybe not. Maybe it was your bedroom or a hospital bed. But there was a moment for you when the heavens opened up for, and you caught a glimpse of the glory of God. And in today’s Gospel passage, Jesus takes his three closest disciples, Peter, James, and John up a mountain. And they have their mountaintop experience.
They saw a vision of God’s glory. They heard about the victory that Jesus would accomplish. They saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. They heard God’s voice – “This is my son, my beloved. Listen to him!” It has to have been an incredible experience. There is nothing like it. A vision of heaven. And it happened away from the crowds and the travels and antagonistic scribes and stresses of daily discipleship. And Peter, being the disciple most likely to say exactly what was on his mind at any given moment, said, “It is good for us to be here. Let’s live here. Nothing could be better than to bask in the glory of God in this place.”
The Bible says right here that Peter didn’t know what he was saying. Which is what you say when it’s obvious that they shouldn’t be saying it. But I don’t think it’s really that obvious for us. Because when we have mountaintop experiences, we feel the same way. We love those experiences. We never want them to end. We go back to the same places to do the same things so that we can have them again and again and again. We think, “Gee, wouldn’t it be great if I could live here. Let’s build a dwelling place. Nothing could be better than to bask in the glory of God in this place.
But we have to go down the mountain. We’ve got to eat, and spiritual retreat does not put food on the table. Freeing yourself from the pressures of every day life isn’t cheap. But even if we could afford to spend all our lives in retreat, if we do we have missed the heart of the Christian message.
Because Christianity isn’t about rising up to heaven. It’s about bringing heaven down to earth. This is the miracle of the incarnation. Rather than staying in heaven, God came down to earth, to live and dwell among us, full of grace and truth. The movement of the Christian faith is downward. It is about bringing heavenly glory into earthly places. Not abandoning earthliness in favor of heavenly glory. That’s why our religion is constantly grounding itself in ordinary things. Plain tap water. Bread and juice. Coffee and cookies and folding chairs. The task of Christians is not to go to heaven but to bring heaven down to earth.
We are tempted with Peter to stay on the mountaintop, because life among ordinary things is hard work. Living in covenant relationship requires give and take. Even in church, where we’re trying to do this the best we can, faithful people with different ideas and priorities will come into conflict and we’ll have to sort it out. Even when it’s working well, everyone will be doing things they don’t enjoy, and most of us will feel like we’re doing more than our fair share. That’s how it goes. Moses was up on Mt. Sinai 40 days basking in communion with God. And he wasn’t down the mountain 40 minutes before everything had gone to the dogs. He smashed the tablets and went back up.
Christian discipleship in the world is hard work. Loving everyone is easy when you don’t have to deal with anyone. It is much harder when you’ve sent three emails and two voicemails and someone calls two days later and says, “Oh, why didn’t you tell me?” It is easy to think that we should make sacrifices to go and take care of our neighbors. It is harder to look at our schedule and say, “What am I cut from my life in order to go volunteer?” Yoga? Movie night? Soccer? Piano practice?
We’d much rather be in retreat, being perfectly spiritual people in perfect communication with God. But the purpose of retreat is to gather our strength so that we can go back out into the world loving bravely, loving boldly, learning the deep holiness of ordinary things. Because you will find, the low places are among some of the holiest on earth, because that is where you will find God at work.
Our calling as Christians is to experience God’s glory, and then bring that back into the world. We are here to be a community of the risen Christ, fully embodied together, with all our fights and flaws, so that people might know that God is not just in things that look heavenly but in things that look ordinary, or even downright profane.
I want to tell you a different story. Mary Clarke grew up wealthy in Hollywood. After her father’s death she ran her family business, and was successful in work, if not marriage. She was married twice and divorce twice. After her second divorce, her children were grown. She had spent her life in charity work, and decided to devote her life to God. But as Richard Beck puts it, “no religious order would take a forty-something, twice divorced, grandmother. So on March 19, 1977 Mary Brenner decided to take matters into her own hands. If no order would take her she’d go it alone. That morning she put on a black dress and a homemade veil and became Sister Antonia”
Sister Antonia went to church, made personal vows of obedience, chastity, fidelity, and service. And then she went to La Mesa prison in Tijuana. She had been visiting there for years. She brought in anything that the prisoners needed. Aspirin, toiletries, eyeglasses. She got a contract to sell soda and used the money to bail people out.
She was at the prison so much they gave her a cell. She could come and go as she pleased, but mostly she stayed, because that’s where she was called to be. She had known God throughout her life. But she went to La Mesa prison and she said, “It is good for me to be here. Let’s live here. Nothing could be better than to bring God’s glory to this place.” This is the call of Christian discipleship. It is not to be above the world, but to be an ambassador of heaven here on earth. Our church is the beachhead where we try to establish that blessed community so that we can go out into the world and proclaim and reveal and be God’s glory in ordinary things.
It is not to go up the mountain, or in an ivory tower or a gated community. It is to go down into the world, where things are not perfect, where things do not feel holy or spiritual, and partner with God in bringing grace into those places. If our community is itself a retreat from the world, then going down the mountain might involve going away from our homes to places where we find the stress and distress that we have hidden away from at home. But wherever it may be, in our ordinary lives, in extraordinary strife, we bring that heavenly Kingdom promised to Peter, James and John on the mountaintop. And we say, “It is good for us to be here. Let’s live here. Nothing could be better than to be God’s disciples in this place.”
 Beck, Richard. “The Little Way of Mother Antonia” Experimental Theology. Blog Post. http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-little-way-of-mother-antonia.html Accessed 3/2/19
 Yardley, William. “Antonia Brenner, ‘Prison Angel’ Who Took Inmates Under Her Wing, Is Dead at 86” The New York Times, 20 October 2013. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/21/us/antonia-brenner-prison-angel-who-took-inmates-under-her-wings-dies-at-86.html Accessed 3/2/2019