New Direction (or Walking Downhill)
Alan P. Sherouse
Scripture: Luke 9.28-36
The story begins as Jesus calls on Peter, John and James and together they walk up the mountain. Many of you know what that’s like.
I wasn’t exactly a boy scout as a child, so my first extended hiking trip didn’t occur until the summer after my senior year of college. Some friends and I had planned a trip right after graduation – a week on the Appalachian Trail with our beloved Philosophy professor, Dr. T. Perry Hildreth, or “T” as we called him. It was to be a rite of passage. For me, it was just 6 weeks before my marriage to college sweetheart Jenny Warner, and just a few months before a move to North Carolina, the beginning of divinity school, the start of a new job, and my entry into that “real world” I had heard so much about somewhere out in the distance beyond the safety of Palm Beach Atlantic College.
“T” was a steady and experienced hiker, having completed much of the Trail in stages each summer. So as Trail Boss he selected a route, planned the trip, and advised us as we prepared. He helped us know what kind of supplies to buy, what kind of menus to plan, and he taught us key insights like pass on protein bars and bring Snickers instead.
He also insisted we spend some time before the trip getting accustomed to carrying 50lbs uphill. So we obliged him a couple times in stairwells and parking garages on campus. It felt a little hokey to me. I wasn’t too worried about it. I was in pretty good shape, having spent my free time that semester peddling South Florida tourists around on a bike taxi so I could afford a nice honeymoon. I felt like I had the energy and endurance necessary for the uphill climb.
And sure enough, as we started the hike, all was smooth. We made steady progress up the trail. We left “T” and his fancy hiking poles behind on ascents. At times we raced uphill, wagering our Snickers on who would win. And by Day 2 we had made it to one of the highest peaks on the southern AT: Roan Mountain. We felt satisfied, enjoying the amazing views and relishing accomplishment around the campfire.
But there’s something about hiking I didn’t know. I guess I couldn’t have known it until I experienced it. That is, you have to prepare for the downhill, too. The ache you feel the day after a hike isn’t from the ascent. It’s from the walk down, stretching your muscles as you head down the slope, tensing as gravity pulls you, arching your back to avoid a fall or face-plant. On an uphill climb we lean forward naturally. But walking down, we have to bend backward. It’s unnatural posture, sometimes hard to balance, using different muscles. That’s where you get shin splints, or where our boot rubs a raw spot on your Achilles. That’s where you can have a misstep, like I did, that twisted my ankle, all my weight coming down on it, leaving me reaching for a hiking stick and lagging far behind. Because it’s actually harder to walk downhill than up.
High on the mountain in our passage today, Peter, James and John are taking in a grand view. It had been a relatively quick ascent for them. From casting nets and working in the family business, to finding themselves following in the ways of Jesus, inspired by his healing, transformed by his teaching, learning to take on some of his elegant grace, and becoming more than they ever knew they could be. With all that adrenaline they must have raced up the trail in their perpetual contest to determine who was the greatest after all. And once atop the mountain, they could look back and imagine just how far they had come, filled with the breathless longing that such peaks can give us.
Sister Joan Chittister has pointed out that mountains in Greek, Hebrew, Roman and Asian religious literature, are always places where humans can touch the divine. In Exodus, Moses and Joshua ascend the mountain to speak directly to God. And so in the same way, Jesus takes his friends up the mountain where they can see him clearly as transfigured Christ, radiant and filled with light.
Up on the mountain they find themselves in what Celtic Christians would have termed a “thin place.” It’s a place so elevated – so full of light – that the veil between earth and heaven, human and divine, seems to thin to where it is so easy to see God, to hear God’s voice (“this is my son, the beloved” it says), to sense God’s light transforming you and reinventing you (“he was transfigured before them” Luke describes).
It’s so often what we seek in our lives. It’s what we prepare for – to ascend to those places. The mountaintop. The dazzling light. The grand view. The feeling of satisfaction.
Stephen Covey, the leadership theorist and executive coach, spends much of his time with people who are ascending – leaders and executives reaching peaks in their careers and personal lives. Once he was with a gathering of such leaders on retreat, and he posed the question: what metaphor will we use to determine the way we will live our lives?
And Covey has found that most high-level executives use “mountain climbing” as their metaphor. They set goals for their lives because goals help us know if we have lived successfully. They make plans and necessary preparations. They measure progress based on the day’s mileage. And they rarely stop lest someone else should leave them behind. But Covey observes that the problem he sees is that you sweat, climb and reach what you thought was the goal of your life but when you reach the top and it levels out chances are you feel a little empty, as though in all your striving there were things you missed. Most of us don’t ever prepare to walk down from there.
And it’s not just the over-achievers and the competitors. It’s so many of us in so many parts of our lives – career, home, community service, family, education, maybe with our expectations of our kids, maybe in our lives of faith – so many of us who only prepare to walk uphill.
I think of a friend, Amanda, who had a life-changing opportunity some years ago to spend a summer in Calcutta, India, where she would work in the homes of Mother Teresa. These were homes for street children, and homes for people who were dying – people who were found in the streets by outreach teams and carried back to a place where they could live out their final days in dignity. Amanda had prepared for months, with so much leading up to this moment when she would work alongside Mother Teresa, maybe holding the hands of those who were nearing the end, or running programs for children that would help them know they were beloved of God.
Only when she arrived, Mother Teresa wasn’t there. Amanda learned that Mother Teresa would be spending those months on an international benevolence tour. And when she reported for work her first day, she was placed in the kitchen, washing pots. Then the next day she ended up in the laundry, washing sheets. This went on for weeks, frustrating my friend. So she asked one of her supervisors, “Hey, I’ve been spending all my time washing pots, and cleaning sheets, and folding bandages. I wanted to work with Mother Teresa. What does Mother Teresa do when she’s here?” And the supervisor said, “Well, when she’s here, Mother Teresa cleans sheets, she folds bandages, she washes pots.”
And somewhere the whisper could be heard for Amanda and all of us racing up the mountain: “The greatest among you will be your servant.”
And it’s so unnatural for us – the way down. The disciples resist it. They’re basking in the light and breathing the thin air. They’ve built a campfire and now they want to build houses up there, too. “Rabbi,” Peter says. “It is good for us to be here. Let me set up camp. Let me construct some dwellings. Let me do whatever I can do with my own hands to bring some permanence to this glory and some continuation to all this light.”
It’s what we always do. We try to build walls around the good things of God. We bring in some furniture and make a home there so we can stay.
Jesus says nothing in response. But we look and see that his actions say all we need to know about the content of his ministry and the priorities of his life. “We cannot stay here,” Jesus seems to say. The mountain is not fit for a dwelling. The light cannot be contained in the walls we would build for it. “Suddenly, they saw no one with him any more…only Jesus” And they begin to follow him as he walks down.
And as he descends we remember again that this way of Jesus – indeed this faith we embrace – is not the story of us going up. It’s about Jesus coming down.
How many times have we assumed the way of Christ – the way of faith – is a journey up the mountain, searching for that light that we might rise to it? But it’s the story of Christ coming down – all the way down into our brokenness, woundedness, fear, disappointment, and loss. It’s what Paul writes in Philippians in a passage that itself reads as a steady descent: “Christ being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, but made himself nothing and took on the form of a servant, and humbled himself to death… even death on a cross…”
The message of Christ from the manger to the cross is that the world is changed through humility, through power in weakness, through struggle – not from the top, but from the bottom. For all of us wanting a mighty Messiah, he arrives as infant refugee. Instead of a powerful ruler, he operates as a homeless teacher. It is not his demonstrative strength that saves the world, but his enduring love. He humbled himself to death, even death on the cross, and as risen Lord he carries not only the wounds in his wrists and side, but the wounds of all those beaten down, cast out, and despised. He has bourn all our sorrows.
So many of us are seduced by the offer that Satan made to Jesus in the dessert, taking us high on a mountain, looking out, “Just imagine, this can all be yours if you would but win this world with power.” But Jesus will not be tempted. He is always walking down from there.
And it’s so unnatural. Our muscles ache. We can barely balance at first. But isn’t that so often the case with the paths that lead toward the heart of God?
If we wonder with the disciples why Jesus comes down, we find our answer in the very next passage. “When they had come down the mountain” Luke writes in v. 37, a great crowd meets him and a man from that crowd shouts out on behalf of his son, who is possessed by a spirit that routinely sends him into convulsions. Hearing this desperate father, we realize that the mountains and valleys of our world are right next to each other, and while there’s so much radiance and assurance on the mountain, in the valley people are suffering.
I wonder if that boy and his father could see from their vantage point down below that up the slope something was happening. Could they see something was stirring in the clouds? Could they see the light that was so different from what swirled around them? If they could, it must have seemed so far away. And if we had our way, so many of us would have kept it distant from them. We would have joined Peter and reflexively walled it off in our attempts to contain it, to stay near it, to dwell with it instead of following it down. But it turns out there are two chosen sons in this story – there’s Jesus, but there’s also this beloved convulsing boy. So Luke says that “Jesus cast out the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.” And you can’t do that if you stay on the mountain.
That’s hard for me to realize. It may be for you, too. I can remember those years ago, sitting atop Roan Mountain, looking out at all that was before me. I walked away from the group one evening and prayed. In the vista before me I saw dreams of my life to come – the urgency and excitement of an upcoming wedding, a move, a new job stretching out ahead, and beyond that so much possibility. But there was something I didn’t know. Maybe I couldn’t have known it until I experienced it. That is, just how much of this life is a path down, and how unprepared I generally am for such direction whether as a husband, a father, a pastor, a follower of Jesus. I want to stay where the air is thin, the light is bright, the achievement is obvious, the power is close to me. Let’s build some dwellings, Lord.
Maybe that’s why when we see Jesus coming down from the mountain, the text says “He was all alone.” The angelic figures had left him on that downward path. How many of us have, too?
This morning, once again Christ walks from the mountain towards all that stretches out ahead, and it’s left to us to decide if he will walk alone. But if you’re going to follow him, just be prepared that it’s a walk downhill.