February 23, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
If you remember from last week, Jesus had sent the disciples out into the world to preach and heal, and when they came back from their mission, they were tired and in need of rest, but instead Jesus continued his preaching and even demanded that they use their small resources to feed a hungry crowd of 5000 people. In the intervening chapters of Mark since the feeding of the 5000 and today’s reading, the disciples have tramped wearily through more days filled with healings, teaching, frightening storms at sea, and just recently an argument between Peter and Jesus over Jesus’ prediction of the crucifixion. By the time Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up that mountain, you can imagine that the disciples are in need of a reminder of why they had signed up for this gig. They need to touch — and be touched by — something greater than the dirt and dust and work-a-day world that had become the totality of their discipleship.
The disciples walked up that mountain, men weary of heart, probably grumbling about one more unexplained hike but to their surprise on the summit, the light broke upon them, their eyes were opened, their weariness lifted, and they stood in the presence of holiness. They had what we now call, a mountaintop experience.
Have you ever felt that hunger? Have you ever longed to be lifted out of the dreary and mundane into something more extraordinary?
Many years ago, I had just such a mountaintop experience. I’ve actually told you this story before — I came upon it in my files this week, from writings so old that even I had forgotten them — but I want to come back to this story again today because for me, this story speaks very clearly to the experience of the disciples on the mountaintop with Jesus, so settle back in your chairs and let me share with you a story of transfiguration.
The mist rose gently from the lake as I climbed out of my tent into the breaking dawn. A loon chortled in the distance as I made my way quietly down to the beach to watch the sun rise over the glassy water. It was August of 1999 and I was camping on a small island on Cranberry Lake in the Adirondacks with my 13 year old son, John, my sister Wendy and her 13 year old daughter Michael Anna, and my father, brave leader of the expedition. We were spending the week wilderness camping in order to baptize my son and my niece in a coming of age ritual that my own sisters, brother, and I had all experienced when we had each turned thirteen. Each summer following one of his children’s thirteenth birthdays, my father would load camping gear, a beat up aluminum Jonboat, and a barely functional 3 horsepower motor into our van, and take the newly minted teenager to Cranberry Lake. There he would launch the heavily loaded boat into the Oswagatchie River which leads to the main body of Cranberry Lake, and he would follow the lake shore around to the right until he came to the mouth of Dead Creek Flow. At the very end of the flow was a tiny island my father had christened “Paradise Island.” Paradise Island was the perfect size for a private campsite, tucked away from view in a small cove which also boasted a spring of clear drinking water. My father had discovered the site on the first coming of age trip with my older brother, and at that time, the island appeared untouched by human habitation. After camping trips with five children, however, and solo trips of his own every summer since that time, my father’s site took on a more permanent character and was even given an official number by the Park system, an upgrade that held for my dad a mixture of pride with a heavy dose of frustration that he was forced now to call ahead in order to reserve his spot in Paradise.
In 1999, when my own son, John and my niece, Michael Anna both turned thirteen, my sister, Wendy and I coaxed my father into recreating for them our own coming of age trips by accompanying us on an expedition back to Paradise Island. The only problem with this idea was that in the thirty years since my father had first taught me wilderness camping, I had been on innumerable trips of my own and had developed my own style of camping, which was, to put it mildly, a little different from my Dad’s. Influenced by my environmental sensibilities, I took the motto, “leave no trace” and accordingly I packed a small propane stove, a backpacker’s tent, a water filter, and even biodegradable toilet paper. My father’s motto, however, was, “if it costs more than a few bucks, it ain’t wilderness camping.” He scoffed at my high tech expensive gear. He built cooking fires by chopping wood he found on the island, and baked blueberry muffins in an “oven” he made out of an old gas can. His eight person canvas tent required a front loader to haul in and out of the boat, an engineering degree to erect, and leaked like a sieve but Dad wore those faults like a badge of honor. I believe, in fact, that for my father the real point of wilderness camping was to prove that if you suddenly became homeless and had nothing in your pocket but a jackknife, you could go to the town dump and scavenge enough equipment to set up housekeeping on the shores of a good fishing hole.
Consequently, my father and I spent much of the week trying hard to tolerate the other’s radically different views on camping, and not always succeeding. Nor were my father and I the only ones suffering from cultural differences. Michael Anna and John didn’t seem to be appreciating this immersion into rustic life as much as we had hoped they would. Upon arriving on the island, Michael Anna asked for the directions to the latrine and was horrified when my Dad handed her a shovel. She disappeared into the woods for a good hour, and when we went to investigate her whereabouts discovered that she was digging a hole to the earth’s core, determined to place as much space as possible between herself and the unpleasant business. Later in the week, I interrupted John and Michael Anna’s card game to drag them down to the shore where I pointed excitedly across to a large spruce on the mainland.
“Look,” I exclaimed. “It’s a bald eagle.”
They squinted into the distance and Michael Anna said, “You mean that black lump on that branch?”
“That black lump is a bald eagle,” I replied. “They were an endangered species for a long time and have just begun to make a recovery. Isn’t it beautiful?”
Michael Anna shrugged. “Yeah, sure. Can we go back to our game now?” she asked with a martyred sigh. I waved them off and the two ran to the tent where Michael Anna zipped the door behind her to insure that no bugs, bears, or bald eagles could penetrate her small cocoon of civilization.
John bore up a little better having had a couple of years of Boy Scouting under his belt. One day he proudly demonstrated the skills he had learned from Troop 19 by getting a fire going in the pouring rain, and we all dutifully sat around it for a few minutes admiring his handiwork before beating it back into our tents to sit out the downpour, which lasted two more days. When the sun finally emerged, Wendy and I suggested an exploring expedition and loaded the kids into the boat, leaving my Dad on the island to enjoy some quiet time on his own. Unfortunately for John, our wilderness exploration led to a too close encounter with some of the local residents. We had rowed the boat down the inlet and put in at an another small island boasting a beautiful mossy glade. The kids clamored out, took a ten second run about the island, and before Wendy and I had even ventured ten feet from the boat, Michael Anna was back saying, “OK, seen that. What’s next?”
Rolling her eyes, Wendy said, “Well, there’s another island across the flow. Get back in the boat and we’ll check it out.”
Michael and John took a step forward and then stopped, suddenly immobile. “Well, are you going or staying?” I asked.
The two remained frozen and silent.
“I don’t have the patience for fooling around,” I said. “Just get in the boat …” I began but before I could finish my scolding, John’s lips moved as subtly as a ventriloquist’s and he mumbled, “Hornets!” Suddenly I noticed swarms of yellow jackets buzzing madly about the kids, apparently angered when one of them had stepped on a nest.
“Don’t move,” I said quite unnecessarily since neither one had so much as batted an eyelash in the few minutes.
And then suddenly, the tableau was broken.
“Ow!” John yelled. “My eye!” and, in an amazing demonstration of quick thinking, he ran to the shore and dove under water, a mad swarm of yellow jackets streaming after him. Michael Anna took advantage of the wasp’s chase after John to jump into the boat, Wendy and I following suit. We quickly pushed off from shore and rowed toward John who had emerged just long enough to grab a breath before diving back under, stroking as if he intended to swim all the way back to Alfred. By the time we intercepted him, the wasps had given up and John miraculously had escaped with only one sting, but that one sting caused his eyelid to swell to the size of a golf ball sealing off his sight in his right eye. We returned to Paradise Island, both kids feeling by now that the name, “Paradise Island,” was a serious misnomer, and John spent the rest of the day in an antihistamine stupor.
And so it was that as I stood on the shore of the island that last morning, listening to the loon, watching the mist curl in the dawn, I felt the weight of all of the disasters, conflicts, and adversity of the past week. All in all, John and Michael Anna’s coming of age wilderness experience had not been the idyllic immersion in Eden that Wendy and I remembered from our own childhoods, but today was the final day, and so it would end as all of my father’s trips to Paradise Island ended, with a hike up Cat Mountain, and then we could go home.
I left the beach and roused everyone for breakfast, after which we climbed into the boat and rowed to the trailhead at Janeck’s Landing. My father’s tradition of ending his trip with a hike up Cat Mountain arose partly because the trailhead was only a short distance from the island, but also because at the summit of this particular mountain was a massive boulder where my father liked to sit in prayer to, as he always put it, “get his marching orders from God for the coming year.” When we were kids, my Dad had done his praying in private while we ate our lunch somewhere else on the summit but my father had decided that this year, John and Michael Anna would be allowed to join him. Even Michael Anna and John sensed then, that this particular hike was one to be respected, and uncharacteristically they kept their grumbling to a minimum. John, Boy Scout training in full throttle, hiked manfully ahead, clamoring over boulders like a mountain goat, while Michael Anna dawdled behind picking violets as if she were on a stroll in the park. My father’s pace had slowed considerably in his senior years and Michael Anna’s casual walk was just about the right speed for my Dad so she kept up a companionable chatter the whole way helping to ease his frustration with his aging body. Wendy also walked with my father, while I tried to keep up with John to make sure that he didn’t reach the top and keep right on going over the edge in his enthusiasm.
We arrived at the summit about midday. Cranberry Lake is not very far into the Adirondack Park system and the mountains surrounding it are not the park’s most impressive peaks. Here on the edge of the range, only the very tops of the mountains are bare of forest, and they roll rather than soar, their ancient crags worn down by their years not unlike my father that day. Nevertheless, when you stand on the summit of Cat Mountain with miles upon miles of forested mountains at your feet, even the most jaded teenager is in awe. You feel swallowed up in a world where humanity has never existed, where the wind rushes across tree tops and sweeps across the granite summit like a spirit unimpeded by the touch of any human hand. Creation is bigger than you ever imagined, and alien in its beauty.
My father stood for a moment gazing at a view he had seen every year since he first brought my brother to the mountaintop, and then he walked across the summit to that consecrated boulder and sat down in the small mossy hollow growing in its shelter. And he bowed his head.
I don’t know what God said to my father that day, but I know that for John, Michael Anna, Wendy, and me, all of the frustrations and conflicts of the week were swept away in the stillness of his prayer. The mountain was transfigured into an altar and as we looked over the vast range at our feet and felt the silent prayers of my father rising near us, we were filled with an awareness that we are part of something deeper, something larger than any one of us. To experience awe is to know suddenly that you are but a moment in time, you are but a speck in an immense universe, and all of your aches and desires and complaints and obsessions are as fleeting as the wind that rushes across the ancient rock before you. Moments of awe are rare but when they happen they are transfiguring. The incarnation — the presence of God with us in the muck and mud of our lives — comforts us with the promise that wherever we go, God will go with us but those moments of transfiguration — those moments when we stand in awe at the awareness of God’s infinite holiness, so far beyond anything we can imagine, equally remind us that no matter how often God walks through the mud by our side, God is still God, far beyond our mortal comprehension, and for us to walk with God is to be humbled with the knowledge that such eternal infinite compassion would choose to spend itself on us.
We stayed on the mountain top an hour that day and then hiked back down the path, John galloping ahead, Michael Anna again lagging behind, and the next day we headed home with our very different memories — bald eagles or lame birds, the call of loons or the buzz of angry hornets — but all of us sharing that transfiguring experience of the mountaintop.
It was, as it turned out, my father’s last visit to his altar. The body he thought was simply aging turned out to be breaking down and soon, walking across the yard, let alone up a mountain, required a formidable effort. The two years following that trip would be filled for him with suffering and difficulties as he lived out his final days, and many were the times when my family found comfort in the promise that God walked that path with us. But I think that for my father, it was not just the certainty of God’s presence in the ordinary struggles of human life that helped him through those tough final years; it was also the memory of those hours on the mountaintop when he was bathed in the awareness of the holiness of God. He knew from those times that through his commitment of faith, he had hitched his days to something that was deeper, broader, and longer lasting than any single human life. He had hitched the fleeting moments of his mortality to the eternal holiness of God.
“If you live for yourself,” my father would tell us, “when you die what you lived for dies with you. If you live for humanity, when you die what you lived for will last a little longer. But if you live for God, when you die what you lived for will last forever.”
May we all experience the transfiguring power of the infinite, holy God and be lifted by awe into an awareness of eternity.