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United Church of Jaffrey
Matthew 17:1-9; A Quote from the book Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai by Kosuke Koyama
The critical word about Mount Sinai is that “the Lord descended in fire.” In contrast in the tradition of Mount Fuji the basic orientation is that we ascend to the mountains to do our own spiritual exercises. In this tradition certain portions of the mountain are thought to be “beyond” this world, and it is into these sacred spaces that the experienced practitioners of the mountain religion stepped for their salvation. The mountain represents religious space for spiritual and physical disciplines. The Japanese world of mountain asceticism is distanced in its emotional and philosophical contents, from the image of the Lord descending in fire upon Mount Sinai. — Kosuke Koyama
Clamber up those last fifty feet of bare rock and turn around.
As you catch your breath, take a good look around. This is the pay-off. The moment you have been striving for.
Standing atop Monadnock’s shoulders, you can see the world stretching out below.
There, in the far reaches of the distance, you can see the skyline of Boston — a minute jagged edge where the sky meets the earth.
Up here, that horizon is not a straight line, but a long delicate curve — here you can see the curvature of the earth. Here you can perceive the roundness of our planet home.
Cars pass below.
Rising from the trees in the near distance – the steeple of a church.
A river furrows the landscape.
A collection of industrial buildings.
A baseball diamond.
There is something about being up high. There is something about standing up on a promontory looking down at the world.
Nick Carroway, the protagonist of the Great Gatsby describes this moment, saying that he was “simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”
Something of the same nature happens when you look out of the window of an airplane that is taking off…
If your eyes are open, and you are not overcome with fear, you instantly become a philosopher.
Don’t you? I do.
Your life – everything that is important to you – all of the significant errands that cause you to hop in your car and buzz around from place to place and do this and that – all of it.. all of it – is down there.
You, are up here.
And that distance – that height, gives you a rare chance to feel like you are separate from everything that gives you meaning.
When you look down on all the cars zipping around, at the lights in all the buildings, at the industrial buildings and the baseball diamonds, you can see life happening below you.
Usually life happens around you.
Everyday of our lives, life happens around us, and we are so much a part of it that we can’t see it.
It’s like that thing they say about fish and water. Water allows fish to live, but they don’t even know about it, because they don’t know anything else.
But when you are standing on the top of a mountain, or looking out the window of an airplane, you have the illusion of being a fish out of water, as it were.
It’s like you are having an out of body experience, but instead of looking down at your body, you are looking down at your world — your life — the structures of society — the expectations that other people have of you, and that you have of yourself.
And I would argue that this peculiar feeling — this feeling of being outside life — is at the heart of why you always can find broken beer bottles and cigarette butts whenever you are looking at a view.
Looking out over the world from a high place is a kind of religious act.
It is an act that brings up a feeling of mystery — a glimpse into the idea that there can be something else besides the life that we are so busy living.
And when we humans feel this mystery, we respond with a desire to act ritually.
I don’t know why, but it seems important to us, at such moments, to do something to recognize the mysterious poetic beauty of such moments.
By sharing small conversations with each other or with our God — small mumblings about our pain, or about our confusion, or our wonder.
And have you ever noticed that anywhere there is a view you can always find broken glass and cigarette butts?
This is because there will, inevitably, be some people whose ritual practice involves an urge to drink something, or smoke something.
And, naturally, there will be the restless youth who will top it all off with the ritual act of smashing the beer bottle, as some kind of clumsy act of rebellion against their lives, or perhaps, to leave behind some meager evidence of their presence to remain there and reflect the flicker of the stars in the night sky.
When I was thinking about all this, I realized that I am the son of a scholar who wrote a book with the title Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai.
So I went to the special section of my bookshelf which I have dedicated to my father’s books, and I took the book Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai off the shelf.
And it was in that book that I discovered the passage that I read to you earlier where my father uses the Jewish and the Japanese approach to the religious idea of the mountain, as a way of discussing the difference between a God-oriented religion, and a nature-oriented religion.
On Mount Sinai, he said, the Children of Israel encountered a God that came down to them, in fire.
This God was outside nature. This God cared enough for humanity, to descend onto the sacred space of the mountain. Here God intervened in human history, giving the Israelites laws by which to live.
In contrast, my father speaks of the Japanese approach to the mountain. In this tradition, religious seekers went up the mountain, to find the experience of the divine within the mountain’s sacred terrain.
In both cases, the mountain is a place that is removed enough from the fray of human life to be a place of spiritual encounter, but the interesting difference is where the spiritual intention resides.
On Mount Sinai, God comes down.
On Mount Fuji, humans climb up.
It seems to me that both of these movements — God down, and human up — are religious movements.
Religion concerns itself with the interaction of the human and the divine, and this interaction must come about either through God’s religious movement down, or our human religious movement up.
This morning is Transfiguration Sunday.
On this morning, we celebrate the story of Jesus going up
And God coming down.
But even though this story does not take place on Mount Sinai it is the ultimate Sinai story. The ultimate “God comes down” story.
And even though this story does not take place on Mount Fuji it is the ultimate Fuji story. The ultimate “human goes up” story.
In this story, the human Jesus goes up the mountain — but a fully Divine Christ comes down.
According to the story, Jesus takes three of his disciples and climbs what the text calls a “high mountain,” and here, much to the wonder of the disciples, Jesus has a rendezvous with Moses and Elijah two of the legendary prophets and leaders of he Jewish people.
I am pleased to say that they do not drink beer and smoke cigarettes, nor do they break bottles. That would have been a very different story.
The moment is filled with religious consequence though — which may explain the odd bit of the story when Peter says: “If you wish I will make three dwellings here…”
Peter’s notion, though recorded for our benefit, is ignored by the three figures. Jesus is lifted up, and God proclaims again what God said when Jesus was Baptized:
“This is my son: the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
And when Jesus returns to his disciples “His face shone like the sun.”
When I looked over my father’s book — Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai I appreciated the way my father used the metaphor of the mountain to understand two different cultural approaches to the sacred.
When it occurred to me that the Transfiguration story could be read as a combination of the two mountain stories — a human going up story and a God coming down story — I naturally wanted to know — what mountain can this story be named after?
So I asked Mr Google to tell me what the name of the mountain is where Jesus was transfigured.
And you’ll never guess what I found out!
There are two mountains that are traditionally considered to be the place where Jesus was transfigured. One is a place called mount Tabor, and the other, wait for it… was mount Hermon!
I went to see my friend who is the archivist at the school, and he tld me that this is no coincidence. The hill where the school i located had been known locally as Grassy Hill, and when Dwight Moody, the founder of the school, got hold of it, he named it Mt. Hermon after the place of Christ’s transfiguration.
Education would transfigure students.
Ultimately this story is not about the mountain.
It is about the individual.
The person who looks at the world, and is transformed.