“When Love Peaks & Pitters” on Mark 9:2-13 by Tara Woodward - August 28, 2022
It was one of those midsummer South African mornings, when everyone sits around saying “It’s going to be a lekker day,” which means that it’s going to be a good day. And since the weather is perfect 90% of the time in South Africa anyway, my sister and I decided that we needed soak up the summer rays with some hiking at Sentinel Peak in the Drakensberg Mountain Range.
Everything indeed started off “lekker.” The sky looked clear, the drive through the Golden Gate National Park glistened, our lunches perfectly packed. And while the ruts in the 7 km drive up to the trailhead could have broken the best 4x4’s axle, we had been warned. So we started out, hopeful and happy to be away from work on what looked like a well-constructed cement path. We conversed politely, we stopped to take pictures of the waterfall runoff, we stared at the bordering peaks of Lesotho, which transfigured the South African city scenery that I had grown accustomed to in Johannesburg. And everything appeared good.
Until the path changed. The cement slowly turned into slippery stone. The mountain mist rolled in. The clouds covered the sun. We got out our rain jackets and kept going, anticipating that the haphazard trail was part of the higher difficulty, that chain ladders and pins were still head in order to see our ultimate destination, which was highest waterfall in Africa called Tugela Falls.(Tugela Falls is the second-highest waterfall in the world!)
But anyone here who has hiked up Twin Falls, knows just how quickly everything up a mountain can change. Especially when a summer storm surprisingly rolls in, and a snake sounds a hiss at your foot. When the thunder cracks too close as you crawl up a chain ladder, and the lightening strikes, and you begin to wonder when you should get off this mountain, which more than maybe is right now.
Experiences like this are striking because they shape us. Their memories imprint upon us lasting sensations of beauty, fear, awe. Mountains from the beginning of time have been holy places, places where people would ascend to encounter divine experiences. Such stories stretch of God’s people meeting him on mountain tops from the Old Testament to the New. From Moses’ calling to Elijah’s fiery miracle, from Abraham’s binding of Isaac to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, mountains have made their dazzling appearance of the divine throughout scripture.
So it is no wonder why the disciples are transfixed by what has transfigured before them. They know that God meets his people on mountains, and now they are struck that this is their time. This motley mix of fisherman have just seen Jesus light up like a Christmas tree in December, dazzling white, whiter than what “anyone could bleach”, white, as Luke says, like lightening, where his face as Matthew says, shone like the sun. It is no wonder that this text is sometimes placed within the Lectionary (which is a series of scripture read over the course of three years) either around August or after Christmas in Epiphany. It’s dramatic and showy and full of fireworks. And their first reaction is to commemorate it with 3 shelters, so that they can stay there because that seems like the holiest act they can immediately think of to do.
When I heard this story as a child I might have thought this scene erupted something like Maria singing “The hills are alive with the sound of music,” where good things are supposed to happen, and Julie Andrews makes it all better, and everyone goes home changed by what they say. Even as a young adult seriously contemplating ministry, I would have thought we, like the disciples, should strive for mountaintop experiences and the church community should exists to be one that erects shelters of safety against the storms of life—but I must confess now, after experiencing a little too personally what the fear of God can feel like, where my only option was to trust my sister as a hiking partner asking me to do hard things, when things seemed to suddenly go sideways, these types of texts sit a little differently.
The week after we went hiking, I had preached to a Johannesburg church on the Lectionary texts of Luke, where Satan wants to push Jesus off a cliff and 1 Corinthians 13, the famous wedding poem about love. At the time, it seemed like the strangest pairing of stories, where I swear a bunch of rabbi’s and pastors got together at a pub and said “Let’s put the passage of pushing Jesus off a cliff with that wedding one, so we don’t feel so bad about ourselves when we want to murder our partner.” But here, it shows up again, reminding me that safe experiences weren’t really part of the deal the disciples signed up for.
C.S. Lewis’ description of Aslan, a Christ-like figure is famously quoted as “Is he [meaning God] safe? No. But he’s good.” Yet, here we see the disciples wanting to construct yet again another buffer from themselves and those they serve, shielding them from the more difficult and daily tasks which Jesus commands, and that is to “love” the church.
While stories up until the gospels are full of passages where the primary place is a mountain, our other text this morning is one of the few epistles where Paul talks about mountains. This popular wedding text, which some of you might have recited as your own vows, is when Paul becomes a poet in 1 Cor. 13:
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a woman, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
If Paul’s poem invites you to remember your wedding vows this morning, and why you decided to marry your beloved in the first place, then by all means, please let the words wash over you like the gentlest of mountain mists and autumn rains.
But however beautiful and awe-inspiring, the whole point of this passage isn’t just about the love you strive to embody for your partner. Rather, the entire book was written because of some dissension and conflict, some miscommunication and the mountain of hurt happening among Chloe’s people at the church in Corinth. Love Island for this community has become a bit complicated, confusing, & contentious.
And similar to the transfiguration of Jesus with the disciples on Mount Tabor, Paul is encouraging the Corinthian people to look past their divisions and the beliefs that they cling to in order to realize this — when all else fails, love does not. When signs and wonders have ceased, when Jesus is no longer glittering in glory, when the holy drama of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ have seated him quietly on the right side of God — love remains.
And in the meantime, we are to work out what it means to be a church community who practices a different kind of love. One that doesn’t build shelters on top of high places for only the most able or spiritual among us to reach, one that doesn’t seek approval or special experiences or more members. But rather love that is patient and kind, that isn’t envious or proud, that doesn’t get easily angered at minor offences or stupid things people say, that doesn’t keep a laundry list of wrongs, doesn’t delight in the evil we encounter daily, but rejoices together with the truth. Love for each other in our church and community that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love that does, as Jesus says Elijah did: “Restores all things.”
It’s the kind of love that’s practiced as an outward action, a kind which Paul helpfully writes about in all Greek verbs. English doesn’t have a great way to convey this, but Paul’s kind of love isn’t passive. It isn’t patience and kindness hung on a shelf, like the darling decorations at Heartstrings. It is the act of patience and kindness itself. The act of delighting in truth and hope itself. The act of restoring and resurrecting. These are the kind of shelters we should be building.
But I must confess, on this side of scripture, enacting this kind of active love really does seem like looking into a dimly-lit mirror or attempting to move a mountain. If the transfiguration was only a story where a select few witnessed both the intimacy and magnitude of God, then perhaps we have missed the point at understanding and unpacking what this kind of enacted love could look like.
One of scripture’s greatest gifts, is that we are invited into the honesty of the situation, where Israel has an embarrassing account and we also have a long record of shortcomings. Where things on both sides are partial, incomplete, murky at best. And we have to decide each day if we are going to live into that vow of love we said when we were looking our best. When life looked glittery and hopeful.
But as tempting as it has been to offer some suggestions of what enacting this kind of love would look for your community, this morning I’m not going to wrap the sermon into a neat and tidy bow. Instead, I’m going to leave you hanging off a cliff similar to the one where I found myself at Sentinel Peak, when the storm is rolling in and a snake is hissing at your foot, and you know that the change required means you need to get off this mountain. When you’re only option is to trust your hiking partners beside you, even when they ask you to do hard things.
This is the part of the story when people say things like “love is blind” or that we “fall” in love. It’s why “love hurts.” Why love is “really hard.” These phrases make love sound like an impending disaster. And while I don’t think that Jesus is asking us to plummet to our deaths, I do wonder if he’s asking us as a community, as the church, to be brave enough to let some things go. After all, the greatest act of love is to let go. To let some hurt, suffering, or even feelings of rejection go, to let go of our own ideologies or even our idea of what the church community together should be. To surrender to the way we thought things might look and the way we thought things might go. To see instead, as the disciples did, nothing except Jesus. Amen.