Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Cohasset MA
February 26, 2017
Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9
On the occasion of the Rev. Margot Critchfield’s final service as Rector of St. Stephen’s
I have had the privilege of this pulpit before, once at the beginning of your relationship with Margot, a couple of times in between, and now this rich and holy day. I am greatly honored to be a friend, if not an actual member, of the St. Stephen’s family. Thank you.
One part of today’s richness is the inevitable look back over the years that you and Margot have shared. I do not have the whole history but I know there have been many mountaintop experiences—moments of clarity and power, times of learning and discovery, healing and forgiveness, holy surprises and instructive disappointments, griefs borne and joys shared. I hope you will take the time to look back, recall, and be thankful for those times. I also hope you won’t do it until after the sermon.
You can recall those times in the past and you can confidently anticipate many mountaintop experiences in the future. God is not through with you yet. But this moment is a mountain bottom experience, as the lessons for today imply. Look with me at what the first lesson and Gospel have to tell us about mountain bottom experiences like the one we are having right now.
The stories are familiar. Moses took Joshua up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. And Jesus took Peter, James and John up another mountain where he was transfigured, literally seen in a new way. Here we are thousands of years later remembering those literally mountaintop experiences. They are so important and meaningful that we tend to overlook the fact that each story began at the bottom of a mountain where people decided the mountain was worth climbing. The bottom of a mountain is a place of expectation. It is where Moses and Jesus decided there was something up there and it had something to say, something that people needed to know. People at the mountain bottom can feel the draw of revelation—the need to see, to hear, to feel, and to know the mind of God that awaits them at the mountaintop.
Revelation is what is up ahead. Revelation is the hint God gives us when we cannot figure things out for ourselves. By definition it is about things just beyond our reach, just a bit murky for the eye to make it out, too faint for the ear to hear, a side road off the path of reason. Revelation is the sort of thing that can only be received by experience. Right now that is what the future is for us: a bit murky, faint, something reason cannot reach from here.
Margot is right now at the bottom of one mountain. The vestry and people of St. Stephen’s are at another. You are going in different directions but the daunting aspect of each mountain is quite apparent. How will we proceed? Which path? What obstacles await? We will not know until we begin to climb. Revelation comes from experience not speculation. And revelation is waiting at the mountaintop. God is ready to hint and more so about what lies in store, ready to make clear the mind of God for you. You cannot guess it from where you are today. As in the lessons, all anyone can do is prepare to climb—expectantly.
From the mountain bottom we cannot know what waits at the top, but the lessons make one thing abundantly clear about this kind of mountain climbing. Do not go alone. The mountain bottom is where the climbing community is formed. When Moses started up his mountain, he took Joshua with him. Jesus took Peter, James and John. Revelation rarely works with individuals alone. It works best in community. Let me tell you why. One of the things I bet we have in common is that neither you nor I have ever lost an argument that takes place in our own heads—the “I am going to say, then you are going to say” little one act plays we put on in our imagination. You will know that I am not bragging when I tell you that I am consistently brilliant in those encounters, and my foes are regularly vanquished. I am undefeated when the dialogue takes place inside my head. Outside of my head, in community, I have been far less successful. In my head there is the world I created, and it favors me excessively. But I am required to live in the world that God created, the one called reality that I have to share with you. Revelation needs the reality of community. Do not climb this mountain by yourself.
One further caveat about revelation and community. In recent times those who observe our nation have been telling us that we tend to prefer echo chambers to real community. People only read or listen or share with those with whom they agree. We can all understand the comfort that gives us but it denies the benefit of being in true community. The value of a community is that it confronts the world inside of our head, scraps the one-act plays of our imagination, and broadens our perceptions. It is the people who differ from us that we need in community. It is wisely said that if two people agree on everything, one of them is not necessary. The support of like- minded people is valuable but it does not make community. What we have in common is the mortar that holds the bricks of our difference together. Mortar without bricks or bricks without mortar are not worth much. A community of difference is the best place for revelation to be known.
There have been mountaintop experiences in your time together, not every moment or even every day but often. It is good to be thankful for them and for every way that God’s hand has touched this place and its people over these years. There will be more of those moments for Margot as her life and ministry continue to unfold and for St. Stephen’s because some unsuspecting priest, at this moment undoubtedly preaching to an unsuspecting congregation, is about to join you on new mountaintops. Wondrous things! But the time with Margot is in the past, and time with that unsuspecting priest is in the future. This is now. Not a mountaintop but a mountain bottom where the expectation and the community that are necessary to receive God’s revelation are being formed.
This mountain bottom is as holy as the mountaintop for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Amen.