Remembering the mountaintop, doing the work

The following sermon was delivered (more or less as below) on April 21, 2013 on the occasion of the installation of the Rev. Gregory Gilman Bolt as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Nebraska City, NE.

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Scripture: Isaiah 43:1-3a, 18-19; Matthew 17:1-9.

Peace be with you. … Good afternoon, and greetings. Greetings from the Presbytery of West Virginia and greetings from the First Presbyterian Church of Morgantown, WV.

I am deeply honored to be here today, for all the reasons you can imagine. To be asked to preach any installation sermon is an honor, and to be asked by one of your children to do it heaps a lot on top of that – honor, gee whiz, and, oh yes, pressure.

Greg and Homestead Presbytery Moderator Robin Hadfield

Greg and Homestead Presbytery Moderator Robin Hadfield

You see I’m such a Presbyterian geek that these kinds of services – installation services – are for me one of those unappreciated moments in the life of us Presbyterians. It’s a time when “presbytery” comes to the local congregation and – if done right – can be one of those teachable moments about the connectionalism of our life together as Presbyterians.

I have been active in various levels of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for so long now that I am blessed with a network of friends such that I can’t go anywhere – especially in church circles – without coming across other members of the family.

Family such as Thomas Dummermuth, one of the members of this installation commission, who I first met several years ago when he spent some time serving a church in the Presbytery of West Virginia and I was stated clerk of the presbytery.

So you can see that to be involved in this way, in an event that is as significant both in the life of the church and the life of my own immediate family, is definitely one of life’s mountaintop moments.

Please listen now, to the word of God, as it comes to us from the Gospel of Matthew, 17th chapter, first nine verses. But first, one favor: you may be tempted to reach for your pew Bibles. Don’t. It’s not often that you just get to listen to the Bible and experience it that way. You can discover different things that way, so please LISTEN for the word of God:

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him! When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, Get up and do not be afraid. And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.

Please join me in prayer: O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of each and every one of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Rock, and our Redeemer. Amen.

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I love baseball, just love it. There is not much that I rather be doing than sitting at a baseball game. I love the nuances of the game, the little things that many folks don’t notice: how the defense adjusts, the pitchers stands on this or that side of the rubber, all those little things.

The untrained eye might miss some of it, and when the infielder just happens to be in the right place to catch that line drive, it looks like luck, but it’s more often the result of paying attention.

And I’m amazed how someone can manage to hit that round ball, traveling at 90 miles an hour, and actually hit it square (yes, I know it should be the adverb squarely, but it just don’t sound right here) – with a round bat.

And, if you’ve gotten to know Greg much in these last few weeks, you know how much baseball has been a part of his life as well.

One of our favorite pastimes as a family is to compare the number of major league ballparks we’ve been to. I think I’m in the lead with 13[i], but Greg will probably tell you differently. [He said 15]

Several years ago, I was in Chicago covering a meeting of a conservative Presbyterian group on behalf of The Presbyterian Outlook. Because of the way flight schedules and meeting schedules meshed, I found myself with a free evening – and the Cubs were in town.

So off I went on the “L,” my first experience on that particular piece of public transportation. I made it to Wrigley – that cathedral of baseball – and because it was just me, I was able to purchase a ticket about five or six rows back from the field, just down the first base line. I was right there. I felt like I could touch those ivy-covered walls in the outfield and – to tell you how long ago it was – I could have had a nice one-on-one conversation with Mark Grace, who was playing first base for the Cubs at the time.

I remember walking into Wrigley and being overwhelmed with just “being there.” I soaked it up. It didn’t really matter who was playing. Or that the Cubs, who like many, I kinda like – I mean what’s the harm – lost to the Phillies, a team I don’t like at all.

The outcome didn’t matter; I had been at Wrigley. But after the third out in that ninth inning, yes, Yogi, it really was over, and off I went. Back on the “L,” back to the nondescript hotel out by the airport, and back to the meeting – which was one of the many held then by groups decrying the future of the Presbyterian church and where they feared it was headed on questions of sexual orientation – a place, by the way, we have reached these many years later, although we’re still working it out.

Back from the mountaintop experience of baseball in one of its iconic venues, back down into the valleys of polity and societal and theological battles.

Please, somebody take me back out to the ball game.

But there was work to be done, so I got to it.

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I love college sports, especially college football. Some of the happiest times of my youth were fall Saturdays spent tailgating at Clemson football games. The football wasn’t really all that good at the time, but that didn’t really matter.

We would arrive hours before game, with a contingent of my mother’s friends and their children. We’d have fried chicken, potato salad and strange sounding sandwiches from a particular sandwich vendor in our hometown called Duke’s, which is still there. At the appointed time, off we’d go the ballgame. I’d usually sit on the grass hill in the end zone – which is still there and remains the site of one of the most exciting football entrances in the game. Clemson usually lost, but we’d come back for more fried chicken, potato salad and Duke’s sandwiches.

Later on, in one of my career stops, I was sports editor of a small paper called The Anderson Independent-Mail. We were the closest paper to Clemson and it was the dominant part of our sports coverage.

And in 1981, it was a mountaintop experience. Clemson went undefeated that season, eventually winning the national championship in the Orange Bowl against, well, against a team that you’re very familiar with out here, and which is as dear to many of you as Clemson – and my current employer West Virginia University – are to me.

Perry Tuttle on cover of Sports Illustrated.

Perry Tuttle on cover of Sports Illustrated.

As the game wound down, and Homer Jordan managed to overcome dehydration to keep the ball away from the Husker offense for a try at a game-tying drive, I was on the mountaintop. (Sometime, you should ask Greg about Perry Tuttle, whose picture was on the front of Sports Illustrated in the wake of that Orange Bowl victory, and who he got to meet later on; ask him especially about a certain Christmas ornament.)

But that mountaintop moment didn’t last. Clemson, and its fans, have been trying to get back to that mountaintop for the last 32 years. There’s still a link from the football team’s website, and a prominent sign in the stadium, commemorating that accomplishment.

But it was a long time ago. Oh well, maybe this year, but there’s work to be done.

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And I love the story of the Transfiguration.

When Greg asked me if I would preach his installation sermon, one of my first questions, after “Are you sure?”, was, “Do you have any particular scripture in mind?” You see I’m very much a creature of habit, so on those occasions when I’m invited to preach, my first thing I do is to turn to the lectionary, and see what the appointed scriptures are for that day.

But for this, it seemed something different, some special, was called for. But Greg was no help.

So it was that as I was going through my daily Bible reading, the Gospel selection of the day was the story of the Transfiguration. I thought about it a bit, and it seemed to me to be the perfect story for a day such as this.

The Transfiguration is one of those seminal moments in the New Testament story. It’s important enough to be included in all three of the Synoptic Gospels.

Let me set the scene just a bit:

The disciples are well into their time with Jesus. There have been lots of parables, lots of teachings, lots of healings. Just before this event, though, come two very significant things.

In Matthew 16, we learn of Jesus’ question of the disciples: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”[ii] and “Who do you say that I am?”[iii] And we hear Peter’s answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

That earns Peter a blessing and promise that “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”[iv]

But as the chapter ends, Jesus foretells his death and resurrection.

“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, an on the third day be raised.”[v]

But Peter rebukes Jesus for saying this, and just after earning the praise that he will be the rock upon which the church is built, he elicits this from Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.”[vi]

Now, six days later, Jesus, Peter, James and John are on a “high mountain,” which probably wasn’t very “high” at all. Suddenly the most incredible things happen.

A one commentator describes it, “Before the eyes of the disciples, the ordinary man named Jesus shines with the dazzling brilliance of the light of God.”[vii]

Put yourself in the place of the three disciples. You have been traipsing around the countryside watching miracles, healings and listening to lots of stories. You have just acknowledged that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, only to be told he’s going to be killed and suffer.

And here you are, along with perhaps the two biggest “names” in Judaism, Moses and Elijah.

If you’re someone like Peter, who’s never met a situation he couldn’t mishandle, your immediate reaction is to keep this going as long as possible.

“It is good for us to be here,” he says. “If you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

But he is quickly shushed by a voice from a cloud; they all fall to the ground overcome by fear, but – and this is one of my favorite parts of the story – Jesus “came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.”

When they got up, Jesus was the only one there.

As commentator Peter Bower describes it: “The glow and the cloud disappear, and the disciples see only the ordinary man named Jesus, who is walking down the mountain toward Jerusalem to die on across.”[viii]

As Jesus is wont to do, as they’re coming down from the mountaintop, he tells them to keep quiet about the whole thing until later.

And what do they come down from the mountaintop to do? Well, there’s more healing, more parables, more foretelling of Jesus’ death to come.

It is not accident that in the lectionary readings, this story comes on the last Sunday before Lent as we begin that trip to Jerusalem that will end with Jesus death on a cross.

And resurrection.

Resurrection.

I don’t know much about the history of the First Presbyterian Church of Nebraska City, or what it has experienced in the past.

But I know enough about what happens to churches when they go through a search process, even if it follows a smooth and “normal” departure. I know that it can be hard on a congregation.

Our Presbyterian system of searching for new pastors can seem laborious, antiquated, unnecessarily drawn out, plug in your own negative description here. While your head may tell you there is a purpose behind the process, your heart says, “Just get on with it.

“Presbytery,” in the form of the Committee on Ministry, keeps saying, first you need to do this, then you need to do that, wait, don’t rush, it’ll all be OK in the end.

And it usually is, although not always.

So that when the new person that God has selected for you has been identified, and on board and in the pulpit, life can feel so good. It may seem like the hard work is done.

If you’re a fan of the cable TV show Duck Dynasty, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that the congregation probably is thinking: “Now we’re cooking with peanut oil!”

But don’t fall into that trap. You may feel as if you’re on the mountaintop – in the middle of Wrigley Field, celebrating a national championship, in the presence of Biblical royalty – but the reality is that the hard work is ahead of you.

New people in new places bring new ideas. You may think you want those new ideas, until you hear some of them. Some of them may be good, some of them may be bad. That’s OK, it doesn’t mean the mountaintop has disappeared.

But whatever is new will be hard, no matter the excitement in getting there.

In our Old Testament reading today, we heard God say through the prophet Isaiah:

Do not remember the former things

or consider the things of old.

I am about to do a new thing;

now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

and rivers in the desert.

So take that excitement of the mountaintop, and remember that it’s still there, even in the wilderness and the desert. Note that God doesn’t say the wilderness or the desert will disappear, but there will be a “way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

To use a timely baseball analogy, the beginning of the season is an exciting time – I know I am thrilled the season has started again. But the season is long, with 162 games. It’s can be hard to be as excited playing Game 134 as it is Game 1.

But Game 134 is just as important, and counts no less, nor more, than Game 1 in the end, especially if you end up ahead – or behind – by one game after that 162nd game.

The thing that separates the good teams from the great teams is that they play just as hard and just as well in Game 134 as they do in Game 1 or Game 162.

So enjoy this mountaintop you’re on. A new pastor and his family – with kids! – excitement in the congregation, even new faces in the pews.

Enjoy it. Revel in it. Celebrate it. Just don’t try to hang on to it because there’s work to be done. People to be fed. Wounds to be healed. Communities to be made better. Lives to be changed. People to be taught about grace.

Neighbors to be treated like we want ourselves to be treated.

It’s all hard work, but it’s the kind of work that, in the end, is exactly what Jesus has told us to do.

But don’t fret while you’re doing that hard work.

Remember two things. First, remember God’s words that open that Isaiah chapter: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you, when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

And remember that on that mountaintop, when Peter, James and John fell down in fear, Jesus was there, reaching down, touching them, and saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

To God alone be the glory.

Please join me in prayer: Good and gracious God, we do enjoy the good times, the high times, those “mountaintop experiences” that only come along every once in a while. Help us to come down from that mountaintop, but keep alive the excitement, the thrill, the awe, the love that we felt there so we can do your work and be your hands on this earth. In the name of Jesus, the Christ, we pray. Amen.


[i] Atlanta: Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Turner Field; Pittsburgh: PNC Park, Three Rivers Stadium; Arlington, TX: The Ballpark at Arlington, Arlington Stadium; Chicago: Wrigley Field, The New Comiskey Park: Washington, DC: Nationals Park; St. Louis: the old Busch Stadium; Cincinnati: Riverfront Stadium; Oakland: Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum; New York: Yankee Stadium.

[ii] Matthew 16:13

[iii] Matthew 16:15

[iv] Matthew 16:18

[v] Matthew 16: 21

[vi] Matthew 16:25a

[vii] Peter C. Bower, Editor; Handbook for the Revised Common Lectionary; Louisville, 1996: Page 343.

[viii] Ibid.

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One Response to Remembering the mountaintop, doing the work

  1. virginiahollis says:

    thanks for sharing a marvelous sermon.

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