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In the news last week was word of what will soon become another "mountaintop experience." An announcement from Kathmandu, Nepal says that the grandson of one of the men in the first successful expedition to scale Mount Everest 50 years ago plans to set up the world's highest Internet cafe at the mountain's base camp - 17,400 feet.(1) He hopes to open the cafe next month to cash in on the flood of visitors anticipated for the anniversary. It seems that thousands of trekkers and mountaineers pass through the camp annually now and money from the cafe will go to a project to clear Mt. Everest of the hundreds of tons of garbage left behind every year. My, how the world has changed!
Those of us who are old enough certainly recall that amazing story a half-century ago. May 29, 1953. A New Zealand beekeeper named Edmund Hillary and a Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, are the first ever to reach Everest's summit. Here was a mountain - unreachable, tantalizing, fearsome, deadly - that had defeated 15 previous expeditions. Some of the planet's strongest climbers had perished on its slopes. For many, Everest represented the last of the earth's great challenges. The North Pole had been reached in 1909; the South Pole in 1911. But Everest, often called the Third Pole, had defied all human efforts - reaching its summit seemed beyond mere mortals.(2) Now success. And heightening the impact even further was the delicious coincidence of their arrival just before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the dramatic announcement of their triumph on the morning of the coronation. A "mountaintop experience"...literally.
The mountaintop experience of which we read in our lesson a moment ago has Jesus and his three closest friends - Peter, James, and John - going up on a high mountain. Nothing unusual. Jesus often went off from the crowds to pray and rest. All very ordinary.
But from here on, ordinary ends. No sooner do they arrive than Jesus is suddenly "transfigured." He "glowed." As the text has it, "his clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them." Not only out of the ordinary, but absolutely out of this world - which, of course, is precisely what the story wants to convey.
And if that is not out-of-the ordinary enough, two of faith's most honored heroes suddenly appear by Jesus' side. Moses, the great law-giver, and Elijah, the prophet par excellence - the Law and the Prophets - paying respect to Jesus, in whom both are brought together.
This is both literally and figuratively a "mountaintop experience." No wonder Peter, James, and John are terrified. Of course, a little terror never stopped Peter from speaking up; for lack of any other ideas, he suggests erecting three shrines to commemorate the event!
A big enough deal so far, but now, a cloud overshadows the mountain. The damp air closes in and all the world slips away into a grayness. Then the voice of God echoes around them saying, "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!" Glowing face and clothes, visits from famous figures of the past, hovering clouds and heavenly voices. Amazing! It was so extra ordinary that when it was all over, and Jesus and Peter and James and John were headed back down the mountain, Jesus told them not to tell anyone about what they had seen. That made sense. Who would have believed it anyway?
Back down the mountain. The real world. The mountaintop experience was wonderful, exceptional, inspirational, but it comes to an end, because there is work to be done. Back down the mountain. Yes, we need to be inspired once in a while. Or even twice in a while. But seeking religious thrills is not what the Christian life is all about. Our call is to the valley where the people are, where the needs are, where the hurts are.
Oddly enough, that incredible mountaintop experience at Everest 50 years ago ends in a way very similar to the story of the transfiguration. After Edmund Hillary had climbed Mount Everest, he became an overnight celebrity. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. His name became a household word. Think Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. He became a spokesperson for Sears-Roebuck. His name appeared on sleeping bags, tents, and boot laces. And he could have lived for the rest of his life in his little shrine of success. But he didn't! Instead, he went back to Nepal, back to the Sherpas, whom he had grown to know, to respect, to love.
In a speech a few years ago, Hillary recounted how an elderly Sherpa from Khumjung village, the hometown of most of the crew for his Everest ascent, had come to him a few years after that expedition and said, "Our children lack education. They are not prepared for the future. What we need more than anything is a school in Khumjung." So Hillary established the Himalayan Trust, and in 1961 a three-room schoolhouse was built in Khumjung with funds raised by the tireless mountaineer. In all, the trust has built 27 schools, two hospitals and 12 medical clinics, plus numerous bridges and airfields. In recent years the trust has expanded its scope, devoting considerable funds to rebuilding monasteries and to reforesting valleys and slopes in the region.(3)
Sir Edmund Hillary had his mountaintop experience. And it moved him to a life of mission. And that is as it ought to be. Yes, we need mountaintop experiences, and the view from up there is incredible and inspirational. But we were never intended to stay up there. Peter never built his shrines, Moses and Elijah went back to heaven. And Jesus? Jesus went back to where the people were, back to the valley to preach, to teach, to heal, and eventually, to travel to the cross for you and for me.
From mountain to mission. In a moment, we will be invited back up the mountain. Some nourishment and inspiration. We need it for our mission back down in the valley. Come up...and be blessed.
1. Reuters Internet, 2/22/03
2. Don George, "A Man to Match His Mountain," http://www.salon.com/bc/1998/12/cov_01bc.html
3. "A Man to Match His Mountain"