Have you ever been inside a monastery? In the center of the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt is the oldest Christian monastery in the world. The Monastery of St. Catherine is tucked beneath the towering Mount Sinai where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments from God. The mother of Emperor Constantine arranged for its construction in the sixth century. In the middle of the monastery is a large bush that the twenty-seven resident monks swear is the same burning bush that Moses saw in the desert. And contained within the ancient walls is a small structure that must be unique in all of Christendom: an Islamic mosque. Who would guess that a mosque would be right in the center of a historic monument to the Christian faith? As the story goes, Mohammed himself visited the monastery shortly after its construction and made a covenant with the monks. He promised that the Muslim residents of Sinai would always protect the Christians at the base of the mountains. As an act of gratitude by Christians, in partnership with Muslims, the mosque was erected and dedicated to the God of Abraham and Moses.
When I visited the monastery with my husband Leroy in 2013, two young men, both named Mohammed, drove us from the Israeli border and put us up in a Bedoin camp for two nights. One afternoon, one of the Mohammeds gave us a tour of the monastery. After the tour, I visited the gift shop where a clerk asked for many more Egyptian pounds than my meager purchase of a post card merited. True to the promise of the original Mohammed, my tour guide protected me from being ripped off. From there, we scaled Mt. Sinai, following the approximate path of Moses described in our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. We reached the summit in time to watch the setting sun turn the surrounding mountains ranges to purple as the sky darkened.
The text in Exodus 24 says that the glory of God settled on Mount Sinai, and a cloud covered it for six days, after which God called to Moses out of the cloud and appeared as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. Moses stayed there for forty nights. I was only there for an hour, but I experienced it as a pretty remarkable place.
Today is known on the church calendar as “Transfiguration Sunday.” In the gospels, there is a close parallel to Moses’ trip up Mount Sinai where Jesus climbs a mountain with three of his disciples. Moses appears on the peak in the gospel version, too, along with the prophet Elijah. Jesus stands among his long-dead predecessors and his clothing begins to glow until his appearance is like a blinding light. There’s even a cloud at the top of the mountain that God speaks from. It’s a strange tale, but it is significant in the development of the Jesus story as the writers describe his movement toward the cross.
Two mountains, two Testaments, two central figures, and a common image of light emanating from a mountain peak. Moses climbed to communicate with God and receive instruction to help a confused nation move across the desert toward freedom. Jesus climbed to rest in the presence of God and to assure his followers that there was a purpose for the suffering that would follow.
I really think I came to Colorado for the mountains. At least that’s what first caught my attention when I was scanning the country for a good place to live and work. I grew up near broad expanses of water but far from snowy peaks. Yesterday, Leroy and came over the hill from Superior to Boulder on Rt. 36 and exclaimed one more time at how amazing that view is. It’s difficult to explain the beauty of mountains and the draw of majestic summits. I’m not surprised, though, that pivotal moments in the lives of Moses and Jesus brought them to the highest places in Egypt and Israel. There they could look in all directions and take in the vastness of the Sinai Desert and the region of Galilee. Mountains lift and inspire us.
Last Sunday I wasn’t here with you, and I appreciate the great sermon that Rev. Erv Bode delivered. You might imagine that pastors go to church even when they’re on vacation, but I assure you that it is not always the case. I did attend mass early one weekday morning at a Catholic cathedral in Mexico, but on Sunday morning I was at the beach. My friend Scott who is pastor of the Columbine Unity Church in Lafayette also happened to be there, and we remarked to one another, “So this is what people do on Sunday mornings when they are not in church.” One of my jobs is to try to get people here for worship services, and one of the big obstacles to that here in Colorado are the mountains that are always saying “choose us!” instead. I think I’ve arrived at the point in my life where I don’t fault anyone for the choices they make that bring them close to creation and find beauty. Moses found God on the mountain. Jesus and his disciples found relief on the summit from their difficult work.
In Buddhism, Nirvana is the end of a cycle of death and rebirth. The word literally means “blowing out,” in other words the extinguishing of a fire that kept the cycle going. It is the transcendent state that is the ultimate goal of the practice of Buddhism. Our first reading equated Nirvana with a mountain peak. One of the ancient teachers of Buddhist philosophy referred to as King Milinda, taught that such transcendence is freedom from the anxieties and needs that characterize much of our living.
I think we live in a time when especially need those moments that transcend the ordinary. In recent weeks, I have at times felt that the extraordinary has become ordinary as the abnormal is increasingly normalized. If we don’t transcend the barrage of information and disinformation that is flung at us, we are in danger of collapsing under its weight.
How do you experience the transcendent? I know of many folks who have taken to the trails around Boulder with renewed vigor in the wake of the national election. They describe being lifted, even momentarily, above the anxiety and even despair they have felt. Some are able to immerse themselves in art and music and poetry in ways that feed their spirits. Gathering in community and the sacred space that we hold here with one other is a portal to a deeper reality, as well. The 19th century Scottish philosopher and writer Thomas Carlisle grew up in a strict religious family shaped by Calvinist theology, but he freely explored many paths of knowledge. He also had many challenges in life. He had a terrible marriage, and it was written of him that “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four.” Despite his personal struggles, he said this, about how we relate to God: “Worship is transcendent wonder; wonder for which there is now no limit or measure; that is worship.” The experience of awe and wonder is often what keeps us going. Moses and Jesus were lifted higher than the elevation of a mountain because they experienced the mysterious and transforming presence of God on peaks that could have been any place where they focused on what is holy.
Last Sunday, large numbers of women, men, and children from Boulder gathered at the Islamic Center on Baseline Road to show support for the local Muslim community. Kari Silva sent me a photo of hundreds of pairs of shoes in the lobby. Many were stuffed into the cubicles provided for that purpose. Many others overflowed across the floor. It was an amazing sight. When I saw the photos, I thought about the voice from the burning bush, saying to Moses, “Take off your shoes, because you are on holy ground.” And I thought of a member of our church who always removes his shoes before entering the sacred space of our sanctuary. And I thought of the Muslims whose mosque inside St. Catherine’s Monastery symbolizes their commitment to protect Christians. And I thought about the Christians and Jews and Buddhists and those without any religious affiliation who showed their commitment last Sunday to protect Muslims from the lies and aggression that have resulted in threats to their community. We are all on holy ground.
When Moses got to the top of the mountain, it was covered by a cloud. When I’m driving to church from my home, I have an unobstructed view of Long’s Peak, and the summit is often shrouded by clouds. I picture Mount Sinai like that, with Moses poking his way through the cloud. After almost a week of trying to identify God in the mist, God was revealed in fire, not unlike the burning bush that first called to Moses. I like that image of a cloud, though. God is and will always be characterized by mystery. Some people like to believe that they have a very clear grasp on who God is and how God acts, but that seems unconvincing to me. That is especially so when their understanding of God excludes the possibility that others could experience the divine differently. When we object to those who would attempt to limit access to our country and its freedoms and abundance on the basis of religion, we do it not merely because of law or how we interpret our constitution. We do so because we know that guarding the right of others to believe and worship differently is consistent with faith in a God who is more like a mountain viewed through a cloud than pictured beneath the sun on a post card.
How will you experience transcendence this week? Will you find it here? Or outdoors? Or through creative endeavors? Or some other way? If you feel like all you can see is mud, do whatever you can to pull yourselves out of the muck and gaze at the stars above you. There is more in this life than what we see on the news. Find your mountain and embrace the mystery.