A Tale of Two Mountains

The sermon this morning is really about two readings, it’s about the Old and the New Testaments, it’s about before and after Jesus, the Law on one hand and the Gospel on the other. It’s a tale of two mountains. On one mountain top Moses is given the law, while on the other the Apostles are given Jesus.

The first reading from Exodus, is that familiar scene of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God himself atop of Mount Sinai. If I hadn’t just heard this read aloud, my memory of it would likely be as pedestrian and mundane as many of yours: Moses goes up a mountain, gets a couple of tablets, and Sunday School children all over the world get to work memorizing ten rules. Do this, do this, don’t do that, don’t do that.

When I was in Sunday school we had to take home memory verses like this every week, and if we wanted to receive a Dunkin’ Donuts donut hole at the begging of next week’s class we had to recite our memory verse out loud for everyone to hear. This was more than a bit cruel if you ask me, and far more law than grace. So, after a few weeks of embarrassing failures I finally gave up trying. I figured I could just steal some donuts or some brown sugar out of the cabinet when I got home and my mom wasn’t looking, so why bother with the Ten Commandments at all?! Looking back the irony of this is of course pretty sweet.

But if we pay closer attention to this Exodus passage, then we see that this scene with Moses and God on top of a mountain is far more intense and frightening than we might remember. Moses stands at the peak of Mount Sinai, all by himself for days, with a thick smoke surrounding him and a devouring fire burning down upon him. This is meant to be absolutely terrifying, and it is. This is what it looks like, like darkness and fire, when one comes face to face with God and all they have is the law, when all they have in the way of help is commandments. As Jason Isbell sings in his new single, “We’ve been testing you, and you failed…be afraid, be very afraid”.

Too much of life is governed by this fear, although we may not always recognize where our fear is coming from. We’re afraid of failure, because if all we know is judgement and there is no mercy, no grace, then all of life is a performance, with only two possible outcomes, success or failure. And the sad thing is that even success can be bitter sweet. 

Because often it doesn’t seem or feel like the world or even the people closest to us like us very much, they just like what we can do. They like it when we perform well or we produce well, or we’re nice and thoughtful, maybe we’re kind, we get good grades, or we lose some weight, we get a nice haircut, we have a nice job, we give good gifts or we’re really good at basketball. We’re up to date on the news, we know the right people and the right restaurants. But sometimes it doesn’t seem or it’s even blatantly obvious that we aren’t liked for just being us, sin, warts, mistakes and all. 

When all we have is the law, when all we have is commandments for what we should do and what we shouldn’t do, then all we experience is judgement—however good or bad that judgement might be. And when all we have is judgement then all of our relationships become an exchange between the judge and the performer.

When all we have is the law, there is no place for vulnerability, for creativity, for compassion or empathy. There is no place for grace, and fear and trembling is the only reasonable response.

A few months ago the show “Radio Lab” put out an episode called “The Right to be Forgotten”. It follows the editorial staff of the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper who, in this age in which the Internet never forgets, have found themselves fielding petitions from people who have paid their price to society and have had their records officially expunged, but are still facing the judgement of the internet that has kept a record of their crimes in its database of newspaper stories. The people in the story are tasked with deciding whether or not the public shaming of these people has more value to society, to potential employers googling job applicants, or to folks about to go on a first date, or if the shame is causing greater harm to the person whose absolute worst moment has been recorded and cemented online. It’s a powerful example and reminder of what life looks like without mercy as an option. The editorial staff says themselves that forgiveness isn’t part of the conversation, that they’re just trying to determine what is most just, and they do an incredible job considering all the different angles. But here’s why I bring this up: As part of the story an Oxford professor of Internet Governance makes this profound and horrifying observation. He says, “we don’t know how to willingly disregard memories of our past. And we don’t know how to forgive if we remember. And so as we become a remembering society [via internet archiving] we become an unforgiving society. It seems that left to our own devices, with judgement as our only option, the only way to be forgiven is to be forgotten. 

But this is the beauty of grace, of the Gospel itself. God can look at the scars and not destroy the memories, not destroy the truth of who we are, and still forgive, still love us as we are. The grace of Jesus Christ shines a light of truth upon us all and says fear not, you will not be forgotten and you have already been forgiven.

This tale of Moses and the Ten Commandments is very different than our second mountaintop experience, of Jesus with Peter and James and John in our reading from Matthew of the Transfiguration, where it appears that as light streams out into the world from the very being of Jesus there is no place too frightening for grace to exist. These two readings are connected. Matthew writes that Moses appeared with Elijah on the second mountain top, representing the Law himself. And there is no doubt that once again fear was a companion of the Apostles as they journeyed up a Mountain and came face to face with the glory of God, just as it was for Moses. But while Moses, in the midst of his fear of judgment and failure, was given the Law, the Ten Commandments, to guide and comfort him, the Apostles, on the second mountain, in the midst of their fear, in the midst of their lives full of judgment and uncertainty, what they received was grace. What they received was God Himself in Jesus Christ. When they heard the booming voice of God, “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.”

The first mountaintop experience in Exodus is terrifying, and it leaves you full of fear. This is what life feels like when we experience the Law on its own. When we experience judgement we want to run, to curl up in the fetal position and hide. Because none of us, not one of us can stand blameless or fearlessly before the judgement of the law. 

But when you experience the glory and light of mercy and forgiveness, just like the Apostles, you won’t ever want to leave. With fear coursing through the air, Jesus says fear not, for I am with you. Get up, keep living, fear not the judgment of the law, because judgment is not all there is; there is also forgiveness. Fear not because where you expect condemnation, I have brought mercy.

In our house over the past three years it seems like all we watch is reruns of the NBC show Parenthood. As we try to manage our own fears, stumbling through our first few years of parenting, this show brings me to tears almost every episode as it hits you with tender moments of grace for the characters in their darkest moments. In one of the Christmas episodes, Adam is in a panic in the hospital as his wife Kristina, who is going through chemo treatments has gone into a septic shock. His stoic and stubborn father Zeke, who represents the law to Adam, shows up in the hospital in a moment of chaos as the medical staff are dealing with Kristina. Expecting instruction and opinions, Adam can’t stand his father standing there another second; “Adam, I really want to just help,” Zeke says: “Well, dad, you’re not helping. OK? So just go home!” But as Adam is left alone to face his fears of his wife dying, Zeke comes back to the hospital later that day and instead of advice he calmly says; “I brought you your computer. And I brought you some clothes. You know, stuff you might need. And then I made you a sandwich. Still like ham and cheese? Your favorite right?” As Zeke begins to walk away, Adam says, ”Hey, dad. Could you stay a while longer?” And they hug and cry, and so do you as you watch.

The tale of these two mountains doesn’t end at the Transfiguration with Jesus and the Apostles, with Jesus telling them not to fear. Of course this story ends on a third mountain, on Golgotha, where Jesus felt the full weight of the judgment of Rome and of his own people. On this third mountaintop, upon the Cross, Jesus gave himself to us all. And through the sacrifice of his body and blood, his perfect love for us all, once and for all cast out all fear that we might face judgment and judgment alone. Never again will we face the smoke and devouring fire of the Law alone. Never again will we face judgment without the promise of His mercy, without the unmerited gift of God’s grace and presence, saying to us, “get up, don’t be afraid. You may be judged, but I have already been judged for you. You may be afraid, but I am with you, and wherever I go surely my mercy and goodness will follow.

Today we live our lives under the cool shade of this third mountain, under the shadow of the Cross. Never alone. Never, ever without grace. Amen