Jordan Trumble, (MDiv ’15) is a native West Virginian and the Summer Program Coordinator at Peterkin Conference Center in the Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia. The following sermon was written for her Prophetic Preaching course in 2014 and adapted for Berkeley Morning Prayer on February 6, 2015.
Outside of Romney, West Virginia, a narrow two-lane road curves along the South Branch of the Potomac River. A few miles down the road, there is a lane and down that lane, nestled in a valley between two mountains, a summer camp with an outdoor chapel built in a clearing on the side of one of those two mountains.
Each summer of my childhood and later during college, I would sit in the outdoor chapel, called Prayer Hill, and listen to the tale of how it came to be, the story of a dedicated group of campers from about 60 years ago who wished to honor one of their peers who died of polio.
Summer after summer I heard the staff recount the story of how the campers brought with them a large rock from their hometown, and they formed a chain and passed the rocks up the side of the mountain to build an altar for communion. And summer after summer, I heard them tell how, when they realized they needed a top for the altar, they went into town and found a pool hall that was closing. After wrangling with the owner of the pool hall, they walked away with the slate top of an old pool table, which would become the top of the altar, an altar that stands on the side of a mountain where God’s people have come to worship in creation for three generations.
Yet, my favorite part of the story wasn’t the part about the hard work and dedication of the campers, or the ingenuity of using an old pool table top as the altar. My favorite part of this tale was always the point in the story when the counselor retelling it would turn and gesture beyond the altar to a soaring view of the mountains in the distance. “Behind the altar, you can see three mountains,” they would say, “These mountains remind us of the Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that God is always present with us, wherever we are.
To this day, when I think of the Trinity, my mental image is often of these mountains, with one peeking out from behind the others off in the distance, deep and leafy green against the bright and clear blue summer sky.
A couple of years ago, though, I was back at camp and as I looked out over my beloved mountains, I noticed that there was something new. While the forest of trees had once completely covered those three mountains, there was now a dirt road carved into one of them and, as I looked closely, I could see giant trucks moving up and down the road. I later was told that there was a mining operation on the other side of the mountain.
I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised to see that one of my beloved mountains was being used for strip mining. After all, this mountaintop removal is being done all over the country, but especially in Appalachia where more than 450 mountains have already been mined.
Yet, I am ashamed to admit, it wasn’t until I looked out on my mountains and saw a path carved into the pristine forest that I really started caring about what we’re doing to our mountains. It wasn’t until that moment that I thought twice about the fact that we are disrupting wildlife and displacing ecosystems. It wasn’t until that moment that it mattered to me that we are digging all the coal out of the ground and letting chemical byproducts run into our water systems. And the reason it didn’t matter to me until that moment is because, until I looked out onto those mountains, the mountains that remind me of our Triune God, I’d never even considered that every time we clearcut a forest and bulldoze the top of a mountain, we aren’t just moving trees and rocks. Rather, we are carving up God and God’s creation.
Of course, I hold a very strong symbolic association between mountains and God. But yet, in the Bible, we encounter mountain imagery time and time again: In Exodus and Deuteronomy, we read stories of Moses encountering God on Mount Sinai and Mount Horeb, receiving the Ten Commandments, commands that have guided the lives of countless people for thousands of years. And in the Gospel of Matthew, we hear the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sharing some of his most important teachings.
I’d never even considered that every time we clearcut a forest and bulldoze the top of a mountain, we aren’t just moving trees and rocks. Rather, we are carving up God and God’s creation.
And then we also have our reading for today: the Transfiguration. This is a story we have heard time and time again, a story found in each of the three Synoptic Gospels. It starts simply enough, with Jesus going up on a mountain with his disciples. In my mind, they are on a sort of nature walk, like I would do with my campers.
But then, on that mountain, something happens. In front of his disciples, Jesus is transformed. His clothes turn a dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah appear beside him.
This story is more than just the tale of a long hike, or the tale of Jesus showing something of himself that proves his divinity. This is a story of a revelation of God to God’s people. And, in some way, these are all stories of God’s revelation, to Moses on Mount Sinai and Mount Horeb, and through Jesus as he taught his followers in the Sermon on the Mount.
And so, it seems as though there is something special about mountains.
These tall, jagged peaks and rolling, tree-covered slopes are some of the places in scripture where we can most easily see God reaching out to God’s children, and I think these are still places where we can witness God’s self-revelation to us.
Now, I’m not saying that if we hike up a mountain we will hear a booming voice from the clouds, or be given a set of stone tablets inscribed with rules for living, or have our own clothes turned a dazzling white. And I’m also not saying that the only place we can experience God’s self-revelation is in the mountains.
Now is the time for us to help work for the revelation of God through a different sort of transformation: a transformation of our sustainability and ecological practices to better serve the world that God so lovingly created.
We have, however, been given the glorious gift of God’s creation right beyond our front doors and right through our living room windows, even when that creation is covered by treacherous sheets of snow and ice like it is right now. When we look outside and see the tall peaks in the distance, we are seeing God’s self-revelation in those very rocks and trees. When we hike in the woods, we are walking on holy ground. When we wade in the streams and rivers, we are being immersed in Living Water.
Every time we clearcut a forest or bulldoze the top of another mountain, we aren’t just damaging ecosystems or poisoning our water supply. Each time we are careless with creation, we are actively destroying places in our lives where God is revealed to us most plainly.
But yet we do have serious matters to attend to, because we are still clearcutting forests, cutting off the tops of mountains, and digging millions of tons of coal out of the ground each year. We are letting the chemicals pour into our water systems and poison our people, God’s people, and we have to do something about this.
In today’s reading, we heard about God’s self-revelation through the act of Jesus’ own transformation. But now is the time for us to help work for the revelation of God through a different sort of transformation: a transformation of our sustainability and ecological practices to better serve the world that God so lovingly created.
Just like the group of dedicated campers who built Prayer Hill by passing rock after rock up the side of the mountain to build a chapel in the clearing and create a space where generations have worshipped God, so too can our small daily actions reflect and sustain the beauty and holiness of God’s creation so that we may wade in the streams, and stand on the tops of mountains and see the glory of God revealed before us. Amen.