Date: February 11, 2018
Title: “Down From the Mountaintop”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Mark 9:2-9
The Winter Olympics have begun! And the whole world thrills to see who is fastest – most graceful – most agile – most courageous on snow and ice. The stories have begun to unfold in Korea, just as they have every four years since the modern games began. Which got me to thinking about Eddie the Eagle… do you remember him? The Smithsonian Magazine tells his story this way:
A quarter century ago British plasterer-turned-ski jumper Michael Edwards made a name for himself—Eddie the Eagle—by not skiing or jumping very well at the Winter Olympics in Calgary. Short on talent but long on panache and derring-do, he had no illusions about his ability, no dreams of gold or silver or even bronze. Blinking myopically behind the bottle glass of his pink-and-white-rimmed glasses, he told the press: “In my case, there are only two kinds of hope—Bob Hope and no hope.”
Undeterred, Edwards sluiced on. Wearing six pairs of socks inside hand-me-down ski boots, he stepped onto the slopes, pushed off down the steep ramp and rag-dolled through the air. When he touched down, broadcasters chorused: “The Eagle has landed!” By taking a huge leap of faith, Edwards captured the world’s imagination and achieved the sort of renown that can only come overnight.
“When I started competing, I was so broke that I had to tie my helmet with a piece of string,” he says. “On one jump the string snapped, and my helmet carried on farther than I did. I may have been the first ski jumper ever beaten by his gear.”
He’s been called a number of things over the years…Fast Eddie – Slow Eddie – Crazy Eddie – Unsteady Eddie – The Flying Plasterer – Mr. Magoo on Skis – the Abominable Snowman – the Unconquering Hero – a Loveable Loser – [and my personal favorite], a half-blind clot having a bloody good time!
Eddie was a mere eaglet of 13 when he first strapped on skis during a school trip to Italy. Within four years he was racing with the British national team. Unable to afford lift tickets, he switched to the cheaper sport of ski jumping. During the summer of 1986, eighteen months before the Olympics, the 22-year-old resolved to take time off from plastering and try his luck and pluck against the world’s top jumpers.
He had no money, no coach, no equipment and no team—England had never competed in the event. Driven only by determination, he slept in his mum’s Cavalier, grubbed food out of garbage cans and once even camped out in a Finnish mental hospital. From shoveling snow to scrubbing floors, there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do to jump more. Nor was there anything that could stop him from jumping: Following one botched landing, he continued with his head tied up in a pillowcase toothache-fashion to keep a broken jaw in place.
By the time Edwards arrived in Calgary—where the Italian team gave him a new helmet and the Austrians provided his skis—he was legendary as the jumper who made it look difficult. Others flew. Only the Eagle could launch off a mountain and plummet like a dead parrot. “I was a true amateur and embodied what the Olympic spirit is all about,” he says.
“To me, competing was all that mattered. Americans are very much ‘Win! Win! Win!’ In England, we don’t give a fig whether you win. It’s great if you do, but we appreciate those who don’t. The failures are the people who never get off their bums. Anyone who has a go is a success.”
You’ve just got to love Eddie the Eagle. He was an unqualified success precisely because he gave it a go – he came down off the mountain. The disciples in Mark’s Gospel this morning rightly want to stay on the mountaintop. They know the kind of terror , uncertainty, conflict and challenges that await them “out there”. Who wouldn’t want to stay put, to sidestep the risk of hurtling down into a world where love is given little more than lip service and righteousness seems like such an outdated concept?
Today is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany. Next week we will enter into the season of Lent. Traditionally on this Sunday the Gospel text tells the story of Jesus’ transfiguration – a mysterious event meant to convey once more Jesus’ messianic identity and the power available to believers. In the story Jesus is revealed as God’s beloved Son, and the disciples witnessing the event are told to “listen to him”. It must have been an amazing sight, to see Jesus shining with divine light and to hear God’s affirmation of him.
We can understand Peter’s longing to build a monument because we too want our mystical moments – the high points when life is better than we thought it could be – to last forever. Someone else put it this way:
We want to savor falling in love without doing the dishes, monitoring family finances, and changing diapers. We want to experience God without all the complications of a life devoted to relational and social transformation. But a full life leads us from contemplation to action, and from mysticism to dirty hands in bringing heaven to earth.
My friends, if we are going to climb up the mountain with Jesus, you can bet your bottom dollar, he is going to ask us to go on down again. So it helps if we can remember there is no failing at faith unless we refuse to get off our bums or to come down off the mountain.
Author and Journalist Erik Larson says fame did not come quickly or easily for him; he had to climb more than his share of mountains. He tells the story of his very first book tour, promoting his very first book. In one venue, he walked into a large auditorium, took his place at the lectern up front and peered out into dark, empty space. There was only one person present – a woman sitting in the very back row. Larson said he smiled at her and said “Hello… it’s good to see you here…why don’t you move up closer to the front?” To which the woman replied, “No thank you. I’ll stay put. I might want to leave early”.
How often we behave just like her, trying to melt into the background, trying to position ourselves where we think we will be safe from too much involvement in life, too much commitment in faith, too much investment in love? We want to keep our options open. We might climb up to the top of the ski jump and then think better of coming on down the mountain.
I did that once, in fact. Just outside of Oslo, Norway, there is a huge ski jump leftover from some past Olympics. I climbed up all the many steps to the top of that jump, peered out over the edge at the steep ramp falling away into what seemed like empty space…and I almost threw up. I couldn’t wait to climb back down the steps.
I think it is not only easy, but normal to think better of coming down from the mountaintop. But here’s the thing…you can’t really sneak out of the story when the story is yours. And you can’t just hang out forever on top of the mountain. As Karoline Lewis reminds us:
This leads to an overlooked truth of the Transfiguration – that what we’ve seen so far is nothing, compared to what’s in store. Jesus’ Transfiguration insists that God’s glory will persist in the midst of and in spite of all that would point to the contrary. It reveals the power of our present because of God’s presence in Jesus… but it also points to the potential of our future.
Like Eddie the Eagle, flying down the mountain, we may not know exactly where we will land, but we can be assured that Jesus will be flying with us. We can trust the power of our present AND the potential of our future because of transfiguration, this reminder that God’s glory will persist no matter what our landing looks like. And there is no way we can fail if we will simply have a go at this life of faith.
A few years ago a friend of mine shared this story of success.
This friend is a pastor who has one daughter. When she was getting ready to graduate from college and trying to figure out what was next for her, she heard someone on campus speaking about doing volunteer work in Uganda. She was captured by the poverty and the need and felt compelled to go to Uganda herself, to do what she could to alleviate suffering, and more importantly, to learn from these people for a year.
When she shared her plan with her pastor father, he said “Oh honey, there are plenty of poor people here. You could do Americorps. You could do US2 with the UMC. You don’t have to go so far away.” But the daughter persisted. She said she felt called to go to Uganda for a year. “Oh honey, it’s dangerous there. You could be hurt, injured, even killed.” And the daughter replied, “Yes Dad, and it’s dangerous here. There are no guarantees in life.” And again, she said she felt called to go.
Finally, my friend says, “I realized that when my daughter was baptized what I wanted was for her to become a respectable Christian. But I wasn’t prepared, until the day she boarded that plane for Uganda… I wasn’t prepared for her to become a real Christian.”
Transfiguration is what helps us all to become real Christians. It is what helps us to climb to the top of ski jump ad to realize the only way down is to fly.
Thanks be to God! Amen.