March 1, 2023

Up on the Mountain

After his baptism and his vision quest in the desert, Jesus encountered crowds wherever he went. Dozens or hundreds of people turned up in every little town, desperate for healing for themselves or their loved ones. He saw families struggling to survive, kids who went to bed hungry, adults worn out trying to care for others. There were broken-hearted people, grieving painful losses, and many struggling to find or keep their faith, wondering where God was in the midst of their troubles.

Jesus was filled with compassion for all those people; his heart must have been breaking for them. How did he manage to stay open and present in the midst of all their suffering? We know that whenever he could, Jesus slipped away to spend time in prayer. He looked for quiet places where he could sit with the Creator and replenish his spirit.

While that helped him cope with the demands of his ministry, Jesus realized there was still a crisis brewing. The crushing burdens of the people they met were overwhelming his disciples. Those concerns are still with us today: How can caring people stay hopeful amidst all the troubles in our world? In the reservation community where I serve, it feels like there are too many heartbreaking deaths, one funeral after another. It’s challenging to stay grounded spiritually so that we can support each other.

I imagine Jesus deciding to hold a leadership retreat, a chance for the Twelve to join in prayer and learn to be more resilient. As a first step, he took them up on the mountain, a sacred place in their culture and in ours. The great prophets Moses and Elijah had close encounters with the Creator on the mountain, and Jesus would too. We know something about this, don’t we? How refreshing it can be to get away to a sacred place, to lose ourselves in the beauty and power of the high country.

On the mountain, they sat together in silence, restless at first, but gradually settling down. Before beginning his teaching, Jesus would have chosen a passage of Scripture to set the tone, perhaps this question from the prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8) We’re not expected to be miracle workers, the prophet says, just faithful servants who walk by the Creator’s side.

Then would have come his transforming message, which we know as the Sermon on the Mount, filled with wonderful teachings about prayer, living a spiritual life, human relationships and much more. (Gospel of Matthew chapters 5-7) The first section is particularly touching: a group of blessings like the ones familiar to the disciples from Jewish daily prayers. In them, Jesus showed his compassion for the people in a startling way, by turning their suffering upside-down. Here’s my paraphrase of that passage:

When you’re lost and struggling, when you’re grieving
painful losses, you’re blessed.
When you’re feeling vulnerable, when your heart
aches for justice, you’re blessed.
In times like that, you know you need God,
and God is with you.

Who are the superstars of our world?
Not the rich and powerful…
But you who are merciful will receive mercy.
You who have open, loving hearts will see God.
You who bring people together are truly God’s children.

Don’t expect to receive fame and fortune—you’re
more likely to be mocked and taunted,
as prophets always are.
Count your blessings; and
let the Spirit guide and strengthen you.

Isn’t that a powerful teaching? I hear Jesus saying that, no matter what happens in our lives, we’re blessed by the Creator’s presence. Jesus was concerned that his disciples were being overwhelmed. I worry about that too, for myself and for others as well. Those of us who truly care, whose hearts are open, can easily burn out. No wonder people medicate or distract themselves, to avoid feeling so much pain. Jesus wants us to show and tell them: You’re blessed. God loves you inside and out, forever.

Before we can help others, we need to ground ourselves spiritually. We need to spend time in sacred places. We need to take the teachings of Jesus seriously: he meant what he said, and he was talking to us. Only then can we truly do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.