In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established
as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the
God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk
in his paths.” (Isaiah 2:2-3)
Have you noticed that mountains so often form the backdrop of the Bible’s stories about God, and the people of God, and the coming of the Savior? Isaiah sees in his mind’s eye the glory of God enshrined in the great temple in Jerusalem; and the temple mount is lifted high above all others, and the nations stream to it, and ascend its steps to be in the presence and walk in the paths of the Living God. This morning’s Psalm, the 122nd , is one of a group of psalms known as “Psalms of Ascents,” or “Psalms of Climbing Up,” which were sung by faithful Jews back in the 7th century B.C. as they returned after years in lonely exile and ascended joyfully and thankfully the heights of their beloved city.
Centuries later, a holy child would be born and raised in the mountains, and would do much of his teaching in the mountains, and would be put to death on the Mount of Calvary. And it is from the Mount of Olives in today’s Gospel that Jesus casts himself as the Son of Man who will come again on the day of judgment. The reference is to the Book of Daniel, which tells of “one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven”, one to whom would be given “dominion and glory and kingship.” (Dan. 7:13,14) His coming will be sudden, at a time of God’s own choosing. And using that same Old Testament vision, Jesus warns his disciples to “Keep awake…be ready…for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matthew 24:36-44)
Mountains and visions are the settings of this morning’s lessons. And that might even be said of today’s Epistle reading from Romans. It’s generally thought that Paul was in Corinth when he wrote that letter–Corinth, a city nestled at the foot of a high mountain and notorious for its rampant prostitution. What more natural setting could there be for Paul to warn his friends in Rome, that other city of sin: “The night is far gone,” he wrote, “the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light….put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Romans 13:12,14)
The setting of mountains and visions is altogether appropriate as we begin a new church year and enter into the holy season of Advent. For Advent is all about a great vision from on high—the vision of the coming of the Messiah in the fullness of time; the coming of Light into a darkened world; the coming of a holy child in a humble stable; the coming of a bold and radical love that will confront and transform the evil forces of society; the coming of a peace and justice that will beat swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks. Such is the vision of Advent which God calls us to keep ever before us in today’s contentious world, challenging us, goading us, defining us, enlivening us as God’s own people.
You know I like to tell stories, especially true stories. And a lot of the ones I tell are about myself. (That’s a sign of age!) Well, this one is about an occasion I experienced, but even more about a friend who was there and who became one of the heroes of my life. The occasion was my ordination to the priesthood, which took place 49 years ago last evening at St. Matthew’s Church in the little town of Ontario in eastern Oregon. The 1st of December in 1958 was on a Monday. It was also St. Andrew’s Day that year, because November 30th, the normal day for Andrew, was the First Sunday of Advent and you can’t have both the same day.
The Bishop of Eastern Oregon, Lane W. Barton, was a good man, not unlike Andrew because he was a true missionary; but he was also quite forgetful. He had forgotten to bring along a Bible which is supposed to be presented to the ordinand; so he simply asked for mine, shabby looking as it was, and gave it back to me after he had laid hands on me! And he girded me with the red stole my wife had made for me in seminary. The parish gave me a beautiful little private communion set which I have used ever since, as I have the Bible and the stole. But the gifts I remember most fondly from that Monday evening were the clergy friends who drove such long distances through the mountains of that vast missionary district (as it was called before it became a diocese) to be there with me.
One of those clergy was a man named Louie Perkins who drove 130 miles from Burns, one of the most isolated little towns in Oregon, up through the Blue Mountains and down into the Snake River Valley to Ontario. Louie was the preacher that night, and he chose as his text the 122nd Psalm, the very same psalm we’re using this morning. And somehow that whole vision of ascending the heights, and seeing the glory of God and a world remade in God’s image, the vision common to all today’s readings—the vision came alive for me that evening, and Louie still represents that vision in a very powerful way for me.
He was “to the manner born”—raised in the affluent Boston suburb of Brookline, educated at Harvard University, prepared for ministry at the Episcopal Divinity School, right there in Cambridge. He went on to be rector of several prominent churches in the northeast. And then the bottom dropped out of his life. Louie and his wife Catherine tragically lost a child; and Catherine became mentally ill as a result, and never got well again. It was a terrible time for them. But Louie was a man of indomitable faith and towering strength. Somehow he met Bishop Lane Barton, learned of the desperate need for clergy in Barton’s district, and offered his services there. He and Catherine landed in Burns, at tiny St. Andrew’s Church, where he became vicar. I’ve been in Burns, and it’s about as close to “the middle of nowhere” as any place I’ve ever seen!
It took someone like Louie to adjust to such utterly different circumstances and to care so lovingly for his wife and his little congregation of ranch families and townspeople. But he was thoroughly up to it. I remember him vividly, preaching that evening at my ordination. He was a very tall, slender, white-haired, bespectacled man, somewhat resembling a prophet, but with a contagious warmth, a great sense of humor and an endearing ability to laugh at himself. And there were some memorable things to laugh about. One was his clerical attire. Thin as he was, he always wore a collar a couple of sizes too big, so that he looked like he had a white bowl around his neck. Another was his ancient, disreputable looking, rusting, rattling VW bus which he drove all over the missionary district.
But for me, Louie, that tall, unusual-looking, somewhat eccentric, battle-worn priest, was larger than life. In his preaching, in his ministering–in his living–he held before me the bigger picture, the view from on high, and a passion for a world of peace and unity. To be with Louie was to be invited up the high road to the highest of the mountains. He loved the Episcopal Church. In all the years I knew him, he never missed a General Convention. If he wasn’t elected as an official deputy he would go on his own. And he always traveled by Amtrak because he hated to fly! And he would speak his piece—he would speak out for a church that would be more inclusive, more outreaching, more generous, more loving more faithful to its Lord. If he were living today, he would have no patience with the quarrels and infighting which so distract us from our mission.
The Church Divinity School of the Pacific, in Berkeley, California, awarded Louie an honorary D.D.—Doctor of Divinity—degree. But, typical of Louie, he didn’t get his letterhead reprinted (he was a prodigious letter-writer); he simply got a rubber stamp made with “D.D.” on it and stamped it each time after his name, and usually not very carefully. He was utterly unpretentious. Louie stood like a mountain in my life. I felt bigger, better, more mature when I was around him. He helped me envision, as from a mountaintop, our great God, our beloved Church, a just and peaceful world, and the coming of the Christ with power and saving love. And that’s the vision God holds before you and me this Advent.