The Holiness of Mountains

Text(s): Isaiah 65: 17-25, Psalm 48: 1-11, Romans 8: 28-39, + Mark 16: 14-18

It’s MOUNTAIN SUNDAY! I was excited to preach this Sunday in our Season of Creation.

Having been born and raised in Arizona, mountains have been present in my daily experience from the sight of the mysterious Superstition Mountains to the countless nights of camping near or on the Mollogon Rim. These images and memories are sacred and are abundant with the presence of the divine.

Arguably, the sacredness and love for mountains are not held by me alone. In my brief time in Washington, I have heard countless references and experiences of Mount Saint Helen, Mount Rainier, Mount Shasta, and the Olympic mountains depicted on the alter frontal.

Unfortunately, this excitement was crushed when I encountered our texts. I struggled and struggled; in fact it was recommended that I abandon the text because preaching on the gospel or the readings is after all more of a “guideline” than a rule.

Yet, the gospel text from Mark and the Letter to the Romans reminded me of the significance of the Appalachian Mountains to our historical American past. The Appalachian Mountains were a barrier between the Eastern and the Western United States, which was ‘conquered’ during the earliest days of Manifest Destiny. Unfortunately, this notion echoes the Letter to the Romans. Romans suggested that nothing and I mean NOTHING, can separate or divorce us from God’s love. Although I agree with the sentiment and its truth, because of the symbolism of mountains as challenges or obstacles to be “conquered” the implication during the Season of Creation might be that mountains attempt to hinder the God-human relationship. That is a message that does not honor the sacredness of mountains.

While the Appalachia region, which is tucked into the Southern Appalachian Mountains has nourished an American culture known as the Hillbillies. The hillbillies are the Scot-Irish who settled in the region and are my kin. Yet, a small section of the culture has adapted their Christian practices to reflect our Mark text, including the handling of snakes and the drinking of deadly poison. However, this text does not speak of mountains directly and honestly, this is a Lutheran congregation.

If this were a game of Poker. I was considering folding my hand and throwing in my cards. However,  Isaiah (yes, the Old Testament text) offered me a pair of twos. I am striving for a full house and praying for a four of a kind. So please bear with me!

Isaiah depicts a perfect, peaceful creation on God’s holy mountain. I began to ponder the notion of mountains as sacred. I stumbled upon a quote from a man named Frank B. Chavez III, which stated “mountains are a major feature of the geography of most places. For thousands of years, cultures around the world have considered these majestic wonders sacred. They are seen as the place where heaven and earth meet, the home of the gods, and the meeting place between man and divine”.

In addition to geographical and cultural significance of the Appalachian Mountains, American secularism has and continues to honor another sacred mountain: Mount Rushmore. Mount Rushmore is located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, which is sacred ground to the Lakota Sioux. The Black Hills are believed to possess a “power” that has been sealed away.

Chavez noted that mountains have been understood as the “home” of the gods. The Navajo have six sacred mountains located in Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. The Navajo deities, or divine persons, reside upon these mountains. Meanwhile, the Hindu honor Mount Kailash in Tibet as the home of Lord Shiva, their God of Destruction and Rebirth. Further, the infamous Greek mythology honors Mount Olympus as the home of their gods and goddesses.

Again, Chavez noted that mountains have been understood as the meeting place of humanity and the divine. Mount Horeb and/or Mount Sinai, which may or may not be the same geographical location, are honored as holy mountains in the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These have been contributed with the communication of Moses with God. These have been cited as the location of the flaming bush that was not consumed and the receiving of the Ten Commandments. Further in Islam, Mount Sinai is cited as the location where Mohammed ascended into heaven.

However, are the majestic wonder and the sacred nature of the mountains rooted in these perspectives? Perhaps, we should ponder the notion of the sacred, or holy, and the profane, or ordinary and human. Being the religion nerd that I am, I sought the comfort of comparative religion scholars that sought to explain the sacred and the profane.

The first is Max Muller, a 19th century German and the “Father of Comparative Religion”. Muller argued that the heart of religion was a consciousness of the Infinite, which was his term for God. Further, Muller compared languages and noted that the first encounters that humanity experienced with the Infinite was through the observation of and labeling of the intangible, for example the moon, and the semi-tangible, for example the mountains. Although these natural phenomena were a genuine intimation of the Infinite, these were not or at least were not originally regarded as gods.

The second is Mircea Eliade, a 20th century Romanian historian of religion and phenomenologist, those that study the phenomena of the “holy”.  Additionally, Eliade is recognized as the most influential scholar of religion in the 20th century. He was critical of those that boiled religion down to psychological, social, economic, historical, or other non-religious phenomena, because they fail to do justice to the unique, irreducible essence of religious experience: the sacred. Further, he argued that the religious was distinguishable by the relationship of the sacred and profane, by which the illogical, incomprehensible, perfect God can appear within our profane, ordinary human and worldly forms, such as trees and rivers, historical beings and animals, and in dreams and other human experiences. Frankly, I would argue that Eliade would include mountains.

The third and final is Rudolph Otto, a 19th and 20th century German theologian, philosopher, and historian of religion. Otto’s inquiry about the human experience of the holy was awoken by the life and thought of Martin Luther. Otto is most prominently recognized for authoring The Idea of the Holy, which Otto contends that the numinous, the awe-inspiring element of religious experience quote “evades formulation in words. Like the beauty of a musical composition, it is non-rational and eludes complete conceptual analysis; hence it must be discussed in symbolic terms” end quote. Additionally, Otto states “we are dealing with something for which there is only one appropriate expression, mysterium trendum… The feeling of it may be at times come sweeping like a gentle tide pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrilling vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its “profane,” non-religious mood of everyday experience… It has a crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creatures in the presence of- whom or what? In the presence of that which is a Mystery inexpressible and above all creatures”.

Although not as poetic as Otto, the cliff note version is that these three scholars in long-winded theologian fashion argue that the experience of the sacred is beyond words and is experienced in our profane, ordinary, common human experience. Perhaps, our experience of the sacred is a “Mountain top” experience.

In my experience, these “mountain top” moments of experiencing the sacred in the ordinary frequently occurs in the mountains. Humanity has embraced the mountains as sanctuary from the stress and the distractions of our profane, ordinary, worldly lives rooted in our homesteads, towns, and cities that are have settled in the shadows of the mountains, inside the volleys. Perhaps, mountains are not holier than the rest of creation, but rather our worldly stresses and distractions hinder our ability to experience the sacred, holy, presence of God. And the mountains offer sanctuary from these stresses and distractions.

May we encounter those sacred “mountain top” moments in the midst of our ordinary, daily experience. Amen.

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