The view from the top (and the bottom)

Text: Isaiah 65:17-25 (a New Jerusalem)

The Rocky Mountains play a big role in the imagination of Albertans. Six years ago, when I was placed at Knox United in Didsbury as a student supply minister, I was excited to learn that Didsbury was in Mountain View County. I imagined that I would see a lot of the mountains while living there.

When I landed in Edmonton from Toronto in late August that year to spend a few nights here with my sister, there were, of course, no mountains to be seen. But as I drove south to Didsbury on August 29, 2009, I scanned the western horizon and was disappointed that I still couldn’t see the Rockies.

On Sunday August 30, I worshipped at Knox United in Didsbury for the first time to meet with the congregation ahead of the start of my eight months there as an intern. When I woke up early that morning, I drove west for a few minutes to find mountains. But they were still obscured by haze, smoke and dust.

Finally, on Monday August 31, I decided to drive to Banff. I had never been there before, and I knew I couldn’t miss seeing mountains in Banff! So I drove west to Highway 22, and then south. About halfway to Cochrane, I glanced to the west, and suddenly there they were. I stopped the car, took a picture and called a friend in Toronto to say I had finally seen the Rockies.

I have been to Banff four more times since then for the United Church Men’s Conference. I am glad that Alberta has mountains even as I wish Edmonton was a little closer to them.

In August 2014 after living here for seven months, I drove to Jasper on the long weekend just to convince myself that Alberta did indeed still have mountains and because I had never been to Jasper before.

Now, after two weeks of vacation at the start of this month, I finally feel like the Rockies have been imprinted on my heart and mind. We drove to Tofino via Jasper and Kamloops and then back to Banff via Okanagan and Lake Louise.

The Rockies are magnificent, of course, and like all mountains they carry a lot of spiritual significance. In ancient times, people believed that the gods lived on mountains like Olympus in Greece or Sinai in Egypt. Climbing mountains is difficult and dangerous and so it makes a good metaphor for spiritual growth. Finally, the view from the tops of mountains has no rival, at least until the era of human flight.

On Friday, I went to see the movie “Everest,” which dramatizes a famous disaster in 1996 when eight people died in a blizzard trying to climb the tallest mountain in the world. At 8,848 meters, Everest is more than twice the height of Mount Robson just west of Jasper, a fact that I find hard to take in.

To me, attempts to climb Everest and other impossibly tall mountains seem both inspiring and foolish. I appreciated seeing the movie even as it cemented my desire to never go on a wilderness adventure more extreme than canoe camping or moderate hiking . . .

The Holy Mountain mentioned by the prophet Isaiah in today’s Scripture reading is Jerusalem. In truth Jerusalem is more of a hill than a mountain — at 740 metres above sea level, it is not much higher than Edmonton. But for Israel, Jerusalem is high and YHWH’s Holy Temple was built at its highest spot.

Last week, we heard the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah describe the devastation of Jerusalem after its conquest by the Babylonians 2600 years ago. Today’s reading describes the dream of rebuilding Jerusalem and God’s Temple 100 years later as Jewish leaders return there from exile in Babylon.

When Isaiah wrote his glorious vision of a new heaven and earth in which the wolf lies down with the lamb, Jerusalem was still a work in progress. The returned exiles were discouraged by the enormity of the task of rebuilding their holy city and their precarious existence in a city surrounded by enemies.

Today, 2500 years later, the same concerns remain. Isaiah’s vision still seems far off, both for Jerusalem itself and for all the “Jerusalem’s” of our religious imaginations.

At choir practice on Thursday evening, I was struck that people didn’t know the hymn tune “Jerusalem.” It was written almost 100 years ago by Hubert Parry to accompany a visionary poem from 1804 by the English writer and illustrator William Blake. Parry’s hymn quickly became a favourite in World War I and the unofficial national anthem of England.

Six years ago, I was surprised that people in Didsbury also didn’t know Jerusalem. I believe this is another reflection of the differences between Alberta and Ontario. I grew up in Cornwall Ontario on the St. Lawrence River, a city that was first settled by United Empire Loyalists who had fled the United States after the defeat of Britain in the American Revolution in 1783.

Cornwall is close to Quebec, and its industries drew poor French people to the east end of the city in numbers that amount to about 30% of the population. Cornwall also has a Mohawk First Nation on Cornwall Island. I believe that Cornwall’s Loyalist roots and the presence of Quebecois and Mohawks heightened the sense of Britishness of the city’s rulers, and this explains why I was taught to sing “Jerusalem” in Grade One there.

Our final hymn today used the tune “Jerusalem” although to words other than those of Blake. Here now I present Blake’s wonderful poem, “And did those feet,” set to Parry’s music.

And did those feet in ancient time / walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God, / on England’s pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine, / shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here, / among these dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold; / bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold! / bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight, / nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem, / in England’s green and pleasant Land.

When we sing this tune to the words “O Day of Peace” by Carl Daw at the end of the service, I hope that others with British roots will help lead the singing!

Blake’s poem suggests that the New Jerusalem envisioned by Isaiah 2500 years ago is for this world – a social utopia where peace and equality replace the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution. Others see Isaiah’s vision of a new heaven and earth as something that we encounter after death in another world.

Both visions trouble me. I don’t want to wait until death to experience an end to violence and exploitation. But then the struggle for social justice seems so difficult. And although I have no fears of death and trust that we all return to the Love from which we have come, I don’t expect that my own individuality will be part of the afterlife – although who knows?

So how do I see the hope and glory promised by Isaiah and William Blake?

The image of a mountain might help. I once used a meditation tape that asked the listener to sit with legs crossed and to imagine one’s body as a mountain. As the storms of life play out across the mind, the tape said to think of those thoughts as rain and wind harmlessly beating against the side of a mountain.

Imagining the roots of the mountain, one could be reminded of our own roots in the immense age and expanse of the cosmos. The atoms of our bodies were forged in exploding stars billions of years ago and the DNA of each of our cells reflects the history of three billion years of biological evolution on earth.

Imagining the heights of the mountain, one could be reminded of our union with all humanity. Our thoughts and dreams, whether disturbed or serene, connect us to thousands of years of human culture and to all of world society today.

Like the roots of mountain, each one of us contains depthless age and strength. And like the heights of a mountain, each one of us is a child of God, enlivened by language and collective knowledge, and lit up by spiritual fires that connect us to God’s eternity of Love.

I agree with Blake and Isaiah that we should strive for a New Jerusalem of peace and abundance this side of the grave. I also believe that God’s new heaven and earth is already present, right here and now. When we remind ourselves that we are one of God’s Holy Mountains, we can be aware with each breath in that we are rooted in the unimaginable depths of cosmos and biosphere. And with each breath out, we can be aware of our connections to all people now and in the past.

So even as we strive for social justice and confront the fears of our own mortality, may we remember that we are enveloped by God’s Infinite Love on this, God’s Holy Mountain, both now and always.

Thanks be to God.


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