Here on this last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, we read the story of the Transfiguration–of Jesus on the mountaintop with three chosen disciples, his face and his clothing suddenly shot through with Radiance as he prays, and the appearance with him of those two larger-than-life figures from Jewish tradition, Moses and Elijah, speaking to him about his “departure” or “exodus.” Jesus has often gone off by himself to pray, and maybe this is what happens to him all the time. But this is the first time–the only time that we know of–that Peter, James, and John are with him and witness this transfiguration, this encounter with The Holy.
Clearly it short-circuits all the neural pathways in their brains. As Moses and Elijah are fading from view, Peter blurts out, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” A typical extrovert, perhaps, talking out loud to process what is going on, but really, as Luke says in an aside, “not knowing what he was saying.” Lori Brandt Hale imagines “a cosmic hand from heaven, reaching down to give Peter a good ‘you are missing the point’ slap upside the head” [cited by Kate Huey Matthews in sermonseeds, 2/7/16]. Every situation doesn’t require us to Do Something. Sometimes, the thing to remember is, “Don’t just do something–stand there!”
The story of this vision is in all four gospels, so clearly it was important to the early Christian community. They, by the way, would have been less impressed by the fact that Peter, James, and John had this vision, this experience, for visions and dreams were viewed as common modes of experience and knowledge. What would have been important for those early Christians was the meaning, the lesson, the affirmation of Jesus and his path by God, God’s radiance shining from within Jesus but also enveloping them all on that mountaintop. Remember this. Don’t lose sight of this…
….because each time in the gospels this story of the mountaintop transfiguration is told, it is followed by the story of the descent into the valley, where the demon-possessed boy and his father are crying out for help. The mountaintop and the valley stories go together, even though too often we separate them. These stories, but more importantly, these experiences, need each other. The valley isn’t the postscript to the mountaintop, but the “in the meantime…”
Listen again, as Debie Thomas re-tells the two stories–
On the mountain, a man bent in prayer erupts in sudden light. As glory leaks from every pore, three sleepy disciples cower in the grass and watch their Master glow. Two figures appear out of time and space; in solemn tones they speak of exodus, accomplishment, Jerusalem. The disciples, comprehending nothing, babble nonsense in response — “Let’s make tents! Let’s stay here always! This is good!” A cloud descends, thick and impenetrable. As it envelops the disciples, they fall to their faces, certain the end has come. But a Voice addresses them instead, tender and gentle. “This is my Son, my Chosen.” The Voice hums with delight, and the disciples, braver now, look up. They gaze at their Master — the Shining One — and a Father’s pure joy sings with the stars. “This is my Beloved Son. Listen to him.”
* * *
In the valley, a boy writhes in the dust. He drools, he cannot hear, and his eyes — wide-open, feral — see nothing but darkness. Around him a crowd gathers and swells, eager for spectacle. Scribes jeer, and disciples wring their hands in shame. “Frauds!” someone yells into the night. “Charlatans!” “Where’s your Master?” the scribes ask the disciples an umpteeth time. “Why has he left you?” “We don’t know,” the disciples mutter, gesturing vaguely at the mountain. Panic wars with exhaustion as they hear the boy shriek yet again — an echo straight from hell. He flails, and his limbs assault his stricken face. A voice — strangled, singular — rends the night. “This is my son!” a man cries out as he pushes through the crowd to gather the convulsing boy into his arms. Everyone stares as the father cradles the wreck of a child against his chest. “Please,” he sobs to the stars. “Please. This is my beloved son. Listen to him.”
“Here’s what I’d like to know [Thomas asks, as she reads these two stories together]: how does glory on the mountain speak to the agony in the valley? What does it mean that they share a landscape? Can a love song on a pinnacle reach a scream in the depths? What happens if it can’t? Aren’t there two beloved sons in this story?” [journeywithjesus, 1/31/16]
Right now, as we sit in this peaceful, love-filled place, on this hillside [not quite a mountaintop], what else is going on in the meantime? We know that right now, in our community, there are people waking up with hang-overs, people on their 2nd beer of the morning, people shooting up heroin, a woman is being hit, a child told he is stupid, many people are hungry with no prospects for food until, perhaps, if they know about it, if they dare come, until our Sunday Supper at 5. We know that right now a young black man is being stopped by the police for no other reason than he is black and in the “wrong” place. We know that Jesus’ name is being used to advocate carpet-bombing. We know that God’s name is being shouted as suicide bombers detonate themselves in crowded streets. We know that demons of all kinds possess children, teens, women, and men. We know that the earth herself cries out from poisons and toxins polluting and killing her and her children. Hoosick Falls and Flint, MI are but two of her voices. All the mountain tops are connected to the valleys, and the plains, the rivers and oceans, the villages and mega-metropolitan areas.
The Rev. Dr. James Forbes, former pastor of NYC’s Riverside Church, says that we are “in the midst of an epidemic of what [he calls] ‘a degenerative discouragement syndrome’….with a list from the news cycle [that] seems to resist remediation or repair.” [ON Scripture, 2/7/16]
“One thing is certain,” Dr. Forbes writes, “very little progress will be achieved apart from costly commitment…it is likely that true commitment will make very serious demands upon one’s strength, security, resources, and comforts.”
This story of the Transfiguration, where Jesus and the disciples were overwhelmed with glory, seems to have been critical for the early Christian communities who were facing their own overwhelming challenges. Having the white light of that image from the mountaintop seared on their minds’ eyes and on their hearts gave them encouragement, hope, affirmation, power, just as it seems to have given Jesus strength for the journey into the valley and up to that other hillside that awaited him. As Jim Forbes says, ” If Jesus needed and received extraordinary encourage-ment and empowerment, what about us?” In the midst of our epidemic of “degenerative discouragement syndrome,” we need extraordinary encouragement and empowerment too, don’t we?
“Here’s the great challenge to the Christian life,” Debie Thomas suggests–”can we speak glory to agony, and agony to glory? Can we hold the mountain and the valley in faithful tension with each other–denying neither, embracing both? Can we do this hard, hard work out of pure love for each other, so that no one among us–not the joyous one, not the anguished one, not the beloved one, not the broken one–is ever truly alone?” [Ibid.] Can we do this?
I caught just the beginning of a National Geographic special this week on television as I was finishing up the dinner dishes. It was about bioluminescence–the ability of some creatures to give off light, like fireflies, or deep sea squid or other fish. It’s an adaptive feature, the narrator said, that has evolved to give off light in dark places.
Isn’t that what we are called to do? Give off light, radiate Light, in dark places, places where suffering and falsehood and distortion have obscured the Light that we know as God? Psychologist C.G. Jung wrote, “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” The sole purpose.
And the thing is, we know that kindling this light, as others have said, is “hard, hard work”; it will require “costly commitment…making very serious demands upon one’s strength, security, resources, and comforts.” But the story of the Transfiguration also reminds us, encourages us, that that Light is already within us; sometimes just being there is enough, if we can be transparent enough. [Don’t just do something; stand there.] And so we need times like these, here on the hillside, to be reminded of who we are and Whose we are. We need times of quiet and stillness, of prayer and meditation, of nurturing ourselves, body and soul, times of tending to and building up the flame of the Light within. AND we need to return to the valleys–literally and figuratively–of the world, to kindle the darkness of mere being that so many experience, to love God and our neighbors with all we’ve got, so that “no one among us–not the joyous one, not the anguished one, not the beloved one, not the broken one–is ever truly alone.”
We begin the journey into Lent this week, this wilderness time that both tests us and strengthens us for the challenges that lie ahead. This vision of the Glory that is in us and around us can be part of the resilience that will see us through the hard times. We’ll explore other practices and gifts that we can call upon when the going gets rough. But today, let the Glory soak and saturate you. We are given the bread and cup this morning to nourish us for our journeys. So take this meal, take that sure knowledge of Glory with you as you “go forth into the world in peace, being of good courage, holding fast to that which is good…” You know the rest. Carry it with you.
May these words be hope and strength and courage for the living of these days. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark