A reading from the gospel of Luke, chapter 9 (NRSV):
9:28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.
9:29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
9:30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.
9:31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
9:32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.
9:33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said.
9:34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.
9:35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
9:36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
Each year, our Sunday Lectionary invites us to revisit the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Usually that happens on the final Sunday before the season of Lent, but each year we’re also given the option to engage this reading on the 2nd Sunday of Lent. That’s what I’ve chosen to do this year, to give us a little different angle of approach at this key event in Christ’s ministry.
As a reminder, the Transfiguration is the event in which Jesus goes up a mountain to pray, and has a mystical encounter with faith leaders of days gone – Moses and Elijah – and they discuss difficult things, like what will happen at the end of Jesus’ earthly journey. This is witnessed by the disciples Peter and James and John, and the presence of God is very tangible, too.
This is a big, showy, pivotal story, literally a mountaintop experience. And for those of you in the congregation with mountaintop experiences – which is many of you – you know that the same mountain that you ascended needs to be descended. As we imagine this religious experience, of Creator God and Jesus and Elijah and Moses, witnessed by three of the disciples, we may well wonder, then, “what comes next?” What comes next for Jesus, and perhaps even more pertinent for us present-day disciples, what comes next for Peter and James and John? So much had been happening in this 9th chapter of Luke: the sending out of the twelve disciples, the healing of the multitude, talks by Jesus about the difficult days that all of them will face later on, and then the Transfiguration. With this intermingling of energies, a growing ministry, tempered by suffering but fully endorsed by God, it is natural and sensible to imagine that the next thing to happen would build on that energy, taking this venture to the next level. Right?
However, in all three gospels that record this event, here is what comes next:
9:37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him.
9:38 Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.
9:39 Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him.
9:40 I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”
9:41 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.”
9:42 While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.
9:43a And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
As Lutheran Pastor and Bible Commentator Brian Stoffregen puts it, “the disciples’ ‘mountain-top experience’ is followed by failure in the valley.” Jesus comes down from the mountaintop with the kind of big-vista feeling that you get up there, and immediately he is confronted with a problem. A father gets in Jesus’ face, because he had brought a child with seizures to a pair of disciples who had been preaching and healing in Jesus’ name, and in spite of their best efforts, the child continued to be tormented by these debilitating and isolating events. Jesus and the disciples, following the big-picture, positive-energy sacred event of Transfiguration, are brought thudding back to earth once they descend the mountain by an intense and personal problem that mattered very much to the family concerned.
There is something about this jarring dislocation, from the mountain of glory to the gritty realities of human living, that grips me by the shoulders and stares me in the face and says “pay attention to this.” That phrase by Brian Stoffregen, a “mountaintop experience followed by failure in the valley” puts its finger on something going on within me and around me right now, that I had not counted on.
As our understanding of pandemic has changed, and as the health guidance has changed from staying home and handwashing and disinfecting hard surfaces, maybe even wiping down our groceries – to mask wearing while continuing to maintain 2m distance – to vaccination, and double vaccination, and boosters – the idea of being back together in any recognizable way has, at times, been fleeting. But somewhere in my fantasy life, I think I had this sort of gauzy, air-brushed image of the pandemic decisively ending, a day when we could say, “there, that’s over now,” and a world of grateful people stepping into a new, refreshed reality.
But things haven’t looked like that. Jurisdictions across Canada and many nations have been removing mandatory health measures and many of us are tentatively stepping into familiar places and activities. I’m back to regular office hours at the Church, we’re welcoming folks back into the Ralph Connor Sanctuary on Wednesday night (7:15) for a blended Zoom-plus-in-person time of Evensong, and as mentioned repeatedly in today’s service, next Sunday we will be back to in-person worship again – at Rundle Memorial United Church in Banff, at 10:00 AM. And yet, the huge sense of relief that I thought would accompany that, has been decimated by the devastating news of a war in Ukraine that has big, ominous, threatening consequences. Already embarrassed by the power of divisiveness that has hijacked our attention for too long, and still concerned by a death count that has now reached 4,000 Albertans and has not improved as much as other measures, we are shaken by the reality of a relentless and unconscionable military campaign waged by Russia on its Ukrainian neighbours.
Did I imagine that somehow, after paying the price of two years of high stress and short sleep, I would be rewarded by a soft-focus existence of peace and happiness? At some level, I think I must have. I must have been holding those thoughts, that following the weirdness of these past 700-plus days, God would somehow owe us something and would reward us with nothing but goodness and light.
When I bring to mind the Transfiguration account of Jesus going up the mountain to pray, and in that place encountering the glory of God, much as Moses did when receiving the Ten Commandments, much as Elijah did when encountering the “still small voice of calm,” I can barely imagine the fullness, the belovedness, the awe and wonder and holiness. That experience would have been transformative and unforgettable. But that kind of big, glorious transcendence isn’t where we live most of life. Those thin spaces when we feel close to God help us have something to hold on to, they refresh our faith for the next leg of the journey, but a lot of the living gets done not up on the mountain, but down in the valley. As folks surrounded by actual physical mountains, this is not news to us. God is not only present when we’re above it all, taking a break from our daily pressures and enjoying the big, glorious vista; God is also present in our daily grind, and becomes even more evident to us when we engage brokenness, injustice, pain, war.
In the gospel story, we move from something expansive and timeless on the mountain, to the intense need of a parent who is aching for the life of a child. And at this moment in history, gingerly putting one foot in front of the other as we test out what it’s like to be “in public” more than we have been, we are reminded of the very personal suffering of people amidst war and programmatic violence: in Ukraine, in Afghanistan, in Ethiopia, in Yemen, amongst Uighurs and Rohingyas and Palestinians and First Nations peoples, with refugees everywhere including five whom we know by name in Nepal and Malaysia, in the lives of queer and trans folks who are continually endangered, in the cries of a planet that is warming and weeping. As we step out from whatever these past two years have been, we are called to a boldness of compassion and advocacy and generosity and welcome. I have every reason to suspect that Jesus and Peter and James and John expected big, broad horizons and instead they got, “your disciples did not help. Put this right, Jesus.” Which, by the way, Jesus did.
We are called where we are, with our resources diminished by these past two years, to engage the hard realities of this world with honesty, and with whatever determination we can muster, and with a belief that God will not abandon those who endure violence and suffering. That is true for the intense and very personal struggles of our lives or in the lives of loved ones, it is true in those issues so big that we scarcely know where to start, and yet the journey is the journey… one foot in front of the other, paying attention to the needs expressed by those who struggle, all the while relying on the wise guidance of our gracious and loving God. Up on the mountainside and down in the valley, we find Christ with us, and we journey on. Amen.
Revised Common Lectionary, Lent – year C. https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/lections.php?year=C&season=Lent
Stoffregen, Brian. “Gospel Notes” https://mailchi.mp/36fcabb85eb7/gospel-notes-luke-928-43a?e=ac0c055952
© 2022 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.