Sunday, February 7. 2016
Text: Luke 9:28-36, (37-43)
The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men,
He marched them up the hill
And he marched them down again,
And when you’re up, you’re up.
And when you’re down, you’re down,
And when you’re only half-way up,
You’re neither up nor down?
We could get quite carried away around the campfire, singing this ditty faster and faster until collapsing in exhausted laughter.
But the truth is, that’s the way the road goes, that’s the rhythm of life – up and down, up and down. The old spiritual proclaims,
Sometimes I’m up.
Sometimes I’m down.
Oh yes, Lord.
But still my soul is heav’nly bound,
Oh yes, Lord.
Or if you prefer a more challenging version,
Sometimes I’m up.
Sometimes I’m down.
Sometimes I’m almost to the ground.
Oh, nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.
Whichever route you choose, the up and down of it is inescapable.
I think that is the vital rhythm we find in today’s texts. Even though the second story about the healing of the epileptic boy is optional in the lectionary, I think it is essential that we link them. Jesus, Peter, James and John, the rest of the disciples, the crowd, the father, the son are all up and down at one point or another. Sharon Ringe insists, “The glory of God’s presence and the pain of a broken world cannot be separated” (Sharon H. Ringe, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, p. 457).
To begin with, Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him up on the mountain to pray. There are times in this gospel and the others when Jesus goes off, alone, to pray. We understand this as a customary and important practice for him. We believe these times of prayer kept him centered and focused. They linked him to God and they energized him for the ministry in which he was engaged. This time he chose three leaders from among his followers to join him, to share his experience and learn from it.
Up, up, high on the mountain they went where the wind blew chill and the stars drew near. These three were among the disciples who had gained or desired special attention from Jesus, including elevated positions in the heavenly realm. Here they were chosen to share with him in his time of spiritual renewal. They must have felt very special. Only by the time they got all the way up the mountain, they were cold and tired. They just didn’t seem to have his stamina. They huddled together against the cold and drifted off to sleep.
If it hadn’t been for the dazzling light they might have missed the whole thing. The light shattered the darkness, disturbing their slumber. As they rubbed the sleep from their eyes, there was Jesus, shining before them, deep in discussion with Moses and Elijah. There was no doubt in their minds who his conversation partners were. The talk was about what lay ahead for Jesus as he “set his face toward Jerusalem,” about what it meant to hold to God’s law and proclaim God’s word, about what it would cost and what it would yield to walk God’s way.
Peter, James and John didn’t hear nor could they grasp the whole of the conversation. Still, they were amazed at what they saw and heard. As they watched the great lawgiver and the great prophet vanish from the scene, Peter blurted 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’ —not knowing what he said.” That last part is crucial. He spoke before he thought. He didn’t know what he was talking about. Oh wouldn’t it be wonderful just to stay up here on the mountain with Jesus, basking in the beautiful glow of his transfigured face, “lost in wonder, love, and praise”?
Have you ever had an experience like that, something that was so wonderful, so fulfilling, that you just didn’t want to give it up, something so wonderful that you wanted to stay there forever? It doesn’t have to be spiritual in a religious sense. Maybe it was romantic, or pleasurable, or playful, or powerful, or compelling. You just knew that there was something in you that wanted to stay right there on that particular “mountain top.”
And why not? It sounds wonderful. Why not stay in that ecstatic state as long as possible, forever, if you could? What did Peter not know? What did he fail to understand? Suddenly the scene changes, the wind whips up, a thick, dark cloud covers the crest, enveloping them all, as lightning crackles and thunder rumbles. “This is my Son, my Beloved, my Chosen; listen to him!”
Listen to him, listen to Jesus. Isn’t this what they’d been doing all along? Apparently not closely enough. If they’d been listening, they would have had a better understanding of the significance of the conversation with Moses and Elijah. They would have had a better sense of what lay ahead for them all. They would have known that what goes up, must come down.
And sure enough, down they came, down off the mountain, right into the midst of a teeming crowd of seeking, needy people. At the end of Tony Kushner’s great dramatic fantasy, Angels in America, a key character, Prior Walter, offers these words as a sort of benediction,
You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you: More Life.
The Great Work Begins.
After angelic visitations and amazing visions of heaven, Prior Walter comes to this sort of quixotic conclusion that there is “great work” that lies ahead and now is the time to begin. Listen to him – you are fabulous creatures, blessed beings. And what is that blessing? More life, always more life. This is the great work –the creating, establishing, nurturing, sustaining of life. We’ve seen the heavenly vision and now it is time to get busy, making it real on earth as it is in heaven.
Fresh off the mountain, Luke brings Jesus and his disciples face to face with a father desperate for the healing of his only son. The text says the father shouts at them in a most undignified manner, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.” Can you hear the ache, the terror, the desperation in that cry? Imagine if it was someone you loved who was suffering so. This father had begged the disciples to do something, but they couldn’t pull it off, at least, not on this day. Jesus had given them power and authority and they had done some pretty amazing things during their travels from Galilee, but not today. Impatient and frustrated, Jesus scolds them for their lack of faith, for their failure to remember that they are “fabulous creatures,” blessed to bring life, before he heals the boy, restoring him, whole, to his father.
I wonder if there isn’t a sort of desperation in Jesus’ own frustration and impatience. He knows he doesn’t have much longer with them, much more time to teach them, to train them to do the great work that they are called to do on his behalf, in service of God’s Beloved Community. Once more they are left in amazement at the greatness of God and the miracles of the Messiah. But is it enough for them, or us, to stand there, gaping in wonder?
The reality is that down here, down in the valley, rolling across the plain, are the cries of those in need – in need of healing, in need of hope, in need of hospitality, crying for comfort, seeking for guidance, longing for love. Maybe we aren’t going miraculously to heal an epileptic boy, but there is so much work to be done to bring in God’s Beloved Community that each of us can find some way to contribute.
The reason that we shouldn’t separate these two stories is precisely because they tell us what to listen for. Marcus Borg argues that the two great and unique qualities of Jesus are his close connection with God and his compassion. Here we see exactly that – up on the mountain in deep and affecting prayer, down in that valley overflowing with compassion for those in need.
Heidi Neumark writes, “…living high up in the rarefied air isn’t the point of transfiguration…[It was] never meant as a private experience of spirituality removed from the public square. It was a vision to carry us down, a glimpse of unimagined possibility at ground level” (Heidi Neumark, quoted by Lori Brandt Hale, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, p. 456). That’s why we can’t sit on the mountain, Peter, wonderful as that might seem. There is great work to be done. Listen to Jesus. He’ll lead you in the right direction. All you have to do is follow. Listen to him. Take time to be with God, make time to be with your neighbors in need. Up and down, up and down. With his help and God’s grace, you will find the way. Amen.