Up and Down We Go
“Up and Down We Go”
February 27, 2022 | FPC Auburn, AL
Rev. Kathy Wolf Reed
Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]
28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now 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. 33Just 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. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When 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.
37On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39Suddenly 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. 40I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” 42While 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.
43And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
This is the Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, O Christ.
In October of 2021, Rev. Elizabeth Felicetti published an article in the Atlantic titled, “My Church Doesn’t Know What to Do Anymore”. I know at least some of you read it because you forwarded it on to me, as did several of my colleagues in ministry, as did a few of my friends — because clearly this article was hitting home for a lot of people.
In it, this rector of an episcopal church in Virginia, reflects on how even thought 2020 was hard for churches: buildings empty, worship strictly virtual… but in so many ways 2021 was even harder: Masks or no masks? In person or virtual? Singing, no singing? Meals, no meals? And as it turns out, in 2022, though maybe not quite as extreme, all these questions are still lingering and now we are dealing with the added layer of asking: What in our church has survived the pandemic? What has been laid to rest? What new things have emerged that will be with us forever? Who is still here? Who is not? How do we steward what and who we have to be the hands and feet of Christ in an aching world?
It’s a lot.
In the liturgical life of the church, today is Transfiguration Sunday (the last Sunday before Lent). It is the last time we worship together before Ash Wednesday, an opportunity to take stock of where we our in our faith lives so we can enter this nest season with purpose.
The word, “transfiguration” literally means “a change in form or appearance to a more beautiful or spiritual state”. Which is so fitting. All churches are changing right now. It is what happens when tragedies like disease and war disturb the equilibrium in our world. And in generation after generation the church has survived by adapting. So the question before us is how can we be intentional about that change — to see that it really does result in a “more beautiful and spiritual” relationship with God and our fellow human beings?
The gospel lesson today focuses on the three disciples Jesus takes with him to the top of the mountain: Peter, James, and John. Lucky them! Think about it, out of the entire class of twelve these three are chosen to venture to a special place set apart and worship with Jesus himself. He guides them in a time of prayer and they become privy to this incredible moment where Moses and Elijah appear and Jesus physically changes to “a more beautiful and spiritual state”. We are told they are tired but they will fight to stay awake for this — because who wouldn’t?
But what we can’t ignore in this story is that at the foot of the mountain there are nine other disciples who did not get to go on some all-inclusive spiritual mountain retreat. And pretty much the whole time the other three are having the Transfiguration-time-of-their-lives that they apparently never want to end, the rest of their friends are dealing with chaos. They’re watching the headlines in horror, triaging the patients, feeding the hungry, setting up the Zoom calls, fixing the audio issues, watching with growing dread as Russia invades Ukraine, wondering what in the world Jesus, James, Peter, and John are doing up on that mountain when the world around them seems to be falling apart.
We know this because in that second part of the text (the part that’s not always included in this reading) a man whose son is suffering eventually comes at Jesus shouting “I have been begging your disciples” (the nine) “to fix my son but they can’t do it.” We sense his anger, and we imagine how helpless the nine must have felt in that moment. Because I imagine they were really trying. But their efforts felt useless without Jesus in their midst.
So herein lies our problem. The problem this church and others all over the nation and world are facing right now, in 2022. If we are one of the mountain top three disciples, we absolutely receive necessary spiritual strength from that rest and renewal we find when we create space and time in our lives for worship and prayer.
“This is so great!” Peter says to Jesus. “Let’s build some houses up here so we never have to leave.”
And meanwhile, at the bottom of the mountain, a desperate man rages against the other nine because they can’t seem to figure out how to heal his son. And wars are raging and hate is spreading and depression and anxiety are surging. And it’s not because the nine aren’t good disciples. In fact, they are incredible servant leaders working so hard trying to meet the needs of the world around them. But somehow they have become disconnected from the source of their strength. And maybe they need a moment on the mountaintop.
In this past week, I’m sure like most of you, I’ve been listening to updates on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with a sick and very helpless feeling. The news reports call to mind my grandparents stories of World War II — their parents stories of World War I. Other national tragedies like September 11th that we watch unfold before us knowing that we will likely not understand the full ramifications and consequences until many years from now when we are looking back at the aftermath.
But as I read and listened and watched this week I came across an article about the church’s role in times of war and mass destruction in the world. It observed how as historians look back at documents: sermons, articles, letters from church-going people in times of war, the documents “display the range of confusion people experienced” amidst the chaos. But, these periods of struggle also historically became moments when individuals re-committed themselves to their faith and churches underwent significant changes in how they understood their callings to serve communities in need and a world in crisis. Moments of intense suffering in the world are often when the church changes the most - transforms, transfigures - “into a more beautiful and spiritual state.”
So what does this mean for us? Christ’s church, in 2022, seeking to become transfigured so that we might offer hope to a weary world? I have good news. I’ve figured it out and I have the exact answer to offer you today to solve all of our problems.
Actually, no I do not, and if anyone does claim to have that answer, we should be suspicious.
But I do believe this gospel story offers us some perspective, at least. Because it paints a picture that suggests the fullest glory of God happens in communities willing to trek up and down the mountain in order to truly understand our calling. In our practices of worship and prayer, delving deep into Scripture with one another in Sunday school studies we are there with Jesus and the three, Moses and Elijah - surveying the broken world around us from the mountain top perspective. In these moments we take a step away from the chaos to ground ourselves in Word and Spirit.
In these moments, we remember the generations of faithful who persevered through times of wilderness and uncertainty. Who had to change their ideas and expectations of what “church” meant. But who ultimately found themselves transfigured to a more beautiful and spiritual state than they could have ever achieved without the presence of God in their midst.
And once we have taken in that perspective, down the mountain we go. If we truly want to love and serve the Lord, we have no choice. Down we go into the trenches. Into the ugliness of conflict and war. Illness and anger. Injustice, fear, and hate.
It is very likely when we make that dissent we will arrive to find other disciples at their wits end, in desperate need of some time on the mountain and in that moment we are called to tag them out and sub ourselves in so that they can go rest, pray, and renew their own spirits.
Having been on the mountain for awhile doesn’t make the work in the trenches any easier. But having been on the mountain, we come to that work with renewed hope.
I once heard someone say something along the lines of, “The pain of the world doesn’t drive out the presence of God. It draws us closer to God’s mercy and love for us.”
In the final days before the Lenten season begins my prayer for this church and the world we seek to serve is that each of us and all of us would begin to find ways (big and small) to find mountaintop moments of hope so that we can enter into the chaos of the world around us with courage. Up and down, up and down. That which keeps moving and growing brings forth life and energy. That which keeps growing is also constantly changing, responsive to the Spirit. Responsive to the needs of the world. Responsive to the calling of Jesus Christ who never sat still in one place for too long.
May we maneuver that mountain with grace and purpose, and may the presence of Jesus in our midst transfigure us as a community into a more beautiful and spiritual state.