Gospel: Luke 9:1, 18-27, 28-45
Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, 2and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal... 18 Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ 19They answered, ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’ 20He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God.’
21 He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, 22saying, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’
23 Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. 25What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? 26Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. 27But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.’
Now 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 [tents], 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; [Other ancient authorities read my Beloved] 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.
37 On 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 [or, it] shrieks. It throws him into convulsions 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.
While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples, 44‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’ 45But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.
You can listen here
This didn't happen, of course, because I can't tell you about the lives of my congregation; other things happened. But this morning began with Tom pulling a few weeds in his front yard while he waited for me to pick him up on the way to church. Tom hates the police because... well, we've never quite found out why, but to be disabled is to be vulnerable. And there's something about small rooms that gets Tom talking compulsively about the police. Which means that when some bastard neighbour rings the police and says you're shouting and screaming and smashing stuff, you're not in very good shape when the minister arrives. It was a long drive to church. Three blocks back from the church, Gerry was asleep on her front veranda, so I knew she wouldn't be coming. I always feel I should stop and wake her up to make sure she hasn't died out there, and I guess one day, I'll find out she has.
During church, the bloody ants got into the cake and the jelly.
Yvonne stood out in the heat, 37 degrees at lunchtime, and cooked sausages and onions, while the rest of us sat inside and wondered about resurrection, or made sure to talk about something else. That was the reading, you see— resurrection, and it was very real, because two people we knew died this week. And Gwyn and I were wondering what it says about us, as a person, if we are content with the sort of God who could damn people to hell for all eternity, when Janet cut in and told me her life story. This is Janet who's been at arm's length for years, a closed book to me, but today she told me the whole terrible story, and the joy, and the wonder. Janet even came out to where I was washing dishes to make sure I heard the whole story, which was just as well, because although Gwyn could see what was happening, and stayed quiet, Harry was at his tone deaf worst and kept interrupting her with stuff that had nothing to do with anything anyone could understand.
And I wanted to listen, but I'd had to walk around the block while the barbecue was heating up because at the end of the service I'd lit another candle for Elwyn who's just died, and then one for my Dad, and I was well ready to go home before lunch. But I had Bible study after lunch, as well as Janet's story to listen to. I hope I listened enough.
The lunchtime crowd who arrive for the last hymn, but sit out in the lounge out of respect until lunch starts, arrived as usual. Jean had about 6 pages of closely written notes and diagrams, both sides— I think she's working on climate change at the moment, and she sat for lunch with Jess who's a decade younger than the youngest of us, half my age, and has only just started coming. But Jess is so lonely, that she sat rapt through the whole presentation, because here was someone who would spend nearly an hour talking just to her, and then she stayed for Bible Study, as well. Where the minister, who was exhausted, let people talk, and rejoiced and quaked as folk who have no home sat with people who do, and we struggled with the shape of Luke, and Jess struggled with what she'd just learned about climate change. And then we all went home.
Tom sat dispirited and worrying about police, which meant the van was really quiet, which was just what I needed, but felt terrible about. And I dropped him off and went home and wept. I mean, I should have wept, but I was too tired and too distressed to risk letting go of myself. So I began the video download for another church whose service I edit each week, and then slept exhausted until tea time.
All this is why I believe in God. How can the glory and pain of people's lives be accidental chemistry and physics: the healing, the perseverance, and the hilarity? Someone passed the salad while Janet was telling her life story: "What's Murphy's Law?" they asked.
"If anything can go wrong it will," said someone else.
"What about Cole's Law, then?"
No one knew.
Janet laughed with everyone else, and then went on with her story.
There must be a God.
The glory of God is when we are together in the valley, needing a veil to shield us from the intensity of grace unfolding, and yet struggle on in our powerlessness, our not being able to cast out the demons. Our grief and our exhaustion might be more than not coping. It might be becoming awake, beginning to see the healing around us, beginning to see even in the deaths of our friends that the kingdom is coming near, that God is at hand, that our faces have begun to shine. Elwyn was a much loved minister of the church. In our grief we will console ourselves a little, not much, with the memory of his ministry and his love for us. "Well done, good and faithful servant," we will say. Our other friend who has died, sat at the table and ate with us, as she struggled through life and its horrors. Yet both their faces shone.
I wrote the story of yesterday as a way of coping with the rawness of the day. But it seems terribly appropriate to the reading I find set for Transfiguration. For that begins with Luke 9 where the disciples are given "power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases" (9:9) and yet find themselves powerless. (9:40) In a similar contradiction, the one who is all powerful says he is going to be destroyed. (9:22) And in glory, with Moses and Elijah, in the presence of very God, he discusses "his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem." (9:31)The accomplishment, the glory, is that "the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised." He will live in the valley of pain and death just like the rest of us.
And just as the Israelites were afraid to come near Moses and his shining face (Exodus 34:30) so the disciples "were afraid to ask him" (9:45) about the glory, about the pain of living as kingdom comes. How can this be glory!? How can we survive in the intensity of this, and all that is so counter intuitive to what we hoped would be the ease of glory!?
The disciples were awake even though they "were weighed down with sleep" (9:32) and when the final accomplishment is happening they are "sleeping because of grief," in the garden. (Luke 22:39) In the thin place, that Celtic metaphor of the places the kingdom breaks in, we people are thick with incomprehension, slowed with grief, exhausted with pain, and too often want to seek and hold the ethereal highs, and avoid and repress, even drive out, the reality of glory on the ground, and in the valley where we live.
"I say to you that listen,
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
28bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you...
love your enemies,
do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return." (Luke 6.)
This is the turning upside down: it is learning the seeing of glory come down from the mountain. It is learning to see glory without veiling it behind nice, tidy, safe churches. It is weeping, sleeping the sleep of exhausted grief, and then going on. And our faces shine.
Paul Nuechterlein suggests the stories of mountain and valley
can be linked by the hearing of voices and seeing visions. We take as true the vision seen by the disciples and the voice heard by them. But how about the visions that may have been seen and the voices heard by the mentally ill boy? Isn’t there a fine line between prophecy and having a psychotic break? How does one discern the spirits between truth and madness? ...
But let’s link the visions and voices to prophecy, too, with the appearance of two of Israel’s great prophets at the transfiguration. Perhaps the failure of the disciples in verses 37-43 highlights the fact that they haven’t yet quite learned to walk the fine line of prophecy that drives away madness. The voice from the cloud is trying to give them guidance: “Listen to Jesus!” it says. When they come down the mountain, they can’t yet help someone who’s demon-possessed. They haven’t quite learned yet to sort out the voices...
And this is where we are. Sorting the voices. It is a place of some threat. Claudio Carvalhaes says
in between the [glory of the] transfiguration and the noisy streets of our lives, we keep in silence trying to figure out the transfigured Jesus, knowing that we are part of this transfiguration and that means that God will refigure our lives, our thinking, our actions our path. When we meet the transfigured Jesus we are disfigured, transfigured, and refigured.
Perhaps we should see the valley not so much as the messy and frightening place where we minister. Perhaps the valley is to go home and contemplate the griefs and shortcomings of our days, for only then will we sort the voices. Only then will we know we are sane, able to say "I am not out of my mind," (Acts 26) able to bear the glory and remove the veils so that we may see and live. Amen.
Andrew Prior (2019)
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