Joy and Grief
Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
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. 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. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 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.
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 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. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”
Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” 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.
And all were astounded at the greatness of God. While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing.
I’m going to risk a stuffy beginning to this sermon. For the season of Lent, the six weeks leading up to Easter, our community follows the Revised Common Lectionary. The Lectionary is a three year calendar of scripture readings and stories. They are collected together to give us a “gist” of the Bible (a very, very long book) over three years of Sundays. Each Sunday typically includes one Old Testament story, a Psalm, and one New Testament story to choose from. along with a letter.
We don’t always follow the lectionary calendar, instead doing sermon series or tackling books of the Bible. But usually during the religious “seasons,” we do. It helps us hold the narrative of our Christian faith together. So in Lent, the 6 weeks before Easter, we follow the lectionary.
Last week in the lectionary calendar, we read about Jesus’ temptations in the desert to start us off on our Lent adventure. This week, if you were paying attention, you probably noticed that in our scripture passage for today, the lectionary calendar slipped in two different stories! Two very, very different stories. Two stories that on first read might seem unrelated. Very sneaky lectionary!
We’ve got Peter, James, and John going up a mountain to witness Jesus transfigured before their eyes. Moses is there and so is Elijah. Then we come down that mountain in the second story and witness the disciples struggling to heal. Jesus is frustrated and we’re left with a censure.
Could the lectionary have made a mistake? The transfiguration story on the mountain top could very well be an entire series of sermons on its own. Why attach a downer to the end of it on the second Sunday in Lent? It’s like we see Jesus as the salsa dancing emoji (which many of you know is a personal favorite of mine) and then next we get the face-palm Jesus.
But trust me when I tell you that the lectionary calendar and the writer of the Gospel of Luke made no mistake when they put these two seemingly unrelated stories side-by-side. What I know of God, of our faith, and of our experience of being human, is that glory and beauty go side-by-side with suffering like we see in the pairing of these two stories. It is no accident that we read these stories about Jesus and the disciples side by side.
Take the first story by itself. Three of Jesus’ disciples go up to the mountain with him to pray. There are two signals in this story tell us that something important is about to happen. First, important things in the Bible happen on mountains: Moses gets the ten commandments, Elijah hears the voice of God, and on and on. Second, we read in scripture that times of prayer are times where God comes close: in Isaiah 6, Isaiah prays and sees the throne room of God! Mountaintops and prayer
Then Jesus changes: his clothes become dazzlingly white--representing heavenly garments. And his face changes--some of you might recall when Moses encountered God and his face glowed from the glory! Something important is happening.
Who joins Jesus? Moses and Elijah themselves! Moses, representing the law and Elijah representing the prophets. Both of these figures are patriarchs, authorities in the lives of Jesus’ community. They are the highest names in the community of Israel, passing long ago, but holding much authority.
And the pinnacle of the mountain top experience? The very voice of God. A cloud comes over Jesus, Peter, James, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah and repeats almost word-for-word the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him!”
And then the story ends with the four men alone, shocked, and silent. This was a moment of glory, of intimacy, of religious ecstasy, and a moment to build the trust and confirm the identity of Jesus for his disciples. It was, as we might call it, a mountaintop experience.
But the very next story in the Gospel of Luke and in our lectionary passage this morning is not so elevated of an experience--in more ways than one. The disciples descend the mountain. They are overwhelmed by a large crowd immediately, and this crowd is not happy.
A man has an only son who is suffering from demonic possession--maybe it’s epileptic seizures, we don’t know. But we know that he is suffering. And we know that the his father is concerned about his son because a son carries the financial role of the father for the whole household--this is life or death not just for the son, but for everyone who belongs to that family. And the disciples have not been able to heal him. He shrieks, foams at the mouth, and convulses. The father tells Jesus, “I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”
Jesus. has. had. it. “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” Then Jesus heals the son.
Unlike the glory of the mountain top experience and the power of God’s affirmative voice, we have an exasperated Jesus who sounds like any parent at the end of a long trip. Jesus is frustrated the crowd, he’s frustrated with humanity and our limits and our propensity to struggle and suffer. And I don’t blame him. He and his disciples are coming from an experience of confirmation, joy, glory, and affirmation only to be reminded that human transformation, even of his own disciples, takes time. Sometimes a looooong time. Jesus’ life on earth isn’t just the mountain, it’s also the valley.
And in this way, the pairing of these two stories by the lectionary calendar and by the author of Luke’s gospel seems very, very relatable, NOT unrelated. I think it is a real and true affirmation that our faith, the good news of Jesus Christ, houses both glory and suffering. The lectionary knew that we do not experience the mountaintop without the suffering in its foothills.
In the mountaintop of this story we get to see God’s glory in so many ways. We see God’s glory in the continued narrative of God’s faithfulness with Moses and Elijah and now Jesus and the disciples. In the mountaintop experience we get to hear God’s glory in the words spoken over Jesus’ impressive life. In the mountaintop experience we are held in the awe and majesty of God’s glory.
But life is not lived on the mountaintop. Life, even our life of faith, is just as much lived in the plebian territory of failed disciples and suffering bodies. While the mountaintops can give us courage and sustenance, life unambiguously plunges into crowds of need and demanding demons.
So we NEED to hear these stories together. We NEED to have the mountaintop right next to the valley. We need to know that the good news can hold both the glory of God and the suffering of humankind. As Martha More-Keish reminds us, that’s the heart of the Gospel: glory and suffering are inseparable, their proximity is not an accident. The crucifixion is very close in proximity to the resurrection because God knows, experiences, and takes seriously the creation of God’s hands.
This is the good news, the gospel.
I hate to break it to you, but this is not a community that preaches what some people call the health and wealth gospel. You will not hear from this pulpit that if you pray hard enough and think positive thoughts, your life will be free of suffering. I just have not found that to be true. The health and wealth gospel only has room for the glory of life. The glorious moments. The mountaintops.
From this pulpit and in this community you will hear that the gospel of Jesus, the good news is embedded in the Holy week experience of death and resurrection. Of suffering and glory. Of grief and joy. Of struggling and mountaintop experiences. That’s life. That’s faith. That’s us.
It brings to mind the Mary Oliver poem (since she died this year no one can complain about how often I read her). The poem is called We Shake with Joy.
We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two,
housed as they are in the same body.
This is our reliable hope: our faith houses both grief and joy. God can handle both. Jesus can handle both. Your faith can handle both.
And since suffering seems to be inevitable in the news right now, thank God we have a faith that can hold both the mountaintop and what comes after.
Because in a world where 50 Muslim lives are taken through hate and violence--the demons of white supremacy--we need a faith that doesn’t just talk about the mountaintop and glory of God, but can sit in the village of seizures and failures --announcing God’s presence there as well, announcing healing, astounding us with the power of care and love in a world of hurt. After witnessing reckless hate as we did this past week I need to know that God both has a loud booming voice affirming our belovedness from the mountaintops, but I also need to hear Jesus say, “How. Much. Longer.” in a very exasperated voice. I need both of these stories.
In fact, this week, I think we also need the Psalm that the lectionary recommends for reading. In our community we rarely take up two of the lectionary recommendations in one Sunday, but I think we need it this week. This week, the Psalm reading in the lectionary is Psalm 27--one that I think announces the glory of God while at the same time feeling the need for more--more protection, more glory, more love, more goodness because we find ourselves in need of it. We find ourselves in the midst of the crowd this week, fighting the possession of demons and seizures of hate. May Psalm 27 give us words for a tragedy that leaves us speechless.
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident. One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock. Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord. Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation! If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up. Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies. Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence. I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!