Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, March 3, 2019
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
Today’s enlightened theme casts a glow on the face of the transfigured. Recently, I have been seeing tanned glows on the faces of those returned from warmer climes. But our hardy weather and daily reality soon transfigures those relaxed, browned smiles back into faded, bracing grimaces. No matter what our mountain top experiences are, they never last. Welcome home!
But the transfiguration of Jesus during his mountain top experience meant much more than a glowing face reflecting a personal high. This story is intended to teach us two things. The first is that Jesus is the fulfillment of both the law and the prophets. Moses represented the law as he came down the mountain carrying tablets of the 10 commandments. Jesus gave us the greatest commandment of all—to love God and our neighbour as ourselves. Elijah represented the prophets with their wisdom and warning to remain faithful to God and to their care of the marginalized. As Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud reminded us last week, Jesus taught us that when we feed the hungry, we feed him. Later in our service, as we are fed by Christ’s body, let us remember that we, too, are the body of Christ, given to feed others.
The second teaching of this story is that the way of suffering and death—the Via Dolorosa—cannot be avoided. Jesus’ conversation with the spirits of Moses and Elijah were about Jesus’ own impending death at Jerusalem. Jesus knew what awaited him and he was full of angst—so much so that he spent the night leading up to this vision in prayer. It reminds me of his later experience in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he prayed throughout the night for God’s strength to face what he knew lay ahead. In the garden and on the mountain, Jesus’ disciples had no idea what he was trying to teach them. They couldn’t believe that Jesus would be killed and so, they grew sleepy in their confidence that all would be well. And when they were suddenly awakened either by the visions on the mountain, or by the guards in the garden, it was Peter both times who leapt to his feet and jumped in to make things right before he fully understood the situation. He wanted to build shelters on the mountain for the visionary guests, as if spirits needed shelters! Later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he drew his sword, ready to fight to the death to protect his rabbi, only to be told by his rabbi to put his sword away.
Like Peter, how many times have we rushed in to fix things, only to find that our attempts to help actually made things worse? When I was a patient in the hospital some years ago, I was wheeled over to a breakfast table where I observed one of my tablemates pushing aside her syrup while my other tablemate complained about not having any syrup on his tray. Helpfully, I suggested to the woman that she could give the man her syrup. That was not the wisest suggestion I have ever made. Her response was to erupt in anger and dump her breakfast tray on me. I was a bit stunned, but realized that, in my rush to help, I did not fully understand the woman’s level of comprehension. I’m sorry to say that the woman was then placed at a table to eat alone from then on.
Sometimes, we can’t fix things. We simply have to sit with the discomfort, and accept the reality. That was what Jesus was agonizing over and what he asked of his disciples. On the mountain top, the visions quickly vanished into gathering clouds and the disciples were terrified. It was not out of the brilliant light of the visions, but out of the darkening clouds that the disciples heard a voice saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen—listen to him.” The ecstatic mountain high was suddenly upended into an ominous warning and in their fear, the disciples told no one about what they had just experienced.
This story of transfiguration ends with the disciples’ silence—unless you read further and hear a story taking place the following day. I’ve seldom referred to this story in sermons. It’s about demon possession and exorcism—something that I’d rather not deal with. Even the lectionary suggests that this following story is optional, as it brackets these verses. But a couple of commentaries convinced me that it needs to be included with the story of the transfiguration. I’ll tell you why.
If we translate demon possession and exorcism into modern terms, we have a story about a physical ailment—possibly an epileptic seizure—and a healing. Jesus berates the poor disciples for failing in their attempts to heal and he then sets the boy free from his seizures.
Let’s now connect these two stories together. Jesus spoke with the spirits of Moses and Elijah about his forthcoming death in Jerusalem. Jesus was transfigured in the brilliance of this vision, even though it could not alter what lay before him. He tried to prepare his disciples to accept the reality of his suffering and death. Jesus was then strengthened by the comfort of God proclaiming Jesus as God’s Chosen one, even in the gathering clouds. With this strength, Jesus could then leave the mountain top, in the shadow of his pending death, and still offer healing to others.
This suggests two things to me. First, our mountain top experiences are meaningless if they don’t move us towards healing and transformation of both ourselves and Creation. The glow of our personal highs can only be called enlightenment if it offers light to others. Secondly—we need to hold both the reality of healing and the reality of suffering together. Some things cannot change. We need to accept that pain and death lie before all of us. But, we also need to be channels of healing that can happen physically, mentally or spiritually.
A few weeks ago, we prayed for a friend of Nancy’s and mine. She was healthy until recently when she ended up in ICU with septic shock. We joined our prayers with those of others across the country. Healing energy and distance reiki were sent her way, and she began to improve. The doctors were astounded, as they had already called the family together. Her son told us that her healing was miraculous and he even wrote a song about it called “I Believe.” We continued to pray. But last week, she took a turn for the worse and died.
I still believe in healing. I still believe in the power of prayer. God’s Spirit nudges us all towards health and healing. We can block it, or we can receive it—the choice is ours. But where we have no choice is the outcome. Our bodies can only do so much. God can only do so much, limited by the choices we make and by God’s own laws of nature. This I believe, but it is still difficult for me when faced with my friend’s death.
Unlike Jesus, we don’t know what lies before us. But we do have some choices. Just as Jesus was trying to teach the disciples, we can open ourselves to God’s healing power that moves in us and through us. We can bring healing to the earth and to each other. At the same time, just as Jesus was trying to prepare the disciples, we need to accept inevitable pain and death.
But even in death, there is hope. Our friend told her family the very day she died that she was not afraid. She was surrounded by love and they can confidently say that she is now resting in peace—healing of a different sort. Jesus died, but death could not hold him. Through his resurrection, he now holds us. For some reason only God can know, the way to eternal life is the way of suffering and death, but with healing bearing us on the wings of love.