The thought of a week-long forecast of temperatures in the mid-90s – even reaching the lower 100s – seems unbearable … though maybe not altogether unwelcome on a snowy midwestern day with wind chills well below zero. So you can imagine why I wouldn’t exactly want to leave warm, sunny El Salvador to go back to frigid, snowy Wisconsin.
Around this time for the last two years, I had the privilege of traveling with a group of members from my previous congregation in Brookfield, and a few other congregations too, to visit our ministry partners in El Salvador. The purpose of this trip – called the “Mission of Healing” – was helping to run a series of makeshift medical clinics in various locations in and around San Salvador. Our clinics, mostly set up in local churches, would see about one hundred patients a day. Each person would first check in with a doctor-nurse team before being shepherded through other stations, like pharmacy, physical therapy, reading glasses, fluoride, counseling, and nutrition.
The Mission of Healing was an amazing trip to be a part of. To be able to travel to another part of the world and get outside our familiar comfort zones. To experience a different culture and meet new friends. To see that look of pure joy on someone’s face when they’d stop by my table full of reading glasses and find a pair that helped them to be able to see clearly again. To receive such tremendous hospitality in return in plates full of chicken and rice and homemade baked goods … not to mention the pupusas!
For me, this time of year is inextricably linked to those experiences of being in El Salvador. My first Sunday back in the pulpit in my congregation in Wisconsin after my first trip two years ago happened to be Transfiguration Sunday. As I preached that day, I reflected back on all the experiences I had had that week. As much as I would have wanted to stay – and not just for the weather – I knew we had to leave, to come back down the mountain, to continue the work of ministry at home.
It’s tempting to want to stay in certain moments, isn’t it? In a makeshift medical clinic in El Salvador where we could actually see the tangible impact of our ministry firsthand. In celebrations that mark our accomplishments at work or school. In times of glory on the mountain with Jesus. Such moments are happy and safe and make us feel good, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But these moments are also made for coming down from the mountain.
Coming down from the mountain doesn’t take away from the experiences we’ve had. If anything, those experiences give us strength for what’s to come – whatever we might face at the base of the mountain. Strength to draw from when we most need it, when the dazzling glory of the mountaintop starts to grow dim and the doubt and worry and uncertainty start to creep back in.
Goodness knows the disciples are going to need that strength as they move on with their rabbi to the events of Holy Week – as both Mark’s gospel and our own liturgical calendar make the shift towards Jerusalem, to Jesus’s suffering and death, toward Judas’s betrayal, Peter’s denial, and the disciples’ abandonment and fear.
Goodness knows Elisha is going to need that strength as his mentor Elijah is taken from him, leaving him to pick up the mantle and continue the hard work of being a prophet alone.
Goodness knows we’re going to need that strength as we look towards another COVID Lent … when this time last year COVID wasn’t even on our minds – or at the very least was something happening not here.
With the disciples and Elisha, we’d love nothing more than to hold on to the way things were before. Who can blame Peter for wanting to set up camp? Only six days earlier, after his stunning confession of Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus explained to Peter and the rest of the disciples just what that meant – his suffering, rejection, and death. No wonder Peter wanted to hold on to the way things were.
It’s tempting to want to stay, to go back to how things used to be. It’s tempting to look back to the church of years ago and to want to return to the “glory days” when pews and Sunday School classrooms were packed full.
But the stories we get today are about the letting go … coming down from the mountain … moving forward. It’s okay and even faithful to mourn the loss of the good things that have been, but we don’t have to get stuck there. We can’t get stuck there.
We can dare to dream boldly, to imagine what can be, drawing strength from those mountaintop moments when we most need them … drawing strength from the promises of God: This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him! Words almost exactly the same as those spoken over Jesus at his baptism and now addressed to a wider audience that invites the disciples and us to hear them too.
Jesus’s Belovedness goes with him into Jerusalem, even to the cross. The disciples’ Belovedness goes with them, even when they’re terrified and don’t know what to say. Elisha’s Belovedness goes with him, even as he tears his clothes in anguish and grief. Our Belovedness goes with us too, even when the dazzling glory of the mountaintop starts to grow dim and the doubt and worry and uncertainty start to creep back in.
The blaze of the Transfiguration and the fiery heavenly chariots are moments of glory and affirmation of God’s promises that give God’s people strength for what lies ahead. And – they remind us that God cannot and will not be contained by any one dwelling or experience alone.
This morning, we’ll sing a hymn from the ELCA’s new hymnal supplement All Creation Sings which says in part:
Justice, mercy, and compassion:
these the booths [Christ] bids us build,
that the earth he loves may flourish
as each life with grace is filled.
The blessing of the Transfiguration is made for coming down from the mountain. As we are filled and nourished in this space, we are also sent forth into the world, for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of God’s word of good news for all creation, for the sake of the work of justice, mercy, and compassion.
I miss the people I met in El Salvador, and I mourn not being able to be with them, but the gifts of those experiences remain with me. Every time I look at the cross painted by a Salvadoran pastor friend of mine that now hangs on my wall in my office, or every time I wear this stole that I bought during my first Mission of Healing trip, I draw strength from those experiences for the present moment. The blessing of those experiences didn’t end on the plane ride home but continues even to this day.
The blessing of the Transfiguration and those moments where we experience God’s glory in its fullness don’t end when the livestream worship video ends. But it’s then that the blessing is only beginning. This blessing is made for coming down from the mountain. This blessing goes with us on the journey – today, tomorrow, for as long as we have breath.