St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square
27 February 2022 + Transfiguration of Our Lord
Rev. Josh Evans
This morning, Pastor Erin Coleman Branchaud (St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square in Chicago) and I did a “pulpit swap.” Pastor Erin preached at St. Philip, which you can read/watch/listen to on St. Philip’s sermon blog. My sermon is available to watch on St. Luke’s Facebook page (the gospel reading and sermon begin around the 7:25 mark).
What if I “accidentally” missed my flight? I can’t say the thought didn’t cross my mind after spending a week in El Salvador where temperatures had consistently been in the 80s and 90s during the day, dipping down to the mid-60s at night, with relatively low humidity. So, what if I “accidentally” missed my flight back to frigid, snowy, dead-of-winter Milwaukee?
Truly, it was good for me to be there – and not just because of the inviting weather.
For the past week, with my mediocre Spanish and absolutely no medical skills whatsoever, I had traveled with a group of members and fellow pastors from my congregation in Wisconsin, and a couple others, to visit our ministry partners in El Salvador to help run their annual “Mission of Healing.” Every day, our group visited a local church or school in and around San Salvador to set up a makeshift medical clinic that would see about one hundred patients a day. Each person or family 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.
I had the opportunity to be a part of the Mission of Healing trip twice, and it’s easily one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in ministry. 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.
For me, this time of year is inextricably linked to my memories of being in El Salvador. Both times I’ve gone, the trip preceded Transfiguration Sunday, and both times, coming back home felt a bit like the trip back down the mountain, leaving behind the amazing experiences I had during the week and coming back to “real life” in the valley below – as much as I would have wanted to stay.
It’s tempting to want to stay in certain moments, isn’t it? Moments where everything is dazzling and bright and clean and safe – far removed from the pain and brokenness we experience on an all-too-regular basis.
Though I wonder how authentic that really is. This year, the mountaintop just doesn’t feel as intrinsically dazzling and bright and clean and safe to me.
Even on our best clinic days in El Salvador, as beautiful and meaningful and amazing as they were, they were also exhausting. And at the end of a long day, all I wanted was a shower, a dinner, and a good night’s sleep that was never long enough.
I don’t know if it’s because we’re headed into year three of the pandemic, or just because it’s been one of those wildly hectic weeks where there aren’t enough hours in the day … but there’s something about this story that hits differently this year: “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep.”
They’re physically tired, but this kind of tired feels deeper than that. Luke reports that they’re “weighed down.” Or more accurately, like something is weighing down on them. Something heavy, burdensome, even oppressive. They went up on the mountain to pray with Jesus, looking for a quiet place to retreat for a few moments, and they carried the weight of their fatigue and exhaustion and burnout with them.
Maybe, theirs is a weight best captured by a Facebook post I saw just a few days ago: “It’s been one hell of a year this week.”
That’s where I am, with Peter and John and James. Maybe you’re there too.
We’ve felt the weight:
…of a global pandemic as we watch the death toll continue to go up, even as infection rates go down and mask mandates are lifted.
…of looking on with disbelief and paralyzing fear as the people of Ukraine face an unprovoked and violent invasion while so much is uncertain.
…of witnessing blatantly homophobic and transphobic legislation and rhetoric advance in multiple states, inflicting harm on LGBTQIA+ youth for living into their beautiful, beloved selves.
…of seeing the continued abuse and violence inflicted on our BIPOC siblings in this country and even within our own “progressive” denomination.
We’re weighed down … even on the mountaintop. We bring the weight of it all into our sanctuaries to pray, to retreat for a few moments of respite … and it’s a lot.
Maybe because of that, I appreciate the honesty of this story. I appreciate how this story, across all three tellings of it in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, also includes the story of the boy possessed by a demon. I think both stories need to be told together, not because they depict seemingly contrasting moments, but because they each show us different aspects of the same truth about who and where God is.
On the one hand, we yearn for the mountaintop experiences. Once there, we want to hoard the moment, to somehow contain it, to make it last forever. At the same time, we also do everything we can to avoid the valley experiences, to shield ourselves from confronting the pain and brokenness of the world.
Yet, I think we do ourselves a disservice when we compartmentalize our lives like that. Like all binaries, “mountaintop versus valley” is far from helpful because it ignores how both mountaintop and valley intertwine.
There are valley moments on the mountaintop. The disciples were weighed down with sleep. They could barely stay awake. They were fatigued and burned out. But, since they had stayed awake, in their exhaustion, they saw God’s glory revealed – a moment of grace like no other … and when they most needed to receive it.
There are mountaintop moments in the valley too. Confronted almost immediately by the pain of the world below, the glory they just experienced doesn’t seem to give the disciples the strength to overcome the evil possessing the boy. For all they had just witnessed, still the disciples were powerless to cast out the demon, paralyzed and weighed down once more by a heavy, burdensome, and oppressive force.
And yet, even there, God’s power is revealed, in just half a verse: “Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.”
More than just the simple act of healing, Jesus gives him back to his faither, restores him to his family and his community, and makes whole what has been broken.
The mountaintop doesn’t negate the valley moments. But it also doesn’t let the valley moments have the final word.
Earlier this week, I led a short communion service at a local memory care home as I do every month. Most of the residents who attend have advanced memory loss. Often it feels like I’m speaking to no one but myself, and maybe the handful of staff who happen to be there, as I struggle to talk over side conversations and the occasional outburst.
After an opening prayer, a scripture reading and short reflection, and a hymn I play on the Bluetooth speaker I brought with me, I pray the words of institution and then invite those gathered to join me in praying the Lord’s Prayer before I offer them communion.
At that moment, something remarkable always happens that catches me by surprise every time. More than a few voices join mine as we speak in imperfect unison the familiar words of a prayer held somewhere deep within them.
Even in a valley as devastating and isolating as the experience of memory loss, there, for a few seconds, I witness what feels like a transfiguration moment.
Both the mountaintop and the valley are spaces that reveal God’s grace and power. The blessing of the Transfiguration is perhaps most especially felt in the coming down from the mountain – neither fully in one place nor the other, but in the in-between space.
In that space is the capacity for transfiguration moments that reveal God’s glory and give us a glimpse of the inbreaking of God’s reign.
Here, in this space, where we bring with us all that weighs us down, all that we carry with us in the valley, we are filled and nourished. Here, we are given the strength that goes with us on the way.
From here, we are sent to embody God’s love, to proclaim God’s justice, and to enact God’s peace. And here, we are beckoned to return, time and time again.