Monday, February 23, 2009

At the Bottom of the Mountain

Yesterday was Transfiguration, the Last Sunday after the Epiphany and the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. We remember that strange story of Jesus going up the mountain with Peter, James and John, where he was changed in some way--not so much that the disciples could not tell who he was but enough that the fishermen were both terrified and elated. Not knowing what to say or do they offered to build chapels for Jesus, and for Elijah and Moses, too, who were there on the mountaintop with them for a while.

Our focus is always on that part of the story, on those four characters (or six, counting the Law-giving Liberator and the Prophet; seven, counting the Voice). This week, though, as I have brought my own recent experiences to the reading of the text and the preparation of my sermon, I have been thinking about the other disciples, the ones still down the mountain, those on the outer edge of the inner circle, the ones who for one reason or the other were not invited to go along and therefore were not a part of the experience. Did not have the vision. Did not hear the Voice. Did not share the mountaintop moment.

I'm hip.

I wonder if they wondered why Jesus favored some and not all? Why a few got to see and the rest had to hear. Why one of the three, at least, was always getting it wrong and still got the invite while other, somewhat more steady if not always more faithful of the group did not. I have to say I wonder all of that even if they didn't. About them. About us.

Soon Jesus and the others will come down from the mountaintop and find the rest of the disciples in an argument. A man had brought his sick son for healing, and healing him is something that the disciples had authority to do, ought to have been able to do, tried to do--but failed. Not surprisingly, their sense of failure, prompting a sense of inadequacy, resulted in defensiveness and controversy--a parable of church life, I think. Jesus is annoyed with the whole scene, it seems: with his feckless disciples, with the illness of the child, with the doubt of the man, who by the time Jesus returns has seen so much of the disciples' inabilities he questions Jesus' abilities. Jesus is even irritated with the man: "If I am able?!" he barks at the man's plea, as if to say, "Just whom do you think you are talking to? Of course I am able." Jesus, after all, is the one who really believes.

And the disciples just stand there, in the middle of the battle in a way and as unarmed they can be. Worse: they know they should be armed, should be able, but are not. Maybe if they had been on the mountain and seen a vision. Maybe if they were blessed to be on the inside of the inner circle. Maybe if Jesus had blessed them the way he blessed the others and not left them alone down at the bottom of the hill to do this work that only he seems able to do.

Why is it that some are favored and some are not? I do not know that, but it can be painful to be among the left behind, as it were. I am among the chosen and called. I do believe that. I am not, however, one of the favored chosen or called. I know that all too well. I sometimes think if I knew why all that were true I could do something about it, could earn more favor or blessing--but that is not the nature of "favor" or "blessing," is it? Those dispensations are products of grace, not of works, lest anyone should boast.

Like others waiting at the bottom of the mountain, I have been called. All of us have been commissioned, and Jesus will return to us to finish what we have been unable, in truth, to start. He may chide us for our insufficiencies, but he will love us nonetheless.

If I did not believe that I could not go on.


D. Lynn said...

So, if one is preaching the lectionary, this gets left out--and it is important stuff, maybe the point of the mt. top experience--what is one to do? Wait for this to show up as a text?
Borrow richly?
Quit and go back to topical preaching?

Tom Steagald said...

I am not sure what you are referring to. The Transfiguration itself comes up every year, of course, and the episode at the bottom of the mountain likewise, I believe. If you have an index to the lectionary you can find it easily enough. If you do not I can check for you.

I do think that departing from the lectionary is warranted at times, and that almost any story in the bible can be illustrative even if you stick to the assigned readings. I am doing a "mountain to mountain" thing as a kind of subtext for Lent, between Transfiguration and Golgotha, with the valley of resistance and suffering (evidenced by the temptations and the predictions, for instance) in between.