Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022

“Turn and Face the Strange” — Rev. Brent Gundlah

       Ten years ago next week I checked a big item off my bucket list when I toured the Sistine Chapel. It was a place that I’d always wanted to see, but I have to be honest with you — my visit ended up being a bit of mixed bag.

       On the one hand, the building and the artwork were spectacular ( that Michelangelo guy could really paint). On the other hand, as religious experiences go, this one was kind of frustrating.

       I’d expected to enter this awe-inspiring room, steeped in respectful silence, and behold one of those rare spaces, one of those thin places, where the divine and the human intersect. Just as everything in the chapel seems to emanate from that single spot on that famous painting on the ceiling — the one where God and Adam reach out to one another and join hands — I thought that I too might have a reality-changing moment gazing up at that place.

       But what I encountered was nothing like that at all. Forget about solitude — there must have been a thousand people crammed into the chapel (which, incidentally, is a lot smaller than it looks on TV).

       And the crowd was neither quiet nor respectful; it gets so noisy in there, in fact, that the Vatican employs a group of professional “shushers” whose sole job responsibility, as far as I could tell, was to tell people to pipe down when they got too loud.

       I don’t enjoy being in large crowds one bit and I was incredibly disappointed that this occasion I’d looked forward to for so long was turning out like this, so I made my way over to a bench on the side wall and sat down to sulk for a little while.

       The scene I saw from that vantage point is one I’ll never forget. Here were all of these people, in this majestic church, staring at the ceiling completely oblivious to everything that was happening around them; they were talking loudly, setting off camera flashes in people’s faces, and crashing into one other as they moved around as if they were inside a giant pinball machine.

       What  struck me about this whole experience was the singular focus that people seemed to have on what was going on up there — a fixation that led them to disregard everything that was going on down here. It was as though something had been lost in that seventy-foot span between the ceiling and the floor.

       Luke describes something similar in today’s gospel passage, which, of course, is his account of the Transfiguration.

       “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray,” is how it begins. Now, if you didn’t know this story at all but had read the Old Testament, the mere mention of a journey to a mountaintop should have made you stand up and take notice because some pretty important stuff happens on mountains in the Hebrew scriptures — just ask Moses and Elijah (they’ll be along in a minute).

       And the religious significance of mountains is definitely not just a Judeo-Christian thing. Their stability and power on the one hand, and their proximity to the sky (the place where, since ancient times, the divine has been thought to reside in many faith traditions) on the other, have made them important places for the world’s religions since the very beginning. Listen, for example, to the words of Allah in this excerpt from the ninety-fifth chapter of the Quran:

       “By the fig and the olive,

       by Mount Sinai,

       and by this land made safe,

       truly We created man in the finest stature,

       then We cast him to the lowest of the low,

       save those who believe and perform righteous deeds;

       for theirs shall be a reward unceasing.”

       The reference to Mount Sinai is clear but, in the symbolism of classical Arabic, “the fig” is understood to be the mountain upon which Damascus was built, the “olive” is the mountain upon which Jerusalem was built, and “this land made safe” is Mecca (elevation: nine hundred feet). These are, of course, three of Islam’s holiest sites.

       We humans tend to aspire to be higher because we believe that we can find God up there; the minarets, steeples and pyramids of the world seem to be evidence of this basic idea: we are focused on getting up there, from way down here in the lowest of the low. And this makes sense because down here feels especially, low right now. Can you imagine what the people of Ukraine would give to live in a land made safe?

       Lest we tarry down here too long, let’s return to the action on Mount Transfiguration — don’t worry, we’ll be back again shortly.

       As soon as our weary travelers arrive on the mountain things really get going. Luke tells us that while Jesus 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…”

       If all this weren’t actually enough to convince Peter, James and John that this was no ordinary day and that Jesus was no ordinary guy, God decides to show up in a cloud and make this clear. Luke tells us that, “From the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’”

       And then, just like that, it’s over. Right after God finishes speaking, Moses and Elijah are gone, and the special effects are too. Peter, James and John find only Jesus there alone. The stunned disciples are left speechless; they head back down the mountain with Jesus, telling no one about all they had experienced up there. 

       Our story then takes an abrupt turn that doesn’t seem to have anything to do what just happened up there on the mountain. Back down on low ground, people have gathered around Jesus once again, seeking healing. A desperate man in the crowd shouts out to him, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.”

       The child is seized by a spirit that leads him to shriek, to convulse and to foam at the mouth. His father has already asked — actually, begged — the disciples to cast out this demon, but they couldn’t seem to do it.

       Jesus becomes quite exasperated — mostly at his disciples, I think. He lashes out in frustration, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”

       Jesus calls out to the man, telling him to bring his son over. After the unclean spirit makes one last stand, throwing the boy to the ground in a fit of convulsions, Jesus heals him and gives him back to his father. Luke closes the scene by telling us that, “All were astounded at the greatness of God.”

       Now, I will be the first one to admit that I never understood why these two stories are paired together — the adventure on the mountain, on the one hand, and the healing of the the boy with the demon, on the other; they don’t seem to be related in any obvious way.

             But have a look at the point where they come together; consider the last words that are spoken in the first story and the first ones that are spoken in the second; and then think about who actually says them.

“This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!” says God to Peter, James and John way up there on the mountain.

“Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child,” says the desperate father to Jesus back down on flat ground, because the disciples he’d begged to do so were unable (or perhaps unwilling) to help.

             It seems that the disciples are so focused upon what’s happened up there with God, that they fail to pay attention to what’s happening down here. Ironically, though, they don’t seem to have listened to what God told them either. Because if they had been paying attention to Jesus, as God commanded them to do, they would have remembered seeing him heal all sorts of people — including society’s outcasts;

they would have remembered seeing him feed the hungry;

they would have remembered seeing him forgive the sinful;

they would have remembered seeing him dine with tax collectors;

they would have remembered seeing him show concern for all God’s people; and, they would have remembered to do likewise.

             But they didn’t do likewise. And that’s why Jesus becomes irate here. When are they going to get it? When are we going to get it?

       God isn’t only in the bright lights and booming voices up on mountaintops; we don’t experience God simply by gazing upward at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

       We truly encounter God when we take the inspiration that is found on high and bring it to bear down here, among the lowest of the low. Because God is to be found in both places; God is to be found in all places.

       God chooses to reveal Godself to us in bits and in pieces, in all sorts of different people and places and faiths, so that we can (hopefully) come to understand the essence of God just a little bit better.

       Sometimes that happens in really spectacular ways — in places both natural and man-made that leave us awestruck; and in miracles that testify to God’s majesty and mystery.

       But sometimes it happens in other ways too — including, but certainly not limited to, the life of a poor Jewish carpenter from the wrong side of town who came preaching love and justice for all; or through the words of the prophet Mohammed who instructed Abu Zarr to not look up to those who are above him, but to look instead to those who are beneath him.

       Because maybe, just maybe, we actually catch a glimpse of God looking back at us in the face of every single person we encounter down here — not just the people we know or like or understand or agree with or who can do things for us, but everyone.

       What if those people — the invisible people, the unlikable people, the poor people, the people who really need us — are angels of the Lord?

              “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!” says God from the clouds.

             “I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child,” says the man on the street.

             “Do you have any food for my son?” asks the mother whose sleeping child is lying on a subway station floor in Kyiv.

             “He was our only son!” cries the father of a young soldier from St. Petersburg who’s just received that dreaded knock on the door.

So, how are you going to respond the next time you hear the voice of an angel of the Lord.