February 7, 2016
Scripture: Luke 9:28-43
Today is Transfiguration Sunday and the Gospel reading is always the same: Jesus and three of his disciples go up on a mountain to pray. While they are praying, Jesus becomes a dazzling figure, standing with Moses and Elijah, representing the pillars of Jewish law and prophecy. They are speaking about Jesus’ “departure,” what is going to happen in Jerusalem.
Although the disciples are sleepy, they manage to stay awake to see this radiant vision – unlike what happens later, when Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemene and they fall asleep. This time, on the mountain, they see Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, and Peter wants to build three booths, or dwellings, as though to make this a permanent experience. Maybe he wants to stop time – prevent their final journey to Jerusalem and the death of Jesus. Maybe he simply wants the moment to stay.
It seems to me that the marks of such a peak experience would be wholeness, harmony and humility. Wholeness because suddenly they see Jesus within the whole sweep of the covenant tradition of their faith. Harmony because all the parts resonate, and there are overtones of transcendence. And finally humility, because in that kairos moment, Peter must have felt small and insignificant. Luke says he suggested building three booths because he didn’t know what else to say. But he knew enough to want to hold onto the experience.
Like Peter, I always want to hold onto a peak experience. My way has been to take pictures of the place or the people, so I can get back there — to a finger-licking lobster dinner by the sea, or reaching the peak of Mt. Washington after a long hike, or the face of my dying father in the sunlight. I’ve taken many pictures of special moments of inspiration or sensual pleasure: gorgeous sunsets, craggy mountains, dew-drops on a spider web, our cats curled up together. Over time, these experiences feed my soul, remind me that I belong to a bigger story tinted with beauty, joy and gratitude.
But I never seem to have a camera ready when God pulls back the curtain to show me the essence of my call. Like Peter, I am shocked and surprised when that happens. I pick up a stone or a leaf to remind me of what happened and it’s never enough.
Sometimes a mountain-top experience becomes an idol, and we can’t move on or bring it down off the mountain into everyday life. Yesterday, I read the obituary of Ed Mitchell, the astronaut who walked on the moon in 1971. Apparently he never recovered. He spent the rest of his life exploring psychic phenomena in a scientific way. Married three times, and supporting a child he fathered outside of marriage, he seemed unable to settle back into the world. I wonder if the biblical story might have given him a way to hold that experience and still live a more grounded and satisfying life – because the who point of a peak experience is bringing the insight back into the grit of everyday demands.
The psychologist, Abraham Maslow, said that most people spend their lives with a hierarchy of needs, beginning with physical needs, then safety, and then the social needs of love and belonging. Only a few, he said, have peak experiences which bring self-actualization (to use his words). The transfiguration suggests that even humble fishermen like Peter, James and John, can recognize their god-given purpose and meaning when prayer opens the way to God. And I would say that peak experiences fill one with meaning and purpose, assuring us that we are part of God’s creation story.
Ask yourself, “ When have you caught a glimpse of your purpose? Your call? When have you felt absolutely clear that you were in the right place at the right time? How do you hold onto such a peak experience?” [Pause]
Now back to the story. What was radiant light is suddenly obscured by a cloud. They are fogged in. It is reminiscent of the cloud that covered Moses when he was up on the mountain, some 1,200 years earlier, receiving the “ten words” of the law that would guide the Israelites forever. The three disciples are, of course, absolutely terrified. Together, they hear a voice saying “This is my Son, my Chosen One: listen to him!” These are virtually the same words that the people heard at the time of Jesus’ baptism, when he began his ministry. This repetition of a “voice from heaven” is Luke’s way of shining a spotlight on transitions.
First, there was Jesus’ baptism, which marked the transition from his ordinary and unremarkable life as a dutiful Jewish man, to a challenging ministry of healing and teaching around Galilee. At the beginning of chapter 9, where this transfiguration story is found, Jesus has given his disciples authority over demons and sent them out to preach and heal the sick. In other words, they were to practice the same powers that Jesus brought to his own ministry. When they returned, Luke tells us, they tried to go away to a quiet place together, but the crowds followed them and we have the story of feeding the 5,000. It ends with the disciples gathering up 12 baskets of left-overs, signifying abundance for the 12 tribes of Israel. Clearly there was plenty of food, even though the disciples had been worried that there would not be enough. We might label chapter 9 of Luke’s gospel “Jesus’ servant leadership school.” He was teaching them to notice what was already there, latent in the lives of the people, waiting to be called forth by someone who could see God there.
I want to pause here, in the Gospel reading, to notice a few things. Even though all of the disciples had been given the power to heal and teach, Jesus took the inner circle, Peter, James and John, with him up the mountain to pray. They apparently had a particular call which needed to be sparked by this revelation. Later, after Jesus’ death, these three would become core leaders as the church began to form in Jerusalem. It’s a paradox of our faith, that ALL are welcome to belong and share their gifts for the greater good, and yet some are called out for different kinds of leadership.
At Seekers, we do not make much of our Servant Leadership Team – those who have been called out of the circle of Stewards to provide guidance for Stewards and pastoring for those not in mission groups. But we would surely notice if they were not there, quietly serving the community in a myriad of ways. They pray and ponder the agenda for Stewards, to keep us moving spiritually and practically. They are “on call” for troubling situations. We pay them a small stipend with no benefits to be available when needed. We trust them not to take sides, but to care for the whole fabric of our community. Our deeply democratic structures mean that they do not preach more often than others or have any particular influence on the budget. I don’t believe we even identify the Servant Leadership Team by name on our website, and yet I know that we depend on them to embody our deepest values. Together they represent the charism of Seekers and we want people who have encountered the living God.
For the past year, Brenda and Trish have held that position of trust for all of us. In November, they requested the Stewards to put out a call for one or more persons to join the Servant Leadership Team (SLT). By mid-December, two people responded with their own sense of call to the SLT: Joan Dodge and David Lloyd. Joan was one of the founding Stewards of Seekers Church in 1976, and David first became a Steward in 1978. Both have spent time away from Stewards as career and family demands grew. David rejoined Stewards in 1997 and Joan is ready to rejoin Stewards now that she has retired from teaching at Georgetown.
The SLT Discernment Group has met with each of them, to confirm their sense of call and discuss the different gifts they would bring to the team. Last Wednesday evening, Brenda and Trish met with Joan and David, along with the Discernment Group, to discuss how their foursome might work together as a new Servant Leadership Team. We have also shared their written responses to the call for an expanded SLT by email. And today, after worship, you will have an opportunity to meet with Joan and David to hear more and ask any questions you might have. For those who can’t stay today, Joan and David will be available again on March 6, and that evening Stewards will meet to confirm them as new members of the Servant Leadership Team.
For a glimpse of the way that Jesus prepared his disciples to be servant leaders, let’s go back to the Transfiguration story. On the very next day, after their dazzling mountain-top experience, Jesus took them back down to the waiting crowd, where the rest of the disciples had been trying, without success, to heal a boy with seizures. The father of the boy called out to Jesus, asking him to heal his son. And he did. He also sounds pretty impatient with his disciples and the crowd of bystanders: “How long must I be with you, a wicked and perverse generation.” But after such a glorious encounter on the mountain, he was probably annoyed that the mundane demands of his ministry were still there.
Service Beyond Ego
So here is my question: Why do you suppose the disciples failed to heal the boy when Jesus had earlier given them power over demons?
I’m guessing that the disciples were trying to show off their healing powers while Jesus was away – to show him what they could do. Maybe to earn their way into the inner circle. I know that I’ve done that. With my personality, I like challenges, so I’ll volunteer for something that seems risky, but I don’t do the work of sharing the vision with others. I take on a job because I want to succeed, not because it’s my call. Or I’m impatient to do it myself, so I don’t take the time to gather a body of people with different gifts. Personal success then becomes the goal, and I am disappointed and angry when things don’t work out the way I want them to. This doesn’t seem like servant leadership to me.
Another way that we can look at this part of the story is to see Jesus at work, training his disciples to be servant leaders instead of controlling leaders – to use their power wisely and prayerfully rather than manipulating the spirit realm for their ego gratification. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells them that they failed to heal the boy because they didn’t have enough faith. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells them that this kind of healing can only come through prayer. All three of the synoptic gospels imply that the disciples need to continue growing in their understanding of the spiritual power they have been given. Jesus doesn’t condemn or reject them, but he does scold them. They are still competing with one another, rather than loving and serving one another.
And so it is with our Servant Leadership Team. We, as a community, have an obligation to help them grow and deepen their faith and practice of serving the community by stepping into leadership where WE are called. Seekers is not a traditional church, where we hire a clergy staff to do ministry for us. Instead, we are a body of believers, trying to grow into the persons God has intended for us to be all along. Each of us has a call to be Jesus’ disciple, to study and pray, and spend time in silence, letting God’s love fill us again. Each one of us needs to continue growing, discerning, praying, deepening our faith as we go along. Then we will be better equipped to serve the needs of a fractured world with freedom and love.
Unfortunately, the Transfiguration story suggests that only a few special people will get these mountain-top revelations, but I think the real revelation happens when they come down off the mountain and go back to work. We can forgive Jesus for his peevish tone, because he knows he won’t be with them much longer. But as we stand here together, on the lip of the Lenten season, we can commit to exploring wholeness, harmony and humility in the daily structures of our lives so that all of us move toward servant leadership in the daily structures of our lives.
The good news for us is that we get to do it together – as the disciples did.
May it be so. Amen.