It’s 11:00 on Sunday morning, and the churches of Church Row in the middle of downtown are all filling up quickly. Across the street from each other are two congregations who are having a very different experience on this Sunday morning.
On one side of the street is Devotion and Emotion Bible Church. Theirs is one of the most glorious worship services on Church Row. Their music is amazing. Their preacher goes on for an hour and no one wants him to stop even then. A long portion of their service is devoted to prayer, and then they come back on Sunday night for another hour and a half prayer service. During the week, every night is spent in deep spiritual practice. Study. Prayer. Prayer. Study. At the end of the service, the announcements reflected that devotion and reminded people of all the ways that they could continue to cement their knowledge and love of God. Finally, the service ended and everyone started packing up to go home. It was a cold day, so one young family spent at least ten minutes putting on coats and hats and scarves and mittens on all three of their young girls. As they waddled out the door and toward the car, the middle daughter stopped on the edge of the parking lot. She saw a man lying on the bus stop bench out in front of the church. He was apparently homeless and had spent the night, and the little girl was trying to make sense of who he was and why he would do that. While her parents were busy strapping in her baby sister, she slipped away unnoticed and walked over to the man. She had received a piece of candy for memorizing her scripture passage that week, and she fished it out as she got closer. She held it out to give it to him, when she was suddenly whisked away from the man by her father. The piece of candy dropped on the ground as she was deposited in her booster seat and given a long lecture. “Sweetie, we are here for church, not to talk to men like that. We need to get home to take a nap before church tonight anyway.” And she looked out the window at the man while they sped away.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the street that morning was a very different church experience. The members of Our Lady of Perpetual Motion Chapel gathered for worship, at least most of them. For many of them, worship was secondary next to all of the ministries and missions of the congregation. Their church was one of the busiest in town caring for the needs in their community. They housed the local soup kitchen twice a week, a clothes closet on Thursdays, a canned food pantry on Saturdays. The man across the street was one of many homeless individuals who found themselves on the front door of Our Lady Chapel. So, when the worship hour began, most members took their seats, but more than a handful of them were hard at work. Many skipped most of the worship service restocking the cans in the food pantry from Saturday, and some of them were in the basement sorting through clothes brought in for donation. Their work was incredibly important to the community, and life-saving for many in town. But when you looked around the congregation on Sunday morning, everyone just seemed…tired. Worn out. They were well aware of the needs of the community and felt like it was up to them to make sure all of those needs were met. So the members were worn out, the staff was worn out, even the kids were worn out from homelessness immersion lock in they had had over the weekend. The preacher stood in the pulpit with yet another sermon on caring for the least of these, but as a young woman stood in the basement, sorting through another half-dozen bags of clothes around her, she had heard it all before. She walked over and turned down the speaker that piped in the worship service. After all, these clothes weren’t going to sort themselves!
Today’s Scripture passage is one that might give pause to the fine folks of Church Row. Luke’s version of the Transfiguration is rich and meaningful. It begins with a hike up the mountain for Jesus and three of the disciples. We don’t know exactly how long they are up there, but we find out pretty soon that they are tired. They are worn out. Jesus has been (doing things). And somehow, in the course of this experience on the mountain, they start getting sleepy. Maybe they are zoning in and out of sleep, when all of a sudden, they see in their drowsiness that Jesus is no longer alone. Standing next to him are the heroes of the faith – Moses and Elijah. And they are having a committee meeting! They are discussing Jesus last days on earth and his exit strategy.
Peter, apparently half asleep, jumps up in his stupor and has a great idea, if not a little half-baked. He suggests that they build some tents for everyone. That way, they can spend the night—or even the week—hanging out, learning from the wise men who have appeared, spending the rest of their lives in devotion to God! A worthwhile thought, I suppose. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense. After all, Jesus and Moses and Elijah are standing their discussing his work, his mission, his ministry. You can’t just stay on the mountain, as much as you’d like to sometime. You have to come down off the mountain and get to work.
Which is exactly what they did. But that didn’t go much better for the disciples. Apparently, when Jesus and the three were up the mountain, the rest of the disciples were confronted by a man and his son. The son was afflicted with some sort of possession of seizures. He would lose control of his body and cause danger to himself and others. His father, hearing what Jesus and the disciples had done, brought him to them. Of course, Jesus was up the hill at the time, so the rest of the disciples looked at each other and said, “We can fix this!” After all, they had seen Jesus call on the power of healing over and over again, and it wasn’t that hard. So they tried to fix the boy, and failed. By the time that Jesus came down the mountain, the man ran up to Jesus and said, “your disciples cannot help my boy…can you?” And Jesus takes a look at the rest of the disciples and throws up his hands, “you faithless and perverse generation.” After everything that they had taught them, they were still pretty clueless.
We find in this picture a portrait of the failings not only of the disciples, but of many of us, as well, don’t we? On one hand, we have Peter’s cluelessness, and it’s echoes throughout the generations. It’s an example of what I can the “Drowsiness of Devotion.” We become so enamored with our own inward study and prayer and devotion, that we become drowsy to the needs around us. Just like Peter, who wanted to stay on top of the mountain, we huddle together for spiritual warmth around the cozy feelings of devotion. Like Peter, we want to stay up on top of that mountain, and not bother ourselves with the needs of the world at the bottom of the hill. Let us stay up on the mountain, and spend all our time in prayer and preparation. An exhausting time it is, too, so it isn’t a bad idea to stop every once and a while for a little nap.
But on the other hand, we have the faithlessness of the rest of the disciples. They are worn out in a different way. Not the drowsiness of gorging themselves on spiritual food, but the gaunt weariness of working their fingers to the bone. It’s what I might call the “Faithlessness of Fix-it-ness.” After all, it is up to us to do it all. We have to fix the world around us, and fix it we shall. I think it is interesting that Jesus calls this faithlessness, because it is not believing that God is at work. Instead, it is insisting that the only way that work can get done is if we work ourselves to death. Our programs, our strategies, our overworked souls and minds are the only things that can accomplish God’s work on earth. There is no space for anything else.
There don’t seem to be a lot of good options here in the story, do there? But, of course, we skipped over the most important part. Here in the midst of bumbling disciples is a story of Gospel proclamation. Good news injected into the midst of the bad.
As Peter, James, and John are trying to make sense of what they are seeing, and Jesus and Elijah and Moses are hanging out talking, and Peter makes his less-than-helpful suggestion, into the chaos and confusion of all of this comes – literally – the voice of reason. In chapter 35-36: “Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.” Clarity in the midst of chaos. An answer in the midst of swirling questions.
It seems to be that that is the good news—the best news—at the heart of this story. When the disciples were tempted to hide away from the cares of the world and camp out on the top of the mountain away from the pain…when they puffed out their chests like little children and said, “stand aside, I’ll take care of this!”…the word from the Lord was constant: “Listen!”
It really was constant throughout the ministry of Jesus. The model for ministry that he tried to teach them was a listening loop. He would go up into the hills to pray—look again and you’ll see that’s how this passage begins, too—and in that prayer he would listen. But then he would come out of the hills, out of that prayer, with an attitude of listening. In both prayer and action, Jesus spent it listening. He has been trying to get the disciples to learn to live the same way, but alas, they continue to live the drowsiness of devotion—hiding away from the pain of the world—or the faithlessness of fix-it-ness—trying to do the work on their own terms. But now the voice makes it clear – “This is my son. Listen to him.”
And, of course, the Good News for the disciples is ours as well. Live the life of listening. The ancients called it “Ora et Labora.” Prayer and work. It is this loop of listening that balances between times of devotion and times of service. But undergirding all of it is an attitude of listening. The ancients understood that we must be fed by the mountain-top devotion, these moments of transfiguration. But that we cannot live on the mountain forever. And they understood that there will be work in the valley of the shadow of death. But that we cannot rely on our own strength to do that work, but that it is God doing the fixing, the healing.
They understood that the power to serve comes from our devotion.
And the reason for our devotion is to have the strength to serve.
Ora et labora. The loop of listening.
Lent is a helpful season to ask, “what does our balance look like?” Are we engaging in spiritual escapism, like Peter, always staying inside the doors of the church and averting our eyes and scooting our children away from the needs on our own doorstep? Or are we burning ourselves out standing in the clothes closet of our own work, never pausing to be restored for the work, never listening for how that work is to be done? Of course, the two churches at the beginning were characterizations, straw men created in order to make the point. But any church, all churches, our church, can easily fall to one side of the street or the other on Church Row. We can become the Chapel of Emotion and Devotion, or the Church of Perpetual Motion. But the story of the Transfiguration reminds us there is a better way. The loop of listening. Of balance. Of Ora et Labora. This season, may we ask “how are we doing?” with that balance in our church and in our personal lives.
I leave you with one final example of the way this might look. When I lived in Louisville, I crossed paths occasionally with a pastor by the name of Joe Phelps. He was engaged in a lot of justice work, especially in the more poverty-impacted areas of West Louisville. But I ran across his name again recently in the work that he is doing in “retirement.” He has retired from congregational ministry and works now primarily with two organizations.
The first is Empower West, a justice organization meant to work especially on racial reconciliation efforts in Louisville. They work to fight poverty, encourage economic growth for minorities, and educate on the dangers of racism. But the second organization is the Passionist Earth and Spirit Center. The Passionist order is a Catholic order that teaches meditation. He has recently become their justice coordinator, helping to teach meditation to inmates in the prison system. He has come to the realization that prayer and meditation are crucial to the work of justice. Unless you are listening, you will not have the strength and wisdom to know how to do that work. And if you are really listening, you will have the passion and motivation to do that work. He is injecting a spirit of prayer and meditation in the organization on justice, and a spirit of justice into the organization on prayer and meditation.
Ora et Labora. Prayer and work. The loop of listening to which we are called.