He was raised in the North Country. The child of a young, poor mother, he was an ordinary boy who did not seem to draw much attention to himself. Deep inside, however, he knew he had a special purpose – a destiny to fulfill. He burst on the scene out of nowhere. People began to notice that there was something special about this young man. He had talent and charisma. He was gifted like no other. It wasn’t long before he started attracting crowds. Thousands came to see and listen to him. As his fame spread, some grew jealous of him. But his popularity only increased. His followers thought he was brilliant.
One day had a personal transformation. His appearance changed. From that moment on, he began to lose popularity. Those who once believed in him began to criticize him. They mocked him. Some were afraid of him. Some wished for older days. And yet, the young man continued to share his message in the face of unbelief. By now you’ve probably figured out who I’m talking about . . . Justin Bieber, the pop music sensation.
In today’s gospel reading, we hear about the transformation, affirmation and decline of another popular hero. Listen for the Word . . .
Jesus took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.) While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen. The next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him. Luke 9:28-37You’re drained. You’re tapped out. You have little energy to give others. We’ve all been there. Usually, after a little break, we revive and step back up to the plate. But what happens, when these feelings don’t go away? What happens when you just want to give up? If you have ever cared for an elderly parent or a sick child, or worked in health care or human services … or ministry … you might know what I’m talking about. Sometimes caregivers just give up. It’s called compassion fatigue. It refers to the exhaustion that takes a person over and causes a decline in one’s ability to experience joy and care for others. Over time, your ability to care for others erodes through overuse of your skills of compassion.
Compassion fatigue also affects us when we hear news of disasters, or mass shootings, or police brutality. Or whenever there’s a long-running news story that shows no signs of resolution. Viewers will tune out the most compelling story if it never changes.
Compassion fatigue happens when we wake up and we don't feel like checking the news. Isn’t there enough pain within ten miles of our homes to last us a lifetime? I could probably spend two or three hours a day just praying for the crushing needs of people I know. So how can I shoulder the rest of the world’s problems? Sometimes I think about the pain all around, and all I can do is sit and put my bleary face into my cupped hands in utter bewilderment.
In a way, the story of the transfiguration is a story about compassion fatigue. Imagine Jesus, seeking to be alone on the mountaintop. He thinks of what awaits him in Jerusalem. A foreboding pain stabs his wrists. He looks at his followers. They have no idea. He speaks of suffering; they think of conquering. He speaks of sacrifice; they think of celebration. He talks of wholeness, and all they want are more miracles. They think they hear. They think they see. But they don’t. Part of him knew it would be like this. And part of him never knew it would be so bad. Part of him wonders, Would it be so bad to give up? He has given his best and what does he have? A ragged band of good-hearted followers who are destined to fall flat on promises they can’t keep. Only God really knows the cost of the struggle. So Jesus sits down and puts his bleary face into cupped hands and prays. It’s all he can do.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it helper? You thought you could save the world one person at a time. You saw where you could best demonstrate your gifts of compassion, and you went there. But now you are tired, questioning your motives, feeling drained and useless, wondering when relief will come, kicking yourself for not having a back-up plan, resenting that you are the only one doing the work.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it, dreamer, when the sharp rocks of reality cut your feet, breaking your stride . . . breaking your heart. And you found the role of the cynic was less costly than the role of the visionary?
Listen to what happens next. Jesus dazzles the disciples. For just a moment, radiance pours from Jesus. For a few minutes, the burden of humanity is lifted. As Jesus prepares himself for the work of death, two people from the past suddenly show up: Moses the lawgiver whose grave no one knew; Elijah the prophet who side-stepped death in a fiery chariot. The one who faces death is reminded that the grave is powerless. The One who feels weary is soon reminded that the weariness will soon pass.
And then, from the belly of the clouds, a Voice speaks: “This is my Son, chosen and loved. Listen to him.”
I think that could be our experience, too. God’s light reveals our need to be loved, our disappointment with ourselves, our shame and frustration, our deepest fears, our isolation and emptiness. In the transfiguring light of God, there is nowhere to hide. We stand stripped and vulnerable so we learn who we really … chosen and loved people of God. We are deeply treasured, fully accepted, and given the hope of a better world. God’s crazy in love with you. God thinks you are magnificent. When we are lost and weary, just when we are ready to sit on the sidelines and give up, God fills us with dazzling glory. God offers renewed hope, clearer vision, and mountaintop dreams.
The disciples, as usual, are scared – gripped by terror. And then , it’s over – except for one more thing. Luke says, the next day they had to come down the mountain. Show’s over. Time to pack up get back to work. A boy in the valley needs to be healed. Some disciples need to learn how to move from fear to faith. A cross waits in Jerusalem.
Our transformation is not complete until we drop back down to do God’s work back on earth. Fear Not. Have courage. Catch the vision. Spread the light. Let the God of suffering love lead you to the places where those who are broken cry out for wholeness. Listen to the call of those aching for justice. You won’t have to look for long or listen very hard. Let your own wounds lead you those who need healing.
Simon Bailey was an Anglican priest in a small traditional mining village in Yorkshire, England. He knew about struggling in the valley –he died of AIDS in 1995. But he also knew about the brilliance of God’s coming Kingdom. Simon Bailey had a mountain top dream of God’s inclusive realm of love and peace. Listen to the words he wrote not long before his death:
I’m dreaming about a church of sensitivity and openness,How did a priest dying of AIDS fare in a traditional Yorkshire village? Well, the villagers received him with open arms. They set up care teams to help him. They wore scarlet ribbons to show the world their solidarity. No longer just a mountain top vision of the future, they became a community transfigured by compassion.
…of healing and welcome.
I’m dreaming about a community of friends
that celebrates differences and diversity and variety,
a community that is forgiving, cherishing, wide open.
I dream of women and men
who minister life and laughter and love;
…healing & harmony & hope;
I dream of the clear panorama of the vision of light
right at the top of the mountain.
We are called to help create a world where the meek will come out on top; where the hungry go to the front of the food line; where the powerful wash the feet of the homeless; where children are protected and life is cherished. We actively promote wholeness, inclusion, and tolerance for all people, no matter who they are or where they come from, or how they got here. We work for justice, seek peace, give ourselves away in service to others, love our enemies, show respect to elders, love one another and honor ourselves.
Transfiguration Day turns us towards Lent. We have journeyed up the mountain to be reminded of God’s love. Now we drop down with Christ to a world of suffering and death. In that spirit, I close with poem from Mary Oliver called “When Death Comes.” Perhaps this can be our prayer as we journey down the mountain with Jesus.
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I made my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.