by Rev. Lissie Rhoton
Keep Awake, Beloved
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he 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 and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.
The Feast of the Transfiguration occurs on August 6th, and as I read the scripture from Luke 9 appointed for that day, I was struck this year by a little throw away sentence. “Now Peter and his companions were weighed down by sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory…” I couldn’t help but be reminded of another time when the disciples were set to watch vigil, were weighed down by sleep, and could not keep awake.
He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ [[ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.]] When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’
Why are you sleeping? The disciples were tired on both occasions—worn out, run down—much like we are now after a year and a half of dealing with the change caused by a pandemic. And yet, the disciples kept awake to see the glory of the Lord, when they could not keep awake to watch vigil during Jesus’ suffering. It is a very human response. As one of our parishioners, Jack West, observed to me, we quickly tune out the reports of wars and violence we see on the TV, but we can’t turn away when we launch a ship into space or see Olympians participate in feats of strength and endurance. We are there for the glory, ready to be inspired, ready, as the disciples were, to build booths for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses, to commemorate the awe we have felt. We are not ready to live in the suffering, or even to keep awake for it.
We have lived in our own suffering in the midst of the pandemic, and it has gone on much longer than any of us are really ready to handle. Jesus does offer rest. We are not called to keep awake for every second of our lives. Rest is needed and warranted, and I pray that each of you are being intentional when it comes to giving yourselves time to rest, but Jesus does also call us to watch vigil. Jesus invites us both to see glory and to listen and pray in the midst of the suffering of God.
Perhaps the Feast of the Transfiguration can be a time for us to seek the glory of God, to climb the mountain to talk to God as Moses did, and return with our faces shining (Exodus 34:29-35). We need to know the glory of the Lord. We need to be inspired, but we need those experiences so that we can be ready to listen to what grieves the heart of God. God fills us in order for us to be poured out on behalf of the world.
Each of us has different callings and gifts, and so God will draw our attention to different things that grieve the heart of God. This is as it should be. Perhaps your heart is poured out for immigrants and refugees, for those who are unhomed, underinsured, or underpaid. Perhaps you feel the grief of God for those who are alone, adults or children who have no family to care for them. Perhaps you feel God’s heart beating for those who are affected by racism, sexism, heteronormativity, or the fast pace of our world that values numbers over lives. My own heart beats with God’s for God’s church, that we would not be idle, but would continue to be formed into the likeness of Christ, that our hearts would break alongside God’s own, and that our hands and feet, our eyes and tongue, would be transformed into Christ’s own, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
As we continue through this long wilderness, I encourage you not to fall asleep towards those things that grieve both God’s heart and your own. Let the Holy Spirit guide you. Go up to the mountain and see the glory of God, but come down again and keep vigil with Jesus over the suffering of the world. Find your place to make a difference and hold fast. God calls us to keep watch, in glory and suffering, but, beloved, you do not watch alone. We live together in communion with God and each other. Be strengthened by the love of God and the love of our church.