Stepping Forward into the Dark

Last Sunday after Epiphany

2 Kings 2:1-12; Ps 50:1-6; 2 Cor 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

The Rev’d Dr. Deborah Meister

My last year in seminary, I interned at a church in Southport, Connecticut. Behind the altar, there was an immense painting of Jesus, sitting on a cloud in a clear blue sky, with the words “Come Unto Me” above his head. The rector hated it. He told me that it had once been the central panel of triptych of the Transfiguration; on either side, the sick and the needy, who were milling around the base of the mountain, were reaching for Jesus. But at some point, the side panels had been lost, and all that remained was Jesus, sitting there, with some disconnected hands reaching out of nowhere. So the church had painted the clouds over the hands, creating the current image— except that, as the rector pointed out, with Jesus floating on a cloud, there was no way we could come to him.

The Transfiguration is, for me, one of the hardest stories to get a handle on. Particularly now, with wars raging and children dying and so many crying out in need, it’s hard to figure out what to do with Jesus on a mountaintop.  And while his transformation may have astonished the disciples — Peter and James and John — it surely doesn’t much surprise us, who know the rest of the story: the miracles and the Resurrection and tongues of fire from heaven.[1]

And then there’s Elijah and Elisha, on the day of Elijah’s death. The slow, relentless unfolding of this story; one encounter after another, with a prophecy at each; the faithful devotion of the Elisha for his master; the sudden in-breaking of beauty and of loss. That strange combination: a transcendent wonder which does not seem to bring joy.

Perhaps that’s the paradox we need to spend time with today: the troubling nature of these divine apparitions, each of which seems to take something rather than to give. It’s a bit odd. I like to imagine that if I could see Jesus, I’d be filled with love and spend the rest of my life spreading joy and happiness like the Easter Bunny. But Peter and James and John don’t seem to know what to do about Jesus: they were terrified — and then they were told to be silent. And even Elisha, who has seen his loss coming, can only cry out in grief, “My father, My father!” The four men turn away from the divine encounters they’ve witnessed dumbfounded and shaken, no longer certain how they fit into this world.

It doesn’t, of course, take a vision to make us feel this way.  The end of a relationship, a move from one place to another, a sudden shift in our expected career trajectory, the changes stemming from a pandemic, even the birth of a child — so many experiences leave us trying to find our footing in a world suddenly made strange. Again and again, throughout our lives, we are suddenly tasked with the work of figuring out who we now are and how we need to be.

The first reaction of the men in our stories is to seek some kind of stability.  For Peter, it’s tiny homes: literally, Let me have shelter, some place I feel safe. Or, if the shelters are for Jesus and the prophets, Let me put a box around this experience; let me contain it before it can consume me. For Elisha, it’s power: Let me have a double measure of your spirit. But, doesn’t Elisha have a spirit of his own? In asking for his master’s spirit — a double measure of it! — he’s seeking to cling to what he knows, to how he’s already seen God at work in the world.

Nevertheless, the men leave empty-handed. Peter knows, immediately, that these holy men have not decided to stick around. And Elisha has to turn back to the Jordan not knowing whether his prayer has been heard. Each of them has to step back into the world with all his certainties in pieces.  They have to feel their way into their new reality, one shaky step at a time.

There’s a midrash which speaks to this, I think. The rabbis taught that, when the Hebrew slaves were fleeing from Egypt, they arrived at the banks of the Red Sea.  “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. But you [—] lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground.’ (Ex 14:15-16) But when Moses lifted his staff, nothing happened. The former slaves milled around, increasingly frantic, as Pharoah’s army boxed them in. It was not until the first man waded into the Sea that it parted: God’s will required us to take that first step in faith.

When we find ourselves on those scary thresholds, faith is often about stepping forward into the dark. With apologies to St. Paul, sometimes the will of God is veiled even to those of us who believe. Sometimes, the darkness and confusion are what it takes for us to shed a skin, a life, a way of being that have become to small for us.

In a few days, we are going to enter into Lent,  a season which is all about that kind of transformation. It’s about opening ourselves to whatever God may be doing in our hearts, about seeing ourselves clearly, accepting the hard things — even if what is hard for you is seeing the beauty in yourself you’ve been taught is not there. When you stand here on Wednesday and we press ashes onto your forehead, we are marking your living flesh with the earth that we will all become. But between you and your mortality is now. Now, today, this life — and what you will make of them is in your hands. Sometimes, we have to take the first, scary step, not knowing whether we have it in us to complete the journey. Maybe, every step is like that, if we had eyes to see. Maybe,  Antonio Machado was right: we make the road by walking.

My spiritual director likes to say, “We don’t get away with anything in this life.” He means that the love of Christ is relentless. We can walk toward God in hope and in joy, or we can be dragged there resisting all the way, but come to God, we will. So we might as well take that first step, whatever that might be for you.

Buen Camino, my friends.

[1] Thanks to Ojii Baba Madi who helped me get a stronger sense of this.

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