Scripture: Luke 9:28-36: Transfiguration
When I was a student pastor in Maine many years ago, at the same time I had an overnight job with a local bakery delivering donuts to convenient stores. My church work was very part-time, with Sunday morning worship leadership and Friday afternoons visiting people in the parish. As you might imagine, by Friday afternoons, after having gotten up at 11:00 the night before for my bakery work, I was pretty tired. One late Friday afternoon, I went to visit a woman who lived alone. She kept her house quite warm, and partway through the visit I confess, to my horror, that I fell asleep in my chair. I have no idea how long I slept, whether it was for just a millisecond, or whether I was asleep for some minutes. And she didn’t seem to notice—thank God—but I was extremely embarrassed. And if I didn’t know it before, I learned it that day: the need and desire for sleep is a powerful, sometimes irresistible, force.
The disciples of Jesus know this only too well. You would think they couldn’t possibly fall asleep on Jesus. But they do. Most ignominiously, they fall asleep on the Mount of Olives while Jesus is in agony on the way to his death. “Why are you sleeping?” asks a distraught Jesus. “Get up and pray” (Luke 22:45-46). In their weary grief, though, they simply can’t help it. What do you do when sleep overcomes you?
Strangely, that’s not the only time the disciples fall asleep on Jesus. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of Jesus being transfigured on a mountain top. Only Luke, though, makes a point of telling us that the three disciples who accompanied Jesus—Peter, John, and James—all fall asleep in the middle of this remarkably revelatory and amazing event.
Why in the world add this detail to a story that had certainly been widely told by Jesus’ earliest followers? It’s a suggestive detail on several levels, I think. I imagine the sleep of those early disciples is a mark, first, of their inability to be perfect in their discipleship. When they fall asleep, it’s a reminder that not even they can be superhuman in their devotion. They, too, slip in their awareness and dedication. Like all of us, they have their faults. When the disciples sleep, it’s a reminder that we, too, will slip up; we, too, will be unable to do everything we think we should do; we, too, will fall asleep at the tasks that are set before us.
There’s more, though. Those three disciples fall asleep for a good reason. Sleep is part of resting. And resting is crucial for our well-being. In the very first story in the Bible, at the beginning of Genesis, when God creates the world, after six days of hard work creating everything that is, God takes the seventh day to rest. All labor ceases. I can picture God taking a nap. Every time you and I take a rest from our labors, we are mimicking God’s rest as the culmination of creation. In this frenetic world in which we live, rest sometimes gets a bad name. You’re only as good as your last accomplishment, after all. So this sleeping of Peter, John and James is a reminder of how crucial rest is. As your pastor I tell you: honor it; rest; sleep.
There’s even more to their sleep, though. Whenever we sleep and rise, we are acting out, in a little way, the death and resurrection of Christ. Karl Barth, one of the most influential theologians of the last century, described human sleeping as “little images of the great . . . uprising of Christ in his resurrection” (https://postbarthian.com/2017/12/03/theology-sleep-karl-barth-said-human-sleeping-little-images-great-uprising-christ-resurrection/). What if, every morning when we arise, and after every afternoon nap in front of a Cavs or Indians or Browns game—what if, with every rising, we were to remember that the richness of Christ is coming alive in us? What if we were to remember that we are living a life shaped by Christ, and that our sleeping—a kind of little death—and our waking—a rising again to new life—is all part of God’s gift of life? What if we were to remember that our lives are rooted in a God-given pattern of death and resurrection? And what if we were to remember that God is in it all?
So—you’re struggling in a job or a marriage that weighs you down? Maybe that’s a hint of the death that is ever-present in life. You’ve been diagnosed with a serious illness or you simply can’t make peace with a brother or sister? Maybe that’s the cross of Christ in you. You’re depressed or anxious or fearful? Maybe that’s part of the dying we will never escape. And maybe the shape of life is to know that, in the midst of all those various and ongoing deaths, the promise of God is to come again and again, the promise of God is to bring new life. Don’t give up hope. Don’t stop believing that God is present and working for good. Don’t forget that God is alive even in your pain, your struggle, your challenge. Sleep, yes. And awake. That’s what God’s world is like. That’s the template for life. You die again and again. And you rise again and again. The bottom line is that no challenge is too great for God. God is good all the time. And all the time God is good. Amen?
Of all things, the month of March, as you may know is, quite coincidentally, National Sleep Awareness Month. What are the chances, right? It’s a reminder of the importance of sleep. What the originators of Sleep Awareness Month probably never thought of, though, was that the precious gift of sleep is a sign of dying and rising, and of God’s unending faithfulness and love.
The same Karl Barth I mentioned earlier once pithily remarked to his class that not everything but a great deal about us can “be explained by the fact that we are continually hungry, sexually unsettled, and in need of sleep” (quoted in Christopher Morse, Not Every Spirit, p. 256). He has a point, doesn’t he? Hunger is almost ever-present, at least in some of us. Sleep gnaws away at us and pulls us into its clutches.
And sexually unsettled? This past week has driven home for us just how sexually unsettled, as a culture, we are. Two major church bodies have wrestled extremely publicly with major issues related to human sexuality. Roman Catholic bishops gathered at the Vatican to discuss how to respond to the clergy sexual abuse crisis that has engulfed them in these last several decades. Numerous people—children and adults, women and men—have been violated by priests, and church people have been clamoring for reforms that make such abuse less likely, and that foster accountability among church leaders.
In its analysis of the recently concluded papal summit, the National Catholic Reporter gave the session a mixed review. “For a church that proclaims Jesus,” they wrote, “this has been a long, slow slog toward truth-telling and accountability.” The scandal has roiled the church since it was first reported nearly thirty-four years ago and progress comes in fits and starts. The summit, says the Reporter, was an admission that the dual crimes of sexual abuse of children and minors and the ensuing cover-up “is a global phenomenon and requires radical rearrangement of church priorities.” It was a further step in acknowledging complicity, though still without the specificity needed, and without a clear understanding of the church conditions that have led to such a global pandemic (https://www.ncronline.org/news/accountability/vaticans-summit-abuse-gets-mixed-verdict). Sexually unsettled indeed. And a clear reminder to all of us that such abuse and secrecy cannot be tolerated.
The other major sexual unsettledness was displayed at this past week’s worldwide conference of the United Methodist Church in St. Louis, a conference that strengthened the Methodist ban on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy. The vote there was for what was called a Traditional Plan, a plan that keeps in place those long-standing prohibitions and strengthens the penalties when churches and pastors violate the Methodist Book of Discipline.
When I hear of such news, my heart breaks. I confess I am tempted to a kind of dismissive judgmentalism, so I want to make sure that I and we don’t stand outside such decisions and arrogantly proclaim what is right, as though members of the United Church of Christ have everything together and a market on the truth. God forbid that we claim some innate superiority.
Nonetheless, I am convinced that this beloved denomination of ours offers something crucial in this world. I weep for the countless LGBTQ people whose nature and calling are negated by such a denominational dismissal. I weep for a world in which people are relegated to second-class citizenship solely because of a quality with which they were born. I weep for a church of Jesus Christ that values five or six misunderstood biblical passages more than the innumerable passages that implore love of all our sisters and brothers. A church that fails to affirm and value and embrace our LGBTQ brothers and sisters seems, like Peter, John and James, to have fallen sleep. Sexually unsettled, indeed.
But here’s the thing: that’s not the end of the story. Because up on that unnamed mountaintop, the sleeping Peter, John and James wake up, don’t they! They come to see what they had earlier missed. They come to see the glories of a Christ who shines in their lives. They come to see that, in their momentary sleeping, they have missed the heart of the good news.
So in their waking, they rise to new life. They come to see that this Jesus is God’s child, God’s chosen. They come to see that this is the one they’re to listen to. They come to see that they, too, are God’s chosen children, that they are God’s ambassadors of universal embrace, that they are the ones who carry to the world the radical message of God’s boundless love.
Those disciples wake up. They rise again. And so, too, do we: Every time we open our eyes to the light at the heart of the universe. Every time we live out God’s love that knows no bounds. Every time we gather at the dinner table hosted by Jesus, the table at which all are welcome, the table whose hallmark is inclusion, the table whose very identity is love. God is remaking us. We are waking up. And what we see when we rise is wild, uncontrolled, unrestrained welcome. The table is set. Come, for all things are ready.