Hebrew Bible Text: Exodus 24:12-18
12 The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” 13 So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14 To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.”
15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18 Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9
17 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
“What is a ‘weekend?’” Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, famously asked during the first season of Downton Abbey, set in 1912. The joke, of course, is that the Dowager Countess is too aristocratic to even recognize the concept of a week divided between work and leisure. Consistent with this portrayal, Thorstein Veblen, one of the biggest theorists on status signaling, suggested in 1899 that living a leisurely life and not working (what he refers to as “conspicuous abstention from labor”) is the most powerful way to signal one’s status in the eyes of others. This makes sense: if you are very wealthy, you can afford as much leisure as you wish.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and hop across the Atlantic. In today’s America, complaining about being busy and working all the time is so commonplace most of us do it without thinking. If someone asks “How are you?” we no longer say “Fine” or “I’m well, thank you.” We often simply reply “Busy!”
Busy! Busy! Do this! Do that! Got to get to work! Produce! Achieve! It’s built into the very fabric of our culture, even our religion–the Protestant work ethic and all that. And yet, it’s the source of the most common lament I hear from parishioners and colleagues alike. We’re tired, having bought into the myth of identity based on accomplishment; and if we don’t accomplish anything, then we don’t know who we are.
Get on an airplane and strike up a conversation; and after exchanging names and where we’re from, the next thing we want to know is, “What do you do?” Our doing is who we are. So Peter’s insistence on doing something is completely natural; but God’s voice from heaven interrupts his babbling to say, “Hush! This is my son, the beloved! Listen to him!” Did you get that, Peter? Quit talking and doing, and for once in your life, simply pay attention. Listen!
Sure, Christ’s call to discipleship issues forth in all sorts of doing, but only as our response and not as condition for our identity as God’s precious children. This identity comes only as gift, pure grace, free and undeserved. Yet we’ve all but forgotten, or heaven forbid, never even known, simply how to “be.”
What’s the most popular hardback book besides the Bible ever sold in America? The Purpose-Driven Life! We want to know above all else what we’re supposed to do, and surely there’s a time and place for that. But we get so action-oriented that we often fail, like Peter, to be contemplative, spiritual, grounded and centered in the essential reality of God’s presence in our lives, simply to stand before and in awe of the mystery of God so that our doing can be meaningful, purposeful, and sustainable.
A formative work for my discovery of the necessity of spiritual renewal is a very small, little book by Henri Nouwen entitled Amazon: Out of Solitude.
In solitude we become aware that our worth is not the same as our usefulness. We can learn much in this respect from the old tree in the Tao story about a carpenter and his apprentice:
A carpenter and his apprentice were walking together through a large forest. And when they came across a tall, huge, gnarled, old, beautiful oak tree, the carpenter asked his apprentice: “Do you know why this tree is so tall, so huge, so gnarled, so old and beautiful?”
The apprentice looked at his master and said: “No . . . why?”
“Well,” the carpenter said, “because it is useless. If it had been useful it would have been cut long ago and made into tables and chairs, but because it is useless it could grow so tall and so beautiful that you can sit in its shade and relax.”
Nouwen goes on:
In solitude we can grow old freely without being preoccupied with our usefulness and we can offer a service which we had not planned on. To the degree that we have lost our dependencies on this world, whatever world means–father, mother, children, career, success or rewards–we can form a community of faith in which there is little to defend but much to share. Because as a community of faith, we take the world seriously but never too seriously. In such a community we can adopt a little of the mentality of Pope John, who could laugh at himself. When a highly decorated official asked him, “Holy father, how many people work in the Vatican?” he paused a moment then replied, “Oh, about half of them I suppose.”
The trick, as in most things, is balance. Knowing when to “do” and when and how to just “be.” Learning to take our calling and our work seriously, but not too seriously! To let go of our needs to control, to listen for the voice of God so that our actions aren’t merely the proverbial running around like a chicken with its head cut off but, instead, are true acts of discipleship that flow from a being that is formed in the awe and wonder of God’s gracious love for us.
I believe that we stay busy because if we ever let up, if we ever get quiet and contemplate where God is moving in our life and what God might be calling us to do, then we might have to deal with that, and it might not be exactly what we want, what we have planned. It just might be something calling us outside of our comfort zone. We stay busy to fill the time and space, not just to serve God, but sometimes to block God’s will and our discerning of it. We’re not afraid in the stillness that God won’t speak to me. Oh no, We’re afraid that God will.
Enter Peter on the mountain. He wants to get busy with his own agenda because he surely doesn’t like the agenda Jesus has just introduced with the whole “take up your cross” thing. But the voice from heaven persists: “This is my son, the beloved…listen to him!”– the same voice that beckons to us as we stand on the verge of this journey into the season of Lent, into suffering, to the cross, for which this transfiguration is intended to prepare Jesus, the disciples, and us.
Lent, which begins this coming Wednesday, calls us to rediscover our spirituality, to be, to quit our frantic babbling, and to pay attention, to consider who we are as dust apart from whose we are in our baptism, God’s precious children, forgiven, loved, held, and only from that identity, gifted and called and sent to do God’s work in the world. If we don’t get the “being” part, then the doing will only be chaotic, frustrated attempts at self-justification or else grounded in fear and devoid of any joy. If all your doing seems madness and pointless, learn again to behold the mystery, to enter a quiet place of awe. There will be more than ample opportunity and compulsion for living out our call to discipleship, to taking up the cross. But in order to be able to do that, at least for now, don’t just do something! Sit there! Amen.
Would you pray with me? Most gracious God, we give you thanks for all of the doings in our lives, the opportunities for meaningful work and vocation and relationships. Yet, Lord, we know that in those relationships, we must be grounded in an identity that comes only from you. Remind us of our baptismal calling as your precious children, loved, forgiven, and held; and from that identity, send us out to do your work. Help us to recommit ourselves to that identity so that our work for you might become meaningful in this Lenten season. We pray in the name of Christ. Amen.
Commentary provided by Silvia Bellezza, Neeru Pahria, Anat Keinan, David Lose, Scott Hoezee, Audrey West, and Timothy Smith