Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Mountain High, Valley Low,” Luke 9:28-43a
When Heidi Neumark was called to pastor the Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the South Bronx, she was in for a challenge. The recent seminary graduate came to a parish that faced daunting, even toxic, realities. The community was New York City’s dumping ground. Waste treatment plants managed the city’s sewage. A giant incinerator burned hazardous medical waste from area hospitals. A massive dump received the city’s refuse. The air was filled with toxins that fueled New York’s highest incidence of asthma. Arriving on Sunday mornings, Neumark would often have to clear away garbage. Broken furniture, old appliances, and boxes of worn-out household items were left at the church under the cover of darkness to avoid paying dump fees.
The social difficulties of Transfiguration Lutheran Church were every bit as daunting. 60% of neighborhood families got by on government assistance. 80% of children lived in poverty. Unemployment for the South Bronx was 70%. 20% of adults suffered from HIV. 28% of deaths each year were attributable to drugs, AIDS, and violence. The church’s neighbors were the extreme poor, those left behind when others moved away: addicts, prostitutes, abused women, single mothers and their children, and gangs. Those were overwhelming realities for a church that had seen its heyday in the 19th century and experienced a hundred years of decline.
When Neumark arrived, church doors were locked, except on Sunday mornings. A faithful corps of members persevered, gathering to worship God in the midst of that blighted community. Although it was a tough call for a new pastor, Neumark found hope in the church’s name: Transfiguration Lutheran Church. In Breathing Space, Heidi Neumark’s spiritual memoir of twenty years of service to that church, she writes that the transfiguration of Jesus could be “a vision to carry us down, a glimpse of unimagined possibility at ground level.” The spiritual mountaintop of Transfiguration Lutheran Church was being called to the needs that awaited them in the valley of the South Bronx.
On Transfiguration Sunday, we join the disciples on the mountaintop with Jesus and watch as he is revealed in heavenly glory. Flanked by those titans of the Hebrew scriptures, Moses and Elijah, Jesus is transformed. His face shines. His clothes dazzle. This clearly is no ordinary rabbi and healer. This is no prophet. Jesus is the Holy One of God. Peter may have wanted to enshrine the moment with three permanent dwelling places, but God had other plans. In a theophany, a heavenly proclamation, God instructed Peter, James, and John, “This is my Son, the Chosen One; listen to him.”
Transfiguration Sunday also takes us to the valley. There another father calls for special attention for his beloved son. Although Jesus had given his disciples the power and authority to cast out demons and heal the sick, they have failed to provide relief for this boy. The anger and frustration that Jesus feels as he learns of the child’s suffering suggest that the disciples’ failure had nothing to do with ability and everything to do with willingness. Those disciples may have been daunted by the power of the oppressive spirit. Or, perhaps they feared the boy’s violent seizures. Or, it could be that they had been too busy. Or, maybe they doubted the very abilities that Jesus had entrusted to them. These disciples may have not been listening to Jesus, but the demon that possessed the child does. As the demon convulses the boy in a violent fit, Jesus steps in, rebukes the spirit, and casts it out. Freed from his suffering, the cured boy is returned to his father. Jesus’s healing and restoration transfigure the lives of father and son who are no longer held captive by the power of destructive evil.
Those two very different stories: the shining moment on the mountain and the convulsed chaos of the valley belong together. In reflecting on our transfiguration reading, Prof. Sharon Ringe, a New Testament scholar at Wesley Seminary, writes that “the glory of God’s presence and the pain of a broken world cannot be separated.” That’s a powerful, world changing statement, “the glory of God’s presence and the pain of a broken world cannot be separated.”
Indeed, in Jesus God enters into the world’s suffering and suffuses it with God’s presence. That’s what we see on the mountain high. And Jesus has the power to meet the world’s suffering head-on with healing, compassion, and love. That’s what we see in the valley low. The Lord hopes that his disciples will make his glory known, not just on the mountaintop of reverence, worship, and praise, but also in the valleys of sickness, powerlessness, and despair. When we listen to Jesus, when we bring his power and authority, compassion and love, to our neighbors, transfiguration happens. The world begins to change and so do we.
At the Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the South Bronx, profound change began to happen for the church and the community when members brought the glory of God’s presence to meet the pain of their broken world. They began by listening to their neighbors and pondering how they could respond to some of their most pressing needs. Then, they moved beyond Sunday morning worship, unlocked the church doors, and welcomed the community in. The church launched a food pantry which serves between 130 and 140 families weekly. They opened up their hall to twelve-step fellowships to support folks seeking recovery from addiction. They pondered how they could best help local youth and established the Community Life Center, an after-school tutoring program and job training center. They provided resources and healing groups to address domestic violence and help folks living with HIV. They even partnered with local police to host a gun buyback program to get illegal handguns out of homes and off the streets. Pastor Heidi got other churches involved, too, working to establish South Bronx Churches. This ecumenical fellowship provides mutual support and collaboration for pastors and churches as they seek to address the community’s needs.
As the church brought the glory of God’s presence to meet the pain of their broken community, it wasn’t just the community that was transfigured. Transfiguration Lutheran Church changed, too. They attracted new people, some of whom had never set foot in a church before. They came for programs but got passionate about the church. They worshipped, prayed, and found the love of Jesus. They got busy cleaning and refurbishing. They tackled long-deferred maintenance. They stepped into leadership. Burnice was an addict who came to the church to pick up a Christmas gift at a give-away. She intended to trade the gift for enough drugs to take her own life. But she didn’t. There was something about the church that kept her coming back. With encouragement from the church, she got into recovery, earned her GED, and found a job. Once a neighbor to be feared and avoided, Burnice is now a pillar of the church and a community leader.
Despite their real challenges and personal tragedies, church members have worked together to help one another and their neighborhood. In shining Christ’s glory for others, they have been richly blessed with that glory themselves. Heidi Neumark writes, “I have learned that grace cleaves to the depths, attends to the losses, and there slowly works her defiant transfiguration.”
On Transfiguration Sunday, we hear a renewed call to bring the glory of God’s presence to meet the pain of a broken world. We spend our Sunday mornings on the mountaintop. We encounter Jesus in prayer and music, scripture and the word proclaimed. It’s glorious. Yet Jesus always sends us back down into the valley. We go forth to fathers who worry about their ill children and mothers who struggle to put food on the table. We go forth to a community where sisters and brothers wrestle with the oppressive spirits of addiction. We live in a place of middle-class homes, multi-million-dollar seasonal camps, tumble-down cabins, rusted out trailers, and hardcore generational poverty.
We may feel daunted by the power of those oppressive spirits. We may fear all that need. We may doubt the very abilities that Jesus has entrusted to us. But God’s transfiguration hope is that the glory of Christ may meet the suffering of the world through disciples like us. Transfiguration Sunday finds its fulfillment when we move from reverence to action. The world gets transfigured, and so do we. May it be so. Amen.
Heidi B. Neumark. Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.
Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat. “A Review of Breathing Space” in Spirituality and Practice, 2004. Accessed online at spiritualityandpractice.com.
Lori Brandt Hale. “Theological Perspective on Luke 9:28-43a” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1, 2009.
Sharon Ringe. “Exegetical Perspective on Luke 9:28-43a” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1, 2009.
Kimberly Miller Van Driel. Homiletical Perspective on Luke 9:28-43a” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1, 2009.
28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 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. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. 37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38 Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39 Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40 I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” 42 While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43 And all were astounded at the greatness of God.