The Holy Valley

Scripture: Luke 9:28-43a

With the rainy, cloudy days of winter,
I have been thinking of the Beatles’ lyrics:
Here comes the sun.

That has been my prayer as of late:
Come out, sun.

The song continues:
“It’s been a long cold lonely winter”.

Have you known what it is
to experience a long, cold winter?
To ache for the sun to come out?

That was my reality the other week
as I ventured into the Adirondacks.
My hiking companions and I climbed up
from the valley floor,
with our snowshoes,
in the deep, deep snow,
Up and up we went,
until the pine trees got shorter,
we started to have to duck and dive
to make it through the branches.
They clawed at our packs, grabbing at them
and lurching us back.
Onward we pressed,
until at last,
the trees gave way,
and we opened out onto the rocky summit.
We stood there awe-struck and unencumbered.
The brilliant blue sky spread out in every direction:
above us, below us, beside us.
The sun shined dazzlingly and unimpeded.
I have been missing many these days
but, of everything, I missed the sun the most.
Lingering,
I closed my eyes and tilted my face to the sun,
basking in its warmth and joy.

Here comes the sun.

I imagine these are the words that came to Peter and John’s minds
as they looked at Jesus, dazzling and shining like the sun.
In this moment of transfiguration
they have trekked to the mountaintop,
carrying their heavy packs of stress and fatigue.
Yet, as they linger in that expansive space,
it is like the sun comes out
as Jesus’ glory shines on them like,
and voice from above says,
“This my Child, my chosen one.”
It is the same voice from above that declared,
at Jesus’ baptism,
“This is my beloved, with whom I well-pleased.”

In a moment of relief,
Peter and John lay down their packs,
take a deep breath.

After a long winter,
they warm themselves
by remembering who they are:
They are beloved children of God, called to love others,
even on days,
when the struggles of life grab at them and jolt them back.

As I consider their story,
a song comes to mind,
a that I have been sharing bits of with you,
called “After the Summons”
written by my colleague, Brother Anthony Zuba.

In the song, Zuba writes:
“Like the sun, I count on you to come and call my name.
Give me hunger, give me thirst, and I will do the same.
I have cried to my surprise, grief and joy in watery eyes
By the holy I arise for you and you for me.”

I have been mesmerized by those lyrics this week:
Like the sun, I count on you to come and call my name.

The words reveal to me
that, in the midst of a long cold lonely winter,
we need God and others like we need the sun.
Do you see that?
I count on you. You count me. We count on each other.
We call out to one another:
beloved, beloved, beloved.
Whether in ravines or on ridges,
the truth is: the trek will be hard at times,
but what makes it holy is that we do not journey alone.

We need each other on the mountaintops and in the valleys.

However,
we have a tendency not to want to talk about the valleys.
Yet, in the Scripture,
Jesus dwells there too.
After the transcendent mountaintop experience,
Jesus descends into the valley,
where another transfiguration happens,
but we will not see it if we keep our eyes focused on the hilltops.
Today’s text has two stories about a beloved child who is transformed.
Yet, which one do we see? Which one do we focus on?

I ask this because,
we live in a world that doesn’t always like talking about valleys.
It would rather just talk about the mountains.
I saw this even in the Biblical commentators
who were reflecting on this week’s Scripture.
This week,
I read many of the commentators who did not even mention
the second half of the story –
where Jesus heals the father’s child in the valley.
Others simply wrote:
it is such a hassle to talk about the valley encounter,
it takes away from the mountaintop experience.

One lone commentator, Debie Thomas, disagreed.
Thomas insisted that
the pairing of the mountaintop and valley stories
reflects real life.
The reality is that my valley is next to your mountain
and that tomorrow my mountain will be next to your valley.
In her column,
Thomas discloses that she is the mother of a teenager son
who had a concussion 18 months ago and who, since then,
has been having ongoing headaches that the doctors can’t cure.
His life has been put on hold; he has been unable to go to school.
Thomas writes that she relates to the story of the father,
who waits in the valley with the other disciples,
waiting with his beloved only child,
praying, watching, not knowing what will happen.
Sometimes,
Thomas writes, that is what faith looks like:
watching, praying,
accompanying each other
through the day and night,
even when we, like the disciples,
cannot fix everything
and make it better.

The valleys, she insists, are made holy
by love, prayer, tears, aching and companionship.

Her words remind me that
I too have a tendency not to talk about valleys.
I default to only wanting to share my peak experiences.
That was evident to me the other day
when I took a photo I didn’t particularly like of me and a friend.
Are you going to post it online? My friend asked me.
Of course not, I replied.
“Don’t be vain,” she responded.

Her words startled me.
The same thing is true of life’s trek –
we only want to post the best self-images,
even if they are not the truest or the most helpful.

I have been thinking about
in regards to an internship that I had.
I have already told this congregation
the story about a social work internship
that I had when I was in grad school.
I was getting two degrees, a social work one,
and a ministry one,
and two social work internships were required.
In my four year program,
I did the first one my first year,
and the last one my last year,
but by the time I got to my last year
it had been a long time since I had taken social work classes
and I was terrified I had forgotten everything.
I dealt with my fear by walling off myself,
focusing on content rather than connection.
It led to a disconnect with my supervisor and clients.
However, I at last asked for help from a friend,
and she helped me see what I was to do:
to reach out, to open up,
and connect with tenderness rather than fear.

However, this week,
I have been thinking about another part of that story,
the part where I didn’t want to ask for help.
I didn’t want to talk about my valley.
After all, what would it mean if others knew we have visited the valley …
That we are human and need sunshine like every other living being?

I didn’t want to ask for help for a couple reasons.
First, I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know what to do.
Second, I was having intense anxiety about the situation.
I would think about the situation on repeat
and my body would tense up
and my thoughts would become more catastrophic
as I imaged what would happen if I did not succeed.
As I took the subway to my internship,
sometimes my anxiety would build to such an extent
that I would feel it clutch at my chest.
It felt like one more thing I could not control –
my body as well as my internship.

Still, I kept my face pointed toward the mountain.
I was not going to face my valley,
but turning my face
did not change my location
At last,
like the father in the Scripture,
I asked for help from my friend Dale.
Like the sun,
my friend reminded me of who I was
and what I was about.
She taught me to live from a place of belovedness,
regardless of how others responded to me.
She told me not to wait for my circumstances to change,
but to go ahead and embody the peace, honesty and openness
I longed for.
I did. It happened to changed my circumstances.
Most of all,
it changed me,
because, in the midst of a long cold lonely winter,
my friend Dale had called my name:
beloved, beloved, beloved.

Here comes the sun.

Right after that internship,
I graduated
and went on to intern as a hospital chaplain.
As I prayed at Emergency Room bedsides,
and waited with people for heart transplants,
I remembered the lesson that Dale had taught me:
In valleys and on mountains alike,
God calls our name.

During my hospital chaplaincy,
I heard a song by Amy Grant called,
“Better than a Hallelujah.”
It goes:
“We pour out our miseries,
God just hears a melody;
Beautiful the mess we are;
The honest cries of breaking hearts
are better than a hallelujah.”

Better than a hallelujah.

We are afraid of talking about valleys,
when in fact they tell the story
of God’s grace, mercy and transfiguration.
Our honest cries are better than a church bell ringing,
better than a choir singing out.

When asked about the song,
Amy Grant explained that she
chose to sing it because it reminds her:
God doesn’t want perfection;
God wants communion.

“Like the sun, I count on you to come and call my name,”
God sings to us.
Will we call God’s name?
Will we call each other’s name?

The rest of Zuba’s verse now comes to me,
“Give me hunger, give me thirst and I will do the same.
I cried to my surprise, grief and joy in watery eyes,
by the holy I arise for you and you for me.”

Those words remind me that the sun comes to the valley too,
to places of hunger and desperation.

I wonder, now, if the disciples who remained behind
were afraid of their valleys and shortcomings being seen.
Is that what Jesus’s rebuke to them is about?
Even after Jesus preaches a sermon of blessing,
the disciples could still not see their own belovedness.
They cannot yet hear their own name being called.

Sometimes,
it takes time for it to sink in.
Thank God that all of the trek of life is holy:
the hardest parts as well as the most beautiful.
Thank God that Jesus ventures into all parts with us.
Thank God we are never ever alone,
even in the emptiest moments
when that does not feel true.
Thank God that Love never gives up on calling our name,
until at last we know who and whose we are:
a liberated people who no longer falter before the cloudiness of the world,
a people who knows their God-given names,
a people called by the very Source of the sun itself.

Suddenly,
we who have traveled miles and hours,
who know what it is to fall behind and bend low,
now arise;
we arise in the presence of each other,
ourselves and a God who never gives up on us.

Suddenly,
we witness the transfiguration, here on the valley floor:
within us, around us, beside us.
A voice declares: This is my child, my dear one.

Here comes the sun.

In celebration,
the sun doesn’t just peaked out her head,
she blazes brilliantly:
within you, around you, beside you.

Who knew that could happen, here on the valley floor?

What could be more holy?

What could be more glorious?

And all were astounded by the greatness of God.

Amen.

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