The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
I suspect that there were times when dealing with the disciples that Jesus thought he was dealing with the Seven Dwarfs: Grumpy, Dopey, Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Sleepy. Because at one time or another in scripture the disciples display characteristics of each of the seven . . . well, almost all seven. I’m having a difficult time locating Sneezy in the Gospels, but I’m working on it!
Take for example the Confession of Peter, which directly precedes today’s Transfiguration event. This is the story where Jesus asks the disciples who they believe him to be? Peter declares Jesus to be, “The Messiah of God.” This is Peter being Doc. Smart, analytical, willing to offer a diagnosis. But then when Jesus describes the suffering and death the Messiah must undergo, Peter contradicts Jesus and says, “God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you.” (Matt. 16:22b) In this moment Peter becomes Dopey. Just when you think Peter gets it, he doesn’t. He becomes as dumb as a rock, which is something he does frequently in the Gospels. He’s definitely Dopey!
In today’s text we have the Sleepy disciples. We are told, “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 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.”
Of the three renditions of the Transfiguration in the Synoptic Gospels, only Luke mentions that the disciples are, “weighed down with sleep.” Matthew and Mark do not mention it at all.
In translations other than the New Revised Standard Version we hear today, we read, the disciples are actually fast asleep. The New American Bible states, “Now Peter and his companions had been overcome with sleep; but when they were fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men standing with Him.” (Luke 9:32)
Regardless of the translation, we can agree that the disciples were either drowsy and nodding off, or fully sawing logs.
In this passage sleep functions as the faithless counterpart to watching and praying. Praying, by the way, is also something that only Luke has Jesus engaged in on the mountaintop. In the text the power of prayer mediates the presence of God, which is witnessed both in the radiance of Jesus face and his dazzling garments, as well as by the voice from heaven declaring, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”
You will recall another scripture passage about sleepy disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night before Jesus is crucified. In the garden Jesus withdraws from the disciples, but before doing so asks that they keep watch and pray. When Jesus himself goes off to pray, the disciples fall asleep. Upon returning Jesus rebukes the sleeping disciples, saying to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” (Luke 22:46)
In saying this, Jesus is crystal clear: By sleeping the disciples are not watching and praying with Him. And in so doing they are not only being faithless, they miss the presence of God. In the case of Gethsemane, they miss the appearance of an angel who gives Jesus strength. And on the mountaintop their drowsiness puts them at risk of missing God’s presence at the Transfiguration.
Sleepiness not only puts at risk of being unfaithful, but of missing all the good stuff; the epiphanies of God’s presence.
I think when it comes to our journey of faith you and I tend to be sleepy disciples.
To say this isn’t to scold or engage in guilt or shaming. That never results in any positive good, especially when it comes to our faith lives. It is rather to acknowledge our humanity and our human imperfections and frailties. None of us is perfect. None of us are without our weaknesses. If any of you believe you are perfect and devoid of weakness, that actually is an indication of your imperfection and weakness! You’re clearly not good at introspection and self-awareness.
Jesus’s disciples were full of imperfections and weaknesses: they were sleepy, grumpy, dopey. Yet Jesus never gave up on them, he always loved them, and he never faltered in trying to awaken their sleeping minds, to making them less dopey, to turn them into Doc. He does the same for us.
If we can gently acknowledge our sleepiness in our faith lives we can use that as a learning moment, becoming aware, more attuned, staying wakeful to God’s presence. Our sleepiness – as well as our dopiness - can become object lessons – there’s a purpose to them - and help transform us, if we are willing to be reflective about them.
This is a good thing, because in life we miss so much when our minds are asleep. And by asleep I don’t mean deep REM sleep, I mean when we are unaware, obtuse to the presence of God, which surrounds us all the time. And as faithful followers of Jesus we don’t want that to happen.
What keeps us asleep?
Prejudice keeps our minds asleep, or put another way, our minds shut. The reality of God’s radical and inclusive Reign that proclaims the intrinsic holiness of each person always comes knocking on the doors of our minds, but we often chose to stay asleep. We will not awaken to answer that knock. In so doing we miss the glory of the presence of God in all people.
Lethargy keeps us asleep. When we are lethargic we refuse to engage in the struggle of critical thought on life’s most urgent issues. We default to allowing social media or our political ideologies to think for us. We get so lethargic we can’t even deal with our own questions and doubts, but rather drown them out by allowing our addictions and enslavement to devise screens to distract us. To be lethargic is not only to be asleep, it is to remain intentionally dopey. Plato said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I’d say the unexamined life is also one of perpetual sleepiness. Lethargy causes us to miss the presence of God that is revealed when we engage in critical thought, in thought-provoking conversation, in the exchange of new and challenging ideas. God is present in those processes. We miss that if we are resistant, asleep to them.
Busyness can keep us asleep. When we are focused on being busy we fill our lives with endless projects, work commitments, and activities. We become convinced that our self-worth is derived from our heavy workloads, our full agendas, our lists, our post-it notes, our Type A driven ambitions for fulfillment, success, power, status, wealth. Busyness keeps us from witnessing God’s glory in the created order, in the companionship of friends, family and colleagues, preventing us from just being with ourselves, giving ourselves space, time and quiet, thereby allowing God’s presence to shine in our midst.
Where do you need to be aware of how you are asleep, missing the glory of God in your life?
Since we have a bit of a theme of seven in this sermon, let me suggest looking at where any of the sins of pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth are keeping you asleep. They are a good place to start.
What can awaken us?
We embark on the season of Lent in a few days. On Ash Wednesday the priest invites the congregation to the observance of a holy Lent, “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word.” This invitation is one that invites us to become aware of and to examine all the ways we are asleep to the presence of God. It is to be watchful and faithful. It is to become fully awake, fully alive. So, this morning I’m giving you a three day head start on reflecting on where you’re asleep and how you can wake up.
Let this Lent be one where you focus on waking from your slumber and seeing the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. It’s a glorious sight! It’s worth all the effort you put into it.
I leave you with this poem by Mary Oliver titled Gethsemane.
The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.
Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did,
maybe the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move, maybe
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
lay still and waited, wild awake.
Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.