Suffering has been a strong theme in the lectionary readings for last Sunday and for this Transfiguration Sunday. Do you like to suffer? If you do, let me know, because that is not a usual nor healthy human response. We try to avoid suffering at all costs. And when we do suffer, some put on stoic faces to not let anyone know. We want to be strong, or at least appear that way. It is not just our human suffering that we avoid, but we also dismiss the idea of a suffering Savior. Perhaps we resist that idea, because we are ones who know that if we are going to follow Jesus, then we are also going to be vulnerable to suffering ourselves. We would really prefer the easy way Jesus!
Donald Miller is a Christian writer who in his memoir, “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story,” describes hiking the Inca Trail in Peru with some friends. The guide instructed the group that the trek began along a river in the Sacred Valley. If they followed the trail that ran along the river, it would take them six hours to get to Machu Picchu. He explained that in ancient times, the river was used as a commercial route, so those going to Machu Picchu on pilgrimage had to take the Inca Trail across the snowcapped Andes Mountains. One of the hikers wondered, “Why would the Incas make people take the long route?” The guide explained that, “Because the emperor knew that the more painful the journey to Machu Picchu, the more the traveler would appreciate the city once he got there.” Miller explains that four days later, after climbing summits of nearly fourteen thousand feet and descending back into the valley, he and his group arrived at Machu Picchu. He recalls running the last mile to the Sun Gate on blistered feet and sore legs. They were very weary, yet they knew that the guide was right; “You can take a train and then a bus, and then hike a mile to the Sun Gate. But the people who took the bus did not experience the city as we experienced the city. The pain made the city more beautiful. The story made us different characters than we would have been if we had skipped the story and showed up at the ending an easier way.”
I know many of you have been exploring the state parks during the pandemic. Perhaps we could compare our life as a faith journey walking in the woods. It is like being on a path that has twists and turns. It has level places that are easy to walk and also steep climbs that leave you breathless. Then there are wide vistas where you can see for miles, and also places where you feel confused or afraid and you do not know which way to turn. There are highs and lows along this path. And there are times when the path is grueling, and you are suffering. It is especially difficult, and you are at an emotional low. Like if you had an accident, or a chronic disease that is exacerbated, or perhaps an illness. Maybe it is suffering in spirit with setbacks, a loss, or a crisis of some sort. Your confidence may be faltering, and you just are not sure where to turn next. Along the way, there are times when you would give anything for the shorter route, to be able to take the bus around the weariness of grief, or the chemotherapy, or the couples counseling, or the job searching. We wish we could skip ahead and forget the suffering.
I think of those disciples on the mountain with Jesus at his transfiguration as they saw his glory shine. This is the life; they must have thought. But I also think about God’s glory that remains with us in the tough times of suffering. God’s glory is a gift of our living Lord which comes and remains with us because our Savior suffered and died, and three days later rose from dead. Jesus is a suffering Lord of all, who is glorified. Thank God Jesus did not take an easy way out. “... let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1b-2)