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"WHAT GOES UP
Reading: Luke 9:28-36


When people find themselves at the top of whatever it is they have been climbing, there is a predictable sense of euphoria, even intoxication, resulting from the elevating experience.

It might be the experience of the literal climbing of a mountain. Or it could be a significant achievement like a university degree, or high office that the person has been striving for; into which they have invested significant time, energy and passion. One suddenly finds oneself looking down upon the surrounding environment, surveying the scene, perhaps with wonder, or maybe even with a sense of superiority. I have to confess that I always cringe when I hear a person talking about "conquering Everest?. I hate the sheer inappropriate hubris of the idea. It illustrates the fact that he risks involved in such major achievements are not always physical.

I imagine that when the three disciples who comprised Jesus? inner core were summoned to the journey up the holy mountain, they might have felt some sense of specialness in their election. And indeed, Peter, James and John are about to be treated to a euphoric experience beyond imagining. Up there on the heady heights, they meet the towering figures who embody for Israel the law and the prophets. And on that elevated ground, they are given the privileged revelation of Jesus in all his shining glory. Small wonder that Peter, the one of the three always the most likely to blurt out something inappropriate, exclaims how good it is for all of them to be there together. "Lets stay here.? He says, "and I will build Your Eminences a shelter for the night.? Little does Peter realise, in those intoxicating moments, how dangerous it can be to the human soul to stay too long in the rarified atmosphere of the summit of human endeavour.

So too are the risks to those who, in the thin air at 8848 metres, think they have "conquered Everest?. Those who stay too long in order to admire the magnificent view, and reflect on their stunning achievement, are in serious danger of dying from altitude sickness, where the lack of oxygen or humility causes the brain to malfunction. In fact, the vast majority of climbers of Everest who perish on its slopes die on the way down. A less fatal but often humiliating experience awaits those who let the intoxication of high office become a habit they can no longer resist. The literature of history and myth is replete with accounts that illustrate the saying "How the mighty have fallen.? As Jesus once said to those who sought the front seats at the feast, it is far better to sit at the back and be brought forward by the host, than claim the chief seats only to suffer the humiliation of demotion in front of all the other guests.

As an wise woman once said to a cocky young man as they rode up in an elevator, be nice to the people you meet on the way up, because you are likely to meet them again on the way down.

The story of the transfiguration of Jesus, at least from the disciples? perspective, could be summarised thus- "I have brought you up here to open your eyes. I am taking you back down again to open your hearts and minds.?

In the light of these gospel revelations is impossible to dodge the shattering revelations and dire implications of last week?s news of the conviction of George Pell for the sexual abuse of children. I don?t intend to add my under-informed opinion to that of the media commentators who pronounce their judgment not on Pell, but on the legal process, with no regard for the well-being of the victims and their families. Nor can I second-guess past Prime Ministers for whom the horrible revelations of the trial make no difference to their opinions about Pell?s character. I also wish to steer clear of the pronouncements of prominent clerics that only serve to brace the resistance of the Catholic institution to the plight of large numbers of victims of sexual abuse by their clergy over time.

I rather wish to reflect briefly, in the light of today?s gospel, on what went so badly wrong here, and why. What insights and learnings might be available to us about the dysfunctions of the human heart and mind in the face of the subtle temptation of aggrandisement that befalls those who dwell too long on the top of the mountain?

Sadly, an inflated perception of our own importance can tend to desensitise us to the need and value of others. People become objects to be used, exploited, and perhaps discarded with scant regard for their well-being. In another biblical episode, James and John, two of the three mountain elites, ask Jesus for special places beside him in the heavenly kingdom. Apart from anything else, it seems to have failed to occur to them that this would mean that two others would have to make way for them. When power intoxicates, it desensitises the recipient to the humanity of the other.

Also, we now know that rape, along with other forms of abuse of the vulnerable, is fundamentally not about sex, but about power. This is the perverting spirit that inhabits those whose needs demand that they exert this power over others for their own gratification. For some it is barely conceivable that some of the crimes for which Pell has been convicted took place after celebrating Mass just after his inauguration as Archbishop of Melbourne. While that is grotesque, I do not find it incongruous, knowing what we do about abuse of power. Being up in the giddy heights can cause us to hallucinate about who we really are and what behaviour is appropriate.

This is not only about clergy. It is about anyone who finds the dizzying heights of power too quickly, or when they are unprepared for its temptations. It could be a young tennis player who wins the disrespects his eminent mature opponent; or a NRL player who forgets in his new-found fame to stop the aggression when he gets home. It may be a boss who assumes it is their right to claim the personal space of their workers, or the politician who exploits the power imbalance between them and their staffers. This is a human problem.

It is also not just an individual thing either. You cannot really claim that it is one bad apple contaminating the barrel, when that apple sits right at the top of the pile. Waleed Aly strikes a chord here when he reflects on the phenomenon of Pell?s powerful friends emerging to defend him.? "There is something striking about the sheer concentration of power?, He writes. Ironically, this ?power? is not so much a mountaintop gathering, as a cabal roped together on the slippery slope down the mountain.

In the end though, today?s gospel is for us, and about us. While I am not for a moment wanting to compare leadership in this congregation to the high office of a mega ecclesiastical institution, it is appropriate on a day when we recognise our church councillors, elders, and other leaders and servers, to face the realities and temptations of office and service.

Today we will be invited to reaffirm our commitment to Christ?s call to service, and the outworking of that service in this congregation and wider community. As we celebrate Holy Communion, we will, I hope, feel at least some faint approximation to the experience of the spiritual mountain-top.

Here, I trust that we will understand the difference between being elevated by grace, and actually conquering the space. The privilege of service is one that needs to deepen our sensitivity to the needs of others, rather than desensitise us on the basis of any perceived self-importance. As Jesus said, ?I came not to be served, but to serve.? He also said "The first shall be last, and the last, first.?

Jesus takes his beloved to the mountain-top, so they can better represent him when they return to the plain below. There, a myriad of seething human needs await. What goes up must come down, lest it loses itself in the clouds of self-deception, and thus fails to reflect the glory of our transfigured Saviour.

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