Sermon for Sunday, February 7, 2016
Text: Luke 9:28-43
Preached at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, Virginia
So, two back-to-back stories. Two back-to-back days. Usually on Transfiguration Sunday we only hear the first one, and you’ve heard it before: Jesus takes a few close friends up to the mountaintop for some kind of weekend retreat and all of a sudden something changes, his clothes turn dazzling white, his face changes somehow, he’s radiant. Everyone looks their best on vacation. And then he starts talking to ghosts, you can see Moses and Elijah kind of emerge from the fog, and they’re talking about Jerusalem, they’re speaking of his departure, it’s all very ominous, and Peter kind of freaks out. Peter thinks this mountaintop is amazing. I mean, Moses and Elijah and Jesus all in the same place! Peter thinks about vacation the way I do. Peter would very much like to stay right there: “let’s make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” I guess Peter is willing to sleep outside as long as it means that they all get to stay right here and right together, but God’s not having it. No sooner do the words get out of Peter’s mouth that the voice of God booms from the horizon: “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!,” and the ghosts are gone, and it’s back down to the valley.
That’s the story of the Transfiguration, and you’ve heard it before. But for Luke, the story’s not quite over. For Luke, the Transfiguration is a two-day affair, it’s a two-parter; the lectionary gives us this long take on transfiguration and our job this morning is to figure out why we should hold these pieces together. And the second part goes like this: vacation’s over, weekend’s over, Monday gets here, they come back down the mountain, and the next day they find a man whose son is possessed by a demon. “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 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. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” And Jesus kind of lashes out, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?,” though it’s not entirely clear whether he’s talking about the disciples or the father and son. Regardless, the father brings his son forward, and Jesus heals him, which, again, feels like a kind of work-a-day healing, and Luke reminds us again that “all were astounded at the greatness of God.” Miraculous, if you don’t count the part where the disciples totally fail. So maybe kind of a typical Monday.
And maybe that’s the point of the lectionary holding these stories together: you don’t get to have the vacation without also having the first day back at work. But I think Luke’s got his focus somewhere else, and you can start to get it by seeing the differences between Luke’s version and the version we find in the Gospel of Mark. In Mark, we have these same two stories, but with a lot more filler in-between; the disciples have to gossip about Elijah, they have to speculate about what they’ve seen. Luke’s version doesn’t have any of that fat on it; he gets from the voice of God to the voice of this father looking for help in about three verses. We’re on the mountaintop hearing “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!,” and almost before you can blink we’re back on Monday morning, “Teacher, I beg you, look at my son. He is my only child.” It’s almost like Luke has gone out of his way to tie these stories together, and when you tie them together, this ethereal moment on the mountaintop, and this bruising story of healing and longing, in the end they’re both just stories about fathers. In the end, they’re stories about fathers: Jesus is off for Jerusalem and God knows it. This possessed son is helpless before a brutal world and the clock is ticking and his father knows it.
Both these stories.
They’re just stories about fathers.
They’re just stories about sons who grow up way too fast.
That’s what they do. They grow up so fast.
I don’t tend to preach about parenthood. I don’t tend to preach about my son. When I was a new parent, which was right around when I had just started to preach regularly, it was all I wanted to preach about. I thought that because I was having all of these perspectives on life that I had ever had before, that probably I was having all these perspectives that nobody had ever had before, which is not really a helpful trait in a preacher, but I really wanted to share them. There’s so much parenthood in the Gospel and all of a sudden I felt like I got it, like, for real, like it all made sense, all at once.
And I remember even in the hospital room being on the phone with a close mentor of mine and trying stupidly to describe this theological epiphany that I was having when he told me in no uncertain terms that it was my job not to preach about Charlie. He told me that it was my job not to get up in the pulpit and tell stories about my kid no matter how tempting those stories might be, and not because they wouldn’t be good stories, and not because people wouldn’t like the stories, but because they weren’t necessarily my stories to tell. Like, it’s hard enough growing up as a preacher’s kid. You shouldn’t have to grow up with your life on public display.
And he was right. Well, he wouldn’t be a very good mentor if he wasn’t. So I made him a promise. Charlie deserves to grow up without having his odd thoughts show up as sermon illustrations. So I made him a promise not to preach about my son, inconvenient as that promise sometimes may be. But that promise doesn’t mean that I can’t preach as a father. It doesn’t mean that I don’t preach as a father. It turns out that I’m always a father, but perhaps especially today, because I think this is a text that calls us to respond as parents. “This is my son, my Chosen,” God says, and it’s the first time in Luke’s Gospel that God publicly acknowledges the paternity of Jesus Christ.
This is a big deal. It’s shocking, it should be shocking, to the disciples who hear it, and to the readers who first encounter it, and then we move on so quickly, to another story, about another father, and another son, “Look at my son, he is my only child,” the man says, “Suddenly a spirit seizes him and all at once he shrieks.” And I don’t know what it’s like to be God, and you don’t know what it’s like to be God, and nobody gets to stand in God’s shoes in that moment on the mountaintop. But I can preach as a father. And I know what it’s like to have a sick kid.
I know what it’s like to have a sick kid. You probably know, too. When you have a sick kid. You feel helpless. That’s what it feels like. Like, when my kid is hungry, I’m very lucky, I can always find him some food. When my kid is tired, if I’m very lucky, I can get him to go to sleep. When he needs to run around, we can go outside. When he needs to learn, we can read. My experience of parenting is, well, it’s a lot of things, but among them is an experience and the joy of being helpful. Except when he’s sick — and Charlie’s a pretty healthy kid — but when he’s sick, it all changes. I mean, sure, we can go to the doctor, we can get medicine, and maybe it will help.
But fundamentally his wellness is out of my hands, and that’s terrifying, and I know it only gets worse. I know that him being sick is just the first of how many experiences of the world that he is going to have that are completely out of my hands. Because he will go to his own school, and he will make his own friends, and he will find his own way. And some days school will be hard. And some days his friends will let him down. And some days he will let them down. And someday somebody will break his heart. And someday he will grieve for somebody he loves. And I can’t fix it. I can’t help it. And I can’t go there with him. It’s just what life is. They grow up so fast.
And that’s the part of me that surfaces when I read this story. This father has a sick kid. It’s his only child, too: for this father this sick child is his only future means of support, and, more to the point, this sick child has no brothers or sisters to help take care of him over the long haul. Which means that this father is in that same moment of helplessness. So much of the future is out of his hands. And then he thinks maybe the disciples can help; I mean, stories about this Jesus and his followers have been going around; maybe the disciples can help, but by time we get on the scene the disciples have already failed. So by time get on the scene the desperation of this father is at a fever pitch. My son is sick. There is a brokenness to his life that I can’t repair. I am going to die and he will have nobody and he can’t do it on his own and it’s all out of my hands. And the only one in this story who can do anything about it is Jesus. Jesus has that healing touch. He casts out the unclean spirit. He gives the boy back to his father. This father gets to be a father, just a little bit longer. Time stops, just for a moment. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
There’s only one catch: Jesus is a sick kid, too.
It’s the spectre that haunts this whole story. Jesus is a sick kid, too. The reason we read the Transfiguration story here right before the beginning of Lent is that this story is moment of transition, it’s the moment when the Gospels shift and Jesus begins to move towards Jerusalem, it’s the moment when the clock begins to tick, and it’s all over this text, up on that mountaintop. His face changes. His clothes change. He starts talking with the ones who have gone on before, Moses and Elijah, and of course Luke says they’re talking about his departure, which he is “about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” It’s one of the first real hints in Luke’s Gospel about the events to come, and it weighs on this story like a chain.
It weighs on us like a chain. We’ve had all these wonderful stories about his childhood, his baptism, his early ministry. I mean just last week he was presented in the temple, a babe in arms, and now the story marks him for death. And of course as readers we know all of this is coming but the force of Luke’s work here is to make us experience it as parents. The clock is ticking. Next Sunday will be the First Sunday of Lent, and Luke will say that Jesus will set his face towards Jerusalem, and there is nothing we can do. There is a brokenness to what comes that we can’t repair. He’s got a journey to make and we can’t go there with him. They grow up so fast.
The disciples can’t really help. We already know that. Peter can’t make it go away. But he’d really like to stop time. There’s a way in which Peter takes on a kind of parenthood through the first half of this story. He’s the one who wants to keep all this from happening. Just as Jesus starts talking about Jerusalem. “Master, it’s good for us to be here, let’s make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah,” — let’s stay right here, let’s have this moment. Peter knows the helplessness. He knows that once they go back down that mountain there’s nothing he can do. He knows. There’s a brokenness to what comes that he can’t repair. He knows they grow up so fast, and it weighs heavy around his neck.
And then God’s voice speaks through the fog. “This is my son, my chosen; listen to him!” Or, perhaps, “This is my son, my chosen,” not ours to keep, not ours to hold, this is God’s son, this is the son of the one who created Heaven and Earth. He’s got a journey to make and we can’t go there with him but God goes there with him. That’s why we read these stories together. We come down from the mountain lost in helplessness; Jesus is bound for Jerusalem and there’s nothing we can do. The story has changed and there’s nothing we can do. A spirit has seized him and there’s nothing we can do. We can’t fix it and we can’t go there with him. But the Jesus who heals this man’s son is the same God who crosses with his son even the boundaries of the grave. God is not a parent like other parents. God is not helpless in the face of what comes. That’s the gospel of this story. They grow up so fast. And God never leaves their side.
Now, I get it. I am the father of a four-year-old and I don’t know even the half of what I think I know. I get that there’s a lot of journey left for me, and that’s fine. But I think I know this. I think I know that one of the most joyful and painful parts of parenting is that they transfigure. Their faces change. Their whole being changes. They become who they are called to become, and you can’t hold on too tightly. They get to walk their own path and you can’t make it stop; they get to set their face to their own ends and you can’t stop the clock. They go wherever they need to go, and you can’t go there for them, and you can’t even always go there with them.
But the gospel is this: God goes with them. The gospel is this, just beyond the limits of what our parental love can do, God’s love, and God goes with them. When they are overtaken by the demons, God goes with them. When they wander like the prodigal son, and lose everything far from home, and our hearts cannot run to find them, still, God goes with them. When they lie in green pastures, when they go beside the still waters, even when they walk through the valley of the shadow of death. God goes with them. They grow up. They transfigure. Everything changes, and we can’t hold on. But the faithfulness of God yields not from generation to generation.
And the promise made to our children is the promise made to our parents and theirs and the ones before, and the promise made to how many generations yet to come, and the promise is this. Life is transfiguration. But God never leaves our side. Not now. Not anywhere along our Lenten journey. Not at the foot of the cross, not at the threshold of the grave. Nor indeed when we gather again on the shores of the kingdom, as we gather again on this morning, with bread and wine to share, as the bread stands for his broken body, and the wine stands for his spilt blood, and we remain in this place, the children of God, who never leaves our side. Amen.