Good for you. (But what about the rest of us?)
A Transfiguration sermon on holiness, actual reality, and out-of-control kids
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. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he[j] 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.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God. - Luke 9
This Sermon yesterday at St John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver: (starts at 14:30)
Good for you, Peter.
I know it’s not the best form to say not nice things about Bible texts but if you made me choose one story from the gospels that I find the least useful it would be this one. Especially this Sunday - it’s year three of a global pandemic and Russia is invading a neighboring democracy and so many of our kids are struggling with their mental health, so basically what do I care that Peter James and John witnessed some magic stuff on a mountain…like, I have no idea what the real life application is here. Not to mention, when Peter says it is good for us to be here, It just feels like the spiritual version of putting your Paris vacation up in Instagram.
Like, I imagine Peter with a selfie stick being like, Hey Moses, just move a little closer to Elijiah – then posting it on social media with a caption that says “OMG so fangirling on this mountain” Hashtag, #BLESSED Hashtag: #It’sgoodforustobehere
So yeah, good for you, Peter. You got to see the most awe inspiring thing ever – Jesus transfigured on a mountain, having a little chat with the biggest spiritual rock stars of all time, before God literally spoke out of a cloud.
A few guys witnessed the cloud of unknowing, the ineffable transcendence of God. They saw a moment of holiness no one else has.
But what about the rest of us? How do we even start to reach those kinds of heights? Because we are here, in the valley of the shadows of real life. The closest I got to experiencing awe and wonder this week was 30 minutes of yoga and buying new snacks at Trader Joes.
So yeah, having spent half the week kind of annoyed that I had to preach on the Transfiguration again, I kept taking breaks to read a book This Here Flesh that just came out by Cole Arthur Riley, the creator of Black Liturgies. And this quote felt exactly right for this moment: She actually speaks about awe and wonder in a way I can relate to
“Wonder” Riley writes, “includes the capacity to be in awe of humanity, even your own. It allows us to jettison the dangerous belief that things worthy of wonder can only be located on nature hikes and scenic overlooks”
That’s a dangerous thing to say in Colorado (given our state religion). But what a helpful thing to preach on the feast of the transfiguration in the year of our lord 2022.
Because after reading Riley I realized, I was actually in awe all week at something in this text, I wasexperiencing a sense of wonder but it wasn't about Moses and Elijah up on a shiny mountain in the middle of the story
It was about that terrified parent struggling with an out of control kid at the end of the story.
THAT spoke to me.
When they came down from the magic mountain, the text tells us that a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; my only child. A spirit seizes him, and 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.
I don't know how many of us are having mountain top epiphanies right now, but I do know that many of our kids aren’t doing well right now. So many of them, and let’s be honest, so many of us are mauled from the inside by poor mental health, we are thrown into the dirt by addictions, our anxiety convulses us and scarcely leaves us alone.
And how safe do we feel being honest about this?
I cannot imagine the shame the man who spoke out of the crowd felt. This was his only child. He didn't also have an honor student at home – or a kid who just got football scholarship.
This was it. His one child. I wonder if he had to fight off the self-incrimination we feel when our kids are struggling with their own demons. The self-blaming thoughts of - if I had only not worked so many hours, if I had only left their dad before things got as bad as they did, if only I didn't let them hang out with those other kids.
We know for a fact that this man and his son were living in a “who sinned this man or his parents” time – where people wanted to know who or what was to blame for an ailment.
And yet this exhausted dad spoke up in the middle of a crowd and asked Jesus to please look at his boy. So, yeah, I am in awe of the humanity it took for him to do that. Because so many of us would rather die than admit in the middle of a crowd of people that our kids aren’t doing well.
But then Jesus responds, “You faithless and perverse generation”
These are pretty harsh words in the mouth of our savior. But he gave his disciples the power to heal this disturbed boy and they failed.
And I’ve always wondered if it was because some kinds of people, going through certain kinds of struggles are just too uncomfortable to look at.
I mean, there’s a reason we recoil from the suffering of others, and search for reasons why someone was diagnosed with cancer –
What was their diet? I don't eat red meat so I should be ok.
Were they a smoker? I never smoked so I am not in danger.
Did their mom have a career? I stayed at home with my kids so we should be safe.
We scan the lives of those who suffer for who and what is to blame. Maybe that is what is faithless and perverse. But we do it so that we do not have to look life in the eye and see that there is no satisfying answer to why them and not us. Or why us and not them.
So a few guys seeing some really spiritual fireworks on a mountain just didn’t feel like it had a lot to offer right now, but this week the faith of that frightened dad with an out of control son who braved the judgement and shame of others, and said “look at my son” inspired me.
Because I needed the way Jesus – fresh off the mountain - hesitates not at all to heal those in the valley.
Jesus said bring him here and as the dad and his kid were approaching Jesus, the the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions so much so that he was foaming at the mouth.
And Jesus didn't look away. It did not make him uncomfortable. He did not look for who or what was to blame.
Maybe because Jesus was just about to set his own face to Jerusalem where he was next to suffer and due to no fault of his own.
The text says that he rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.
So yeah…shiny Jesus on a mountain this week was of no comfort to me, because I do not know how to reach for that kind of glory from here in the messiness and uncertainty of real life. But the Son of Man reaching unflinchingly into the chaos of dirt and saliva surrounding an out of control kid fighting their demons? That’s different. The Prince of peace rebuking the demons that maul us from the inside? The Holy One Of God healing a troubled boy? Yes. That is the epiphany of the glory of God, I needed in this moment in time.
Because maybe this story isn’t about the unreachable holiness of God, maybe, taken as a whole, it is a story about the transfiguration of holiness itself.
I’ve always sort of loved and hated what Richard Rohr says about this, that “real holiness never feels like holiness, it just feels like you’re dying". But I think it’s true.
I think in the transfiguration, Jesus collapses any meaningful distinction between lofty mountains and dusty valleys.
Fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah that
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together
Jesus has made low even the mount of his own transfiguration to be with us. You need not reach for glory, because Holiness has come to dwell with us, in the valley of our shadows.
You need no longer climb up to, strive for or achieve holiness - for it is too busy already reaching into the troubled dirt of your humanity.
It has come to dwell with us. In the valley of our shadows.
The curtain of the temple is being torn in two so that grit and glory are indistinguishable.
Holiness has come to dwell with us in the valley of our shadows.
Holiness has come to dwell with us in the valley of our shadows.
And so the brokenhearted, and the fearful, and the confused, and the lost and the least and the lonely can say:
The art I used in this post is by the brilliant Ukrainian artist Ivanka Demchuk. (click on her name to go to her ETSY store) I have two of her pieces and find her work to be absolutely gorgeous.
Here’s a message from her from this morning:
There are a lot of reputable, trusted organizations who are on the ground and need our financial support, here are two I have donated to:
The International Red Cross’s Ukraine effort
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READ my NYT bestselling memoirs: Pastrix; The Cranky, Beautiful Faith Of A Sinner & Saint (Re-released 2021), Accidental Saints; Finding God In All The Wrong People(2015) and SHAMELESS; A Sexual Reformation (2019).