Full disclosure: I’m not preaching this Sunday at Plymouth Church. Stephen G. Ray Jr. is. He is the new President of Chicago Theological Seminary, where Valerie Miller-Coleman and I both earned our Doctor of Ministry degrees
He is new and they want to build relationships with key churches, so his office called me up and asked if he could come preach and I said “How about Transfiguration Sunday?”
Because friends, I hate preaching on Transfiguration Sunday. And I hate it for the same reason I hate playing basketball. I don’t really enjoy things I am not good at.
My track record speaks for itself. I started at The Community Church of Little Neck in August of 2002. So I preached my first ever Transfiguration sermon on March 2, 2003. It wasn’t very good.
In 2004 I skipped the story entirely, opting instead to preach about…stewardship. (Only my second at-bat, and I would rather preach about stewardship. Not a good sign).
In 2005, my Transfiguration sermon was entitled “Hard to Get.” And it was. (The sermon, I mean). Swing and a miss.
After 2005, the record becomes spottier. As an associate minister, I did not preach that much. I did, however, draw the short straw in February 2007. I re-read that sermon for this blog post and it…well, it wasn’t good. (I say this as an expert in preaching).
I have avoided preaching it ever since.
Why is this so hard? Take a look at the text:
24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
17Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
The Narrative Lectionary gets this right, I think: the story of the transfiguration cannot be understood apart from Jesus predicting his own death and inviting his disciples to follow.
It is a new development –and, for the disciples, a disturbing one. About halfway through The Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus takes a morbid turn
One day they are discussing Jesus’ agenda, going over some talking points, working on their mission statement, when suddenly he starts telling them that he must soon suffer, be rejected by his own people, be put to death, and in three days rise again, whatever that means. And if that is not disturbing enough, he seems determined to take his disciples along for ride. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow.” He says he is going to his death, and he expects his friends to tag along.
The disciples have had a lot to deal with, a lot to think about late at night. Maybe even some doubts creeping in. And it is only a week or so after all of this morose and morbid death talk that Jesus takes Peter and James and John up on a mountain where…something happens. What, exactly, is kind of hard to say. One minute it is plain old ordinary everyday Jesus; the next his appearance is transformed, his clothes are blindingly bright, he stands there talking to Moses and Elijah, two great figures from Israel’s past. Confused, bewildered, Peter blurts out some sort of nonsense—something about pitching some tents and staying up on that mountain for a while—when suddenly a cloud overshadows them, and terror overwhelms them, and a voice speaks from the cloud: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
And then it is over. The cloud disappears, the voice departs, and Jesus stands before them, back to normal, no more glowing in the dark. They leave that mountain, go back to business as usual, and do not tell a soul what they have seen.
Why have my sermons on this subject been so uniformly awful? I’ll be the first to admit it: this is a weird story. Even by the standards of the Bible, this is a weird story. But I suspect a deeper reason for my struggles with this story. I tend to begin with my own experience and there is nothing in my experience like this. Despite all the years I have put in at church, I have never seen a vision; I have never heard a voice, not even a single time.
The story seems so far from my experience; how can I talk about it?
But here is a reliable homiletical rule: IT’S NOT ABOUT ME.
This is not a story about me or about my experience. This is, first last and always, a story about Jesus. A story that tells us something important
What really happened on that mountain, after all? Light, glory, cloud, a voice…anybody want to take a guess? Anybody? I’m pretty sure it was God. Somehow Peter and James and John stood in the presence of Almighty God. And what did they learn? What was the take-away?
That God is at least as crazy as Jesus.
In those strange and surreal days before they went up on the mountain, Peter and James and John probably told each other that Jesus must be kidding, or confused, or going through a phase; he couldn’t really be serious with all this talk about a journey to Jerusalem and suffering and death. That couldn’t be right. But now, up on the mountain, God shows up and God weighs in and God says Jesus is right. God actually takes the trouble to appear: audibly, visibly, in a way that can neither be doubted nor denied, and God puts the divine seal of approval on Jesus’ determination to die. This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”
And Peter and James and John are thinking: What do we do now?
I know what we do: We come down from the mountain. We wrestle with what it means to belong to this Jesus and to the people trying to follow.
Next up: Lent.