Successes and Failures

The text for this sermon is Luke 9:28-50

Last Monday felt like the day after Christmas. Even at 51, that next day always has a sense of emptiness. No more presents to open. No more surprises yet to be uncovered. No more holiday parties to catch up with old friends and overeat at. The decorations that made our home look so festive and fun now just look like work waiting to be tackled as we calculate the hours it will take to get them all back in the boxes.

Last Sunday’s worship, which included a blessing of our renewed sanctuary, was kind of like Christmas. In the morning, we had strong attendance, great special music by a quartet from our men’s choir and an outstanding sermon from Pastor Liz. But it was Sunday afternoon that generated the buzz. Our sanctuary was filled. Our bishop was here to lead us in the blessing of this renewed holy space. Our friends from St. Pius X, including their pastor, Monsignor David Funk came to celebrate with us our good fortune. Music was outstanding with Erni on the organ, and our praise band and 4:30 team leading us, too. Special music from piano/organ duets, solos within our blessing ritual and four separate choirs all of them wonderful. The last choir was a combination of our Chancel Choir and St. Pius X choir that was awesome. And honestly, my favorite part was at the end when our own Pastor Fritz, the first pastor of this congregation and whose leadership built this sanctuary in 1968 offered a familiar blessing. That part gave me goose bumps. Throw in the fifteen or so volunteers who managed to feed almost 200 of us in 20 minutes afterward and wow. Wow. It was a cool, cool Sunday. Success. Nailed it.

Then, it’s Monday and I wake up and it’s just another day. I even slept poorly, tossing and turning, thinking, what now? After a big success, it seems like something should change, but what has? So many of you were gracious and generous in your praise, but all I heard was I can’t wait to see what you got next for us pastor. Rather than being recharged and improved by this really, cool experience that hit all my pastor/church buttons, on Monday I wasn’t high on that mountaintop, but actually kind of low. After this huge success for our church, that I was a part, I didn’t feel any different. In fact, if anything I felt a little anxious.

One thing I noticed this year in this story of transfiguration is that Peter, James and John aren’t transfigured. Jesus is transfigured. Peter, James and John aren’t changed, Jesus is. Peter, James and John don’t glow like a radioactive isotope, Jesus does. Peter, James and John aren’t called Son and Chosen by God, Jesus is. In fact in the verses that follow this story, it is painfully clear just how little has changed for Peter, James and John and all the disciples. This mountaintop experience should change them, make them better somehow. Yet, it turns out they are just as disappointing the day after as they were the day before the transfiguration.

Monday comes and it’s just another day for the twelve disciples and honestly not a very good day. Even though the disciples had previously healed all sorts of people in the name of Jesus, Monday they don’t seem to have the power to heal the small boy brought by his father. On Monday, they still don’t understand how or why this great teacher and prophet, clearly sent from God, will have to suffer and die as he predicts for the second time he will. Even though they have given everything up, live in abject poverty in a world where that is saying something, they still don’t understand the sermon Jesus preached again about humility, lastness and weakness. Maybe most damning, after that mountaintop experience on Sunday making clear who Jesus is, on Monday they lack sympathy for the creation that Jesus came to save. They try to limit who gets healed, wanting Jesus to stop others from doing it who aren’t in their club. Sunday on that mountain was great, but Monday morning, they are just as inept, selfish and self serving, as they were on Saturday.

Peter, James and John on that mountaintop got a preview of the resurrected Jesus. Jesus was transfigured. Jesus glowed with the full power of God. For Peter, James and John it was a stop along their way in a life of faith. Not their last stop, but one of many full of highs and lows, ups and downs, successes and disappointments. It was an awesome thing to witness, to be sure, but even the greatest mountaintop experience of God’s presence doesn’t transform us. Only death and resurrection truly change us.

Like Peter, James and John, we all have moments of light and fullness, followed inexplicably the next day with moments of dark and emptiness. The thing we celebrated the day before, the day after looks simply like a lot of work to be put back in the box. Mountaintop moments might bring us closer to God, but this world is tough and that close feeling can leave us quickly. The good news is that to be truly transformed, we don’t have to climb any moment. The story of Jesus is about God coming to us, broken as we are, down here, not the other way around. God is present just as much on the mountaintop successes as God is in our valleys of disappointments. Since death is at the heart of our transformation, maybe failing can lead us to God as much as succeeding can.    

This week a good friend who lives out of town called me as he was driving home from work. He has two teenagers, one is 18 and graduating from high school in a few months. He and his wife were frustrated and angry and bewildered in what was going on in their son’s life. He just called to talk it out. Hoping, I had wisdom to share, since I had been to this rodeo before. After twenty minutes of listening to him vent, he got pulled over by the police for speeding and we had to say goodbye.

I went to bed Monday, turning over the issues in my head. Around 4 in the morning, my eyes popped open and I had a full response. I got up, went to the computer, and typed out a long email. I gave three pieces of advice. Have empathy for your son. It is not easy being 18, having your entire life in front of you and not being sure what you want to do next. I wrote that I wish I had had more empathy for my kids at this age. I didn’t care enough about how they were feeling. Let go, I said. Figure out the support you are willing to give your son regardless of his choice, give your best advice for the road he should choose and then let him figure out what is next. Support his choice within the boundaries you set. You can’t control adults, and your son is an adult now. Mistakes are likely to follow, but that is part of adulthood. I made plans for my kids that they didn’t buy into but I bullied them into accepting, and then got mad when they weren’t enthusiastic. Finally, stay in relationship with him, no matter what. Let nothing, nothing, get in the way of him knowing that you will love him no matter what his next move might be. This doesn’t mean saving him from his mistakes. It does mean standing with him when he makes them. This I said is one thing I think we did right when our kids were 18.

Looking back on that email now, I realize that the wisdom I shared was from two mistakes and one success as a parent of young adult children. I learn as much from my mistakes as I do from my successes. In fact, like my friend’s son, it might just be that I have to fail in order to get to where I need be. Sometimes, I nail it and sometimes I get nailed. Always, though, I can walk away confident God walks with me and is encouraging me on the mountain or deep in a valley.  

Just before this mountaintop experience, Jesus told the disciples he would be executed. Just after this mountaintop experience, Jesus told the disciples he would be executed. Death, failure, and weakness. Successes, highs and euphoria. They are all a part of the package of our life of faith. In fact, there is no resurrection, there is no transformation, there is no whole, eternal life, until we pass through death. Maybe, the disciples included their failures more than successes when they wrote down these stories because in those failures they learned best about God’s grace, love and forgiveness. Death is not the last word for us, nor are our mistakes.

Mountaintop experiences are wonderful things. Alleluia. Praise God. But our  God’s promise is to love us and lead us through failure and death, too. Alleluia. Praise God. Amen

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