There’s No Far Away

Luke 9:28-26 (37-43a) | Order of Worship 

As a child, my life was largely distant from conflict, suffering and crisis. It’s part of why it was so memorable when a December day in 1991 began with my father racing down the hallway, early in the morning, making his way all the way to the bedroom in the back, where he woke his 11-year-old son with an almost hysterical enthusiasm, holding up the newspaper. “Son, look at this,” he said, “As big a headline as I’ve ever seen in my life!”

And through the early morning blur, I could make out a picture of Mikhail Gorbachev and above it the large type with something about “USSR.” And I read this announcement of the dissolution of the Soviet Union — the historic event so long-awaited by so many — and, of course, I said, “That’s great, Dad…” and then I went back to sleep.

It’s not the first time I had slept through world history, nor would it be the last time I would slumber securely through the suffering of others.

Call it a “sheltered” life. I did not have what my parents had informing that moment: childhoods shaped by their own parents’ intimate experiences of war; their Cold War memories among their earliest days; and then those formative memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the drills undertaken in the schoolhouses throughout North Florida, as my parents joined thousands of other children in rehearsing how to hide under a school desk in case of nuclear conflict.

Call it a “privileged” life, too. That is, I have been guilty of assuming my experience of the world is everyone’s experience, without accounting for how my race, my ethnicity, my economic status, my gender, my sexuality have determined so much of the safety and prosperity of my life. So I’ve rolled over and drifted off amidst the bedtime stories that life is fair, and people get what they deserve, and it has little to do with me so distant as I feel from suffering and crisis.

This was one possible response in our story today — this dazzling, dizzying, overwhelming moment of Jesus’ transfiguration. What do you do once you’ve seen such light and experienced such power? You have options for how to respond to such a miracle. It’s why the most important moment in our passage today might not be the light and power on the mountain, but what happens after.

As the story begins, the disciples are taking in a grand view. It’s been a relatively quick climb — from casting nets and working in the family business, to finding themselves following in the ways of Jesus, inspired by his healing, transformed by his teaching, learning to take on some of his elegant grace, and becoming more than they ever knew they could be. With all that adrenaline they must have raced up the trail in their perpetual contest to determine who was the greatest after all. And once atop the mountain, they could look back and imagine just how far they had come, filled with the breathless longing that such peaks can give us.

We seek these mountaintop moments. My family spent some time in the mountains this weekend, merely a couple hours away, and yet seemingly so distant from the day-to-day. Elevated from the crises and conflicts, I read New York Times updates while looking out on a blue ridge vista. It’s so discordant. After all, mountains are places of escape and retreat.

Sister Joan Chittister has pointed out that mountains in Greek, Hebrew, Roman and Asian religious literature, are always places where humans can touch the divine. In Exodus, Moses and Joshua ascend the mountain to speak directly to God. And in the same way, Jesus takes his friends up the mountain where they can see him clearly as transfigured Christ, radiant and filled with light.

Up on the mountain they find themselves in what Celtic Christians termed a “thin place.” It’s a place so elevated – so full of light – that the veil between earth and heaven, human and divine, seems to thin to where it is so easy to see God, to hear God’s voice (“this is my son, the beloved” it says), to sense God’s light transforming you and reinventing you (“he was transfigured before them” Luke describes).

This is so often what we seek in our lives, and certainly our lives of faith. We want to climb to those heights. The mountaintop. The dazzling light. The grand view. The feeling of security. And once we’ve experienced it, we so often want to stay right there  “Rabbi,” Peter says. “It is good for us to be here. Let me construct some dwellings. Let me set up camp. Let’s rest here, roll over, close our eyes, drift off amidst the promise and privilege we have found in this place.” 

Jesus says nothing in response. But notice what he does. While others were looking at the power and the light, adjusting their eyes to the view from the peak, Jesus could see the other side of the mountain. Jesus could see that while there is so much radiance and assurance at the height, in the valley people are suffering.

“On the next day,” Luke tells us, “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 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, ‘Bring your son here to me…’ Even as he came, the boy was dashed to the ground… but Jesus healed the boy.”

Our lectionary lists this portion of the text, verses 37 and following, as parenthetical or supplemental to the traditional story of Jesus’ transfiguration. But in a story meant to confirm for us the nature and identity of God in Christ, there is nothing more important in this passage than this story of Jesus encountering this boy. Especially today. On that mount of transfiguration, they must have felt so distant from the suffering on the ground, but Jesus demonstrates how near he is — how close he always is. As a favorite songwriter, David Wilcox has written, in what forms the title of this sermon today, “There is no far away.”

We have sensed the power of proximity throughout these days of crisis and war with the invasion of Ukraine. The proximity to pain comes most basically due to what we know of technology and globalization. In an opinion piece in the New York Times this weekend, Thomas Friedman observed how “We are experiencing a raw, 18th-century-style land grab in a 21st century globalized world, where it is covered on TikTok by smartphones…” Daniel Johnson, who served as an infantry officer and journalist with the U.S. Army in Iraq said further, “In the 24 hours after Russia invaded Ukarain, we already had more information than we would have in a week during the Iraq war…” The prevalence of technology and the proliferation of information, remind us in the most basic way, this is near to us, not far.

But we also sense this in our proximity to the the series of crises that have led to this point. We have known unrestricted greed. We have seen the consequences of religious nationalism, that in our country would suggest that to be a good American is to be a good Christian, and vice-versa. We have seen the fragility brought on by totalitarian power and authoritarian leadership. Our tolerance of such injustice reminds this is near to us, not far.

As we also experience this nearness in the proximity of particular relationships. As some of you know, and as we shared in an email last evening, our church has had relationship with siblings in Ukraine. Our longtime church leader and missions advocate, Rev. Geneva Metzger, was sharing this week how throughout the early 2000s, our church organized several trips to Kyiv, partnering with longtime CBF Field Personnel, Gennady and Mina Podgaisky. The podgaiskys still serve in Ukraine and are supported through our contributions to CBF Global Missions. Our connections continue in specific ways. One of our dear former members, Dr. Elizabeth Eagle, who now lives in Chapel Hille, shared photos this week from one such trip, including the poignant image of a child at Village of Hope, with whom she had shared relationship that week. Elizabeth has often wondered about him, she described, as she reflected on the fact that today he would be about the age to serve amongst the military and resistance. It is near to us, not far.

But of course, it’s not merely in the memories we carry or the faces we can picture. It’s not only or especially in those who share our faith, or any faith. This closeness is because of what God can see in all of us, and what we with transformed perspective can yet see in each other: a common humanity, and a divine love that holds us all together, and in doing so holds the suffering of others near to us, not far.

Jesus never had to come so close. He could have remained distant. Protected. Far away. Elevated beyond it all, where some still imagine him to be. Perhaps it’s where sometimes you still imagine God to be. Perhaps you are reaching, trying to find God, and you’ve come to believe that whatever God is up to in this world you’re far from it. It must have crossed the mind of the boy in this passage. It must have been what his father felt. Just think of them down on the ground, so far away from whatever was happening on the mountain. What did Jesus’ transfiguration look like to a convulsing boy? To a desperate father? What does such a miracle look like to someone down on the ground? Could they see something stirring in the clouds overhead? Could they see a light up there, so different from the shadows that swirled about him? Whatever was happening it must have all seemed far off.

And so often we reflexively preserve that distance. Maybe not with Peter’s dwellings, but how often do we wall ourselves off from the pain and suffering around us? “It’s unimaginable” we say. “I can’t even fathom it.” But isn’t that just another way of building dwellings? Preserving something sheltered and detached and distant that doesn’t disrupt our lives as we know them? Seeing the pain only through blurred eyes, and not awakening enough to where we can’t drift off peacefully again?

My dear friend, Rev. Emily Hull McGee — Pastor of First Baptist Church on Fifth in Winston-Salem — wrote beautifully this week of this reflexive distancing we can so often practice. She was writing of friends facing illness, but she was also writing of the suffering experienced so broadly in our world. She said each time she thought she could not imagine the pain of her friends, she realized, “You must imagine it. You must sit with this particular suffering, look it squarely in the face, and imagine every contour of it: the fear that has ripped them open wide, the utter exhaustion that is their constant companion, the road and hallways and paths they are walking, unsure what the shadowy future ahead will hold. You must feel the churn in your belly, the catch in your throat, the surrounding embrace of God that holds despite it all. Facing the suffering of my friends is enlarging my compassion… It pulls me out of the recesses of my own head (praise be), and lifts my eyes from my own life to bear witness to theirs.”

It’s as the author Nora Gallagher once observed. She asked a counselor friend her advice on how to love. The wise friend said, “If you want to love, you must enlarge your capacity to suffer.”

To love is to suffer. And no one knew this, no one demonstrated this, no one enacted this with their own life more than Jesus. Jesus — who even from the mountains peak, even amidst all the light and power pulsing through him, even and especially amidst the wonder of his transfiguration — could see a boy at the bottom of the mountain, convlusing, suffering. Jesus could see those standing around with no idea what to do, “We begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not,” they say. Jesus could see the desperate father, “My son, can’t you save him?”

“You must help my child!” This was the exasperated cry that rang out some years ago amidst war and crisis. A reporter was covering the conflict in Bosnia, specifically the fighting in the middle of the city of Sarajevo, when he saw a man running through the street, holding a child — a girl — who had been wounded amidst the conflict, wrapping her in a blanket and screaming for help.

The reporter rushed to the man saying, “What can I do?” And eventually directing him, “Come. I have a car.”

He drove furiously through the streets, racing to the hospital. From the backseat, the man holding the child said, “Hurry, my friend, my child is still alive.” A moment or two later he shouted more urgently, “Hurry, my friend, my child is still alive.” And again, his voice escalating in panic, “Hurry, my God, my child…my child is still alive.”

They arrived to the hospital, as the little girl was rushed inside to those who could care for her. The reporter stood by and eventually the man returned and said, “I now have a terrible task. I must go back and tell her father what happened to his child.”

The reporter was stunned. He looked at the grieving man and said, “I thought she was your daughter.”

The man looked back and said, “No, but aren’t they all our children?”

Even from the heights of transfiguration, Jesus could see what others could not: that the boy at the bottom of the mountain was also a beloved son. That such love rings out not only from the light and power of mountain heights, but also from the cries of city streets. Jesus could see that the boy was no less beloved than any other, even Jesus himself.

How many times have we assumed that the way of faith is a journey up the mountain, searching for that light that we might rise to it? But it is not the story of us going up. It’s about Jesus coming down — all the way down into our brokenness, woundedness, fear, disappointment, and loss. “Christ being in very nature God,” Paul writes, “did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped or preserved or protected, but made himself nothing and took on the form of a servant, and humbled himself to death… even death on a cross…”

A way of compassion. A way that crosses every distance. A way that sheds ultimate shelter and protection to come close to every contour and detail of human suffering. So the next day, Jesus came down from the mountain. And that’s where he finds all those beloved of God, and offers so definitively the good news, that “There is no far away.”

May we who have followed him up the mountain follow him also all the way down.