Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany
Exodus 34:29-35 Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 Luke 9:28-36 (37-43)
One morning a fellow finds himself standing at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter explains that it’s not easy to get into heaven. There are some criteria that must be met before entry is allowed. For example, was the man a churchgoer? No? St. Peter tells him that’s not good. Was he generous, giving money to the poor or to charities? No? St. Peter tells him this too is bad. Did he do any good deeds, such as helping his neighbor? Anything? No? St. Peter is becoming concerned. Exasperated, he says, “Look, everybody does something nice sometime. Work with me – I’m trying to help. Think!” The man thinks for a minute, then says, “Oh – I did help this little old lady once. I came out of a store and saw that a dozen Hell’s Angels had taken her purse and were shoving her around. I threw down my bags and got her purse back, then called biggest biker a coward and spat in his face.” St. Peter is impressed. “When did this happen?” The man replied, “Oh, about fifteen minutes ago.”
Isn’t that what James and John and especially Peter want to do – to stand for something – to hold onto something, to remember the sacredness of the moment. Isn’t that what we all want to do when we encounter those times, those moments when we experience the closeness of God. I’ve talked before about Celtic spirituality calling the places where you can experience the presence – presence of holiness, holy trees, holy mountains – “thin places.” Places where the veil between this world and the next is thin, is so sheer that it is easy to step through. Once in a while, something happens to us, something so touching, so alive that it transforms us. Peter certainly experienced that on the mountain.
But, Peter wanted to dwell in that thin place with Jesus, to build dwellings, tents or booths for Elijah and Moses and Jesus to live. In this vision, Moses represents the Law and Elijah the Prophets. Jesus knows that we can’t dwell in those mountain top experiences in our lives. They carry two essential truths for our journey in the kingdom of God. First, as followers of Christ, we need mountaintop experiences to keep our discipleship fresh, vital and alive. The eternal realm, the hidden dimension of God’s transforming presence, penetrates our earthly reality and its always available to us. We need to regularly open ourselves to this divine reality so that our lives also grow with God’s presence and power. If we have never experienced an encounter like this, we may want to reexamine those spiritual practices of solitude, prayer and worship.
Second, the Transfiguration reminds us that mountaintop experiences are not ends in and of themselves. Their importance lies in where they lead us. Immediately after Jesus is transfigured, he comes down from the mountain into the valley of human need and suffering. In that moment, he translates his spiritual experience into compassionate action. For Jesus, coming down from the mountain is as important as going up the mountain.
Take time and ponder this truth. As followers of Jesus, we are invited to bring the light of our mountaintop experiences into the darkness of our pain-filled world. Sometimes we don’t want to look at the pain and misery around us – at home, at work, among our friends and neighbors. After all, we live in a culture that works to avoid or ignore the suffering of others. But, we need to “be in the world but not of the world”. Rather than avoiding those struggling, we need engage intentionally with those who suffer. We can make new beginnings this Lent by connecting with those who are hurting, and by offering them the healing light of God’s presence.
This last Sunday after Epiphany’s story of the Transfiguration reminds us and awakens us to ways we can be transfigured, ways we can be transformed, like Peter. God loves us and so wants to be in relationship with us. We can begin to be intentional in looking for those thin places in our lives. As we begin Lent this week, think about setting aside time for communing with God in nature, in prayer, in scripture, in song.
The last Sunday after Epiphany always centers on the Transfiguration, and the texts for today dramatically point to the pivotal event in the ministry of Jesus. The Transfiguration recalls the baptism of Jesus, with the voice from heaven and the identity of Jesus as God’s Son. Here, however, the voice speaks to the disciples, not Jesus. The Transfiguration also previews and anticipates Jesus’ glory after the resurrection.
We can clearly see that the account is patterned after the stories of Moses’ experiences of God on Mt. Sinai. All the elements in the gospel reflect the Exodus stories: the days of waiting, the cloud, the glory, the voice, the descent from the mountain. Moses’ face shone from his experience in the presence of God. Peter, James and John, the inner circle, are invited to share in this special experience.
Just like at the baptism, Jesus does not act or speak; God acts and God speaks concerning Jesus. The message is for the followers of Jesus. They fail to understand the event, and are greatly afraid and confused. Peter, you just got to love and relate to Peter. His fumbling effort to honor and preserve the moment is met in silence. They are told to be silent about the experience until after the resurrection. They are not ready to be witnesses to Jesus’ messianic role. Apart from the cross, the full story cannot be told.
But, the Disciples miss the point. Jesus’ silence before Peter’s offer says to him and to all the followers that glimpses of the glorious future are permitted, but you can’t hold onto them. The future, like that past, is not the proper dwelling place for the church. For these disciples, and all who follow, there will be one more mountain to climb – Golgotha.
And his clothes were dazzling white - their time on the mountain - a strange scene, with volume and special effects. Even with the voice from the cloud to explain it, they had doubt as to what they were witnessing. It was Jesus, alright, the man they had walked with and talked with, whose family they knew, the one they had seen as hungry, and weary as the rest of them. But it was also the Messiah, the Christ, in his glory. Frederick Buechner says that at the Transfiguration they saw “the holiness of the man shining through his humanness.” How do we live transfigured, transformed lives?
For the last couple of years, I have been helping a woman who has every imaginable health issue. She has cancer, stomach trouble, arthritis, blood pressure issues and high ammonia levels and so much more. She recently had surgery and asked me to go to the hospital and pray with her. I did and the surgery went well. I have helped her son get a car to be able to go to work. Then I heard he was in jail for drug charges. She continues to call and each call is a litany of all that is going wrong in her life. There are no short phone calls. She is not a member of our church and will probably never be, but she is a child of God. I am only human and get tired of her asking. Then, I think of the scripture about turning the other cheek, of going the extra mile. I think about sharing the love, and hope and light of Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ day, the Roman soldiers could press anyone into service to help them carry stuff for one mile. That is how Simon of Cyrene got pressed into service to carry Jesus’ cross. That is where – go the second mile comes from. Don’t just do what is asked of you – do more, give more, go the second mile. I get frustrated when I take the time to pull the issues apart. I have done everything I said I would do, but she has done nothing to help herself. But isn’t that what we do with God. Promise here and there that we will straighten out our lives, if God would just do this and that. Isn’t that what we do? How can I limit my turning the other cheek, when God doesn’t limit it for me? How can I do less when God is doing more?
I know from the bottom of my heart, for the depth of my experiences, that God wants to be in relationship with us. But we have to do our part – show up, open our hearts so there is more room for God, and give some of the love we receive to others. When we are in a relationship with God, God knows us, knows our wants and needs. We must remember that the Kingdom of God is within us and within the community of faith, the Church.
We are called to continually learn, grow, stretch, to become who God is calling us to be. As we prepare for Lent, think about a daily practice that will connect you to God, that will feed your need for that connection, which will renew you and enliven your faith. There are Sunday morning and Sunday evening choices as well as our Wednesday service with readings from ERD.
In the days to come, as we prepare for Lent, perhaps we can be more intentional in seeking ways to connect with God. We can look for thin places, but frequently they will find us when we open ourselves to the experience. We are called to embrace who Jesus is – in the Transfiguration and in our lives. God loves you, God loves me. Now is the time to accept that love, embrace God’s giftedness in our lives, and celebrate that love in our actions, and in our reactions to let the thin places nurture us, refresh us and connect us to God and to each other. Amen.