Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany
Exodus 24:12-18 Psalm 99
2 Peter 1:16-21 Matthew 17:1-9
Fred had been feeling depressed for some time. After much agonizing, he finally decided to make an appointment with a therapist. However, he discovers that the only appointment available is with a young practitioner who is straight out of college. This doctor has never had a previous client. Fred is so desperate that he feels he doesn’t have a choice. So, he goes to see the therapist. He arrives for his appointment, goes in, lies down on the couch and explains everything that is going on. Fred is desperate for some words of insight that he might feel better. The young therapist asks several questions, takes some notes, and sits in silence for several minutes. Finally, the therapist thinks he has found the solution and says, “ I think your problem is low self-esteem. It is very common among losers.”
The gift of faith can help us through the hard moments – when we are losers and have low self-esteem. And it does so by inviting us in week in and week out to receive the mountaintop experience at the Lord’s Table – in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, we feed on the divine life, which can help us cope with the demands of living.
For a gospel where the connection with the Old Testament is important, this is the central narrative. The law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah) affirm the significance of Jesus. Theologically, the presence of these two is an endorsement of the identity of Jesus.
In terms of the experience, when miraculous things happen and we see people transformed before our eyes, it is understandable that we would want to remain in the moment. That moment is powerful; it carries enormous significance. When good things happen, we want to stay in the moment forever. So, it is in this passage in Matthew’s Gospel for Peter, James and John. However, living has to embrace both the miraculous and the challenging. Living at the figurative (or real) top of the mountain is unsustainable, as the disciples found out abruptly through their experience of fear. We feed on the good moments in our faith journey, so we are ready for the hard moments of that faith journey. We need faith that can carry us through difficulties; this is the promise of this Gospel.
Isn’t that what James and John and especially Peter want to do – to stay in the moment – 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. Celtic spirituality calls 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 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. Jesus knows that we can’t dwell in those mountain top experiences in our lives. They prepare us for the duties and responsibilities in the valleys of our lives. 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 need to be intentional in looking for those thin places in our lives. We need to set aside time for communing with God in nature, in prayer, in scripture, in meditation, in song. We need to strive to be the thinnest we can be, not in weight and measure, but thin, as in open to experience the holiness, and the sacredness of God throughout our lives. The journey through Lent offers us those opportunities.
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.
As 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 confused and greatly afraid. 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 also 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.”
We know that truth abides in these thin places; raw, naked, hard to face truth. Yet the comfort, safety and strength to face the truth abides there too, because God is there. We see God and want to dwell with God. On the holy mountain, in those thin places of our lives, those places captivate our imagination. We seem to be small, disconnected and insignificant, yet we gain connection and become part of something larger than ourselves, when we experience those moments. The human spirit is awakened and will grow if the body and the mind allow it. We can feel the mysterious power of God. We are drawn, transported into the presence of another world, the kingdom, heaven, paradise. We are moved into the presence of the power of God.
Peter, James and John also experienced another aspect of thin places, where the boundaries of time and space are transcended. While they were there, time seemed to stand still, and there was a communion with the human spirits of those who had walked before and are yet to walk. They see this as holy ground, come here and be transformed. They experience a connection – with God, and with all who have lived, are living, and will live in generations to come. We want to stay in that place where we can feel the presence of God, on that mountain top. But it is really preparing us for valley duty, preparing us, empowering us, equipping us to set about doing what God is calling us to do in our ordinary mundane lives…there we can find God also.
We find that same thin place at the Eucharist. Eucharist means thanksgiving and we are to express our gratitude for God’s hand at work in our lives. Time is suspended as we kneel and pray and receive Christ’s body and blood – as we reconnect with Christ and Christ’s community we find a thin place.
He was old, tired and sweaty, pushing his homemade cart down the alley, stopping now and then to poke around into somebody’s garbage. I wanted to tell him about Eucharist, but the look in his eyes, the despair on his face, the hopelessness of somebody else’s life in his cart, told me to forget it. So I smiled and said, “Hi”—and gave him Eucharist. She lived alone, her husband dead, her family gone, and she talked at you, not to you, words, endless words, spewed out. So I listened—and gave her Eucharist.
Downtown is nice. Lights change from red to green and back again, flashing blues, pinks and oranges. I gulped them in, said, “Thank you, Father,” – and made them Eucharist. I laughed at myself and told myself, “you with all your sin, and all your selfishness, I forgive you, I accept you, I love you.” It’s nice and so necessary, to give yourself Eucharist. My Father, when will we learn – You cannot talk Eucharist- You can not philosophize about it. YOU DO IT.
You don’t dogmatize Eucharist. Sometimes you laugh it, sometimes you cry it, often you sing it. Sometimes it’s wild peace, then crying hurt, often humiliating, never deserved. You see Eucharist in another’s eyes, give it in another’s hand held tight, squeeze it with an embrace. You pause Eucharist in the middle of a busy day, speak it in another’s ear, listen to it from a person who wants to talk.
Eucharist is as simple as being on time and as profound as sympathy. I give you my supper, I give you my sustenance, I give you my life, I give you me, I give you EUCHARIST. R. Voight, “The Eucharist” in The Other Side of Silence: A Guide to Christian Meditation, ed. Morton T. Kelsey (New York: Paulist Press, 1976).
During the days of Lent, perhaps we can be more intentional 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. Matthew calls us 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 touch us and take us away. Amen