Sermon - Last Sunday after Epiphany
In the Name...
A busy minister began his sermon one week by apologizing that he had not had time to prepare a written text. "I shall rely today," he said, "upon the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But, next week I’ll do better."
The purpose of preaching is to interpret divine things in human terms, to bring, as it were, God down to earth, but, today's Gospel, with the scene of Jesus transfigured upon the mountaintop, seems to pull us in the opposite direction. Man brought up to the level of God.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record this incident when Jesus took Peter, James, and John up Mt. Tabor and there appeared in radiance, chatting with two of the greatest figures in Israel's history - Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet. Two men who had enjoyed close - almost intimate - relationships with God. In Moses' case, Scripture records that, after he had been up Mt. Sinai, his face glowed so brightly it had to be covered, while Elijah was assumed into heaven by chariots of fire.
And, if that wasn't enough, there was the voice booming from the fog which surrounded them, saying, about Jesus, "This is my Son."
Peter is often ridiculed for his reaction to the situation - proposing to set up tents, shelters, for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus to rest in. And that does come across as a bit dull. Perhaps, though, I should think of it as Peter's way of reacting to an encounter with the holy.
For some people, an encounter with the holy takes the form of a mystical experience while in prayer or meditation – a vision seen or a voice heard, or perhaps it's an intoxicating elation, an increased sense of God's presence during something like a praise concert or a retreat. We tend to call those “mountaintop experiences.”
Mountaintops aside, however, I think most of us encounter the holy more often than we might imagine in much more ordinary ways. Any time we have an experience that gives us renewed hope, that's an encounter with the holy, because God is perfect hope. Any time we have an experience where we feel total and unreserved love that's an encounter with the holy, because God is perfect love. Any time we have an experience where we feel full of peace, that's an encounter with the holy, because God is perfect peace.
Scripture reminds us that we, in our souls and bodies, are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and that we're to make ourselves a fit dwelling place in which the holy can reside. In some small way, Peter understood that - that the holy needed a place to dwell. But, he was a simple fisherman, his theological interpretive abilities were limited, and so the best that he could come up with was tents. But, that's why I applaud him, because he seems to recognize the significance of that moment and was not afraid to respond, however imperfectly.
We need to be careful, though, about our own response. There is always a danger that we can become so caught up in savouring a wonderful holy experience that we become, in the words of a proverb, so heavenly minded we're no earthly use. And it's tempting. It's tempting to forget that the purpose of the experience was not just to make us feel better.
That why it's important to read the rest of the passage. Did the disciples stay up on that mountain and meditate about what had just happened? Did they talk about how fortunate they'd been to have witnessed such an important event? What did they do? It says they did what Jesus did. They went back down the mountain.
In fact, the first thing that happens when they come down is that they are confronted by a distraught family bringing a sick child for healing. Far from isolating themselves from the world, they immerse themselves in it, its pain and brokenness, its questions and concerns, its needs and struggles. No rest for the pumped up, there's work to do.
You see, the most appropriate response to an encounter with the holy is not to draw away from the world, but, to allow yourself to be all the more drawn into the world. God is always looking to use any means available to reach out to His people. And, as often as not, God chooses to use you and me. God responds to the needs of the world through us who have encountered Him.
By the way, what would you say if I told you that "The Episcopal Church" does not exist? There is no denomination legally titled "The Episcopal Church." I'm really not kidding because the official, legal, incorporated name of this Christian body to which we belong is, and get ready, "The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Episcopal Church."
You see, back in 1835, when the laws first required denominations to incorporate, the leaders of what we call, for short, "The Episcopal Church" saw mission as primary to its purpose and, in choosing a legal name, set it up so that all members of the Church, all Episcopalians, are, by definition, missionaries, because mission cannot exist without missionaries - people who go forth in the name and spirit of Christ, whether going forth means across the world or just across the street. Moses was sent back to his people to deliver the Law of God. Elijah was sent from his mountaintop to anoint kings and prophets. Mission is the result of encounters with the holy. Mission is the way we respond to God.
That may be the real meaning of the Transfiguration event. Not that Jesus was changed, but, that we are changed, for, as we join in God's work, we are changed more and more into the image and likeness of Christ.
A priest I know in New York City was leading a Bible study on Malachi and one of the members of the class was struck by the image of how God refines us like silver. She wasn’t sure what that meant so she went and found a silversmith and, without revealing why she was interested, asked about the process. The artist explained how it was very labour-intensive and time-consuming. Then, the lady asked, but how did the artist know when the silver was fully refined. “Oh,” he said, “that’s easy. When I can see my reflection in it.”
We are now about to embark on the season of Lent, forty days set aside for prayer, self-examination, and spiritual exercise whose focus is preparation for the celebration of Easter Day. I think that it offers us a great opportunity because it's what makes our religion different from so many others. Most of the world's religions stress the otherness of the divine and the inadequacies of the human, thus condemning humanity to either passive depression or mindless self-indulgence - fatalism or hedonism.
The Good News of God in Christ, however, is that Man is, as St. Athanasius put it, "a creature who has received a command to become God". Yes, we are fallen, imperfect, and mortal but, resurrection, restoration, and reconciliation, are God's will. And, as part of that will, we have been tasked with doing the work of God on Earth. No small thing.
So, at the Transfiguration, God affirmed Jesus' identity, "This is my Son", but, more than that he affirmed our own identity, because we are called the brothers and sisters of Christ. We are God's children. We are called to mission. And, we are called to be transfigured.
In the Name...