Sermon - Last Epiphany
In the Name...
A man showed up at the door of the rectory and said, “Father, there’s a poor family in town who desperately need help. They have nine children, the father is in jail, the mother is too sick to work, and they’re about to be evicted into the cold, dark streets unless someone pays their rent.” “My goodness”, exclaimed the priest, “Thank you for telling me. Are you a friend of theirs?” “Oh, no”, the man said, “I’m their landlord.”
As we come to end of our Epiphany season, the weeks after Christmas when we reflect upon the difference that the coming of Christ has made to the world, we conclude with the scene of Jesus transfigured upon the mountaintop, chatting with Moses and Elijah to the amazement of Peter, James, and John.
Peter is often ridiculed for his reaction to the situation - proposing to set up tents, shelters, for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus to rest in. That does come across as a bit dull. But, I would like to think of it as Peter's way of reacting to an encounter with the holy.
I think that we have encounters with the holy more often than we might imagine. For some people, an encounter with the holy takes the form of a mystic experience – a vision seen or a voice heard – while in prayer or meditation, or perhaps it’s an increased sense of God's presence during a retreat, a Cursillo or some other event. We tend to call those “mountaintop experiences.”
Mountaintops aside, however, I think most of us experience the holy 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 hope. Any time we have an experience where we feel total and unreserved love – or give someone else total and unreserved love – that's an encounter with the holy, because God is love. Any time we have an experience where we feel full of peace, that's an encounter with the holy, because God is peace.
Scripture reminds us that we, our bodies, are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and that we're to make ourselves a fit dwelling place for the holy to reside. In some small way, Peter understood the need for a place for the holy to reside. But, he was a simple fisherman; he didn't have a theological degree, and so the best that Peter could come up with was to suggest putting up tents. And so, I applaud him, because he seems to recognize the significance of that moment and not be afraid to respond.
For us, today, because there will be many times when we encounter the holy in our lives, the question is asked: How do we respond at those moments? What is our reaction to the holy?
When the disciples opened their eyes and saw nothing but Jesus standing before them, what did they do? Did they stay up on that mountain and meditate about what had just happened? No. Did they share their feelings about what the event meant to each of them? No. Did they congratulate each other for being so fortunate as to have witnessed such an important moment? No. What did they do? They did what Jesus did. They went back down the mountain. They went back into the places where people lived and worked. Rather than isolating themselves from the world, they immersed themselves in the world – into its pain and brokenness, into its questions and concerns, into its needs and struggles. In fact, the first thing that happens when they return is that they are confronted by a crowd bringing a sick child to Jesus for healing.
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 drawn into the world. God is always outward-looking. God's whole purpose seems to be to use any means necessary to reach out to people. And as often as not, God chooses to use people like you and me to reach out for him. God responds to the needs of the world through us.
It is no coincidence that today the Episcopal Church celebrates mission on this last Sunday of the Epiphany Season because the official, legally incorporated name of this church is The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Episcopal Church. How many of you knew that? There’s a whole story behind it, but, it means that from the beginning, the founders of this denomination saw mission as primary to its purpose.
But, mission cannot exist without missionaries - people who go forth in the name and spirit of Christ, whether going 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 is changed, but, that we are changed, for, as we join in God's mission, we are all changed into the image and likeness of Christ. The light of Christ shines through us as the presence of Christ dwells within us.
We are now about to embark on the season of Lent; forty days of prayer, self-examination, preparation and fasting. Forty days of personal sacrifice which culminate in the celebration of Easter Day. I think that it offers us a great opportunity. And so I would make this request of each of you during the season of Lent, think about these things. Pray that God will give you a clear vision of what new things you can do as a response to the holy presence in your lives.
As I said earlier, God is entirely outward-looking. We do not need to be great, talented or eloquent. We just need to be willing to allow God to transfigure us. So as we thank God today for all those who have gone forth and who are going forth and who will go forth - across the street or across the world - we pray that we, too, may become missionaries of a missionary God in a domestic and foreign missionary society.
In the Name...