- The Rev. Frank St. Amour, III
Sermon - Last Epiphany
In the Name...
A rabbi, a priest, and a minister were discussing career advancement in their respective faiths. The minister said, "All pastors are equal in our system, but you can get bigger churches or become a regional or national executive." "Ah,” the priest said, "we can go from priest to bishop to archbishop, cardinal, and finally pope, leader of the world-wide Church. Nobody can go higher than that." "Well,” the rabbi said, "I don't know. I hear one of ours did."
This Sunday, the Church celebrates the Transfiguration, the day rabbi Jesus took pope Peter, and pastors James and John, up a mountain and, to their amazement, appeared before them in heavenly splendour.
It was a strange experience, to say the least, and if it seemed strange to the disciples, then what in the world are we supposed to make of it? Well, one thing we can make of it is that it was a literal 'mountain-top experience'. That's a very apt phrase, because mountain tops are places where ancient people traditionally gathered to pray. They felt the higher up they were from the ground, the closer they would be to the gods. And where there were no natural mountains, as in the deserts of Egypt or the jungles of the Yucatan, people built their own mountains out of stone or brick.
The desire to be close to God is deeply rooted in our human psyche. Sometimes, people try to reach God by detaching themselves from the world, by fasting, meditation, denial of possessions, and these are all good things to do because they prevent us from becoming too self-centred. But even if we gave up everything and prayed on top of the Empire State Building we still wouldn't be able to put ourselves any closer to God than we are right now because God is beyond our reach. The only way that we have any experience of Him is because He has reached down to us.
And that is essential to understand. Yes, people are looking for God, but the Christian faith proclaims that God cannot be found because God is not lost. We are the ones who are lost, and it is God who finds us through Christ Jesus. When think we 'find' Him, in fact, we're only responding to Him.
Several years ago, an elaborate survey asked thousands of Americans from many religious backgrounds, and none, whether they had ever had what they would call "a spiritual experience" that brought them somehow into the presence of God. Now, how do you think we Episcopalians fared on that survey? No, we weren't at the bottom. In fact, nearly 80% of the Episcopalians surveyed said that, at least once in their life, they had had some sort of dynamic spiritual experience. 80%.
It just seems that Episcopalians, though, are a lot like how St. Luke describes the disciples after the Transfiguration. "They kept silent and told no one any of the things they had seen.” Maybe because while it was inspiring, it was also unbelievable.
Sort of like the story about the man who took a new hunting dog out one day. After a while he shot a duck and it fell in the lake. The dog walked out over the water, just like Jesus did, picked up the duck, and brought it back. The man was stunned. He didn't know what to think. He shot another duck and again, it fell into the lake and again the dog walked over the water and brought it back. Not wanting to be thought a total fool, he didn't tell anybody about it, but he invited a friend to come out with him the next day. Sure enough, he shot a duck and it fell into the lake. The dog walked over the water, picked it up, brought it back, and the man said to his friend, "Did you see that?" "Um, yeah.” his friend carefully replied, “Your dog doesn't know how to swim."
A lot of people have the experiences but don't know how to process or communicate them. Peter had that problem. He was faced with a scene straight from Heaven, out of this world and all its paradigms, and the best he could say was, "Let's put up some tents." Your dog doesn't know how to swim.
Peter was missing the point. He was missing the point that the Transfiguration happened to prepare him, and the others, for another experience that would come on another mountain, but not a mountain with Jesus bathed in light standing between two great prophets, rather Jesus bathed in blood, hanging between two thieves.
An old church member was once asked why he wasn't getting excited about an upcoming revival meeting and he said, "Well, when a revival's on, it's all 'Glory be to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost'. But when it's over, it's back to 'as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be'.
The old fellow might have stopped to consider that it's the occasional Transfiguration encounter which gives us the strength to face the daily encounter of Crucifixion
It's exciting to be part of a revival or something uplifting, but we need to remember that the Transfiguration is only one side of the coin. The experience of Calvary is the other.
Sometimes, Christianity is criticized as being all about "pie in the sky", but nothing could be farther from the truth. Other religions may strive for oneness with the Other, some sort of Nirvana, an escape from this world, but our religion is gritty and dirty and down to earth. We turn our backs on worldliness, but not on the world.
When the cloud came and overshadowed Peter, James, and John, and they heard the voice, it said "This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him!" Listen to him. So, then, how do we listen to Jesus?
Well, we have the actual words Jesus spoke as recorded in the Scriptures and listening to him can mean studying those. But Jesus also speaks to us through what he did. "Whatever you do for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do unto me," he has told us, and that is the example of life he gave us. Jesus scandalized the pious establishment because he did not separate himself from the unclean, the unfortunate, the undesirable. Those were the very people with whom he identified himself, even unto death.
The glory mountain was his, by right. He chose Calvary. Is that a choice we're willing to make?
Calvary is where God wants us to minister. Jesus came down from the high place, not down from the Cross, and so must we. Gathered here around his table, we have come to a high place, a place to experience God's glory. We have come into his presence in the sacramental bread of life and cup of salvation, and as Peter said, "it is good for us to be here." But there's a reason.
We're here so that God can give us courage, strength, and empowerment to go out from here into the world to serve the least of the brethren, those whose daily life is a continual crucifixion, and bring them up to the high place.
Peter eventually did understand what it was all about and he drew on his experience for strength in years to come. Even, as we heard this morning, on the eve of his own crucifixion, he could encourage his flock with these words, "We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We were eyewitnesses of his majesty. ... We were with him on the holy mountain." We were with him on the holy mountain.
Indeed, we are. May being here empower us to love and serve.
In the Name...