Sunday, March 3, 2019

Last Epiphany


Transfiguration Sunday
March 3, 2019

Exodus 34.29-35; Luke 9.28-43a


It’s appropriate I guess. We began this season of Epiphany with a glorious event. And now, we end the season of Epiphany with a glorious event.

Way back on January 6 (doesn’t that seem like ages ago already?) we began this season with the Magi visiting the child Jesus In that event, we had a mysterious star.

Then, on January 13th, we commemorated the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the Baptist.

The following Sunday, January 20, we commemorated the Wedding Feast at Cana, in which Jesus turned all that purification water into fine wine.  

Now we end the Epiphany season on another glorious high note.

First, today, we get this reading from the Torah—from the Hebrew scriptures—about Moses’ encounter with the glory of God on Mount Sinai. The glory of God, we find, is so powerful that it has a kind of residual effect on those who encounter it. For Moses, in our reading from Exodus, after encountering the glory of God,  “the skin of his face was shining.”

Then, in our reading from the Gospel today, we find a similar event.  We find another encounter with the Glory of God on a mountaintop: the Transfiguration.

I realize that I preached a lot about the Transfiguration in my 15 years as a priest. It’s an event I have explored so often in sermons and in scripture study and in my prayer life.

Why is that? Because it really is an important event in scripture and in our lives as Christians. In fact, it is such an important event that we actually celebrate twice in our Church Year. We celebrate today of course, the Last Sunday of Epiphany—the last Sunday before Lent begins. And we celebrate it again on August 6.

Personally, I truly appreciate that we celebrate it on this Sunday before Lent begins.  I’m happy that we go into the season of Lent with this vision fresh in our minds. I am happy that we enter Lent with the glory of God shining on the skin of our faces.

There is no better way to enter this season.  The events of Moses’ encounter with God and the Transfiguration is what will sustain us and hold us and nourish us through these next forty days.  This Transfiguration and the glory that we see revealed on the Mount was certainly one of the defining events in Jesus’s life. And in ours too, as followers of Jesus.

For us, the glory we witness on Mount Tabor is the glory that awaits us in God’s Presence. It is the glory we see whenever we encounter God in our lives.

On Mount Tabor, we have seen the veil temporarily lifted that separates this world from God’s world.  And it is a glory that is almost too much for Jesus’ followers to comprehend.  It is this glory that we glimpse today that sustains us.  It strengthens us for what we are about to participate in our following of Jesus.

Because following Jesus always involves this glory that we encounter on the mount. Following Jesus means recognizing in him the fulfillment of the Law (which is represented by the presence of Moses on the mount in today’s Gospel reading) and the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures (represented by Elijah’s presence on the mount)

There is no doubt, as we enter the season of Lent, that the one we follow is not just another great teacher or leader. The one we follow is the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed One, the one promised to us in the prophecies, the one who embodies the Law given to Moses.

This is important to recognize and hold close as we enter Lent.  Because following Jesus also means following him down off the mountain and onto the path that lead to another hill-top—Golgotha.  It means following Jesus from the glory of the mount all the way to the darkness and defeat of the cross.  And, of course, to the eternal glory beyond the cross as well.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  For now, we are here. For now, we are encountering the glory of this moment. For now we come down off the mountain with Jesus and his privileged three followers. And we are struggling to make sense of this event. We are struggling to make sense of this moment of glory.

What do we do when we encounter the glory of God? How do we process it? How do we make sense of glory? I don’t know if we can make sense of it.

But what we can do it is embody it. What we can do it open ourselves to this glory of God. Because it is a glory that is given to each of us, no matter who we are.

Now, of course, this past week, you have heard about the very disappointing vote in the United Methodist Church regarding not giving full-inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life and ministry of the Church. We, in the Episcopal Church and especially re at St. Stephen’s, felt the pain of those United Methodists affected by this vote. We have been there. We know this disappointment, this frustration.

Here, we are still living within that disappointment and frustration. We know the pain of what it feels like to be told to “wait.”

“Wait,” those in authority keep saying. And many of us have waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And, in our waiting, we have often felt neglected and forgotten and cast away.

But the fact is this: church votes and commands to wait do nothing to lessen the glory of God that dwells within each of us. Each of us—no matter who we are—carry within us that transfiguring glory of God—of the God who appeared to Moses, of the God whose glory descending upon Jesus on Mount Tabor, of the God who is our God as well, who loves us and knows us and is well-pleased with each of us.  And that is what we take away from our encounter with the vision on the mount of the Transfiguration.

It would be nice to stay here, basking the glory of this event. It would be nice to stay put and not come down off the mountain. Because once we come off the mountain, we must face some unpleasant things.

For the followers of Jesus, they must endure their own betrayal of Jesus, they must endure the fact that their betrayal contributes to Jesus’ torture and murder. In our lives, we must come down from the mountain and face our own issues. We must face a Church that is still fractured, that still tells us to “wait,” that still excludes and turns away.  We must come down and face whatever issues we are wrestling with our lives—issues that seem in many ways to detract from the glory that we have just witnessed. And as we come down and face those things, it is amazing how quickly the vision of God’s glory vanishes from our minds.

In that one moment, when all seemed clear, when all seemed to have come together, we find in the next instant that everything is topsy-turvy again.  And that’s this crazy thing we call life. It often works out this way. We find that we can’t cling to these glorious, wonderful events that happen.

But what we can do is carry them deep in our hearts. What we can do it not let that glory of God that dwells within us and shines brightly on the skin of our faces to die away.  And if we recognize that, if we embrace that  we find that somewhere down that road away from the mount, it will still be there, borne deep within us. Somewhere, when we need it the most, that comforting presence of the God of glory we encountered on the mountain will well within us and help sustain us when we need sustaining and shine brightly on our faces.

Of course, the stickler about this is that it is not something WE can control. We can’t make it happen. We can’t conjure that glorious experience whenever we want it.

It happens on its own. It happens when it is needed the most. And when it does, it truly does sustain.

In these next forty days, we will need to be sustained by the glory we encounter today. In this upcoming season, we will be encountering a somewhat more dour side of spirituality.

On Wednesday, we will have ashes smeared on our foreheads as a reminder that we will all one day die. We, in this upcoming Lenten season, will face the fact that we truly do have limitations. We will remember and repent of the wrongdoings we have done in this life—to God, to others and to ourselves.

And we will fast.  Some of us will fast from certain physical foods or drink. Some of us will abstain from certain practices. Some of us will struggle to use this upcoming season to break certain dependences we’ve had on things and people.

And in this season, we will hear in our scripture readings and participate in our liturgies the continuing journey away from the amazing mountain-top experience toward the humiliation of the cross of Golgotha. 

In those moments, we will need to find an inner sustenance.  In those moments, we will truly see how far we have journeyed away from the mount of Transfiguration. We will, at times, no doubt, feel as though we are far separated from the glory of God. It will not seem that this glory will be shining on the skin of our faces.  

But, then, on Easter morning—there again, that glory will be revealed to us once again and it will all fall into place once more.

So, let us begin our Lenten season with our faces still aglow with this encounter with God.  Let us go knowing that no matter what will happen—betrayal, physical and emotional pain, even death—we know that what ultimately wins out is the glorious light of God’s loving presence in our life. Let us go from here carrying that glory within us, without detachment. Let us go from here transfigured with Jesus—changed by this encounter with God’s glory so that we can reflect and spread this glory even in the midst of whatever may come to us in the days that are to come.





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