Sermon for the Last Sunday after the
St. Philip’s In The Hills,
Exodus 24:12-18 + Psalm 2 + II Peter 1:16-21 + Matthew 17:1-9
After we retired, David and I returned to
So I want you come with me—in heart and
in mind, as the Christmas Bidding Prayer says—to a recent Sunday morning at the
only Episcopal Church in
This large family is what one might call “secular Christians”: they wanted the child baptized, without knowing why, and their church attendance is as rare for them as their religious memory is scant. You can picture the scene: all through the prelude, they screamed out greetings at each other; all during the service, they made and took cell phone calls and text messages; and despite the rector’s admonition, all during the baptism, they stood and took flash photographs. In short, their behavior in church was no different from their behavior in Wal-Mart or in their own homes. Despite the mystery and solemnity of the event, they continued—as they no doubt always do—to live their lives out loud.
I tell you all of this not for us—like
the Pharisees of the Gospels—to feel justified and pleased about our
better-behaved, good selves. I tell you
this, and I remind myself of this, in order to let it judge us rather than to
judge that rowdy, un-churched, typical family of
I tell you this story also because it bears directly on our Bible readings for today. In all three of them—Moses on the holy mountain with God, Peter reflecting on God’s glory, and the familiar Gospel story of the Transfiguration—in all three of them, God is tangibly and really being made known, is being made manifest to humanity. And in all three stories, humanity does not quite know how to deal with God in our midst.
It is blessed Simon Peter who gives us the easiest handle; there he is with Moses, Elijah, and Jesus being completely transfigured and changed before his eyes. What does he do? He starts living his life out loud; he wants to go immediately from vision to action. “Lord,” Peter says, “this is great! Let’s do something about it!”
Peter is doing exactly what that rowdy, un-churched family did at their child’s baptism, and—embarrassingly enough—exactly what I did when I allowed myself to get so indignant about their behavior. He’s changing the subject! And isn’t that what we all do when we’re faced with something larger than ourselves? In our discomfort, we instantly flee to a safer emotion. The rowdy family went to sentimentality, that safe zone that precludes dealing with true emotion. In my mean-spirited judgmentally, I went to anger, another safe zone that precludes dealing with true emotion.
Just like Blessed Simon Peter, we simply weren’t prepared to deal with genuine awe. Because it is, indeed, awesome when a baby—when new life—comes to change and to bless our world. To an even greater extent, what Peter, James, and John saw at the Transfiguration of our Lord is beyond any awe that humans can imagine. This event—the Transfiguration of our Lord—comes to us every year on this Last Sunday after the Epiphany to challenge that very inability to sit with the holy; it comes to challenge our hard-wired refusal to recognize and embrace the continual ways that God breaks into our lives to shake us from our small-mindedness and petty complacency.
And now comes the pesky, eternal question that plagues all honest preachers: So what? What difference does it make? Why should we leave our comfort zones? What’s the point of contemplating awesome realities? After all, we can’t wrap our hands or our minds around them! Why not just get on the business and busyness of life?
The answer today comes from both the Epistle and from the Collect. In II Peter, we hear, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” In other words, we are reminded that our faith is always countercultural; it is always challenged by received wisdom, and—yes!—the complacency of the world as “cleverly devised myths”. So it is essential—as our Epistle today says—that we be “eyewitnesses of [God’s] majesty.” It is essential to pay attention; it is essential to let this majesty become part of our very being. Why? Because that is our true perspective; that is just about the only way that we stop making God in our image. It is the only way for us to remember that God is God, and we are not.
To go back to my story about the baptism
Our Collect for today takes this one step further. It prays that we may so sit still, so live with our discomfort when faced by overwhelming feelings, and so pay attention to this amazing event, that we, “beholding by faith the light of [Christ’s] countenance, may be strengthened to bear our [own] cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.”
This is our true vocation; it is our true journey; and it is also our sustenance on that journey. None of us knows what life has in store for us, but all of us know that if we live long enough, we will have face suffering, grief, and loss. It is our true perspective of seeing God’s glory face-to-face that does, indeed, strengthen us to bear whatever comes our way. It is our true vocation that—through our endurance—we are indeed changed into Christ’s likeness, from glory to glory. I do not for a moment suppose that this is either easy or comfortable. It takes work; it takes practice.
This being the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Lent is on the way; indeed, Ash Wednesday is this very week. May I dare to suggest something as a possible Lenten discipline this year? I don’t care much for the “giving up” practice during Lent. Maybe you’re better than I am, but I usually find myself giving up something—like chocolate chip cookies—that I don’t like anyway. Even when I try giving up something that I do like or something that I really need to quit, it turns out to be as ineffective as any diet: there’s a starting point and an ending point, so when the ending point comes, we go right back to what we shouldn’t be doing in the first place! As our children say to us, “Duh!”
So this year, I’m going to try every day to sit with the reality of God’s glory and power. I’m going to try to see how it is that I am daily surrounded with astonishing examples of God continually breaking into my life: maybe it’s in the way that our grandchildren come running to hug my knees; maybe it’s in crystalline beauty of sunrise on snowdrifts; maybe it’s in turn of a musical phrase that shakes me to my very core. And I’m going to try not to change the subject when those things happen: try to hug my grandchildren and feast on their love, without wiping their noses; try to glory in God’s creation without wishing the snow were gone; try to love the transformative power of music without having to own it.
Each of us will have our own experiences, but one thing is common to all of them: God breaks into our lives continually in both cosmic and ordinary ways. It’s our job to practice looking for them; it’s our job to restrain ourselves from changing the subject when that happens; it’s our job not to dismiss the tender, heart-piercing emotions that threaten to overwhelm us when that happens. It’s our job to learn to embrace those overwhelming feelings, to learn to let them saturate our very being, to cherish them as gifts, and then to let those gifts strengthen us to live in God’s world as God’s hands, feet, voices, and love.
Think about joining me in this, will you? May we all dare to allow ourselves to see God’s glory face to face every day of our lives. May we all dare to let this change us into Christ’s very likeness, “Lost in wonder, love, and praise.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.