Category: Bishop's Sermons
Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington
Tags: change, light, transfiguration, open
February 23, 2020 • Saint James’s, Florence • Sunday Next before Lent
Text: 2 Peter 1:19b: “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”
You may or may not remember that the last time I was here the theme was mountains. It was the very first day of December, and the first Sunday of Advent, and so the very first day of our new church year; and Isaiah was calling on us to get up, and leave our comfort and our routines, and climb the mountain of the Lord.
Wouldn’t you just know that on the day I have the joy of returning to Saint James’s, we have arrived at the mountain—not just once, but twice. Moses has been summoned up the mountain to receive the covenant, the Ten Commandments; and Peter, James, and John have been summoned up the mountain by Jesus, not knowing why. We have made it to our destination. We are about to have our mountaintop experience.
All of this comes just as the calendar is turning the corner away from the growing light and hope of Epiphany, and toward the disciplines of Lent. The mountaintop is not going to be easy. It is going to demand something of us.
In the course of each church year, there is only one story in the life of Jesus that gets presented to us not once, but twice. Jesus gets born, the kings come, the little family flees to Egypt; as a boy, Jesus stays behind at the temple and worries his parents, as a young man he stands up to preach in the temple and gets thrown out of town; he gets baptized, he heals and preaches, he goes to Jerusalem, he is received with honor, and a short week later he is tried and executed—and then resurrected.
All of that happens once, in the story we tell year after year.
But the story of Jesus leading Peter, and John, and James—yes, James—up the mountain—that story we get twice, each year. We get it on August 6, the date of the Feast of the Transfiguration in the list of Feasts of the church; and we get it always here, on the last Sunday of Epiphany, the last Sunday station before our train heads into Lent.
It’s one of those questions you get on the last section of the Ordination Exam— “Why do we hear about the Transfiguration twice each year, when we only hear about everything else once?” Of course there is an answer to that question, and I will award extra bonus points to anyone who can tell me after the service what that reason is without resorting to a glance at their phone.
But the more important point is just this: There must be something important about this story if we are meant to hear it twice. August 6 can come on any day of the week, and so we don’t necessarily hear this story unless we happen to be in church that day; but why now? Why this Sunday? Why right here, at the threshold of Lent?
I’m not sure how you were raised, but where I grew up Lent was not a season to look forward to with great joy. There was always the thing you had to give up, and then in my house there was the extra chore you took on to help around the house, and the little cardboard folder that I kept on my dresser that I was supposed to put a coin in every day during the forty days of Lent. It was a time of giving up things, of setting aside things, of choosing discomfort in order to gain the gift of perspective.
But if you think about it, leading into Lent with the story of the Transfiguration doesn’t really propose that kind of Lent to you. Maybe there is something else we are supposed to consider; maybe the season behind us is supposed to shape our journey into the season before us.
James and John and Peter are close to Jesus. They are some of the first who joined the movement around him. They have not played it careful in deciding to become disciples; they have left everything behind, including jobs, and families, and what used to be good reputations. By this time in the story, they think they know what they are doing and why they are doing it.
When Jesus asks them to join him on a mountain hike, they aren’t surprised. They’ve seen Jesus heal people, yes, but they have also seen him pray. They’ve heard the rumors about him, they know people think he is dangerous or even unbalanced; but they have also seen him feed great crowds of people and take pity on the least and weakest. They have watched as he balances the impact he makes with ever-larger groups of people with time he spends alone in quiet and prayer.
They trust this man. Peter—brave, bold, courageous Peter—has already blurted out that he thinks Jesus is the Messiah. They know something is going on with this man. They think they have a pretty good idea of what is going to happen.
And then they take that walk up the mountain.
We are a Convocation of churches of that worship in many languages, and we delight in the beauty and variety of languages and cultures that make us the churches we are. But no matter what language you read the Bible in, when you read this story it’s hard to avoid the sense of the author of the gospel struggling to find words.
That is very different from the experience Moses has. Moses goes up the mountain exactly for the purpose of getting words. He comes back down the mountain with the gift of words, the words of the commandments, the terms by which God enters into a relationship of covenant with us.
But here, on this mountain, words fail. James and John and Peter walk up the mountain, and no words can adequately describe their experience.
Like most men they try to offer a solution to what they think is a problem; they offer to build booths. But what they can’t grasp in their bewildered state is that there is no problem to solve. Jesus has simply been revealed for who he truly is, in a way completely unlike whatever it was they were expecting.
If you look again at the collect of the day today you can find a little bit of a clue to tell us why this story comes to meet us just now, right as we head into Ash Wednesday this week. It is a clue that links the story of the Transfiguration to the theme of the season that is now drawing to an end—the season of Epiphany, the season of light. “Grant that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his glory...”
The light of this past season, the light of Christ, is the light that breaks forth on the mountain in the presence of those three confused apostles. But there is more to it than that. That light is meant not just to dazzle us, not even to enlighten or inspire us. It is meant to change us.
Our brothers and sisters in churches of the Orthodox tradition understand the Transfiguration in exactly this way. In this story of God’s glory fully revealed in Jesus, they have long taught that what we are meant to glimpse is the full possibility of humanity—what human life would be like if it were completely open, completely accessible, completely given over to God.
If we do that, then it wouldn’t be us witnessing this; it would be us sharing in Christ’s glory, just as in carrying our cross we are meant to share in his sorrows. It would be others glimpsing God’s glory in our lives, just as James and John and Peter glimpsed it there on the mountain in Jesus.
God’s power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. We know this to be true. Yet we are afraid of just what would happen if we allowed it to be as true as it could possibly be. We want to dictate the terms of just how much God’s power gets to work in and through us.
We are not that willing to have our minds changed, let alone open ourselves up to the possibility of being transfigured. We are quite sure of what we think of things, what we think the bible teaches, what place we think Jesus should have in our lives—and where we draw the line and permit no further access.
Well; we are entering into Lent here at Saint James’s at a turning point in our lives as a community of faith. We have a long and storied history here in Florence; we are about to begin writing a new chapter of that story. By God’s grace it will be a chapter that will not just transform us, but transfigure us; a chapter that will be about how others in this city caught a glimpse of God through us, through the ways in which we are living out and working God’s call to love, to reconciliation, to inclusion of all people right here.
But to do that will mean we must be open to be changed. Each one of us, and all of us together—and me, too—for all of us to be instruments of that grace, bearers of that light, means we must not just behold, but become, that light.
Maybe this Lent should not be so much about giving up things or setting aside things. Maybe this Lent, for us, might instead be seeing our certainties, our presuppositions, our absolutes as the limitations they are—the evidence of the curtains we draw that block God’s light in us.
Maybe this Lent should be less about sacrifice, and more about shining through; less about what we ask God to do for us, and more about what we allow God to do with us. God, who revealed Christ’s glory on the mountain, will bring others to see that light in this place, too; for this is the body of Christ—if we will but let it be. Amen.