Sunday, February 03, 2008

Another Last Epiphany A

I preached at Saint Andrew's Cathedral this morning. Because so many students and faculty from school attend church here, I re-wrote the sermon from last Tuesday, although I used the same story about Eagle Rock.

Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

One of the first things I learned as a camp counselor in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina was that I’m not very good at mountain climbing. During staff training, we went on an overnight campout like the ones we’d be leading all summer. We hiked for hours, up hill and down, along wide grassy paths and narrow rocky ones, learning all the trails through the woods.

I had never been on a campout like that before. I thought the mountains were quite beautiful, but after a while I was having second thoughts about being able to identify poisonous snakes, light campfires in the rain, carry a pack taller than I was, negotiate footholds in roots and rocks, tie all the knots I needed to know, and all of that with homesick campers hanging from my elbows.

Late in the afternoon, we started on the trail up to Eagle Rock. The climb wasn’t too bad at first – a winding old dirt road that nature had begun to reclaim, threading its way uphill at a gentle angle. But then, at a point it would take me all summer to find on my own, we turned suddenly off the road and started climbing straight up, it seemed, until the path curved around and rose at a sharper angle still.

About halfway up, I knew I had to stop. My face was bright red and burning, both from exertion and embarrassment – no one else seemed as weary as I was. But they all put their packs down, and we call caught our breath and drank some water from our canteens. I dreaded the moment we’d start up again, but we were at the point it would be just as difficult to go back down as it would be to keep climbing… As we inched our way up the mountain, a few folks stayed close by, cheering me on from behind, and pointing out the easiest path in front of me. How strange, I thought, that we had been hiking together the whole day, but I hadn’t really noticed when all I could think about was how difficult the hike was for me. In the end, the only reason any of us made it up to Eagle Rock was because we helped one another climb.

It was hard to take it all in at the top. The air smelled and tasted pure. You could hear the sky itself, both in rushing wind and sparkling silence. The bursts of breeze were cool on our sweat-soaked skin, and the mossy rock gentle on our aching feet and backs. But it was the view… You could see, I mean really see everything.

I wonder if Peter and James and John, breathless from their climb, were caught up by the view from the top of a very high mountain. I wonder if their feet were glad for the moss and their hot faces glad for the cool breeze. I wonder if they were listening to the wind. I wonder when everything began to change. Did the air sparkle? Did it first turn golden-yellow, as when a thunderstorm ends just at sunset? And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

The story of the Transfiguration is told every year on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, the last Sunday in a season full of the light of revelation. The Magi observed a star and followed it over mountains and across deserts to Jesus. A voice from heaven called Jesus “My beloved Son” as he stood dripping in Jordan River water. “We have found the Messiah,” cried Andrew to his brother as the sun set on his first afternoon spent with Jesus. And so we come to this last and most brilliant epiphany, when Jesus was revealed in a new light – or, rather, in a very ancient light. The light of the glory of God.

One dictionary defines glory as “the unapproachable and mighty manifestation of the immediate presence of God.” Indeed, both Moses and Elijah had experienced God’s glory on mountaintops before, awesome encounters with God so far beyond what their senses could comprehend that God had shielded their eyes and covered them in cloud. And yet, they had also encountered God’s immediate presence – God’s glory – in manna and flowing water, in still small voices, in healing touches, and in the kindness of others.

I am drawn to another definition of glory, offered by Frederich Buechner. “Glory is to God what style is to an artist,” he writes, noting that great works of art – paintings, sculptures, arias, and sonnets – great works of art are saturated in the rich and recognizable style of the artist who created them. “The style of an artist brings you as close to the sound of their voices and the light in their eyes as it is possible to get this side of actually shaking hands with them.”

The view from the top of that very high mountain must have been dizzying, with Jesus’ shining face and dazzling clothes, the companionship of salvation history’s holiest men, and a bright cloud overshadowing all. It is no wonder Peter desperately wants to stop the world’s spinning and contain the moment he cannot comprehend. He does not yet understand that God’s glory has been with him all along, that it climbed the mountain with him, and will accompany him back down. He does not yet understand that God’s glory has a voice – not only the terrifying and strange voice from the cloud proclaiming, This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased, but the also the comforting and familiar voice from his rabbi and friend saying, Get up and do not be afraid. Peter and the others do not yet understand that God’s glory has skin and bones and breath – not only a shining face, but a tender touch as well.

God is beyond all our seeing and hearing and touching and knowing, but the witness of scripture is to the awesome entry of heavenly mystery into human experience, to how the appearance of that mystery ever changes so that we might see it in a new light. And yet still there is no mistaking who the changeless Artist is, the one who paints glory as both dazzling light and dusty feet, messiahs and mountaintops, epiphanies and everyday life.

For all of creation, itself art in motion, reflects something of the glory of God, contains God’s glory in a way Peter hadn’t imagined. The view from the top of any very high mountain, the coolness of a breeze, the fresh scent of moss, the hand that helps you climb, the companionship of friends – are not these great works of art saturated with the style of the artist who created them? The sound of our voices raised in song, the sight of our community gathered in prayer, the touch of a hand at the peace, the smell of the wine in the chalice, the taste of the bread that fills us with the Body of Christ – are not these great works of art saturated with the style of the artist who created them?

Yet a third scholar defines glory simply as “God’s visible manifestation.” There was no mistaking the manifestation of God’s glory on a high mountaintop that day, but Jesus had not changed. God’s glory was on display in him each and every day of his life for those who had eyes to see and ears to hear. It was visibly manifest in his choice of company, his eating, his touching, his smiling, his weeping, his need for rest, his love of climbing mountains. It was visibly manifest even in his receiving a crown of thorns, his face bright red and burning, his breath ragged, his life ceasing. But death could not contain God’s glory, and so when light dawned on the third day, Jesus revealed God’s greatest masterpiece, resurrection, and invited us all to shine, to speak of good news, to taste and feed hunger, to hear and soothe hurt, to touch and heal injustice.

There may not come for us a dazzling light or a voice from heaven. Such transfigurations are rare, and perhaps unbearable. Instead, we are slowly changed from glory into glory, one mountain at a time – and there are many mountains along our way. Nothing really changed on the side or the top of Eagle Rock – the climb was still steep, I was still out of breath, and I still worried about poisonous snakes. Nothing really changed on the outside, but something in me was transformed so that I saw myself, those who were with me, and the woods in which we walked in a new light. There were lots of little epiphanies like that over the course of that summer, little bursts of light like the fireflies and stars that danced over our campfire. Each little encounter illuminated something more of God’s immediate presence, God’s glory, in everyday life – a helping hand rolling up tarps and sleeping bags, sharing an extra canteen of water, singing “Pass It On” in the outdoor chapel across the lake, catching the unchecked smile on a homesick camper’s face when she saw the view from the top of Eagle Rock…

Sisters and brothers, in this season of Epiphany, we have hiked together from the wilderness of the Jordan River to the wilderness at the top of a very high mountain; in a very few days, we will enter the wilderness of Lent. Many of us carry heavy packs. There are roots and rocks to negotiate, knots to tie and lines to cut. The way is narrow and winding and steep. We may get stuck on the side of a hill. We will need to stop to catch our breath. In the end, the only way we will make it to Easter morning is if we help one another climb. Along the path, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear and hands to reach out and tongues to tell and hearts to beat and spirits to serve, we will indeed shine with the likeness of Christ, the Artist in Residence, changed from glory into glory. Amen.

Photo taken from

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