Sunday, February 22, 2009

Last Sunday after the Epiphany B

Today, two towns, two small parishes, two services of Holy Eucharist, two times to preach this sermon, Second Kings, two king cakes served after church.  I'm not usually a king cake fan, but had a piece at each church just to be polite.  I had a conversion experience in Crystal Springs, where the king cake was filled with some kind of vanilla creme-ish filling.  You can keep the beads and the baby, but I'm taking the cake! 

2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

Chariots of fire, heavenly whirlwinds, consuming flames, raging storms, dazzling light and glory, luminous God-filled clouds... This morning’s scriptures radiate awe as one staggering epiphany after another unveils such divinity as we can scarcely comprehend.  Like poor Peter on that high mountain apart, we do not know what to say...

And yet the lectionary invites preachers to try to say something at least once a year, sometimes more.  The transfiguration dazzles us every year on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, the last Sunday before our own faces are transfigured by penitence and ashes and the start of the season of Lent.  Together with the disciples we climb the mountain for one last glimpse of glory; together we follow Jesus back down and begin the journey to Jerusalem and the cross.

The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the finest preachers in the Episcopal church, acknowledges that we’ve been trying to make sense of this story ever since someone finally found the words to tell it.  As with all experiences that don’t fit our categories, she writes, “we keep handling it until we wear it down to where it feels safe to us...until we can say something intelligent about it,” like “why so-and-so was there, why such-and-such said this or that.”  

We’re fascinated by stories like Elijah’s chariot ride and Jesus’ transfiguration, by burning bushes and ladders of angels and annunciations - stories barely contained by the words that tell them.  Perhaps we are enthralled in part because bushes seem to just be bushes these days, because dreams and visions are rare, because fireballs in the sky are either meteors or falling space debris.  Still, something in us longs to encounter God face to face, to be dazzled, to gaze upon glory.  And so we pray, we go on pilgrimage, we light candles, we meditate, we climb mountains, we study the stories that tell us how it has happened before in hopes that we, too, will meet God.

In the middle of their story, face to face with God, the awe-struck and dumb-struck disciples did not know what to do or say, and so Jesus decided it was best that they not speak of it at all until after the resurrection, another experience that wouldn’t fit any of their categories, a story that words could barely contain - indeed, in Mark’s gospel, the resurrection story is not told at all.  Its first witnesses do not know what to say, for they are terrified...  

Here we are, then, making our annual ascent to the place where the most staggering of all epiphanies unveiled divinity beyond description, at least beyond Peter’s ability to describe it.  Here we are, hoping to say something intelligent about so-and-so and such-and-such and what it all means for us today.  Here we are, in the midst of story at once so familiar and unfamiliar that perhaps Jesus should come again and urge us to keep silence.  But the lectionary urges us to speak...

We began the season of Epiphany by starlight, as a single star in the night sky burned brighter than all the rest, leading three wise ones to the house where Mary, Joseph, and the boy Jesus lived.  And every Sunday since, we have seen him grow and the light grow with him, illuminating a messiah no one expected to see - a vulnerable baby, a young man dripping wet in the Jordan, a wandering rabbi with dusty feet, a human like any other who has ever felt sorrow, anger, hunger, anxiety, or weariness. 

Today we end the season of Epiphany with the most brilliant light yet, shining not down upon Jesus from the heavens but rather, it seems, from within him.  This is transfiguration, this shining from within, when Jesus is revealed to be the Christ, God’s beloved Son, when those who climb the mountain with him are dazzled by the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

I’m not sure, though, that Peter and James and John saw transfiguration - I don’t think they had a word or category for that, any more than they would have the category of resurrection.  On that holy mountain, blinded less by the light than by their own expectations of what the messiah should be, they saw transformation.  They saw Jesus transformed, changed from a humble (if miracle-working) carpenter-rabbi who had just six days earlier spoken of his impending suffering and death into a mighty savior accompanied by Moses, the law, and Elijah, the prophet.  Here was the power, here was the glory they had been waiting for Jesus to unveil.  No more dust, no more vulnerability, no more talk of suffering and death.  Some scholars say Peter wanted to build those three dwellings because he wanted to preserve a moment he feared would be fleeting; I suspect, though, that he never imagined it would end.  Jesus had finally changed, had finally been transformed into the only category for messiah that Peter had, and now the real work of saving God’s people would begin.

Perhaps Peter’s first glimpse of transfiguration happened when the bright clouds dissipated and the voice of God stopped echoing through the surrounding hills, and he and the others found themselves alone with Jesus, his clothes once again as drab and dusty as theirs, his face dark and care-worn.  As they began their silent descent, perhaps that’s when Peter began to wonder whether he had witnessed a transformation into something new or an illumination of something that had been there all along, just beyond his ability to see.

Jesus wasn’t transformed that day into anything he hadn’t been when the day had started on a dirt road at the foot of the mountain.  This was an epiphany, a revelation of who Jesus always already was - the dazzling Light of the World, the beloved Son of God, sharing with Moses and Elijah the ancient and timeless work of the salvation of God’s people.  

Of course, Jesus’ part in the work of salvation would transform him in the eyes of those few who could bear to watch.  The vulnerable messiah would be battered and bruised and killed and then...resurrected.  And, as another preacher marvels, out of that resurrection would come a new body - the church.  And so the transfiguration is not simply an opportunity to see Jesus in a new and ancient light, but also to see ourselves in the light of the Light of the World.  

The transfiguration gave the disciples - and so, it gives us - the opportunity to have a truly transformed understanding of who Jesus was, who he always was and is, on high mountaintops resplendent with glory and on city streets crowded with the sick and sinful.  It also gave the disciples - and so, us - the opportunity to be transfigured ourselves, to see the light that shines through us because we have patterned our lives after Christ, to take on the appearance that has been our God-given image all along, not something we had to be transformed into.  We are made to shine.      

But not just on mountaintops.  In fact, we are made to shine down where life happens, in the valleys, less-than-dazzling, and sometimes quite dark.  There are so very many scripture stories and Sunday sermons that speak of encountering Jesus Christ in the ordinary, everyday experiences and categories of life, in the face of so-and-so, while we are doing such-and-such.  Because we pattern our lives after Christ, who walked city streets, who spoke with strangers, who broke bread with friends, we learn to encounter him on our streets, in the faces of strangers and  friends, in the shadows that surround us down here in the valley.  We become so accustomed to seeing Jesus in the ordinary that we sometimes forget he is at the same time filled with indescribable light, radiating dazzling glory.  We need Jesus transfigured and luminous just as much as we need him dusty and tired like us.

In these last few days of Epiphany, then,  let us consider how we have been transformed by our own encounters with Christ, on the mountaintops and in the valleys of our lives.  Let us consider also, although we may scarcely understand it, though no words could ever contain or describe it, let us consider also how we are transfigured each and every day, how God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’  now shines in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, and in the face of Christ’s new body.  Amen.  

Artwork: "Elijah and Elisha", by Michael D. O'Brien; Unknown (if you know, please let me know!)

1 comment:

knitnanabana said...

I love the juxtaposition of the word images "transfiguration" and "transformation"- I will carry this epiphany with me during Lent.

That final piece of artwork is amazing- it says so much so simply.