Sunday, February 14, 2010

Last Epiphany C

Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36 (37-43a)

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 would be leading all summer.  We hiked for hours, up hill and down hill and through clearings and over rocks and fallen trees, learning all the trails through the woods.

I had never been on a campout like that, and it wasn't long at all before I started having second thoughts about my new summer job, about whether I would be able to identify poisonous snakes, light campfires in the rain, carry a pack taller than I was, negotiate footholds in roots and rocks, tie the right knot in the right place at the right time...and all of that with homesick campers hanging from my elbows!

Late in the afternoon, we started up the trail to Eagle Rock, where we were going to spend the night.  The climb wasn't too bad at first - a winding old dirt road that nature had begun to reclaim, gently sloping its way uphill.  But then, at a mysterious 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 to me, until the path curved around and rose up straighter still.

About halfway up, I knew I had to stop.  I could barely breathe, my legs were burning, and my face was red hot with exertion...and embarrassment.  I asked if we could rest for a moment, bringing all twenty or so folks to a complete halt on the side of a hill fit only for Olympic downhill skiing.  But they all put their packs down, pulled out canteens, and caught their breath even as I struggled to regain mine.  I dreaded the moment we'd start up again, but at that point on the trail it would be just as difficult to go back down as it would be to keep climbing, so...we climbed.  And 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 all day, but I hadn't really paid much attention to everyone else 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 up there was sweet and pure - you could breathe deeply.  The sound up there was the sound of the sky itself, of rushing wind and vast, sparkling silence.  The breeze was cool on our hot skin, and the mossy ground gentle beneath our aching feet.  And the view up there, oh, the view - you could see, I mean, really see everything.  It was glorious.

I wonder if Peter and John and James were breathless from their climb up the mountain, if they had to stop halfway up the hill.  I wonder if they were caught up by the view from the top, if their feet were glad for the moss and their sweat-soaked brows glad for the cool breeze.  Luke tells us they were weighed down with sleep.

I wonder when everything began to change.  Did the air shimmer?  Did it first turn golden-yellow, as when a thunderstorm ends just at sunset?  And while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white... It was glorious.

The story of the Transfiguration is told every year on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, the last Sunday in this season that has been full of the light of revelation.  The Magi observed a bright star and followed it over mountains and across deserts to reach a newborn king.  A voice from heaven called Jesus my Beloved Son as he stood dripping by the side of the Jordan River.  I will make you fish for people, Jesus had called to the fishermen-now-turned-mountain-climbers, and they left everything and followed him.  We have heard all of these stories, and now 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 sense could comprehend that God had veiled their faces and shielded their eyes and covered them in a cloud.  And yet, had they not 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, sonnets - great works of art are saturated in the rich and recognizable style of the artist who created them.  "The style of the artists 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 mountain must have been dizzying, what with Jesus' changed appearance and dazzling clothes, the sudden companionship of salvation history's holiest men, and a mysterious cloud overshadowing it all.  It is no wonder Peter desperately wants to stop the world's spinning and contain the moment his senses 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 that it will accompany him back down again.  He does not yet understand what Paul will later say, that in Christ the veil has been removed and set aside, that in Christ God's glory now has eyes for looking love on the world and hands for healing its hurts and feet for walking through the valley of the shadow of death...and for climbing mountains.

God is beyond all of 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 ever see it in a new light.  And still there is no mistaking who the changeless Artist is, the one who paints glory as both dazzling light and dusty feet, who sculpts messiahs and mountaintops, who brings forth epiphanies and everyday life.

For all of creation, itself art in motion, reflects something of the glory of God, as though reflected in a mirror writes Paul.  The view from the top of any mountain, the coolness of any breeze, the gentle spring of moss, the hand that helps you climb, the companionship of friends along the way - are not these also 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 also great works of art saturated with the style of the Artist who created them?

A third scholar defines glory simply as "God's visible manifestation."  There was no mistaking the visible manifestation of God's glory at the top of the mountain 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 willingness to let children hang from his elbows.  It was visibly manifest in his willingness to receive 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.

There may not come for us a dazzling light or a voice from heaven.  Such epiphanies, such transfigurations, are rare and perhaps unbearable.  Instead, we are slowly changed from one degree of glory to another, one mountain at a time - and there are many mountains along our way.  You know, nothing really changed about the climb to Eagle Rock - the hill was still steep, I was still out of breath, and I still worried about poisonous snakes.  Nothing really changed, except that the kindness of my companions awakened my senses 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 stars overhead or the fireflies in the trees or the sparks above the campfire.  Each little encounter revealed something more of God's immediate presence, God's glory, in every day life - a helping hand rolling up tarps and sleeping bags, sharing an extra canteen of water, singing as we walked the trails, catching the unchecked smile on a homesick camper's face when she saw the view from the top of Eagle Rock... It was glorious.

In this season of Epiphany, we have hiked together with sisters and brothers in faith from the wilderness of the Jordan River to the wilderness at the top of a 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 sometimes narrow and winding and steep.  We may get stuck on the side of a hill.  We will all at times need to stop and catch our breath.  In the end, the only way we will make it to Easter Morning is if we help one another climb.  And along the path, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, if we have hands to reach out and tongues to tell and hearts to beat and spirits to serve, we will slowly be changed from one degree of glory to another, and begin to shine with the likeness of Christ, the Artist in Residence.  Amen.

Artwork: Lake at Kanuga Conference Center (we hiked around it before starting up to Eagle Rock); "The Light of Christ has Come into the World," by Barbi Tinder; "Luke 9:28-34," by Chris Cook; "The Transfiguration," by Cornelis Monsma; "Blue Transfiguration," by Macha Chmakoff; "Transfiguration," by Lewis Bowman.

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