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Feb. 23, 2020 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Feb 23, 2020 in Epiphany, Sermons

The Last Sunday after the Epiphany

February 23, 2020

The blinding brilliance we hear of in the gospel is a fitting culmination to this Epiphany season of light, before entering into a less exuberant season with Lent’s more reflective tone. Yes, Ash Wednesday is only three days away (services are Noon and 7 PM). So today is a great celebration of the light of Christ and our Alleluia joy, which explains the word ‘light’ appearing 48 times and ‘Alleluia’ 27 times in the 10:30 bulletin! As is our tradition, at the end of services today we will ‘bury the Alleluias’ to embody our closing this season of Jesus’ nativity light until we dig them up again in six weeks on Easter Eve. That night, out by the columbarium, we will burn them to create the light igniting our new Paschal candle before carrying it in as his resurrection light.

People often take up spiritual practices or disciplines to help them spend more time or energy on deepening their relationship with God—it is a time of sacred reflection, not to be somber or sad, but to be thoughtful, to quiet the din of the world and listen to the voice of God in your heart. As a sign of that objective, at the end of the sermon I’ll give you time to write your intentions or prayers on your ‘Alleluia’ slips of paper, which you’ll bring forward and place in the glass box at Communion.

In our reading from Exodus, the Lord tells Moses to come up the mountain saying, “I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” Moses goes, and soon the mountain is covered by a cloud and remains that way for six days, and then the Lord appears to him “like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” Moses enters the cloud, and was on the mountain with Lord for forty days and nights. This reading beautifully illuminates the scene with Jesus in today’s gospel, in which he took Peter, James and John with him up a mountain, and they witness the strange event of Jesus’ transfiguration as he stands between Moses and Elijah. The moment is characterized by brilliant divine light as with Moses and the fire of God’s glory. “A bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

The three disciples witnessing this unfathomable scene react as any of us would; they are blown back, falling to the ground overcome with fear! In shock perhaps, and certainly unable to comprehend what has just occurred. They want to contain things which feel wildly outside of their control, beyond normal, but that’s not the right behavior; they need to stay in this wild moment just as it is. Moses and Elijah’s presence on the mountain with Jesus that day let the disciples recognize Jesus as the culmination of the law and the prophets. Those two also symbolize death and life; Moses experienced death after seeing but not entering the Promised Land, Elijah did not die but was carried up to heaven in a chariot of fire. Jesus standing between them suggests we see him as being in the midst of both death and life. It’s beautifully illustrated in icons of the Transfiguration (see below) where we often see Jesus positioned as coming out from a dark colored, almond-shaped background called a mandorla, a shape created by two intersecting circles, or sometimes he is within two concentric circles. That place of overlap or intersection symbolizes Jesus being in both the spiritual and the human realm, being of both heaven and earth. In Jesus’ transfiguration the light doesn’t shine down on Jesus, it emanates from within him.

From the second letter of Peter we heard him recount his witnessing of this saying, “…be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” That light is still etched permanently and clearly in his mind and it continues to transform and inform his faith. Pastor Don Burnett, one of our parishioners, is preaching at a church on Guemes Island today, and so he and I have been talking about the Transfiguration and how we understand it. He is intrigued by how visual a story it is, and saw it as one of scripture’s “revealings” or “thin places,” he says, “where the seen and the unseen meet or where the transcendent and immanent overlap.” He notes of how the ‘visual story’ of Moses (we just heard) is summed up in this visual story of Jesus’ transfiguration. He beautifully states, “In a clear re-envisioning of this mountain top experience, Jesus invited Peter, James, and John to climb up with him to a mountain.  In the gospel(s) the followers of God are invited not to stony tablets of God’s Voice Written by a fiery finger but to the Word made flesh.”

A question I ask myself when preaching is, What do I know to be true of God from these readings? Yes, Jesus is transfigured, and God also transforms those three disciples who stand in for them all, and for us. I know Jesus lovingly invites us up that mountain with him, and sometimes we ignore the invitation, perhaps because we’re busy or will have more time to respond —later. We forget that all we do is open to God. Going up the mountain with our Lord is hard work, even if only metaphorically. When we make the hard climb of turning from our day to day routines and expectations and devote real time and attention to go to be with him, we do more than listen to him; we hear him. What I know to be true is that when we do – we too may find in him the ‘mountaintop experience’ as these disciples did. Knocked over and transformed by the experience of Christ’s revealing, as the disciples were. When iconographers depict the disciples’ own transformation, they show both, and thereby help us place ourselves into the visual story by showing the journey in a sequence, (since icons are not limited to depict only one moment in time). Notice here how Jesus leads them up the mountain gesturing and turning as if speaking to them on the way. We can surely see ourselves in that invitation and journey—now notice what’s across from it; recovered somewhat from their awe and disorientation, the disciples head back down the mountain with Jesus, but this time he is sending them, they are leading. Their heads still turn to listen (as God’s instruction just spoken in the cloud, “Listen to him!”) but their bodies are on the move! Jesus stands behind them as the descend back down the mountain, backing them up, sending them, pointing the way even. Theologians suggest that Peter, James, and John represent faith, hope, and love respectively, and thereby the trio stands in for all of the disciples and for all followers of Jesus’ Way. In this icon James, who embodies hope, leads the climb up, Peter in his strong faith never takes his eyes off the Lord, and then it is the youngest of the three, John who is called ‘Beloved,’ who leads on the way down — love is leading the way as they go back out into the world. Which one do you most identify with in walking with Christ?

In Adult Education we have been using a little book on the icons of Christ by the former Archbishop of Canterbury. About the icon and this scripture, he writes, “If we do not want to be changed, it is better not to look too hard or too long. The apostles in the icon are shielding their eyes, because what they see is not easily manageable in their existing world… That’s what will sink in if and as we look at Jesus transfigured. We must be prepared to be mentally and spiritually flung backwards, baffled in finding adequate words for this, even fearful at the prospect of discipleship [the Transfiguration] puts before us. But it is the one vision that allows us to see everything in our experience as open to God – so that we need not fear that God is bound to disappear if we encounter this or that situation, that it is impossible to stay with God in times of failure, pain, or self-doubt. That is not a glib reassurance but a sober statement of what’s implied in recognizing the glory of God in Jesus.”

Williams says, “We are given a glimpse of what God can do in this rare moment of direct vision, when the door is opened by and in Jesus, and the end of the world is fleetingly there before us…But if we have seen his glory on the mountain, we know at least, whatever our terrors, that death cannot decide the boundaries of God’s life. With him the door is always open, and no one can shut it.”

Alleluia!

Now look at your Alleluia slips and imagine the visual story of the light of Christ shining before you. Is there is a spiritual practice that might help you walk with our Lord or rest in his embrace? Maybe something you want to take up doing, or something you want to stop from getting in your way? Write a word or two of it on your paper, fold it closed, and offer your prayer of hope and Alleluia to God. Once they have all come forward, we will bless these holy intentions—because they are to help us climb up the mountain with our Lord and be wholly open to our own transfiguration. Again, as Williams said, “With him the door is always open, and no one can shut it.”

© 2020 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.


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