The Last Sunday in Epiphany — The Rev. David Rider

The Last Sunday in Epiphany: March 3, 2019

Exodus 34:29-35  |  2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]  |  Psalm 99

Preacher: The Rev. David Rider, Assisting Priest at St. Michael’s Church

Before we delve into today’s Scripture passage from Luke, I invite you to join me in an all-too-brief meditation

Please let go of anything in your hands, close your eyes, get your body as comfortable as possible in a wooden pew, and take a slow, deep breath, hold it, and let it out

In your mind’s eye, think of a moment when everything clicked in a joyful, transformative way

Maybe it was an experience with family or a romantic partner, maybe it was a huge breakthrough at work, or maybe it was an ultimate experience with nature

Keeping your eyes closed, consider what went so well in this experience

Did you feel deep connection with God, with the world, with another person, or your interior self?

Did you feel fully alive with all your bodily senses, or did you feel out of body in some mystical sense of the word?

Was the scene a busy one, or did time stand still for a brief moment with blessed silence?

Was your experience over in a heartbeat, or did it play out for hours or days on end?

If it occurred months or years ago, does it still take your breath away today?

Does it fall short when you try to explain it to someone who was not there?

Now please open your eyes

If we were on retreat together—like our recent men’s retreat—we would share our vignettes and listen to each other’s so-called mountaintop experiences—Abraham Maslow would be proud

If you are living a blessed life, you might have a dozen of these experiences when you take stock across the decades

They add zest, meaning, and joy to the otherwise mundane rhythms of our journey

Some people remain in constant search of such a quest, seeking thrilling moments of living on the edge while others of us set our hopes with smaller dreams

I invite you to close your eyes again, gently set aside your vignette for now, switch gears mentally, and put yourselves in the shoes of Peter in today’s story of the Transfiguration

You are Peter, and like a Labrador retriever puppy, you can be a bit excitable

You have been with Jesus for some time—an incredible experience for sure—and you can’t believe how lucky you are to hang with the Master

Already, you have too many stories to take into old age, you have been riding the wave without looking back, and now Jesus invites you to go mountain climbing with him

Is that awesome or what?

Just when it can’t get any better, you see not only Jesus but also Moses and Elijah

Are you thrilled or frightened, are you dreaming, hallucinating, or what?

Now, please open your eyes—no more meditations this morning

We encounter this Transfiguration story every year on the last Sunday of Epiphany—a season when we celebrate light breaking into the darkness and God’s manifest hand at work in the world

We rotate hearing this passage from Matthew, Mark and Luke—similar witnesses, yet nuanced in their telling of the story

The Transfiguration unfolds with two very different emotions—musicians might think of playing it both in a Major and Minor key

Excitable Peter experiences the story as another thrilling episode along the way—and it is on one level, for most anyone would get pumped about encountering Moses, Elijah and Jesus on a mountain

In his excitement, Peter proposes to build three dwellings or monuments to shrink-wrap the experience for all time in what a generation ago would have been called a Kodak moment

Without any question, it would qualify as the mother of all selfies—the social media post that goes viral like none other

As an old man, Peter certainly could tell “back in the day” stories about this encounter to anyone who would listen

For many years as a young priest, I assumed we heard this story as an intentional buzz before heading into the more somber days of Lent, when—as a wag once said—Episcopalians attempt to be religious

The Transfiguration story has more subtle themes in mind, however, for the Gospel writers

Certainly, they make a bold Christological proclamation—similar to the Baptism of Jesus story we heard a few weeks back—that Jesus embodies a unique vocation with God: divine authority proclaims from heaven that we should “listen to him”

But the story also pulls us forward with a spiritual premonition about the Passion fate that awaits Jesus in Jerusalem

Only Luke’s Transfiguration story says they went up to the mountain to pray, so whatever happens for Luke, it happens in a context of prayer

Luke emphasizes that Jesus will depart—literally, exodus—from Jerusalem, the Holy Week event that will bring both sorrow and liberation

We’ll never know whether Peter and company captured this nuance while up on the mountain

On the mountain, Peter and the disciples fall asleep at the switch, foretelling what will happen again at Gethsemane

Of course, a major punch line of this passage involves God’s admonition for us to “listen to him”

Our recent men’s retreat involved deep conversation about what it means to be a man who listens more carefully to other men, to our partners and family members, to other parishioners, and to God in prayer

Mother Leigh has convened not one but three Ignatian Exercise groups to help us listen more creatively and faithfully to God’s voice in our lives

Perhaps Church might be thought of as a school for listening—putting aside the chatter in our heads so that we break out of our somnambulant ways to experience life’s joys and sorrows anew, to attend to God’s call in our lives in both those transformative moments and amid the simple normalcy of our daily rhythms

Remember that the word ‘obedience’ derives from the same word as ‘listen’ adding a new twist to God’s command from heaven

 

Today’s Gospel lesson concludes with a story that follows immediately and changes the tone of Transfiguration

After Jesus and his disciples come down from the mountain, they encounter pulsating angst when an anguished father pleads for his son who is convulsing, foaming at the mouth and writhing in pain

It becomes the first of a half-dozen stories we encounter this year in which Jesus wrangles with demons and rebukes the evil spirit, especially capturing our attention when a vulnerable child is in crisis

Whatever interpretation you make, it clearly ties Jesus as a man of prayer on the mountain who connects his divine vocation to the palpable needs of the world—no spiritual day spas for Jesus—as the normative act of ministry, beckoning us to do the same as his disciples

It’s a wrap on Epiphany, we’ll let the good times roll for the next couple days, and then we begin the forty-day journey of Lent on Ash Wednesday

Jesus will return to the wilderness, and he invites us to do the same

We’ll ponder again the role of violence, God-forsakenness, and divine presence in Jesus’ life and in ours

Transformation.  Transfiguration.  Thrill-seeking spirituality.  Convulsing pain.  Premonitions of death.  The astounding greatness of God.