The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
I came across a Washington Post story of a few years ago, about how animals in search of food often wind up getting their heads stuck in human trash. There was a raccoon in a tree with its head in a peanut butter jar, a young deer with a glass bowl on its head, a cat stuck in an empty can of Chef Boyardee. All of them got saved, so even though it’s sad, it’s really kind of comical too. A wildlife rescuer who managed to save a coyote stuck for 10 days in a plastic jug said, “A lot of people go, ‘If they got their head in, how come they can’t get it out?’ Well, once they get in it … they don’t have hands to move it around.” So, yes. Part of the problem is the trash that people leave lying around. Part of the problem is that the animals just can’t free themselves from the trash when they get stuck in it. Maybe we know something of how that feels.
But here we are at the mountaintop, the last Sunday of the season of light we call Epiphany, once more telling the story of the Transfiguration and poised to descend into the dark valley of Lent. It’s always this particular gospel story on this particular Sunday in the church year, just before we begin the season of penitence that leads up to Easter. Only it feels like we’re already in the valley of Lent, doesn’t it. Did we ever actually climb out of it from 2020? The Lentiest Lent we ever Lented? Or is this one of those sand dune mountains, where we take one step up and then slide back two?
No wonder Peter urges Jesus to let them build dwellings up there on that mountaintop. He’s well aware of what awaits them back down below. I get the temptation. If we’re lucky enough to have a mountaintop to retreat to these days, the temptation is great to fortify that dwelling and just stay there, isn’t it – and block all the rest of it out.
But Paul urges the Corinthians and us to act with boldness and not to lose heart. No cowering on the mountaintop, people. We have to make our descent, like it or not.
We and our Jewish siblings base our faith on the good news of the Exodus, on the essence of God as the one who delivers us from slavery. The story of God bringing the people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land is central to both of our faiths, repeated every year for the Jews at Passover and echoed for us in our Easter celebration. Jesus for us Christians is the continuation of that Exodus deliverance, the ongoing saving grace of God that brings us out of all that holds us captive.
So, it’s not too surprising that the Exodus is part of today’s story of the Transfiguration, of Jesus on the mountaintop. As our Old Testament reading lines up for us, the mountaintop is also where Moses met God, where Moses too became radiant with light. And it’s where Moses was given the authority and direction to lead the people out of slavery – not just the physical slavery of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the slavery that persisted in the people’s hearts. With the Law, the commandments for how to live, God was trying to show people the way to freedom: do this, and you shall live.
So when Jesus has his moment on the mountaintop, his friends Peter and James and John should be catching the allusion. To make it clearer, Moses and Elijah appear there with Jesus – Moses the leader out of Egypt, and Elijah the prophet who came to remind the Israelites of God’s redeeming power. And Luke lets us eavesdrop on their conversation just enough to know that what they’re talking about is Jesus’ ‘departure’ – that’s the translation we have, but the Greek word is ‘exodos.’ Sound familiar? They’re talking about Jesus’ exodus. This word appears nowhere else in the gospels, mind you.
And then the vision disappears and Jesus looks normal again, and the disciples are so confused they can’t even figure out what to say about what they’ve seen. And they travel back down the mountain to the valley below, and just as they feared – it’s chaos. There’s a ‘great crowd’ and people shouting and a father frantic about his son possessed by a demon, and the disciples left down below have done a terrible job of managing it all. But Jesus steps into this chaos and rebukes it – rebukes the chaos of the terrified disciples who thought they could do magic, rebukes the faithless father who is losing hope about his son, rebukes the chaos of the demon in the boy, and heals them all. The boy is set free and healed; his father is set free and reunited with his child; the disciples are set free from their failure to put their trust and power in God alone. It’s an exodus, right there in the valley.
The Exodus (capital E) happened long ago in Israel’s history. But it wasn’t a onetime thing. That wasn’t the only time God’s people had to be delivered out of slavery. Over and over in the prophets, we hear the call to return to the God of deliverance, to be freed. And over and over again in the gospels, Jesus reminds us of this call. Right at the start of his ministry he declares, I am here to proclaim release to the captives and to let the oppressed go free. He heals people, over and over again releasing them from their illness, from their fear, from their place on the margins. His death and resurrection are also an exodus, a deliverance. We claim that deliverance in the language of our baptisms, that we are cleansed from sin and born again, delivered, set free. Exodus is deliverance from all that binds us, and God does this over and over again. And over and over again we have to claim this deliverance for ourselves.
So my friends, here on the mountaintop that feels more like a valley, what do we need to be delivered from?
I could make you turn to your neighbor right now and name a few things. But I know, we’re all still getting used to there being other people next to us, so instead, I’ll throw a few things out there. Most of this is mine, but not all. I think you might hear something of yourself in these.
We’re trapped by fear: Especially fear of the news. Of Putin and war in Ukraine and maybe beyond. Of our country’s own potential to turn from democracy to dictatorship. Of the climate crisis and how nothing is being done to change it. Of rising crime on the subway. Of being attacked because we’re Asian, or because we’re trans, or because we’re Black. And so on.
We’re caught by anxiety: I’ll never get this whole list of things done. I’m wasting my time. I’m not as good as I should be, or as they think I am. My children will make the wrong friends and become like the teens in ‘Euphoria.’ There’s so much to do. Did I mention I’ll never get it all done?
We’re captive to what Walter Brueggemann calls Pharaoh’s anxiety system: I have to work or I’ll be fired. I don’t measure up. If I lose my job I’m nothing. If I retire I’m nothing. If I never had a career, I’m nothing. I need more money. And more and more money. Also more stuff. There’s not enough! I’m not enough!
We’re addicted to certain outcomes: My mom must get better and live to 100. My kids must flourish and be happy. My life must follow my carefully scripted plan. I must run faster in my next race. I must lose 10 pounds. I must get better.
We’re addicted to other things too, to alcohol, to substances, to sex, to eating. More dangerous addictions, with an even greater hold on us.
We’re slaves to our proud isolation that keeps us from being vulnerable with one another. I don’t want to belong to a club that has people like me in it. I’d rather just stay home and safe behind my Zoom screen. No, you can’t come into my apartment.
And we’re weighed down by the chains of our grief, at all that we have lost in this pandemic. All the assumptions and expectations that we thought were normal, all the plans and dreams that came crashing down, all the rites of passage that didn’t happen or even worse, happened only on Zoom, all the friends we didn’t see and the years we missed with our grandkids. And so on.
Jesus says, let it go. Be set free. I am here to lead you out, to show you the way out, the exodus. Follow me, and be free. I am the way, and the truth, and the life. The truth looks like this: let yourself go, lay your burdens down, live. Put all of this in my hands. Stop holding on so tightly. And I’ll lead you out each and every time you forget and trap yourself again.
Because the thing is, all of that is trash. It might look like food. It might smell good and be brightly colored and make us think it’s important, or even good for us. But in the end, we just get stuck in it. And we don’t have the means for getting ourselves out. We don’t have the ability to set ourselves free. We need an exodus.
This Lent we’re going to see if together, with God, we can let it all go. Letting Go is the theme – I wanted to make it Let It Go and get you all singing, but Julie said no. We’re going to grieve and lament, to sit in quiet, to talk down the voices in our heads, to nourish ourselves with prayer and discipline and community. We’re going to put our hands into Jesus’ hands, and let him lead us out. As that famous poem from the eve of WWII goes, ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’
No Exodus is easy. It takes work to unstick us. This might be a long journey. But God will deliver us, again. And to that we say, Alleluia.