Sermon preached by the Rev’d Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany – February 19, 2012
In the name of our one God: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Amen.
General Douglas MacArthur once told of a difficult situation he faced as a cadet at West Point. “The first section,” he wrote, “was studying the time-space relationships later formulated by Einstein as his Theory of Relativity. The text was complex and, being unable to comprehend it, I committed it to memory. When I was called upon, I solemnly reeled off word for word what the book said.
“Our instructor, Colonel Fieberger, looked at me somewhat quizzically and asked, ‘Do you understand this theory.’ It was a bad moment for me, but I did not hesitate in replying, ‘No, sir.’ You could have heard a pin drop. I braced myself and waited. And then the slow words of the professor: “Neither do I, Mr. MacArthur. Section dismissed.”
An assumption that has been made by those who read the Gospels is that those who followed Jesus and became his disciples were absolutely clear about who he was and what he was up to. The story we might imagine goes something like this: Jesus appeared with his resume and business cards, and like a modern day head-hunter, called the twelve talented, spiritually astute gentlemen, who had anxiously been waiting for him to approach them, and they immediately got on board with his plan to go around teaching people to be good to one another and love everybody. He had enemies however, who also knew just who he was but they didn’t like his plan so they killed him. Amen.
The problem with this picture is that even a cursory reading of the Gospels reveals that all this is not at all true. The fact is that most of the contemporaries of Jesus had no idea who he was. The disciples were no exceptions. Like young cadet MacArthur, they were dealing with information about which they had no clue. Maybe that explains why all the drama in the Gospel today. Jesus was about to make a shift in his ministry from healing and miracles to the beginning of his journey to Jerusalem and his arrest and death on the cross. Jesus had previously sent his disciples out in mission and as they returned from these assignments they seem to have less and less understanding until Jesus even speaks very clearly to them about his disappointment at their hardness of heart.
It was important that his disciples get a grip on what all this meant. So he leads Peter, James, and John up a high mountain that will offer them privacy and a symbolic proximity to God—mountains were perceived as places of Divine revelation.
All of a sudden he is in conversation with Elijah, considered the most important among the prophets, and Moses who gave the Hebrews God’s Commandments. These two figures point to Jesus as the one who fulfills the law and the prophets. There is a brilliant glare of light and his clothes blaze like the sun on fresh white snow. Mark tells us that they were speechless, terrified, and finally bumbling Peter blurts out something about making tents for them.
Then God pulls out all the stops. A voice came out from a large cloud that surrounded them: “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” And as quickly as they appeared, Elijah and Moses were gone and it was just Jesus walking them down the mountain. Did they finally get it then? Did they know who he was and what he was up to? Probably not, but God sure got their attention!
I wonder if, on Good Friday, looking back on that strange but awesome episode from, if they did not think to themselves “what a terrible let down all this has been from the glory of that day. Would that we could have just stayed on the mountain top.” There journey, however would end on another hill with a crucified Jesus. These poor, dumbfounded disciples are thrust from this moment of glory on the mountain to the hard way down with Jesus to the cross. And so are we.
Today we’re singing lots of “alleluias” and joyful music today yet come Wednesday they will be banished for 40 days. We will assemble for a day of a very different liturgical flavor with dark purple vestments and have a cross of ashes smeared on our foreheads. What a “downer” after today’s worship and the past eight weeks of the Christmas and Epiphany seasons and the themes of hope and light. When this morning’s worship is over we will be facing Jerusalem and the inevitability of what happened there two thousand years ago.
The opening prayer this morning asks that we be “strengthened to bear our cross.” Talk about one’s cross has for me always come with a negative connotation. Maybe it has to do with my early religious experience and the idea promoted by well- meaning priests who told us we had all had a cross to bear in life. The problem was the way they perceived that cross. You were in an abusive marriage—that was your cross to bear. You were subject to bouts of deep depression—your cross. Your daddy was a nasty alcoholic—again, your cross. Your newborn was diagnosed with a life-threatening heart malfunction—yes, that is your cross. The idea that God would saddle us with such hardships just to make a point about the cross and make our lives more grueling bothered me and I was venting to Mother Louise about it on Tuesday. Then she gave me an “epiphany.” “The cross is something you have to pick up,” she said, “not something you been given that makes your life difficult and even miserable.
Jesus picked up his cross—by choice. The cross for us is a conscious decision to act, to do something.” Now that’s a different story and a very different understanding of what the cross is for me.
The experience of the Transfiguration was for both the disciples and for Jesus an “epiphany”—a sudden revelation that was unexpected and eye opening. Jesus realized what was facing him on the road to Jerusalem in which he would now embark and Peter, James, and John caught a glimpse of God’s glory manifested in him—whether or not it registered completely at the time.
The experience of Epiphany and God’s revelation to us does not stop on this last Sunday of the season. Rather these several Sundays that included the feast of the Baptism of Jesus—an event in which he was first “outted” as God’s Son and the encore of that disclosure on the mountain when he was transfigured—are meant to get us ready for all the epiphanies we may have during the weeks of Lent that follow and throughout our entire life.
Like young cadet MacArthur, we may not fully understand who Jesus is or what God is up to in our lives right now. It may take several epiphanies—maybe a few trip to a mountaintop just as it did for the disciples. It may take a lifetime.
In the meantime, what if we all were to reframe for ourselves this concept of bearing the cross. What if, instead of seeing all the hardships and suffering in our life as “crosses we are meant to bear” we took a real good inventory and made some decisions about what we want to pick up—something we want to do or some action we want to take to help bring a small modicum of the Kingdom of God into our neighborhood?
Maybe we’re doing it already. Maybe it’s our work in the world or the way we have decided to respect and care for other human beings. Maybe it’s our faithful commitment to God’s work through this faith community.
The Transfiguration event we celebrate today was a wonderful and exciting occasion, one which we may or may not at all understand or grasp, but that mountain of God is not meant to be a shrine for the past but the meeting place where we along with Elijah and Moses and Peter, James, and John can envision a future of justice and peace on our planet and in our time.
I’m sure they all would have preferred to stay up on the mountain and reveled in all that warmth and coziness and mystery but that was not the plan. It was not what happened on the mountain that would make a difference in the world but what they did when they left.
We may love our Sunday morning worship time here and, I would imagine there are days when the circumstances of our lives are such that we may wish he did not have to leave, but our worship is really not complete until we connect what we say and hear and do here with earthly need. What if Sunday allowed us to get up on Monday morning and to see and hear what is hidden from Monday-only eyes and ears, that God is present and at work in every corner of life?
The success of our Sunday morning is best measured by what we do on Monday and Tuesday and beyond. In the words of an old saying in Pentecostal churches, “It ain’t how high folks jump that make ‘em Christians. It’s what they do when they hits the ground.”