Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany: The Transfiguration of Our Lord – March 2, 2014
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Amen.
I don’t have many phobias but one I will share is my fear of driving over bridges—not the kind that connects two sections of Norwalk as you enter SoNo on Washington Street. I’m fine with that kind of benign crossing. It’s long span bridges, bridges that seem to go sky-high as you travel over them, bridges that cover a lot of water—maybe because I can’t swim.
Being from New Jersey, and for many years needing to visit family who lived there, I had to travel across the Tappan Zee several times a year. I couldn’t wait until I reached the opposite end. And, if there was heavy traffic and we were stopped in the middle, just a little panic would set in. Yet bridges are the means by which we get from one destination to another. Bridges are conduits of passage and transition. Without them, we could not get on with the business of life. So I cross them, albeit with some trepidation—or stay put, and get nowhere.
This Last Sunday after the Epiphany always brings us the astonishing story of the Transfiguration. It is a transition Sunday, a bridge we are asked to cross to arrive at Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent, and eventually Easter. At one end is the glorious season of Christmas and Epiphany with their bright lights and sweet music; at the other end is our annual commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, calls this “the swing Sunday,” the day those who follow Jesus look down at our maps and say, “Uh-oh,” because it is time to turn away from the twinkling stars of Christmas toward the deep wilderness of Lent.
Listen to the words of the final hymn today as we bid farewell to the joyful acclamation “Alleluia.” Imagine singing this lively tune, with its accompaniment of animated percussion instruments, walking arm in arm, hand in hand, as we cross this great and holy bridge together, forging our way to the glory of Easter.
Matthew’s Gospel today includes the stuff that makes for indelible memories. Whatever this extraordinary event of the Transfiguration means, it made such an impression on the writers of the gospel that years later they could still recall it. To recap briefly, Jesus leads his disciples up a mountain. He was always taking them to places that nobody much wanted to go, but this was different. Mountains are quiet, restful places for retreat and renewal. They were all tired and looking forward to this respite time. But when they get to the mountain top everything changes. Their solitude is intruded upon by dead but great figures of faith—Moses and Elijah.
The experience awakens sleepy Peter who announces, “Master, it is good for us to be here.” He wants to pitch a few tents and stay for the long haul but the unexpected cloud that appears cuts him off and the disciples soon realize that they are in over their heads. Then a voice confirms that this Jesus is God’s Son, the Beloved. They are told to “listen to him.”
The disciples emerge from the Transfiguration event with an indelible memory—not the kind that poets write about, of sunrises, soft breezes, warm friends, and music. On this mountain these three simple fishermen experienced the presence of God and it reduced them to silence.
Novelist Mary Gordon calls the Transfiguration “an incident of whiteness.” She says that it is at this moment Jesus insists on being seen. And so it can be read as a celebration of the visible.” She tells this story:
I wandered once be chance into a Catholic church in San Francisco where the Mass was being said half in Chinese, and half in English. The priest, who was Chinese, preached on the Transfiguration. “We don’t know whether this really happened,” he said, “but if it did, it was one of those moments where the veil between the invisible and the visible is torn away.”
He spoke of a mentally challenged man with whom he worked. When he asked the man if he prayed, the man said he did, and when he prayed, what he meant was that he listened. The priest asked what he heard. The man said, “I hear: ‘You are my beloved.’” The priest told the congregation, “This is what we should always be hearing.”
So many disruptions, so much noise, so many demands can obstruct that inner voice of God. External forces can fill our head with other negative, destructive messages about our value and meaning. We are so distracted by our gadgets, so busy with our work, so addicted to our gratifications, and so resistant to leaving our comfort zones that a nice long spell in the wilderness is just what we need.
Have you ever tried to get on a subway in Manhattan at rush hour on a Friday? A woman and her young son were trying to squeeze into an E train to go to uptown. It was pandemonium. Squished on the escalators with half of New York City, the boy asked his mom, “Are we in line, Mom?” “No, she answered, “there is no line. This isn’t school. This is life.” This is life.
It is time again to escape to the mountain top—or at least to distance ourselves as much as we can from the ruckus of our life routine. Like artists, God has given us the grace to fashion our lives and use our distinctive gifts to transform ourselves ever more powerfully into that image of God into which we were created in the first place.
What say we cross this bridge together? We’ll start with a smudge of ash on our forehead this Wednesday. We can access that sacred symbol before we leave for our work day, during the lunch hour, or at the end of our day—three different service times.
The theme we are raising up this Lent is “Feeding our soul, feeding the hungry in the city and the world.” Simply put, it suggests a commitment to participate in weekday Eucharist which will be offered at different times every Monday through Thursday, an invitation to help fill the shelves of a local food pantry as well as to provide food for the starving who may be half way around the globe. Details are in your Lent take-away this morning. You’ll hear more on Ash Wednesday and each Sunday in Lent.
All of this may be somewhat inconvenient. It may cause a disruption in one’s schedule. It may require some juggling. It may even require us to forego another event or pull out a little cash. It’s all voluntary. Like me and my unease upon the approach to the big bridge, we can do nothing, stay put, and get nowhere.
In her sermon on this very Sunday, Barbara Brown Taylor is preaching this about that journey: “No one can make you go, after all. But if you’ve been looking for some excuse to head to your own mountaintop and pray, this is it. If you’ve been looking for some way to trade in your old certainties for new movement in your life, look no further. Tent or no tent, this is your chance to encounter God’s contagious glory, so that a little of that shining rubs off on you.”
I don’t like bridges but I’m ready to cross this one. I don’t know what the trip will be like but I do know that it will be a safe one and will take us to a place we need to be. And if we really, really listen, really pay attention, we may just hear some words of welcome on the other side: “Thank you for making the journey. You are my beloved!”