Last Sunday after Epiphany

Sermon for Last Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday, February 15 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
2 Kg 2:1-12; Ps 50:1-6; 2 Cor 4:3-6; Mk 9:2-9

I am going to admit something to you—I find the Transfiguration a very hard text on which to preach. The legend may be that priests will go to all kinds of lengths to avoid preaching on Trinity Sunday, but for me it is Transfiguration. But since it is a text, almost the only text, which the lectionary has us read twice every year, it’s just not possible to avoid entirely.

Part of the problem may be that it is, or at least seems to be, entirely too obvious. We seem here to have a brief sighting of Awesome Super-Jesus, a figure beloved by a certain kind of Christian imagination, but not actually found anywhere else in scripture. It is all light and glory and terror, and Jesus chatting, not with whores and lepers, but with leaders, important men from Israel’s history. The first reading today points particularly to the Elijah connection, as we hear of that prophet’s ascension to heaven in a blaze of light; and there it is all, really, about power, about a demonstration of Elijah’s power, and his successor Elisha’s quest to have even more of it. Elijah, who has recently slaughtered all the prophets of Baal; Elisha, who will make quick use of his double portion of power to arrange the gruesome deaths of some young boys who tease him. So the apparent vision of Super-Jesus at the Transfiguration troubles me.

But it also seems to have troubled Jesus himself, or at least to have been something he perceived as a potential source of trouble. The strict instructions to Peter, James and John to say nothing of what they had seen should be taken with some seriousness; this is an incident that simply cannot be understood if it is separated from crucifixion and resurrection, an incident that can only be spoken of when we know that the true revelation of God’s character came not in blazing light, but in a man tortured to death on a tree by the powers of the day, in a gentle encounter in a garden in the morning, in a meal of fried fish on the shore of the lake.

Reading through that lens, we can perhaps see something else in this story—and especially in the words from the cloud. For it is in the cloud, not in the light, that God’s intentions begin to be understood; when the voice says, “This is my son, the beloved.” It is not power which transfigures, which transforms; it is love. The love between God the Father and his Son, the love which does not remain enclosed but turns to us, the love of the three-personed God for this broken world and all its creatures. Love reveals itself on the mountain, brilliant and terrifying and confusing; held in the love of God the Father, Jesus the beloved is seen in something like the fullness of his being; and held in the love of Jesus, the disciples—who are beloved too, small failing people that they are—can witness this and live.

And by love we too can be re-made, transformed, the reality of our being brought into light. “Love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be,” the hymn says. The worst of us, beloved and beautiful in the eyes of God. Lovely. Transfigured.

It’s important to talk about what happens next, what happens when they come down from the mountain, because as soon as they are near the low ground again, Jesus and the disciples are plunged into a chaotic scene. There’s a crowd running around, and the other disciples are confounded, left helpless, by a boy who seems very unlovely indeed, a boy who has seizures and who constantly self-harms, a boy thrashing in the dirt while people gawk at him, a boy the disciples cannot heal. And with him, a desperate father whose love will not give up, who will not stop loving his sick and frightening child. A father who throws himself down before Jesus with one of the greatest statements of faith in scripture—“Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief!” This boy is loved enough that his father will fight through doubt and despair and hostile crowds for his sake. This boy is loved enough to be lovely, to be lifted up by that greater beloved son, to be transformed. As that Son who is God in human flesh will be lifted up from the earth upon the cross, made lovely in his final offering; will be lifted up in the Father’s love from the dirt of the grave, and return in the beauty of dawn.

In small ways, we know about this. We know how the people we love with our plain flawed human love are revealed to us as heartbreakingly beautiful, luminescent—how we may see them, to some limited degree, as God sees them, wholly beloved.

We have moments of other visions, the sudden lifting of the veil which happens most, perhaps, in the quietest and most ordinary moments, when the creatures around us are transfigured to our eyes, seen in their reality. When Bishop Mark MacDonald was here a couple of weeks ago, he talked about an interpretation of the story of Moses and the burning bush, which proposes that the bush didn’t change – what happened was that Moses, in that moment, saw the bush as it really was, in the entirety of its being, and saw and heard the presence of God within it. Thomas Merton talks about a moment on an unremarkable street corner in a dull southern city, while he was waiting for a dental appointment, and suddenly everyone was beautiful, suddenly and just briefly he could see them, really see them. It happens in these odd mundane moments, it happens in prayer and in ordinary work, in sharing food, in sorting garbage, in the passage of a stranger across our field of vision or a quick exchange of smiles. Tiny hints of the fullness of vision, what it may be like to see creation as God sees it, what it may be like to see God in creation, God in flesh.

Maybe sometimes the best our imaginations can do is to turn this into something like the disciples’ vision of Awesome Super-Jesus. Our vocabulary is limited, our range of metaphors is narrow, we are trapped in our cultural understandings of what is important. We look into what tradition gives us, and we come up with glorious shiny patriarchs on a mountaintop, and then further come up with the brilliant idea of building shrines for them right there, worshipping them on the mountaintop rather than getting down into the valley and doing what needs to be done. It is not really our fault, any more than it is Peter’s fault, that we can’t get further, that we think in terms of power and glory and permanence, status and stability.

But the mercy of God comes in the cloud, enveloping our weak and misguided understandings in mystery, and out of mystery God speaks. This is the beloved, he says. Within the cloud, within the obscurity. Listen to him. Listen, because he will tell you about his coming death, because he will tell you things you do not want to hear, because he will tell you that power is hollow and love is the perfect offering of self. Listen to him, because he will get down in the dirt with a sick child and a father who cannot entirely believe, and care for them as the crowd goes on mocking. Listen, most of all, because he will tell you to be silent. It is hard, very hard, to be silent. For all kinds of reasons we rush into speech. But in the silence we may begin to see.

I cannot promise you a transfiguration moment at Vestry; nothing is impossible with God, but some things remain improbable. I cannot even promise you a silence in which vision begins. But even the mundane business of approving statements and voting on budgets is a process which is held within God. It is a part of how we declare what our community is and may become, how we define the boundaries of our concern, how we can reach into a loveless world with love. How we can live in the world as if we could see its transfigured face, its actual face in God; how that face can begin to become apparent.