A homily preached at St. James Episcopal Church on the last Sunday of Epiphany. March 6, 2011. Matthew 17:1-9
We all have our own unique gifts and talents. I have a special skill that causes my wife to prohibit me from going to the grocery store alone unless it’s an extreme emergency. You see, I have an uncanny ability to take a list that she has written out for me and get everything on that list and still get nothing that she wants in terms of quality and value. (Some of you may have spouses with that same talent?) My purchasing decisions always seem to just astound my dear wife. She will ask, “Why did you get that brand?” To which I reply, “I don’t know…the box was big and red and yellow. It just spoke to me. That jar of Apple Juice had a really cool picture of some people hiking on it.” Then it usually turns into a lesson on “just because it says it’s on sale does not mean it is a good deal” or “just because it has green leaves printed on it does not really mean it’s healthy or environmentally friendly.” Or my personal favorite, “There’s no such thing as healthy Cocoa Puffs---even if it comes in a green box.” Recently my wife asked me why I had purchased such an unusually expense brand of deodorant? I grabbed the container and looked at the beautiful drawing of mountains on the front and then my eyes went immediately to a red sticker on top of the package. I suddenly remembered why I purchased the deodorant. The sticker said, ( I am not joking---this is an exact quote) “Smells like wilderness, open air and freedom.” When I thought about it I had to admit that I really could not honestly say that I know what freedom smells like. You see, my wife’s job actually is in marketing, so she just looked at me and said, “It is people like you that keep people like me in business. You are a marketing department‘s dream come true.”
The world of marketing and advertising is often predicated on getting us to see something that is not really there---appealing visuals, nostalgic sounds and all sorts of techniques to conjure up the illusion of substance where there is none.
But what Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God over and over in the Gospel is what I like to call God’s reverse marketing strategy. Whereas the world will try to polish and shine and manipulate you into seeing something valuable where there is really nothing, in the kingdom of God, it’s just the opposite. The most valuable is often hidden in plain sight disguised as something ordinary and mundane. What appears to be of little value or consequence is precisely where that which is of most value to God is to be found. It’s almost as if God goes out of the way to make sure you dig deeper and have to take a closer look. It would be a whole lot easier in the kingdom of God if we just had neon signs from God that flashed and said “Pay attention to this”!! That’s how the world works. That’s not generally how the kingdom of God works.
But ever now and then we do get a bright light that breaks through the darkness. Sometimes we do get a rare glimpse into a deeper reality than the one we are familiar with.. In the language of Scripture, we call that an Epiphany. An epiphany is often a sudden insight… an a-ha moment where our own understanding is transformed.
We often use the language of light to describe those moments of sudden insight. We say things like “She finally saw the light” or “it was like someone flipped the light switch on and I could finally see” or even the imagery of cartoons where there is a light bulb is drawn over the character’s head.
The language of our faith tradition also describes epiphanies another way: Mountain top experiences. Mountain tops are places where see things with a higher clarity because our perspective is elevated. I like that language. It’s not that God is somehow present on the mountain top and absent from the valley below---it’s just that somehow we are more present to God in those special moments. In our first reading from Exodus we heard how Moses went up to the mountain of God to experience an epiphany. In first Kings 19 we learn about another fellow named Elijah, who went up to the same place---Mt. Horeb or Mt.Sinai, the mountain of God, to experience an epiphany of the glory of the Lord passing by. Both experiences were filled with light. Both experiences were mountain top experiences. Now, both of those characters appear in the vision we heard described in today’s Gospel reading.
As we come to the conclusion of this liturgical season of Epiphany we are offered this story of the transfiguration of Jesus---an vision that our other reading from 2nd Peter describes as taking place up “on the holy mountain”--- because it’s really sort of the ultimate Epiphany story where disciples see the light on so many levels.
The way the Gospel describes it, it’s almost as if these disciples are now being invited to experience that same light that Moses and Elijah experienced in their mountain top Epiphanies. What is significant in the Gospel story is where this light is coming from---or I should say WHO this light is coming from: JESUS
That is the message of the Transfiguration and ultimately the message of Epiphany: Jesus is the God’s light for the world.
Jesus did not become the light of God and the light of the world at this moment. Theologically speaking, he already was and is that. The transfiguration was simply a brief pulling back the curtains to reveal what was already true. It’s sort of like when I go hiking in the mountains. I can start off down here at this elevation in Hendersonville and it will be foggy, cloudy and wet, but as I drive up the Parkway, somewhere around 4500 to 5000 ft elevation, I sometimes get above the clouds and there is the sun and the blue sky. It’s so depressing down below, but the sun did not go away---I simply could not see it, but it was there all along. I like to think of this Transfiguration experience as something like a break in the clouds, to reveal what was true about Jesus all along. It was a very dramatic and sudden break in the clouds.
And then comes the strangest part of the whole story. It all goes away as suddenly as it happened and the Jesus and the disciples go back down the mountain and start serving again.
It is wonderful to be granted those epiphany moments where we feel like we are on top of the mountain, but the story is not meant to end there. My sisters and brothers, I humbly submit to you that it is vital that we come down from the mountain to serve in the world in the light of that experience. We are never meant to remain on the mountain. We are meant to carry it with is into the world
The mountain top experience is not meant to be a substitute for the world down below, instead the mountain top experience is given to nourish and sustain us to serve once we come down into that real world again. N.T. Wright, now a retired Anglican Bishop in England says this about the connection between the healing of the boy and the Transfiguration: “These things are never given for their own sake, but so that, as we are equipped by them, God can use us within his needy world"
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I would just rather stay on top of the mountain, but to do so would be to really negate the purpose of the whole mountaintop experience.
Many, many times when I have gone hiking in the mountains, I have found myself lost and caught up in the beauty of the place. I have verbalized it: “I don’t ever want to leave here. I wish I could just stay here forever. Honey, let’s buy a cabin up in the woods and just become hermits up here.” However, I know that I am not meant to stay there. For me and my vocation there is a world of homeless and hungry people that I am supposed to come back to. The beautiful scenes I experience up there in the mountains are not where I live, but I carry their beauty with me so that I can go back renewed in order to serve in the world where I do live.
That’s the challenge of mountain top experiences. We are not meant to hold on to them for dear life, we are supposed to let them hold onto us as we live life.
Epiphanies are not given to entertain us and keep us up on the mountain top. Epiphanies are given to equip us to come down and serve. We carry them with us and return to those Epiphanies moments to give us strength to serve in the dark places we face each day in the real world.
People sometimes have the wrong notion about what my vocation is like. They will say things like, “You sure are lucky to get to serve the homeless. You must always get to see Jesus in the faces of the people you serve everyday.”
As flattering as that is to me, I always feel like looking around behind me because surely Mother Teresa or someone like that must be standing behind me and that’s who they are talking to. I would love to live in an elevated state of spiritual bliss where I was always aware of the presence of Christ in everyone I meet, but the reality is that it’s hard. It’s hard for me to see Jesus in the face of the man who has walked out on his family to pursue drugs. It’s hard for me to see Jesus in the face of the person who comes to my doors strung out and cussing me (sometimes in English and Spanish and a little sign language). I try to tell people that I don’t always see Jesus in everyone, but I catch glimpses of Jesus every now and then and that’s enough to sustain me.
Several years ago I had one of those high points in my spiritual journey. I had just been to my very first Commission on Ministry overnight and everyone seemed to affirm that they also could discern a call to the diaconate in my life. I was on cloud nine from that experience. I went to Atlanta for a couple of days for a International Conference for Homeless Shelter ministries. We rolled our sleeves up and jumped right in to urban development ministry. The theme of the conference was from Matthew 25 where Jesus says whatever you do to the least of these you do unto me. I had this crystal clarity that this is what I am supposed to be doing with my life because in serving others I get to serve Jesus. That was so profoundly real to me as I came home.
I had barely been home a day or so---and I was still basking in the glow of that mountain top experience when I ran into the grocery store to pick up some dog food and encountered a lady that I had not seen for some time. She used to eat at the shelter and engage in all kinds of behavior on the streets outside of the shelter. She came up to me on the dog food aisle and started sharing the good news about her life. Her very loud voice carried a long way. I am sure half of the store heard her say, “ I don’t smoke crack anymore.” Then she began to describe in a pretty graphic ways all the things she no longer did since she escaped her life on the streets. She was unaware that others were stopping to listen and stare, but I was not. I was mortified as I noticed a man grab his son and quickly walk away. Part of me wanted to melt because I was wearing nothing to identify myself as someone who works at the shelter. What would everyone think of a man listening to a woman describe how she was no longer… did certain things? Would they think that I was a former associate of hers? Would they think that I once used drugs with her? The stunned look on the face of one elderly lady at the end of the aisle confirmed my fears.
The story that this lady was broadcasting was actually great news and she was eager to share it with me. So I had two choices. I could brush her off and maybe work something into the conversation that alerted everyone around us to the fact that I serve at a homeless shelter. I could also choose to get over my concerns about being perceived as a respectable citizen and just listen and celebrate the good news with her. She had visited my office many times and I had told her that she was valuable to God and worth more than the lifestyle she had been trapped in. All of that would seem like a load of empty religious talk if she thought that I was paying more attention to those around us than I was to hearing how she escaped the trap of her former life.
She needed someone to see Jesus in her and that does not always come easy for me. The only way that I was able to simply stand there and get over myself and listen to her story was the fact that the reality of my epiphany meant that I could see more of the reality of Jesus in her, but I was surprised at how quickly my epiphany would be put to the test. We come down from the mountain and go back into the real world. The real world will put our mountain top experience into practice. That’s precisely the point. It’s not simply about us. Our mountain top blessings are meant to equip and sustain us to go back down the mountain and be a blessing to others.
The lesson of the Transfiguration and the lesson of this season of Epiphany is that Jesus is the light and the light always goes with us, whether we see it or not. The light is there---wherever we are called to follow Jesus to---the light is there, because Jesus is there: up on the mountain and back down in the world. My prayer for us as we end Epiphany is that we not only see the light of Christ, but that we remain open to carry that reality with us back down the mountain and out into the world to serve. AMEN