Last Epiphany, Year A, 2017–Final Sermon at St. Paul’s, Ivy

“Lord, it is good for us to be here!”

Jesus has started getting real with his disciples. In Chapter 16, Matthew tells us that Jesus has started warning them that he will undergo great suffering. This has the disciples on edge. Ministry has been exciting so far—following Jesus around, watching miracles, learning from a great teacher. They have become comfortable in their new routine of moving from place to place following their teacher and friend. But now, Jesus is kind of ruining it with his dark talk.

Peter even confronts Jesus about this. You can just imagine him pulling Jesus aside, “Come on man, you’re being a real downer. Let’s just go make some blind people see, okay?” Jesus looks right at him and says, “Get behind me, Satan.”

So, things have been a little tense. Maybe the disciples are second guessing their choices to drop everything in their lives to follow Jesus. Maybe things are getting a little too real for them.

Whatever the reason, God arranges a huge gift for Jesus, Peter, James and John. They hike up a mountain and suddenly Jesus becomes transformed. The disciples see the divinity with him and suddenly they also see Moses and Elijah flanking him. To gild the lily, God’s voice breaks through and says, “This is my son, The Beloved” Whatever doubts they have had are suddenly washed away. THIS is the transcendent experience they hoped for when they began following Jesus.

And when we have a transcendent experience, we want to bottle it, right? We want to stay in that moment of connection with God. We want to make it our every day. Peter does, too. He makes the generous offer to set up three tents so Jesus, Elijah and Moses can hang out indefinitely. It’ll be great! They can invite the other disciples up the mountain and then they can just party there for the next fifty years or so.

Lord, it is good for us to be here!

But if Jesus and the disciples stayed on the mountain, God’s good news for people would never have spread. We wouldn’t know how much God loves us or how we all belong to each other.

Jesus is going to suffer. The disciples’ lives are going to get dangerous. They cannot avoid the hard part of their ministry. But the experience of the transfiguration also transforms the disciples so that they will have the strength to carry on even through difficult times.

The trip up the mountain was important. The trip up the mountain was renewing. But the trip up the mountain was never meant to be permanent.

Jesus is not a top of the mountain kind of guy. Sure, he goes up periodically to get renewed, but he always comes back down again. He spends his time in the midst of human beings experiencing all the pain that comes with being human. He is Emmanuel—God with us.

This is the God who chose to be incarnate. He is 100% divine and 100% human. He can experience the glory of being in the presence of Moses, Elijah and God the father. But he doesn’t choose to stay there. He chooses to be with us.

If I leave you with anything from our four years together, this is what I want you to know: Jesus is with you. Jesus is not up in the clouds looking down on you in judgment. Jesus isn’t off on a mountain somewhere communing with the Saints. Jesus is here with you in this sacred space.

Lord, it is good for us to be here.

And Jesus is not just here with you. Jesus is out there with you. Jesus is with you when you brush your teeth, when you wrangle yourself and your family out the door, when you walk into your office, when you are in the grocery store, while you’re driving, when you greet a stranger, when you’re doing every ordinary and extraordinary thing you do in your life.

Jesus does not run away when things get hard, either. Whenever you or someone you love is suffering, Jesus is right alongside of you. He is not afraid of your pain. He is not turned off by your mistakes. He is with you to remind you that you are deeply loved, just as you are.

Jesus isn’t with you just to make you feel good. Jesus wants more than your affection. Jesus wants you to be his disciple. Jesus wants you to change your world by following him in all those ordinary and extraordinary moments of your life.

[At the 10:30 service] today we will our baptismal vows—those promises we make when we decide to follow Jesus. We promise to renounce the demonic, evil and sin. We promise to trust that Jesus loves us and to follow him. When we walk this path, God transforms us. As we get closer to Jesus, we don’t sin less, necessarily, but we realize it sooner. And we have more courage to ask for forgiveness and to work for reconciliation. We have more energy to reach out to those who are in need and to fight for justice. But it all starts with that knowledge that Jesus is already with you.

When we realize that Jesus is with us always, suddenly it is good to be everywhere! We don’t need to stay in our transcendent spaces if the transcendent goes with us. The beauty of the incarnation is that every place in our life is holy, no matter how mundane it may feel. A cubicle becomes holy when Jesus is there. A hospital bed becomes holy when Jesus is there. A grocery cart becomes holy when Jesus is there. You bring the transcendent with you and you can offer it to the world as a gift.

One of the gifts of being your priest has been these little glimpses of how you bring Jesus into the world. I have seen patients who offer kindness to their nurses, even though they are in pain. I have heard many stories of ministry happening at the Harris Teeter. I have seen a chef collecting unused produce from his colleagues for our food pantry. I have seen doctors taking extra steps to care for their patients. I have seen those who have walked through the experience of loving someone with Alzheimers mentor others going through the same thing. I have seen parents doing their best to raise children who contribute to the world. I have seen teachers create a safe and loving space for their students. I have seen you loving people who are difficult to love.

You, cooperating with Jesus, make it good for people to be where you are.

Lord, it has been good to be here. It has been good to be here with Eric and the rest of your church staff who work so hard every day. It has been good to be reunited with Allison and with those of you who had been at Emmanuel. It has been good to meet some of you for the first time, and have the privilege of walking along side life with you. It has been good to be with you at bedsides and weddings, in yoga and Sunday School classes, around lunch tables and over coffee.

Thank you, Eric, for inviting me to serve here. And thank all of you for your many kindnesses to Charlie and to me. It is always a challenge when a priest moves on from a congregation. This has been a stressful year in the world and it is hard not to carry that stress with us wherever we go. We will miss each other and saying goodbye brings anxiety. One way you can honor the relationship we have had in this transition is to take the words Ra often says at the end of our church yoga class to heart:

“Offer compassion to yourself and others. Every one is doing the best they can with what they think they know with where they are from.”

Jesus is with you. Jesus is with you in staff meetings, and vestry meetings, and in every conversation you have here at church. He will show up for you. It is good for you to be here.

May God bless you, your ministry in this place, and your ministry in the world.

Amen.

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Last Epiphany, Year C, 2013

Who is God?  What is God like?  What would God think of me?

These are the questions that drive us to church on Sunday morning, aren’t they?  They are the questions that occupy our minds both when we are feeling lazily philosophical and when we are gripped by loss that has us on our knees.

This season of Epiphany, we celebrate the different ways in which Jesus answered these questions for us. We start with Zoroastrian priests chasing a star; see the heavens break open when Jesus is baptized. We go to a party with Jesus and see him turn water into a fabulous, party-saving vintage. We hear Jesus claim that he is the manifestation of Isaiah’s prophecies.  We flinch with him as his hometown rejects him.

All these revelations about Jesus’ identity culminate today.  Today we travel with Peter, James and John up the mountain.  A week before, Peter made a statement of faith.  He told Jesus he thought Jesus was the Christ.  In return, Jesus revealed to the disciples that his destiny was to die and to rise again.

The disciples are starting to get it.  Jesus isn’t just a charismatic preacher.  Jesus isn’t just a wise teacher and miracle maker.  Jesus is the Son of God.

Jesus lets the disciples sit with that idea for a week and then he takes them up the mountain to pray.

And what a prayer!  The disciples fall asleep, of course.  (The disciples seem to be excellent nappers throughout scripture, which gives us all hope, I think!)  As the disciples slowly wake up, they see that Jesus has been completely transformed.  He is glowing, much like Moses glowed when he came down from Mt. Ararat.  And not only is he glowing, but he is having a conversation with Moses himself!  And Elijah!  These historic figures lean in, talking together about Jesus’ upcoming death.

The disciples are stunned.  They have come to understand Jesus as the Christ, but understanding something and seeing it in person are two entirely different things.  In prayer, the Lord is revealing Jesus’ holiness, his Godliness.  This moment is a perfect, cosmic, intimate moment.

Until Peter butts in.  Peter is our stand in here.  Peter always says the perfect human, bumbling thing in almost every situation. He eagerly offers to build some tents for his ghostly visitors.  And we get that, don’t we?  When we have an encounter with the holy, whether during a favorite hymn, or a candlelit service, or on a mountain top, we just want to bottle it up.  We want to hold on to it and stay in the presence of God and soak up the holy.

Unfortunately that is not how God works.  Not even Jesus stays on the mountain.  The perfect moment is just a moment.  Jesus is revealed as holy, Elijah and Moses fade away, and Jesus and the disciples head down the mountain, where Jesus continues to heal those who approach him.

But in this return to ordinary life—if you can consider Jesus’ life ordinary!—Jesus is revealing himself, too.  Jesus is the God who can change the laws of physics and time for an encounter with Moses and Elijah and Jesus is the God who so cares for ordinary human beings that he allows imperfect, bumbling men to be his closest disciples and chooses to heal the distressed rather than stay on the mountain, bathing in his own holiness.

The God we worship here at St. Paul’s, Ivy is all of these things. He is the powerful creator of the Universe who shows himself in shouts and whispers.  He is the passionate Son who loved ordinary, lost, impetuous people.  He is the God we experience in brief moments of luminous revelation and the God we follow even when we don’t feel his presence.

If you doubt that God still shows up, read Megan Phelps-Roper’s story.  Megan is the granddaughter of Fred Phelps. Yes, that Fred Phelps.  The Westboro Baptist Fred Phelps of the horrible, hate filled signs and the picketing of solider’s and children’s funerals.  The Fred Phelps who somehow has come to believe that our God is a hateful, vindictive God interested only in our conforming and punishment.  Until November, 27-year-old Meghan was the social media arm of Westboro Baptist.  Her whole life has been drenched in Fred Phelp’s hateful theology.  She believed that spouting his beliefs was a way of loving the world.  Bringing others into the fold would save them.  Jeff Chu had the privilege of interviewing her recently and wrote a beautiful article about her separation from Westboro Baptist.

Interestingly, it was a conversation with an Israeli web developer that first caused her to start questioning what she had been taught.  As he argued with her about the hateful messages on the signs held at Westboro protests he reminded her that Jesus said, ”Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”  This simple conversation led to a world shattering in-breaking for Meghan.  She came to realize that Westboro’s message wasn’t consistent.  They did not treat all sin the same way.  That if Westboro truly followed Levitical law, many of its own members would have to be killed.  She and her sister left Westboro and are now reading and praying and experiencing their own transfigured Jesus.

God does not always answer our questions the way we would like him to.  We do not always sense his presence when we long for that connection.  But God is in the business of making himself known.  Throughout history God keeps revealing himself to humans – through his direct presence, through dreams and visions, through prophets, through Jesus, through the Holy Spirit.

We gather as a community on Sundays because we long to know this loving, in-breaking God.  We begin to get answers to our questions through sermons and bible studies, but more importantly we encounter the living God through worship, prayer, and the Eucharist.  Because what we want is not a bunch of answers to hypothetical questions, what we really want is to know God.  We want to know God like we know our parents, our friends, our partners.  We want to feel God’s love, to be drawn in and reassured.

This is my prayer for our time together in this place.  I pray that God will make himself known to us.  I pray that whatever is going on in your life, no matter how difficult, that God reveals his love to you.  I pray that you would know the transfigured Christ who radiates holiness, and the Christ who heals ordinary people so they can be free to fully live.

Thanks be to God.

Transfiguration, Year B, 2009

I occasionally wish that I lived in an earlier era.  Now, granted, I would want that era to have women’s rights and flushing toilets, so perhaps what I really want is a mythical earlier era.  In that imaginary era, I would never have seen a special effect.  So that, when I read the Bible, I would be awed by the stories it contains.

We 21st century people are jaded. We have seen waters part in The Ten Commandments.  We can see creation begin by turning on the Discovery Channel.  Noah’s flood has been replicated in any number of movies and cartoons.  And dead people appearing is nothing new. In the last calendar year alone, the television series House, Grey’s Anatomy, and Lost all had major characters who were dead.  Dead Amber appeared in House’s memory.  Dead Denny was hallucinated by Izzie.  Dead Christian-well, we still don’t know how he got on the island.  And that’s not even considering the dead characters on the show Medium!

We are not impressed by well-laundered clothes and Old Testament ghosts.  We have seen it all before.

Thankfully, Peter, James, and John are not jaded.  Their senses are still sharp and their minds are fresh and open.  For them, the transfiguration is the most incredible event they have ever witnessed. For Peter, James, and John the transfiguration is a moment of transcendence, a moment of understanding God in a new way.

It turns out for them, for Jesus, and for us, experiencing those moments of transcendence is a gift from God to help understand God better and to receive nourishment for the hard work of ministry.

Jesus and the disciples have been working hard.  In the eighth chapter of Mark, immediately before this reading, Jesus has:  miraculously fed 5,000 people bread and fish, walked miles and miles on foot, healed a blind man, informed his disciples that he was going to die tragically, and argued with Peter.  Talk about a heavy couple of days!

Jesus and the disciples must have been worn out-physically, spiritually, and emotionally.

Jesus leads three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, up a mountain so they can spent some time away from the demands of their work.  While they are there two amazing things happen.  First, Jesus becomes illuminated.  His robes become so white they know the source must be supernatural.  Second, two great Old Testament Heroes appear next to Jesus: Moses and Elijah.

Why Moses and Elijah?  Why not Abraham or David?

The disciples are shown Moses and Elijah because of their unique, spiritual relationships to God. You might remember when Moses comes down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments his face shone with a supernatural light.  Peter, James and John would remember that story, look at Jesus’ shining clothes and realize that Jesus had the same ability to hear directly from God.

Legend has it that Elijah never died, but instead was assumed into heaven.  Jesus has just told his disciples that he will die and be resurrected.  They see Elijah as a kind of foreshadowing, to help them prepare for the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.

I believe for these three disciples, Jesus’ transfiguration was their transformation.  While Jesus got time to rest and commune with his Father, the disciples had an incredible supernatural experience they would never forget.  On their walk, after the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is.  They guess many things, but finally Peter gets it right.  Peter tells Jesus he thinks he is the Christ.

The transfiguration is a way for these disciples to really internalize and understand at a more intuitive level what it means that Jesus is the Christ.  When your friend is the Christ, weird, supernatural things happen.  When your friend is the Christ, he can glow at will.  When your friend is the Christ, biblical heroes who have been dead hundreds of years will suddenly appear.  When your friend is the Christ, the voice of God will pour out of the sky, filled with love.

These memories of the transfiguration will be something Peter, James and John will be able to hold onto during their darkest moments of doubt.  Even as Peter lies about his association with Jesus on Good Friday, perhaps a small part of his mind was reminding him that everything was going to be okay.  His friend, Jesus, was bigger than death and more powerful than the laws of nature.

The transfiguration was the spiritual experience Peter, James, and John were given so they could keep on going, keep on “running the race”, as Paul phrases it in 1st Corinthians.  After they leave the mountain, Jesus and the disciples get right back to work, right back to ministry, but now they can do it with a little more energy, a little more bounce in their step.  They now know, in a concrete way, that God is with them.

Now, I think it is fair to conjecture that none of us will ever experience the transfiguration.  However, I do know many of you who have had some kind of spiritual experience.  I think we are all capable of that kind of experience.

Some of you have had spiritual experiences when you have taken time away from your own family and work and retreated for a few days in prayer and meditation.  Others of you have experienced the holy when you have traveled to holy places like Iona, or Shrinemont.  Others of you encounter God through singing sacred music. Still others of you have experienced the divine when you had your first child or understood God’s love for you through the love of another.   There are many ways and places where God can break in and speak to us.

Those moments may be few and far between, but they are great gifts to us.  They give us courage to go back to our ministries and give all we have to them.  Those moments feed us spiritual nourishment that sustains us through difficult times.  Those transcendent moments remind us that God is real and that he is with us.  When we experience a spiritual moment we are invited to savor the time we are given with God and use the energy the experience gives us to return to our daily lives and ministries and give back to those around us.

We may be jaded.  We may have seen it all, but like the disciples, we still need God.  We still need reminders that he loves us.  We still need the transfiguration.

Amen.