A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on February 15, 2015 (Last Epiphany, Year B)
Enough is enough. The novelty has worn off. Just make it stop. Please. The snow I mean; not this sermon. People sometimes jokingly say to clergy, “Can’t you do something about the weather? You must have some connections, right?” And I always remind them that I’m in sales, not management. So I just want to reiterate that point this morning. I am officially washing my hands of the extreme weather we’ve been having. It’s not my fault. Call the bishop.
We’ve all been staring up into the sky a lot in the last few weeks. Watching in disbelief as the snow just keeps falling. Liturgically, we started this Season after the Epiphany by gazing up at a bright light in the sky right along with those three wise men making their way to the manger. And the season concludes with us staring up at another bright light in the form of the transfigured Jesus. This morning we hear Mark’s account of the story that appears in slightly different forms in all three of the Synoptic gospels.
It’s tempting to try and deconstruct this story and search for metaphysical answers or rational explanations. But that won’t get us very far. It’s safer to speak about it as a metaphor for the divinity of Christ and the Transfiguration is a manifestation and affirmation of the divine character of Jesus. But there are times when it’s okay to just stand back and gaze in wide wonder at the astonishing nature of God. Times when it’s okay to simply revel in the wonder of the divine. Times when it’s okay to just be in the presence of something beyond all human comprehension.
Let’s face it, we’re not very good at sitting still and contemplating the presence of God. Our minds wander; we get distracted; our phones buzz; we have stuff to do; the kids are hungry; the driveway needs shoveling (again); it’s not on our to-do list; we’re not monks or nuns — well, some of us are but most of us are not; time is money; the game’s on; Downton Abbey’s on; I have a headache. There are so many reasons we don’t have the bandwidth to still our minds and revel in God’s presence.
But holy contemplation is an important spiritual discipline. It reminds us that, despite everything else going on in our lives, nothing is as important as spending some quality time with God. It anchors everything else and helps us keep our lives in perspective; it reminds us that our anxieties and stresses are all relative; it encourages us to reflect upon the great stretch of humanity that has come before us and will come after us.
Granted Peter, James, and John weren’t having such deep thoughts in the moment. They were terrified! And you can’t blame them. Blinding light, voice from on high, visions of two long-dead prophets. The other-worldly nature of the whole experience was precisely the point. It was other-worldly because the fullness of God is other-worldly.
At one level, I have to admit, and this is a little embarrassing, but I have transfiguration envy. I don’t mean I want to be transfigured, but I’m envious of the three disciples who witnessed this event. I mean talk about wiping away all the doubts you’ve ever experienced in a single moment. Seeing Jesus all lit up in the fullness of his resurrection glory and taking the time to just revel in the wonder of it all would forever change how you experienced God in your life.
The good news is that we are offered glimpses of the resurrection in our own lives. Not as often as we might like, perhaps, and not necessarily accompanied by the drama of a bright light; but we do have such moments. I talked about this a bit at longtime parishioner Bill Austin’s funeral in December. I still miss seeing Bill here on Sunday mornings and thought I’d share this story.
The day before he died, I went to South Shore Hospital to be with Bill and his family, and while he was physically weak, he was quite lucid and very much still Bill. I thought I’d say a few prayers, give Donna a hug, and let him rest. But Bill had other ideas. He wanted to talk. And he asked me a question no one else ever has in the waning moments of an earthly pilgrimage. Bill looked at me intently and asked “What are some moments where you have experienced God in your life?”
And after taking a deep breath, I talked about what I like to call “resurrection glimpses,” times when we encounter the divine in brief moments of conversation or interaction. They often happen at moments when you least expect them. Sometimes it’s a feeling that washes over you, sometimes it’s in serving someone in need, sometimes it’s in an encounter with the natural world, sometimes it’s in an interaction with a loved one or a stranger. To me these are moments when the Kingdom of Heaven breaks into the visible world and they keep us going until that time when we will revel in the fullness of Christ’s resurrection in the age to come.
I’ve found over the years that these resurrection glimpses often happen in moments that, on the surface of things, feel hopeless. Like dying in a hospital room. Until you sit up and, like Bill, recognize the depth of love and prayer that surrounds you; and you realize that your family, even in their grief, will be okay; and you become aware of a deep and abiding sense of peace that allows you to let go; and you truly know and feel that the presence of God isn’t just pie-in-the-sky fantasy but something real, tangible, and life-giving even in the face of death.
These mini-moments of transfiguration really can keep you going when things are difficult. It’s no accident, Jesus was revealed to the disciples in this way, just before heading into Jerusalem for the Last Supper, his trial, and crucifixion. Amid the despair, they had that resurrection glimpse to hold onto; to keep hope alive amid the darkness. Just as we’re given this gift of the Transfigured Jesus to cherish as we move into the wilderness of Lent.
So, keep open to the resurrection glimpses in your own life. Look for them; they’re out there waiting to be discovered. Make room for at least a bit of holy contemplation. You may not get the bright light and voice from heaven but I guarantee you’ll experience the presence of God in new and life-giving ways.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck