Last Sunday of Epiphany (Transfiguration) February 15, 2015 The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
“O God, who before the passion of your only begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory…”
These words are from the Collect of the Day for today, the final Sunday in the Epiphany season. This is also the day that we remember the Transfiguration, the miraculous moment when Jesus went to the mountain top with his disciples and His whole being blazed dazzlingly white, and He was joined by Moses and Elijah, God’s most potent of messengers of old. The words of this collect are fitting as we teeter on the precipice of the forty days of Lent, our annual journey to the Feast of the Resurrection via our Lord’s inevitable Passion and death.
It was inevitable, Jesus’ demise at the hands of the Roman occupiers at the behest of the collaborators in the Sanhedrin and Temple hierarchy. You can’t behave the way He was behaving and expect to get away with it scot-free, could you? Jesus Christ was so dedicated to living in complete alignment with the will of God that it was inevitable that the powers that were (and continue to be) would be provoked. He, as one theologian writes, “provoked the ‘powers’ – the fear, hatred, greed, falsehood, violence and despair that pervade and distort everything human…” It was the horrific violence of the crucifixion that, ironically, “…made possible the disclosure of the triumphant power of God’s nonviolent love in their midst.” It is ironic, baffling even, that that kind of violence and Christ’s suffering that followed invoked divine mercy in a wholly new way, and we, as the heirs of that Passion, we are called to continue the ministry that our Savior endeavored. That is, of course, to do the will of God no matter the cost.
This moment, the Transfiguration, with the dazzling white, Moses and Elijah, terrified disciples, the overshadowing cloud and voice of God, and Jesus’ confession of his coming death and resurrection, it is very important. This whole scene is the exact mid-point of St. Mark’s story, it is the turning point in the gospel. In short succession Jesus foretells His own death and resurrection twice more and by the end of chapter 10 He began His fateful and final journey to Jerusalem. It is almost as if a commitment to follow God to the end was sealed in the Transfiguration. From here, He turned towards Jerusalem, and followed the will of God unto death, even death on a cross. And the Feast of the Transfiguration calls us to ponder what sort of Crosses we have been given to bear; what we can, should and must do to be followers of Jesus Christ.
This whole Christianity thing, I am realizing more and more, is a lot more serious than most of us really give it credit. If we are to take it seriously, Christianity, if we really take it all seriously, our breath should be taken away. We are not called to some passive love that just tries to avoid evil. Simply being a good person, being kind, that is not an end, it is a means, a starting point. Similarly, we are not called by Christ to simply bear our own personal crosses. Well, we all have them; wounds from ages past, gaps in our development, habits and addictions we pick up, the losses, emptinesses and sicknesses we each accumulate. Again, we all have crosses and we must bear them, but that is not the end, not the Christian end, not for most of us. That is just life. Life is hard. Rather, what God in Christ has called to followers across the ages, is, as one author puts it, “a vigorous, assertive pursuit of social and personal righteousness…” “Righteousness” in a Biblical sense means “doing God’s justice.” It means making real God’s will in the world, making things the way God wants it to be, the way it is supposed to be. That was the cross the Christ bore in making real the kingdom of God. That is the cross that we are to bear, too.
“Great Father Brent, another call to revolutionary sainthood, that’s helpful in my daily life.” Well, yes, and I know, I know, I know… Mo. Jo and I were talking the other day, consulting on a few things, and she said something to me that has had me thinking all week. She said that what we are really here to do, in the Church, is save souls. Kind of a basic statement, right? “Duh.” But this is a place that I so mightily struggle in my own life, in my vocation as a priest, in my role as your priest. Yes, we are here to save souls, to bring broken people together for healing and respite as God and God’s church offers in unique and potent ways. Yes! But what keeps me up at night staring at the ceiling, is that that is not the end, that, a saved soul, is a means to an end. Jesus healed the sick, forgave the sinner, raised the dead even, but that was not the end. The end is “…a vigorous, assertive pursuit of social and personal righteousness.” The end is making real the commonwealth of God, right here. Right now.
Undoubtedly all have different roles to play, the body of Christ has many parts. For some of us, just getting out from the under the specter of alcohol will take every ounce of righteousness that we have. Or healing from hurts afflicted in our pasts. Or bearing the pain of sickness in our bodies and minds, or the raw deal that the dirty, rotten system has dumped on us. Our responsibility is to be as well as possible. That is holy work.
Some of us are blessed with less traumatic life stories. Some of us have power and influence in the world. We have holy work to do as well. But how do we do it? How do we take up the cross of healing, of recovery, of righteousness in the world? We hear the words of Holy Scripture. There is a lot of nodding at some strident points in my preaching. But how do we turn those genuine movements of the heart into the strength to take up our own crosses, to turn them into righteous action for the sake of God and the whole world? It comes right back down to what Mo. Jo said; it is all about saving souls.
I just came off of retreat. I had five days at the Trappist Abbey in Lafayette, up near McMinnville. Thank you all for making it possible. It was a pre-Lenten thing, some time for quiet, for rest, for contemplation. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Trappists, the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, but I lived and worked at an Anglican monastery, a retreat center, for five years so I had an inkling of what it might be like and I was impressed. Church five times a day starting with Vigils at 4:15, contemplative prayer, mediation starting almost obscenely, before Vigils. Mostly, there was silence. Silence held by very dedicated men. Silence, in which, one can truly worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. I came back with more stillness in my heart that I have had in memory. And even with Windy being back in Boston in a blizzard leaving me to take care of the farm, even through another busy week here at church and the regular crises here, some small and mundane, some monumental and life changing… even through all of that, my mind is calm, my body is relaxed, and more often than not this week a smile has been born on my lips. I came back from the Abbey rested, feeling resilient, feeling held and encouraged by God.
I get ahead of myself sometimes. All the doing, all the work, and it is so incredibly important and it is precisely where too much of he church stops, content to rest on the laurels of acts of mercy and charity and not following through with making God’s kingdom really, really real in our own lives and the world we inhabit. But if we just do, without a center, without a ground, without what we as Christians call without a relationship with God, with out that, heavens, so quickly we become a clanging gong. So quickly we become depleted. Baseless. Easily swayed by the winds of time and change and opinion. That is not the path to God’s kingdom. That is very much a soul NOT saved and we are not much use to anyone in that state. So then, what to do?
I thought you’d never ask.
So what starts Wednesday? Lent. Our annual 40-day journey to the Feast of the Resurrection via our Lord’s Passion and death. It is our principal season of fasting and devotion where our practice deepens and we make sacrifices, some small, some bigger, all for the sake of growing closer to God.
There are countless ways to do that, grow closer to God, practice growing closer to God. And all I can do, as your priest, is encourage you with all due urgency is to take advantage of this Lent that is arrayed before us. Take advantage of this little path of less resistance to God, to practice opening to God, leaning into God, turning towards God at least within 180 degrees of God. Lent is an invitation to practice making God part of your life in the hours between being here. It is an invitation, a direction all truth be told, but an opportunity to use the inertia of the Church and her 2000 years of tradition to open yourself to God in new ways.
By fasting, we create a space, we remove a distraction, we make a hole that we have to remember, notice and need to be careful walking around. You give up meat, a very common fast, and each time you have a hankering for a roast beef sandwich you remember, “no, it’s Lent. I made a promise to God. I’ll have tuna.” Tiny. Insignificant. But how often do you get to make a concrete decision, a sacrifice based on a promise you made to God? Now that is a potent religious practice. Giving up alcohol, Netflix or TV, Facebook, sex, meat or meat on Fridays, sarcasm, giving up things that are not bad, but are pleasurable… that’s the deal. Don’t give up smoking for Lent, you should just give up smoking. No, give up something that you enjoy, that is not negative, but that is noticeable.
The other side of Lenten devotion is putting something on. Put on an additional (or a first) devotional practice. Adding to your life is a fantastic practice. Get up at 3:00 AM and pray for a couple of hours. Or, try to say grace, even silently to your self, before each meal. Go for that walk you know you should each morning and call it practice. Before you take a shower, think of someone you have or have had conflict with and hold them in (kind) thought. Pick up your BCP and say Morning Prayer before breakfast or even easier, say compline to yourself while lying in bed. It takes about three minutes on your own and is sublime. I’ll come in here after service and we can go over Morning Prayer and Compline for anyone who is interested. But really, in this Lenten season of fasting and devotion, a gigantic invitation is being made to somehow make God in Christ present in your life every day. And accepting that invitation starts with a single step, a single prayer, a single nod to God.
As I say to new folks here at Resurrection, like everything, you get what you put in. The more effort you make, the more intention you give, the more attention you pay to your life in relation to God and neighbor, the grander the rewards you will receive. Sometimes those rewards are hard to take, like calls to vocation and service that you might not be looking for, calls to forgive even that miserable so and so, calls to change your life for the better. Sometimes the gift is a still heart and a smile on your lips. And always, there is the gift that whatever cross you have been given to bear will be that much lighter, For as Christ says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” AMEN