Last Sunday after the Epiphany February 11, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Before you is a consuming flame, and round about you a raging storm.”
Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. That sounds ominous.
This is also the Sunday of the Transfiguration (not the Feast of the Transfiguration, that’s in August, this is just the humble Sunday on which we read of the Transfiguration before we are sent on our Lenten journey). Transfiguration. That’s all about change. Jesus changes before the disciple’s eyes.
We also have a baptism today. Young Trinidad Roholt will be welcomed into the family of God today. She will be changed. She will be marked as one of Christ’s own, forever.
That’s a lot going on for a Sunday in February. A lot of change. Change can be scary. I think I told you my change joke a couple of years ago. I heard is as Harvard professors, and once as priests, but I think the word people fits just as well: How many people does it take to change a light bulb? Change????? Or the other one, who here wants change? (The crowd goes wild). Who here wants to change? (Can you hear the crickets)? Change can be scary.
The Transfiguration is about change. It is also about being scared. That what I want to talk about this morning.
What are you scared of? What scares you? I talk to a lot of people about fear, about their fears. Fears of being alone. That is a big one. Fears of being pointless, of having a meaningless, pointless life. Fears of being wrong. Following the wrong path, the wrong god, or following the right god, God, but in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons. I have not heard a lot of people speaking of their fear of death itself, but an awful lot about the fear of someone else’s death, or the fear of dying, the process of dying rather than death itself. Fear for our children. So many people suffer so horribly and they are all someone’s child. The pain there can be life long and overwhelming, breaking people and relationships. And the world that we are leaving to our children and their children… that’s something I lose sleep over. But now that the head of the EPA has assured us that global warming is good for us, maybe we’ll all sleep more easily. Thank you Mr. Pruitt. The fear of hurting someone. “If I leave, it will kill him.” And of course, the fear of change. I hear a lot of that. Fear that someone can’t get out from under addiction, can’t get out of a bad or dangerous relationship, can’t leave the trappings of conventional success to answer God’s call to a vocation, to what they are supposed to be doing, or at least a call away from doing something lousy if not evil, can’t stop doing all the stupid things that we all sometimes do, can’t get out of our own way. And of course there is all the fear of our President and his attachments and aversions and delusions and how his personal limitations put the whole planet at even more risk than usual. Lord have mercy on him, and those living in his churning wake.
Underlying all of it, the most pervasive fear that I encounter is the fear of suffering, of pain itself. And that is a tough one, because that is a lesson that Jesus Christ makes abundantly clear: suffering is real. It is inevitable. The heart of St. Mark’s gospel is the coexistence of glory and suffering. Jesus cannot get to Easter without going through Good Friday. Again and again and again it comes up in this the shortest and oldest gospel. That’s the object lesson that Jesus teaches His inner circle through the Transfiguration. His full divinity is revealed to them in the miraculous appearance of Elijah and Moses, in the Transfiguration, His clothes becoming dazzlingly white (in other versions His face shone, too), and to remove all doubt, God’s voice booms from the Heavens much like it did at Jesus’ baptism, “this is my Son, the Beloved; Listen to him!” Fully divine.
Jesus’ full humanity is also revealed as He instructs them to tell no one about what they had seen until “the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” Meaning that he was going to die. He had just been telling them about this, and that it wouldn’t be pretty. To use some old-fashioned language, the victory of Christ occurs only through His defeat on the Cross. He couldn’t get to Easter without going through Good Friday. And neither can we.
Now that is a fine lesson for those of us sitting here the week before Lent starts. We should be afraid, sometimes. Fear is an appropriate response to things that are scary. Some things are scary because they are threatening or dangerous. Having cancer is scary. Someone who hits you sometimes is scary, or exerts their power on you or judges you. The unknown can be scary; like that unopened letter from the lab or the darkened parking garage. And some things are scary for their awesomeness. Storm-driven surf pounding a beach. That feeling of incredibly low air pressure like when a tornado is threatening. I think the most physically scary thing I ever experienced was snorkeling with Windy. It was lovely, fish, a bit of coral, then we swam around a rock outcropping and the bottom dropped into the inky depths, and big waves off the open ocean were all of a sudden everywhere. The scale of the world exploded. And God can be scary. When that flaming chariot screamed down and swept Elijah up to heaven, Elisha was scared. Up on that mountain Peter, James and John were scared, terrified, actually. There are times when we should be, too. The power of God is fearsome, the overwhelmingness of life itself as it teems and kills and eats and births and dies, the mass of the cosmos churning, those waves crashing over us, the needs of a newborn baby utterly dependent on you to kill and not be killed, to let it eat and not be eaten. That’s the fear of God, and it is a righteous fear. If you’ve had a child, do you remember the first night you had alone with them? The midwives, nurses, doctors, doulas, mothers and mothers-in-law, whoever was there, they were gone and it was just you. Did you realize in that moment that the world trusted you with a human life. You? Us? Lord have mercy. I have lots of inappropriately colorful ways I could describe how scared I felt in that moment. New life entering this world is an act of God, perhaps the most awesome act of God. Fear is a fine response to that kind of awesomeness. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, and hopefully the beginning of humility, the most holy and important virtue we can have.
That is a fine lesson for us on the precipice of Lent. We should be thinking about God and God’s fearsomeness and the long march towards death we all are on, but what kind of lesson is that for baby Trinidad, and her parents and godparents and grandparents and friends? Is that what they want to hear on the morning of her baptism, the morning of her joyful adoption into the family of God in Christ with the Holy Spirit? I’m afraid it is, for we too often want the glory that we see without the message that we must hear.
And what is that message? That life is beautiful. That God loves you and always has and always will. That loving and being loved, knowing and being known, that simply breathing in the sweet air of the creation is joy upon joy upon joy. And that we are dust and to dust we shall return. And so will those you love. Your heart will be broken, it will heal, but is sure to be broken again, as will your body. There are good days and terrible days and for most of us, there are just a lot of days. You will choose well sometimes, and poorly others. You will succeed, and you will fail. There is a lot of work to do, and you won’t get to all of it, not even all the important stuff. Maybe especially the important stuff. And even at the grave we make our song: Halleluiah! Halleluiah! Halleluiah!
The message is that we will experience pleasure and pain, joy and suffering. We will feel and cause it all. And you ae forgiven. We will bring life into the world, conceive it, bear and birth it, tend it, and we will, all of us, kill. We have to to live. And you ae forgiven. And all of it matters. The suffering and death of this world breaks the sacred heart of Jesus Christ so it must break ours too, and if we follow Jesus, we know that we must do all we can to relieve the suffering and injustice of this world. All of that is absolutely and indelibly true. As is the fact that we will die. This life will end for each of us. And, as absolutely and indelibly true as all of that is that that, death, is not the end of the story. All of this matters, all that happens in Chronos, in physical time and space, matters. Terribly. And we will spend the rest of eternity in Kairos, in God’s time. We, each of us, will live forever. Not in this form, heavens no. My dream is that it is like gazing into the eyes of someone you love, a baby on your breast or your love held gently in your arms in the mist of great intimacy, or looking at the stars on a clear night way out at sea, or on a Montana mountain-side, or hearing a storm rage outside your window while the fire licks the stove and you are snuggled up warm in bed right on the edge of sleep. Or it is like true silence. As the Trappist say, “Silence is as deep as eternity.”
Jesus Christ, Son of God suffered and triumphed that we might do the same; that is know that the life we have here is precious, and good, and is worth struggling for and suffering in, and that that, the good and the bad of this life is not the end of the story. God is. And God is good. Very good. That is a fine lesson for you if you are that cute and are about to be baptized, or if you are one of us run of the mill Christians at the front end of another Lenten season. AMEN