Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany (Year A) – February 23, 2020
Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
Today we are at a turning point. We are walking through the doorway to the future here at Church of the Resurrection. Where exactly that doorway will lead us, we do not know. But we have begun the journey. Perhaps you have begun to think about what Resurrection might be like five years or even ten years from now. In May we will meet and create a “Wall of Wonder,” a history of this congregation created from people’s living memory. Your Vestry has elected a “Profile Committee” to work together with you to discover both “who we are now” and “who we hope to be in the years ahead.”
There is much work to be done as we look at both the structure and the process of our common life; and inevitably we will continue to struggle with questions of direction and shared leadership. But I am sure of at least this much: your future will involve growth; it will involve change; and it will not always be easy. But as we stand at this threshold, as we look to the future, my hope and my prayer for this congregation is this: that it will always be characterized by love.
Our gospel reading this morning is the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. In fact, each and every year on the Sunday before Lent begins—whether we are reading from Matthew, Mark or Luke—we always hear this story. That is because the transfiguration marked a unique turning point in Jesus’ life and ministry. This story is an epiphany, perhaps the greatest of all the epiphanies we have encountered, because it discloses for us who Jesus is.
The events that took place on that holy mountain came at the end of Jesus’ ministry of teaching, preaching and healing in Galilee; they came at the beginning of his journey to Jerusalem, the place where Jesus would ultimately suffer and die. And at that threshold in his ministry, at that turning point, the disciples caught a glimpse of God’s glory, revealing the true identity of Jesus, a glory that would only be fully disclosed in his death and resurrection.
Actually, I believe that real growth, real transformation, is something very like death and resurrection. Isn’t it true that in order to reach a new level of understanding, a new way of looking at things, sometimes we have to lose or give up what we previously thought or believed? I will always remember how that happened to me in my junior year of high school, when I was enrolled in advanced placement physics.
Like most high school science students in the 1960’s, I had a pretty clear picture of electrons traveling around the nucleus of an atom in neat little orbits, much the way we picture the planets revolving around the sun. But my physics teacher dashed my mental model when he told us that electrons could be found anywhere around the nucleus of the atom, and that the “orbitals” we pictured in our minds were simply a way of predicting where one was more likely to find an electron at any given point in time.
Well, I was stunned! No, I was furious! I felt betrayed! After all, it had taken me long enough to get all this orbital stuff down, what with positive and negative valences. Now it was beginning to look as though it was not going to be all that useful. What’s worse, I soon discovered that in quantum mechanics we can never say just where an electron will actually be located at any particular moment when we are looking; we can only speak of a highly reliable pattern of overall behavior. But eventually—grudgingly— I had to give up my limited idea of what an atom was like, in order to grow into a new and deeper understanding of the mystery of the physical universe.
I tell you this story because I think the same thing is true of our relationship with God. Just when we think we have it all figured out, we discover that we need to pay attention to a deeper truth: we are invited into a wider world view. In fact, in the gospel we are constantly being called to a new way of looking at things, a way that may not always be easy, but a way that always leads to new life, more abundant life.
Sometimes we would rather hang on to our old ways simply because we have become accustomed to them. We would rather stay with what is familiar rather than face the challenge of what is unknown and uncomfortable. But if we are to taste that abundant life which Jesus promised us, then we must be willing to take some risks, both as individuals and as a community of faith.
Many years ago, in his book, The Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck defined love as “the willingness to extend and give of ourselves—in order that we or someone else may experience spiritual growth.” What I like about that definition is that it suggests that love is what we do, rather than just something we feel. Love always involves an act of the will, not simply an emotion. Christian love is not merely a general feeling of goodwill toward others. To love as Christ loved is to be willing to take risks, to be willing to share in his ministry of service: to do something so that we or others may grow in grace.
When we speak of “living a Christian life,” isn’t that what we mean? Isn’t “life in Christ” about growth in love? Isn’t this what Paul insists “growth in love” entails? In that familiar passage from First Corinthians, Paul says this about love: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
The question that the transfiguration of Jesus poses to each of us is this: How willing am I to be open to growth and change? How willing am I to extend and stretch myself, so that growth can occur both for myself and for others? In other words, how willing am I to let God transfigure me and change my life? And all this so that I may more clearly reflect God’s glory and grace to those around me. And, of course, those questions come to us not only as individuals, but to us as a community of faith as well.
Early in the 20th century, an American teacher was employed in Japan with the understanding that during school hours he would not utter a word about his Christian faith. He agreed to this restriction and never spoke about Christianity to his students, simply living out the Christian life day by day.
But so attractive was his character and example, so powerful was the witness of his love, that, unknown to him, forty of his students met in a grove and signed a secret covenant to accept this Christian faith. Twenty-five of them subsequently entered the Kyoto Christian Training School, and seven of them became preachers of the gospel which their teacher had shown to them simply by the way in which he lived his life.
This Wednesday the season of Lent begins. It is a season of life and growth. Lent affords us an opportunity to open ourselves anew to God’s grace and love. Lent reminds us that just as Christ willingly chose to turn his face towards the uncertainty of Jerusalem, so we may discover growth as we walk the road to the unfamiliar and unknown future. But this holy season also can be the time when we ask God to change us, so that our lives may be better instruments for the spread of the Gospel.
If we recognize this moment as a turning point, the days ahead of us will bring change—but not just change for the sake of change. If we are willing to move beyond the threshold and take some risks, then I believe each one of us will experience growth in love. And if we pass through this doorway to our future together as a parish family secure in faith and filled with hope, then we will surely reflect the glory and radiance of God.
Today we celebrate the transfiguration of Jesus. I pray that in the weeks and months and years ahead you will celebrate your own transfiguration as well!