Sunday, March 2, 2014

From Glory to Glory: A Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

The Nativity Window 
This weekend I am with the good people of The Church of the Nativity in Northborough. Their rector is the Rev. Len Cowan. Today's Gospel Reading can be found here. Below is the manuscript for my sermon celebrating the culmination of this long Epiphany Season, the Feast of the Transfiguration. Nativity also records sermons, so an audio link to the 10 a.m. sermon can be found here.

For a little more than fifteen years I served a one-of –a-kind parish in this diocese -the only one that takes its name from Francis of Assisi. When we gather at diocesan events and talk about Trinity Church or Grace Church or Christ Church or All Saints we always have to ask a follow up question: which one? All Saints in the Berkshires or in South Hadley or in Worcester? Not so, however, with St. Francis. And not so, with Nativity: you are also a one and only parish in our diocese.

What is in a name?  Before I went to Holden I didn’t think a lot about Francis of Assisi. But over time I came to realize that his life and witness were wrapped up with our life and witness as a parish. It was about more than blessing animals on his feast day or having live animals from Heifer Project in the nave at Christmas: there was a deep sense of Franciscan spirituality and a commitment to the poor and a genuine desire that we might become instruments of God’s peace in our own day that became part of the DNA of our life-together.

Yes, March 2 and it is still winter in New England!
So I don’t know firsthand what kind of mark having the name of “Nativity” has branded you with. I imagine that in part, at least, it is an invitation to embrace the mystery of the Incarnation: of the Word-made-flesh who has pitched tent among us, and we have beheld his glory. Maybe at coffee hour and then when I meet with the vestry in a couple of weeks you might reflect on that a bit with me. I hope that over the next few years I’ll gain an even better sense of what that means for you. In my new job as Canon to the Ordinary, which I have had for about nine months now, I have been on a kind of listening tour of the congregations in Worcester County. Even though I spent all those years in Holden, I realize that I was seeing these neighboring congregations from the outside-in, and now I’m able to get a bit of a sense of being welcomed in, for which I am grateful and humbled.

Just one further word about another name before we get on with the business of the day: this crazy title of “Canon to the Ordinary.” A canon can refer to three things. We talk about the Biblical canon: we have four gospels, but the gospel of Mary and Thomas are non-canonical. We talk about canon law, the rules by which we agree to organize our life together. But canon can also refer to a person—ordained or lay—who who hangs out on a bishop’s staff or at the cathedral. So Pam Mott and Steve Abdow are also canons who work for Bishop Doug Fisher.  Pam and I are both Canons to the Ordinary? So who is the ordinary? The Bishop, from the same root as the word “ordination.” So it is a fancy way of saying that I work for the bishop.

As some of you may recall, Bishop Scruton had one Canon to the Ordinary and one Archdeacon on his staff and they divided the work into two main parts: transition ministry and congregational development. Each of them worked across the whole diocese. Bishop Fisher opted for two Canons to the Ordinary and zero Archdeacons . So Pam and I are both doing transition and congregational development work, which overlap anyway, and dividing the work geographically. So I hang out with the parishes of Worcester County and in fact my wife and I now live in Worcester, while Pam works with the parishes in the Pioneer Valley and the Berkshires. 

I realize this is a lengthy introduction. But it brings me back to my reason for being with you today: one of Bishop Fisher’s two Canons to the Ordinary has come to a one-of-a kind parish, the Church of the Nativity, to bring greetings and our prayers of thanksgiving for your rector, Len, and for Michael's ministry and for the good work you are doing to seek and serve Christ here.  
The Children's Chapel

Now let me try to segue to the gospel for today. Whatever else it means, this parish that takes its name from our dear Savior’s birth is surely able to recall where this Epiphany season began, on January 6 when those wise guys finally made it to Bethlehem. Since then we have been reflecting not just in this congregation or our diocese but throughout the Church of what it means to allow the light of Christ to shine through us and into the world around us; to be people of the light, even in the midst of great darkness. The season after Epiphany has been a long one this year since Easter comes so late. Today we finally reach our destination, the Mount of the Transfiguration.

This vision of a transfigured Jesus gives Peter, James, and John a glimpse into who Jesus really and truly is. In fact, of course, it’s who he has been all along. Almost two months ago we were on the shores of the Sea of Galilee when Jesus called out to these fishermen: follow me. In his teaching and preaching and healing it has become clear to them and through their witness to us that he is something more than a young and fearless prophet, although he is most definitely that as he challenges the conventions of his day. Along the way, we have seen a compassionate healer. On another hill, the Mount of the Beatitudes, we’ve seen a wise teacher, a second Moses. We’ve seen a friend, a courageous neighbor who eats with the lonely and the despised and the rejected.

But in this moment, on this day, in this place - Peter and James and John look at their friend and finally see him as if for the first time: God in man made manifest. They see something much more, something that will not be fully known by the others until after he is raised from the dead—something that can only be seen through the eyes of faith. The scholars tell us that this is a pre-Easter glimpse of the post-Easter Jesus. They have an encounter not unlike the one that St. Paul will have on the Road to Damascus and perhaps like one some of you have had along the way in your own faith journeys. It’s not a requirement of faith; notice after all that only three of the twelve are with him. It doesn’t make them better than the rest. But surely it is a gift to have this kind of mystical life-changing encounter with the Light of the world revealed fully in the person of Jesus. On the Mt. of the Transfiguration, Peter and James and John get to see that with their own eyes and in the process they, too, are changed forever.
A Place for Prayer

So in this lengthy Epiphany season there have been hints and guesses along the way for the disciples and for us. But today we get it full force. We behold his glory, full of grace and truth. The Light of Christ shines forth on that mountain. This, of course, has been one of the main themes of Epiphany. A direct corollary to that theme is that you and I are called to walk as children of that Light by letting that same Light shine, shine, shine in our own lives so that the world may believe—in the office, in school, in our homes, on soccer fields and baseball fields—wherever we go. In my experience, evangelism is less about what we say with our lips and more about what we live in our lives and how we are called to be yeast and salt and light as God’s holy people.

God seems to speak on mountaintops in the Bible, most famously as we heard in today’s Old Testament reading to Moses, on Mount Sinai. If you find yourself on the mountaintop in the Bible, the chances are very good that God will show up. Maybe that is for the same reason that so many of us feel closer to God when we hike up a mountain and look out over the vista. Whether that vista is a desert in the American southwest or multi-colored maple trees on a clear October day in New England or overlooking vineyards and olive trees in Tuscan hills, it is with good reason that we speak about “mountaintop experiences” as a metaphor for our encounters with the living God. The landscape itself very often helps to “open our eyes so that we might see God’s hand at work in the world around us.” In these epiphanies, we may feel the presence of God more fully and in those moments we may know the power of being more fully known by the One who has created and redeemed us in love.

There is a temptation here, however. We may want to savor such moments by trying to hold onto them and even making them normative. They are a gift, for sure. But as I said, not a gift even all of the twelve are given in full force. And even for these three, the journey of faith is not one long extended mountaintop experience. As we’ll see soon enough, in a month or so, it does not immunize any of them from their humanity and from messing up: “I do not know the man,” Peter will say. After this amazing encounter. Really, Peter?!

It is a normal human desire to want to hold on to such mountaintop moments in our lives because they are so precious. But we are called to listen to the Voice of God in this story and the Voice of God that we hear in our own journeys on our own mountaintops. That Voice says you can’t stay here: there is more to come. Keep following Jesus wherever he leads. Even we who are grounded in the nativity of our Lord must travel to that hill outside of the city gates in Jerusalem where he will die, so that we might live. To say this another way: the Mount of the Transfiguration is not our final destination. This encounter gives strength for the arduous journey that lies ahead. That is why our liturgical calendar follows the pattern we see in this gospel: we are reminded to listen. Listen to Jesus, God’s beloved. And what does Jesus say? Get up, and do not be afraid. Come, and follow me.

This Wednesday, the forty-day journey of Lent will begin again. It will take us not only through the Judean wilderness where Jesus was tempted by Satan but also into the wilderness places of our own world and of our own lives—to places we are often afraid to go. And the Voice says; Listen to Jesus! And Jesus says, Get up, and do not be afraid, come and follow me. There is no doubt in my mind that our epiphanies—our encounters with the risen Christ—are not confined by these four walls. Christ shows up when we are hanging out with friends over a pizza or skiing down a mountain or in a classroom where we discover something new and amazing and wonder-filled about an equation, or a poem, or an experiment, or an historical event or how to make music that touches the soul. The transfigured, risen, Christ is present in all of those places, if we have eyes to see.
The altar in the original chapel at Nativity

And this living, resurrected Christ is also found here, wherever two or three are gathered together in his name.  Always we carry this treasure in earthen vessels and the Church is, of course, an imperfect and human institution filled with flawed human beings. Yet we come here to proclaim the Word and to offer our lives as a holy and living sacrifice, and to break the bread and taste and to see that the Lord is good indeed. Christ is made manifest here and now as surely as on that mountaintop and when that happens, every once in a while our eyes are opened and we see it and the world around us is ablaze with the light of Christ.

By whatever name we call that: an epiphany, a born-again experience, a mystical encounter, our own moment of blessed assurance – Christ is transfigured and reality becomes something altogether different from what we thought it was. We ourselves begin to move from glory, to glory. Whether we are among the three who get to see that first-hand or among the nine who have to trust the witnesses, together we are called to listen: get up, and do not be afraid. Come, and follow me.

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