Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sudden Clarity (Last next before Lent, Year A)

Transfiguration by Sieger Köder

 Sudden Clarity
Last Sunday of Epiphany (Year A)
26 February 2017; 8 am Spoken Mass; 10 am Sung Mass
Sunday Last next before Lent (Transfiguration Sunday)
Homily Delivered at Trinity Episcopal Church
Ashland, Oregon  
The Rev. Fr. Tony Hutchinson, SCP, Ph.D.

God, take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh.  Amen.

Transfiguration Sunday ends the season of Epiphany, or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.  In a very real way, the scene here is what we call in popular parlance an epiphany, a moment of clarity when all of a sudden we see things as they really are. 

We all have seen such a moment of clarity, both good and bad.  It is when you realize you have found the love of your life.  It is when a person in discernment comes to know what it is that God is calling her to.  It is when you suddenly are sure what your passion in life or work is.  It is what makes a destructive drunk "hit bottom" and begin to reach out for help.  It is when you realize you are in a destructive relationship and need to break it off.  It is when a diagnostician suddenly puts together all the symptoms, pathology, and life details of the patient and intuitively knows what disease she is dealing with.  It is when a scientist suddenly recognizes the pattern and comes up with a new hypothesis or theory.  It is when, of a sudden, we know that we love and trust God. 

But this epiphany—God’s glory shining in the face of Jesus—overwhelms Peter.  Seeing the two great icons of the Jewish tradition alongside Jesus—Moses for the Law and Elijah for the Prophets—he thinks it is they who are giving his friend and teacher this new power and glory.  He wants to set up three little shrines to commemorate it.   He does not realize this is a revelation of how Jesus has always been, just hidden.

Peter is thinking about Succoth (tabernacles, or booths), temporary shelters set up for the duration of the major harvest festival.  They stood for the tents of Israel during the 40 years of wandering in the desert while being fed on the Manna, the bread from Heaven, and symbolized human reliance on God, an appropriate sentiment for a harvest festival.  The prophet Zechariah had said that when the Messiah came, all the nations of the earth would go in pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the Succoth Festival and build such Booths as commanded by Moses.  God would punish any nation not doing by withholding the rain and sending drought, the punishment that Elijah had famously brought on King Ahab for three years (Zech 14:16-18; Exod 23:16; 34:22; 2 Kings 17).  

Peter wants to build the Succoth for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to show that Jesus is another great figure in his religion, perhaps even the Messiah who would force all Gentiles to become Jews by invoking Elijah’s curse of drought. 

But God intervenes and sets Peter straight.  A light-filled cloud appears and covers everything. A voice identifies Jesus as the first thing, the real item. ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to what he says!’   The cloud disappears, and all that remains is Jesus himself.  Moses and Elijah have dropped from view. 

The transfiguration is a moment of sudden clarity for the disciples that they don’t fully “get” until after the resurrection: the realization, in the words of John’s Gospel, that “Whoever has seen [Jesus] has seen the Father.” 

As today’s epistle puts it on the lips of St. Peter: “we have been eyewitnesses of God’s majesty,” and “have heard the voice from heaven saying ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”  For this reason, “we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed” (the King James here has “the more sure word of prophecy”).  That is, we understand the inner meaning and direction of the prophets’ words, having seen the Glory of God directly revealed in Jesus.   And this being so, “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”  Paul elsewhere says that “gazing upon the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus” makes us ourselves undergo transfiguration or metamorphosis, changing from glory into glory, closer and closer to Jesus.   
How can we “be attentive to” this epiphany, this revelation, this moment of sudden clarity when the early disciples first had an inkling of who Jesus truly was?  How do we “gaze upon the face of Jesus?” 
It is important to reflect on our Lord and Savior often and regularly.  That is why daily prayer and scripture reading is an essential part of any Christian’s intentional spiritual discipline.  Regular Church attendance helps, but in gazing upon the Lord's glory, we must be the Church, not simply attend Church.  It is not just a passive act of admiration.  Following Jesus in doing corporeal acts of mercy, in serving our fellows, in standing with the outcast, the downtrodden, and the sick--these give us an experience of who Jesus is and what he does. 

Given the stresses of life, it is easy to lose heart.  It is easy to believe that people cannot change, that we cannot change.  But the miracle and mystery of our faith is this—we can change because God promises to change us.  In the Apostles’ Creed we affirm that we believe in “the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”  This makes no sense at all if you don’t believe that God is at work transforming us, and that we shall be changed
Just as God sent that shining cloud to drive away Peter’s silly preconceptions and plans, God works with us as we look into the glorious face of Jesus and try to hear his voice.   God changes us.

Such change is sometimes hard, so hard that at times we do not know whether we will be able to bear it.  At other times it is a relief, as easy as taking off a heavy winter coat in the summer heat.  

When Paul says this turns us into "the image of Christ" he is not saying it removes our individuality.  What he describes is a transformation into our true selves, the individual people God intended when He created each of us, with all that makes us who we are, but absent the brokenness that we so often mistake for what makes us who we are. 

One of the greatest foundation stones of my personal faith is the experience of seeing transformed brothers and sisters around us, and seeing ourselves over the years as God works with us and changes us.  It doesn’t mean we are perfect, only that God is making progress in finishing his creation in us.   In the words of the classic line from African-American preaching quoted often by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Lord, I know I ain't what I outta be.  And I know I ain't what I'm gonna be.  But thank God Almighty, I ain't what I was!”

Charles Wesley in one of his hymns summed it up this way--
Finish then, thy new creation,
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in Thee:
Changed from glory into glory,
'Till in heaven we take our place.
'Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.  

It is not just in heaven when all of God's creation is done that this happens.  As we are transformed here and now, quickly or slowly, it makes us look around us in amazement at tokens of God's love about us, ourselves experience sudden clarity.  And then we gaze all the more, "lost in wonder, love, and praise," on the author and pioneer of it all. 
Thanks be to God.