Last Sunday after the Epiphany: March 2, 2019
Year C, Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36; [37-43a]
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This may be a little-known fact about Episcopal seminaries: like many colleges and universities, there’s a fair amount of competition between the schools. Which is more academic, which is more liturgically high church, which is positively medieval, which is most social-justice-oriented.? You get the picture. As most of you know, I attended General Theological Seminary in the heart of New York City, a very urban environment. It’s about as far removed from a place like Shenandoah County as you can get. There is, of course, Virginia Theological Seminary, or VTS, which is in Alexandria – still not exactly a mountain experience. And among the remaining nine Episcopal seminaries, there is Sewanee in Tennessee, part of the University of the South, which is located on what is lovingly referred to as the “Holy Mountain”. I’ve been there and the beauty is stunning.
Today’s readings take us to another holy mountain. I think the folks in Sewanee and we here in the Shenandoah Valley have at least a sense of the grandeur of the mountains that Peter, James, and John are seeing when they go up the mountain with Jesus. It is a kind of beauty that I have to tell you just isn’t always evident to those of us who lived in flat cities for so many years of our lives.
We celebrate the last Sunday after the Epiphany today, the Sunday before Lent. It’s also a Sunday known as The Transfiguration. Jesus and the disciples set out for what would have been a healthy walk. Off they go and suddenly Jesus’ clothes became “dazzling white”. Christ was literally transfigured or changed in physical appearance in front of Peter, James, and John and he is joined by no less than Moses and Elijah.
This is clearly a story of significance. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all describe the transfiguration, as does the second epistle of Peter. Although the narrative of transfiguration is not in the Gospel of John the symbolism is certainly present.
Can you imagine this extraordinary encounter? We hear that they were terrified at this encounter. And after it was over, they kept silent and told no one of the things they had seen. Let’s be honest – if this had happened to us, our reaction is almost certain to be the same. In Luke, the disciples seem to act of their own accord in not telling of this – in Mark’s version, Jesus tells them to say nothing.
The story of the Transfiguration is one of those peculiar stories that’s challenging from our modern point of view. What do we these supernatural kinds of occurrences? Of Moses and Elijah appearing and disappearing, Jesus’ face shining and becoming “dazzling white”.
As I read and re-read the text this week and began reflecting on it, the image that came to me was a great epic movie of the 1970s. Close Encounter of the Third Kind, which is now more than 40 years old.
In that movie, many of you may recall, Richard Dreyfus has an encounter with extra-terrestrial beings, and suddenly this light from above shines and everything goes crazy in his pickup truck. And ever since that moment, he is filled with obsession – he doesn’t understand what it is, or why, but he has a vision of this place. And that eventually leads him to the place where extra-terrestrials do in fact land.
Steven Spielberg was trying to make an entertaining movie. But when we think about it isn’t it true that these mysterious encounters in our lives give us glimpses to things that are beyond us. Insights into the divine mystery, moments when we are touched by the glory of Jesus Christ.
Let’s set aside the incredible nature of this physical change in Jesus’ appearance and think about this close encounter with God – the kind of encounter that doesn’t happen too often – well, actually, the kind of encounter that probably none of us have ever literally had.
To see God is to be changed.
The story of the Transfiguration is a story of signs pointing to a reality larger than life. It’s Luke’s way of saying this isn’t just about something fantastic, out of this world, that happens to Jesus and is witnessed by Peter, James and John – it’s something that happens to all of us. It means something. It’s important. The last sentence in today’s Gospel tells us that. “And all were astounded by the greatness of God.”
The disciples had seen God and their lives were changed? How could they not be?
I invite you to look for holy space that transfigures you, changes you. Be aware of holy experiences and acknowledge them – take them as a sign of God’s grace, mercy, and love.
Because like Moses who saw God on the mountaintop or the people who witnessed the life of Christ on earth, like the disciples who couldn’t quite recognize the true identity of Jesus until he was transfigured before their eyes, we too are forever changed when we see and encounter God.
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