Sermon for Sunday, February 23, 2020 | Matthew 17:1-9
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ
Above the piano in our home, there hangs a framed needle point canvas with these words from an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem: Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush aflame with God; But only those who see take off their shoes; The rest sit round and pluck blackberries (“Aurora Leigh”). Of course, to catch Browning’s biblical allusion, you would have to know the story in Exodus 3 of Moses herding a flock in the wilderness when suddenly a bush bursts into flames in front of him, a bush that isn’t consumed by the fire. You would have to know that Moses takes off his shoes, the voice of God speaks to him from the flames, and calls him from rural exile into the city where he will lead the Hebrews out of their oppressive toil in Egypt; will bring them to Sinai, to the mountain surrounded by clouds, where Moses’ face will be transfigured by God’s own light. Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush aflame with God. Did Barrett Browning have it right: that only those who see the presence of God in the ordinary, in the light of day and in the darkness of night, in the moment of birth and in the moment of death, that those who see heaven on earth take off their shoes – for they know that they are in the presence of the Holy One?
On November 29, we began to mark the first great moments of the Christian mystery: the advent and birth, the baptism and public life of Jesus – that is, until today, February 23, the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, for today everything turns in another direction. Thus, we hear of Jesus leading three followers up a high mountain where his face shines like the sun, his clothes become dazzling white, a bright cloud overshadows him, and a voice from the sky says, This is my son … listen to him. To say the least, it is an out-of-the-ordinary scene, a remarkable vision in which this earthy mountain top is crammed with heaven, in which dazzling light transforms the face of Jesus, in which his disciples fall to the ground, thunderstruck.
But I wonder: I wonder if the story, the vision, can be too much for us; over the top; so extraordinary, so alien to our experience that we are tempted to pass it by, to simply gaze on the colorful icon found on the worship bulletin and then at the end of the service simply toss it away; finding ourselves at a safe distance from intense light, dazzling clothes, and sky voices; finding ourselves, perhaps, at a safe distance from the possibility that you and I could be transformed, transfigured; that you and I might find ourselves being called into a more mature faith, one that recognizes the living, burning presence of God in this earth, our lives, and those we encounter on a daily basis.
I say this because the presence of God is never neutral; the revelation of God, whether it be in a whisper, a moment of prayer, in darkness of night or in dazzling light, is never about gaining more “facts” or interesting information that you and I can tuck away into a cubby hole – for light always reveals something and brings to awareness what you and I need to see, and what you and I may need to do. Or say it this way: the transfiguration reveals that something is hidden in Jesus and that is the saving, life-giving presence of God. But the transfiguration reveals this as well: that something is hidden within you and me and that, too, is the life-giving presence of God – whether we feel it or not, whether we know it or not, whether we act on it or not.
It seems to me, then, that this ancient story raises for you and me a question: how will that life-enriching presence be revealed with greater clarity in your life and mine, revealed out there, revealed today and tomorrow?
Today’s gospel concludes with Jesus descending the mountain. Yet were we to continue reading from Matthew, we would hear that Jesus enters a village crowd where he encounters a father desperate for help, desperate because his epileptic son involuntarily throws himself into fire and into water, thus endangering his life. “Bring the boy to me,” says Jesus and then cures him; that is, Jesus faces this life-diminishing force with the life-giving presence of God. And thus, the boy is released from his suffering – though this will not be the case for Jesus. For now, at this point in the gospel and at this point in our calendar, Jesus is moving toward the city of Jerusalem, and as he comes toward that city he engages, I think, in the practices of transfiguration, the practices that will, ironically, lead to his arrest, suffering, and death. That is, the practices that allow the fire of God to enlighten ignorance, heal sickness, console the grieving, bless the child, forgive the resentful, share treasure with the poor, admonish the arrogant, and resist political and religious injustice.
The Greek novelist, Nikos Kazantzakis, tells the story of St. Francis walking down an Italian road with some of his companions when, in the distance, they hear the tinkling of a bell and a weakened voice crying, Leper! Beware! Leper! Beware! – the bell and the announcement required by law of all lepers in medieval Europe. As his companions begin to slide into a ditch to avoid the leprous man, Francis walks steadfastly toward him. As his companions shout to Francis, imploring him to enter the safety of the ditch for fear that he will contract leprosy, he begins to run toward the leper, startling the leper, and then embraces him in his tattered and stinking rags, kissing him on his crumbling and smelly lips.
But then something remarkably strange happens: as he kisses him, there is a fantastic eruption of fire that hurtles Francis to the stony road. The leper vanishes into thin air, Francis is singed over his face and hands, and yet – and yet smiling as his companions rush to his aid. “Where is the leper?” they ask in amazement. But Francis only smiles and then says: “The leper? No, there was no leper; there was only the Lord Christ, hidden in ordinary flesh, waiting, waiting … for us to love him.”
I wonder how you will engage the practice of transfiguration in the days ahead. Will you see heaven crammed in the form of a homeless man and greet him with loving respect? But more than that, will you let your voice become an advocate for accessible housing? Will you recognize in the anger or confusion of a relative or colleague, the child or adolescent who was wounded terribly by others? Will you join others in care for this earth that is truly aflame with God’s presence yet increasingly wounded by human folly? But more than that, will your vote support those who have a record of placing the planet over profit? Will you give a break to someone who, by all accounts, doesn’t deserve one? Or this: will you recognize that you yourself are crammed with heaven and aflame with God and, then, simply give it away to others, out of love?