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Dean's Corner
Sermon: February 11, 2018

The Very Rev. Judith A. Sullivan

Last Sunday after the Epiphany

February 11, 2018

    One of the great joys for me in my travels to the Holy Land over the years has been encountering places that I have heard about all my life from stories in the Gospels and the Hebrew Scriptures:  Samaria, Shechem, Capernaum, Bethsaida, Nazareth, the Valley of Jezreel, Magiddo, Cana.  Even the raw hills and the valleys strewn with rocks and the stars shining on the clear nights brought to mind the psalms and those who wrote them.  People crying out to God.  People experiencing the living God in their midst as they were transformed from a band of nomads into a holy nation. 

    Mt. Tabor, where many believe the Transfiguration described in this morning’s gospel took place, is not far from Nazareth.  I saw its peak in the distance on a misty morning that we headed south from the Galilee to Jerusalem.  Imagining just this moment, knowing that I would preach on this text one day, I looked at that mountain very hard.  I squinted through the clouds and glare, trying to imagine Jesus with three of the disciples and Elijah and Moses, carrying on a conversation as God’s voice bellowed through the clouds.  Hoping for some glimmer of insight into this extraordinary event that happened there.

    The Transfiguration is an odd story and it almost seems out of place in Mark’s gospel of fast paced depictions of healing, teaching, and feeding the crowds.  Some scholars even think that it’s really a resurrection story that Mark does not place at the end of the gospel, but in the middle.  Remember that Mark’s gospel closes with the instruction to the women to return and tell the others to go to Galilee where Jesus is waiting for them.  Mark shares no vision of the resurrected Jesus.  So why in the middle of this Gospel, which otherwise reads like a mystery story about his identity, is Jesus declared beloved by God and clothed in white as if he has risen from the dead? Mark, in his inspired genius, gives us clues.

    We know that the high places in Israel, the mountaintops, are thought to be holy places, liminal spaces physically closer to God, where very often altars were created and sacrifices were offered.  In fact, many of the mountains in this region are riddled with caves where people would visit for a time of quarantine, forty days in which they would pray and fast.  Jesus did exactly this during his time of temptation and purification in the wilderness. Then, throughout his ministry, we see that he steals away whenever he can to quiet places like this for prayer and spiritual refreshment.  We can imagine that this is what he seeks to do on Mt. Tabor.  Except on this mountaintop, he is met by Moses and Elijah, the two giant forbearers of the Jewish people who have had their own ecstatic mountaintop experiences. 

    You’ll recall that Moses encounters God and receives the ten commandments on Mt. Sinai.  When he emerges from the mountain to return to the people, his face is bathed in white light, just as Jesus is clothed in white during the Transfiguration.  Moses also views the Promised Land from a mountain top but never enters it and his grave is never found.  Elijah, the great prophet of our first reading today, retreats to a mountaintop to hide from the followers of Ahab and Jezebel who are trying to kill him.  Dejected and exhausted as he was, he might have holed up here for the rest of his days if God, coming to him in the sheer silence, had not prompted him to abandon the cave and get on with things. 

    Both of these patriarchs experience the overwhelming mystery and grandeur of God—the awe and the wonder—What the writer Annie Dillard describes as “a power that is unfathomably secret and holy and fleet.” This is the transcendent God of the pillars of smoke and fire that accompanied the Israelites as they wandered through the desert.  The vast, infinite God of whom the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas says, “You can come in.  You can come a long way.  But you won’t be inside.”  The same divine majesty, the same ineffable Holy One whose voice we last heard at Jesus’ baptism booms from the clouds, “This is my beloved Son.”

    Peter, James, and John, the inner circle who witness the Transfiguration respond to this great transcendent mystery with fear and it is fear that shapes their response.  In his terror, Peter makes a recommendation to stay on the mountain and to create booths, small dwellings that are likely part of the observance of the Festival of the Tabernacles, or Sukkot.   His impulses, once again, are so frankly human as he shows us what fear of what we can’t understand can lead us to do:  To dig in, to hold on, to rush to judgment, to try to circumscribe the mystery and wonder of God only within the exclusive limits of our own religious experience, and in our paralysis, to stop asking questions. Have you noticed that when we are afraid, we stop taking risks? We hold on tight to what we already think we know as evidence that God belongs to us, that God is on our side, that God’s will and our will are the same and that not much more is required of us. 

    The Transfiguration story, smack in the middle of Mark’s gospel, marks a sharp transition.  Everything is now about to change as we make the biblical and liturgical equivalent of a hairpin turn. Like a giant neon directional sign with a big arrow:  Turn here.  And we now move sharply from the stories of the inauguration of the reign of God among us and the burgeoning Jesus Movement in Epiphany to setting our faces on Jerusalem and all that will happen there during the season of Lent.  Jesus will lead them down from the glory of the mountaintop.  Jesus will resist fear and inertia and continue on his journey to Jerusalem where he will face inevitable suffering and death; the glory of the mountaintop will soon give way to the agony of the cross.  And where what looks like defeat in human terms will be transformed by God’s love.

    The book is not yet closed on our lives, but like Mark’s account of Jesus, many of us are somewhere in the middle of our stories, too.  Or we’d like to hope that we are.  But then again, this is another question to hold gently because really, we just don’t know.  We have chosen to journey with Jesus, though, and this is a moment for transition for us, as well.  Jesus is also leading us down off the mountaintop because it’s time to renew our determination to get on with things, to get on with life.  To venture out into the unknown and the uncomfortable, to share the vision that God has given to us for the healing of the world.  And it is that vision, so counter to the prevailing culture, so counter to the greed, injustice, meanness, and violence, that will lead Jesus and us to the foot of the cross.  Not for the sake of suffering in itself, but for the sake of that holy vision that will heal the world.

    Today, Isa Nalla Oberg-Goodwin is at the very beginning of her story as she is baptized and takes her place in the body of Christ.  We will soon ask her parents and Godparents, on her behalf, to make the same commitments for the journey that we have made and will reaffirm:

To continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers
To persevere in resisting evil, and whenever falling into sin, repenting and returning to the Lord
Proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ
Seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves
And striving for justice and peace, among and all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being

    These are the shared commitments that we carry with us as we go, that bind us together in the love of God in Christ that is the working antidote to any fear that can diminish and paralyze us.

    As Isa is baptized, we will also be led in what is known as the Prayers for the Candidate.   They are among the most beautiful expressions in our Prayer Book and I will let them wait for the appropriate moment at the font, but I would like to add one, for Isa and for all of us on this morning when we hold together both the ineffability of the Holy One and the radical revelation of God in Jesus the Christ.  And it is this:

O God, help us who follow and love you in Jesus to remember that you are so much greater than the limits of our imagination and our experience.  Help us to enter without fear or prescription into the mystery of your presence, the joy, the wonder, and the awe, as you breakthrough again and again in your created world. Not always on mountaintops, but in less dramatic and equally holy places.  Help us to see you in the smaller, quieter moments that we find in the routine of our daily lives, in our worship here together, in the faces of those we love, in this blessed Cathedral community.  Where like the people of ancient Israel, amidst all their holy and thin places, we cry out, we are transformed by the experience the transcendent and loving God in our midst and we are strengthened with resolve for the rest of the journey. 




Last Published: February 12, 2018 8:06 PM