Sunday, February 22, 2009

Transfiguration: An Intermission

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
February 22, 2009

Year B: The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
(2 Corinthians 4:3-6)
Mark 9:2-9

Transfiguration: An Intermission

Today’s the last Sunday of Epiphany – a season of alleluias that began with the visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus. Now Epiphany draws to a spectacular close with the mountaintop transfiguration of Jesus. The disciples Peter, James and John look on with wonder as the power and identity of Jesus is made manifest with the appearance of Moses and Elijah.

And, if you’ve been around these past few weeks, you know that throughout the Epiphany season we’ve recalled all sorts of manifestations of Jesus’ power and identity.

Each Sunday we’ve been making our way through the right-to-the-point Gospel of Mark, hearing about epiphany after epiphany. For Mark, Jesus’ ministry begins with his baptism by John in the River Jordan. And it’s at his baptism that Jesus has his own private epiphany when he realizes who he is and what he is called to do. Remember as Jesus came up out of the water Mark tells us that Jesus alone hears the voice of God say, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

It would be fair to describe the Gospel of Mark as a two-act drama and Jesus’ baptism, when the voice of God telling Jesus who he is, signals the beginning of Act One.

Mark then quickly moves through epiphany after epiphany, manifestation after manifestation, of Jesus’ power and identity.

Jesus teaches at the synagogue in Capernaum like no one has ever taught before. Jesus casts out demons, heals the sick, including Peter’s mother-in-law. Last week we heard about the manifestation of Jesus’ power and mercy in the healing of the man with leprosy.

There’s more to Act One of Mark’s gospel that we haven’t heard in church, but the bottom line is that Mark presents epiphany after epiphany, manifestation after manifestation of Jesus’ identity and power.

But in a lot of ways, although news about Jesus gets around, Act One of Mark’s Gospel is about the private – even secret - ministry of Jesus. In Mark’s gospel Jesus goes to great lengths to keep a low profile – warning both his disciples as well as unclean spirits not to say a word about what they have seen him do and what they have heard him say.

Well, today, with the story of the Transfiguration, we come to the end of Act One of Mark’s Gospel. We come to the end of the quieter, more private, secretive stage of Jesus’ ministry.

Act Two of Mark’s gospel will bring Jesus down from the mountain of Transfiguration and on to Jerusalem and ultimately to the Cross.

In Mark’s Gospel, the Transfiguration is… the intermission.

At this intermission Epiphany comes to an end, we reach the conclusion of Act One, our alleluias are silenced and the road to the Cross – Lent – is about to begin.

But before we get to Lent, during this intermission in Mark’s gospel and this intermission in the church year, we are offered the remarkable, mysterious, supernatural story of the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration is an intermission for Jesus and for the three disciples who witness this amazing event.

Try to imagine the scene. Peter, James and John – who seem to have been Jesus’ inner circle - are there on the mountain with Jesus.

We often give Peter a hard time – and the gospels often do set him up as the one who most often doesn’t seem to quite get it. But I’m amazed that Peter was actually able to speak after seeing Jesus transfigured, transformed, before his eyes. And on top of that Peter is able to speak after seeing Moses and Elijah!
And it’s no accident that it’s Moses and Elijah who appear beside Jesus. Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents the prophets – and Jesus is the fulfillment of both the Law and the Prophets.

On top of that, as we heard in the reading from Second Kings, Elijah had a powerful, mysterious assumption into heaven. And in the case of Moses, by the First Century there was a widespread belief that the sort of the same thing had happened to Moses – that he had also been assumed into heaven.

Anyway, Peter witnesses all of this and yet still manages to put together a few words: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Peter recognizes the Transfiguration as an intermission from ordinary life. Peter recognizes the Transfiguration as literally and figuratively a mountaintop experience. And, naturally, he wants to hold on to this amazing intermission, this wonderful mountaintop experience for as long as he can.

I hope that over the course of our lives all of us from time to time have had intermissions from ordinary life – that occasionally we enjoy mountaintop experiences. They are probably not quite as dramatic as the Transfiguration, but nevertheless we can probably sympathize with Peter’s desire to hold on to the experience for as long as he can.

Our intermissions from the ordinary, our mountaintop experiences, might be the birth of a child or a grandchild. They might be falling in love or receiving a wonderful compliment. Our intermissions might be the pleasure of doing a job well or acing a test or hearing a beautiful piece of music. Our mountaintop experiences might be the joy of helping a person in need or reconnecting with an old friend.

These intermissions from the ordinary, our mountaintop experiences, are great gifts from God – giving us the strength and inspiration to carry on through the difficult and painful and sometimes just boring parts of life.
Reflecting on this idea of intermissions from the ordinary, I remembered several of my own mountaintop experiences.

I remembered the first Sunday Sue and I went to St. Paul’s Church in Jersey City – thanks to the recommendation of a colleague of mine. I remember being impressed by the beauty of the church, the good music, the diverse congregation, the intelligent preaching and the warm welcome from the congregation. Sue and I had never experienced an exchange of the peace where people came out into the aisles and seemed genuinely happy to see one another. And I can still see the rector come down the aisle to us in his blue Advent chasuble, stretch out his hand and say, “I’m Dave Hamilton. Welcome to St. Paul’s.” And we wondered what’s this coffee hour everyone’s talking about? People at this church actually want to spend time together?

For me that first Sunday at St. Paul’s was an intermission from the ordinary, a mountaintop experience right there in Jersey City! I remember walking back from church that day thinking, this is it – this is what I’ve been looking for all along.
And the memory of that intermission, that mountaintop experience, continues to sustain me through the difficult days.

Another intermission, this one actually on a mountain – or, at least a cliff: last summer at the start of the J2A pilgrimage to California, after we left the airport we picked up lunch and drove to a park overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay. It was a bright sunny day and it all looked so beautiful. And I remember thinking, here I am with these great kids and Chris and Ruth - this is amazing – this is my job - how did I luck out and get to spend my life like this?
And the memory of that intermission, that mountaintop experience, continues to sustain me.

One more story of intermission, of a mountaintop experience. A few years ago I regularly visited a woman in the hospital who was quite ill with cancer. When I first stopped by one of her adult daughters was also in the room. I introduced myself and we began to talk. As is so often the case in situations like that, it was if she had been waiting her whole life for someone to ask her to tell her story.

Her story was not particularly unusual. It was a story of lots of hard work and raising children and grand-children. It was a story of utter selflessness.
And then finally she reached the point in her story when all of her children and grandchildren were out of the house and she didn’t have to take care of anyone else but herself. She told me how every day she would go to the park, walk around the pond and sit and read.

She called that time her “freedom days.”

But, maybe not surprisingly, all too soon a grandchild moved back in with her. She looked right at me and said, “And then my freedom days were over.”
What struck me was how she told her story. She was so eloquent and so vivid in her descriptions. Her story was so well-crafted. After I let it all sink in, I said that it almost sounded like I had just listened to something that had been written down – it sounded like a great short story or a memoir.

She and her daughter both gave each other a strange look. And then this seemingly ordinary woman told me that for years she had been keeping journals, day after day describing her life. There were boxes and boxes of journals piled in closets in her house. During her “freedom days” in the park she would spend hours writing in her journals.

That day in the hospital she described to me an amazing intermission in her life, the amazing mountaintop experience of her “freedom days.” It was clear that this intermission had sustained her ever since, even as she faced grave illness.
And for me also it was an intermission, a mountaintop experience – and continues to sustain me even now. That experience reminds me that people are capable of great beauty, richness and depth – and that you never know what’s just beneath the surface of seemingly ordinary people.

Today our alleluias ring out one last time as we celebrate the intermission, the mountaintop experience of the Transfiguration.

Just as at Jesus’ baptism, once again God declares Jesus “my Son, my Beloved.” But this time, it’s not just Jesus who hears the voice. Act Two of Mark’s gospel, the more public ministry of Jesus that leads to the Cross is about to begin.

But, let’s not go there just yet. Lent doesn’t start until Wednesday.

For now, let’s stay with Peter during this intermission, this mountaintop experience. Let’s remember and give thanks for the intermissions of our lives, for our mountaintop experiences.

And with Peter, let us say, “…it is good for us to be here.”