Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Transfiguration: An Overlook

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
February 14, 2010

Year C: The Last Sunday after Epiphany
Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
(2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2)
Luke 9:28-43a

The Transfiguration: An Overlook

I have a question - when you’re driving on a highway and you see a sign that says “Scenic Overlook Ahead” do you usually take the time to pull over and check it out?

I never do. Maybe it’s because I’m focused on getting to wherever it is I’m going or maybe having lived nearly my whole life in the city I’m just not that interested in scenic views. But whatever the reason I always just keep on driving right past the scenic overlook.

Sometimes, though, I’m not the one driving so it’s not my choice on whether we stop to look at the scenic overlook.

For example, on our J2A pilgrimage to California – about a year and a half ago now – I was happy to let Chris Wilde drive our large rental van up and down the coast of California. I remember one day we drove pretty far south on Highway 1 – the curvy road that hugs the Pacific Coast.

Near Big Sur we spotted a scenic overlook and Chris pulled over so we could take a look. It was nice to get out of the van to stretch my legs, but I remember thinking we’ve all seen the Pacific Ocean these last few days – you’ve seen it once you’ve seen it all, I thought.

Boy, was I wrong. It was spectacular looking down the steep drop to the ocean, watching the waves crashing onto the narrow strip of beach and slamming into the cliffs. We looked down at the pelicans as they looked down into the ocean on the hunt for something tasty. Once the pelicans spotted something worth the effort, they dove straight down into the ocean like missiles and then back up again with a presumably full gullet.

That scenic overlook gave a glimpse of the big picture – the truth that we live in a world glowing with God’s power. That overlook was one of those moments when I thought, it’s so good to be alive, to live in God’s beautiful world and to be able to do this work here and now.

I was glad that Chris had made the decision to pull over and check out that scenic overlook.

Sometimes we stumble upon scenic overlooks without seeking them out.

You all know about Overlook Hospital in Summit. I’ve been there a few times to visit parishioners – but I definitely don’t know it nearly as well as Morristown Hospital and I don’t think I ever consciously thought about its name – Overlook.

Anyway, a few months ago I went to visit someone at Overlook Hospital and I must have made a wrong turn and ended up in an unfamiliar hospital parking garage. It was nearly full so I had to park on the upper deck. By the time I parked and got out of the car I was very irritated at myself for having gotten lost and annoyed that I’d have to walk what looked to be about three miles to the hospital. I never bothered to look around at my surroundings.

After the visit I walked back the three miles to my car but by now I had calmed down. When I got to my car, I looked up and discovered this spectacular view – the city of Summit and the hospital called Overlook lived up to their names.

Down below I saw the New Jersey Transit trains snaking along the side of the cliff as they made their way in and out of Summit. And then I looked out to what from this height looked to be a vast plain stretching all the way to the skylines of Newark and New York.

I just stood there for a few minutes – standing atop what I later learned is the Second Watchung Mountain. Once again this overlook gave me a glimpse of the big picture – the truth that we live in a world glowing with God’s power. That overlook was one of those moments when I thought, it’s so good to be alive, to live in God’s beautiful world and to be able to do this work here and now.

Today we’ve come to the last Sunday after Epiphany – the season between Christmas and Lent when each week in church we retell the stories that manifest Jesus’ identity and power.

We began with Epiphany itself when the wise men recognize Jesus’ identity as king. Then we retold the story of Jesus’ baptism when he heard the voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

We heard two stories in which Jesus is revealed as a sign of God’s power and abundance – first, he turned water into fine wine at the wedding at Cana and second he told his fishermen friends to cast their nets on the other side, where they haul in the catch of their lives.

We imagined Jesus in his hometown synagogue telling the congregation that he was the fulfillment of prophecy.

For these past few weeks we’ve told epiphany story after epiphany story and on this last Sunday after Epiphany we tell two stories. These are Epiphany stories but they are also overlook stories.

First we tell the story of Moses coming down off the mountain with second set of tablets containing the law. In a powerful image, the author of the Book of Exodus tells us that since Moses had been so close to God, his face shined. His face shined so much that the Israelites were terrified and Moses covered his face with a veil.
Moses had the ultimate overlook experience on Mt. Sinai. In the most dramatic way imaginable, Moses saw the big picture - that we live a world glowing with God’s power. And Moses is marked by this encounter on the mountain.

The second story is the story of the Transfiguration. Once again it’s an overlook experience – Jesus takes Peter, John and James up on the mountain to pray. There the three disciples see Jesus transfigured and talking with Moses and Elijah. As if that weren’t enough for one overlook experience, they then hear the voice of God, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
esus had heard very similar words at his baptism – but that was private, just between God the Father and Jesus the Son. This time God speaks publicly - the three disciples hear this confirmation, this manifestation of Jesus’ identity and power.
The three disciples have a powerful overlook experience. They saw the big picture – that we live in a world glowing with God’s power. They recognized that God’s power was present in a unique way in God’s Son, Jesus.

So who can blame Peter for wanting to commemorate this event, to hold on to this overlook experience, by building shrines right there on the mountain.
Who can blame Peter, because the truth is that these overlook experiences are fleeting, we come down off the mountain and back to what seems like the humdrum, the routine, the everyday.

After Moses came down off the mountain, he and the Israelites still had a long journey, filled with wrong turns and betrayals, before reaching the Promised Land. And Moses himself won’t quite make it the journey’s end. Who could blame Moses if in the difficult days ahead he yearned for that time on the mountain with God – that overlook experience when he saw the big picture – when he experienced God’s glow.

And after Jesus and his disciples came down off the mountain, Luke tells us they are immediately thrust back into the messiness and the pain of life – a boy is sick and the disciples are powerless to help. Only Jesus has the power to heal him.
Who could blame Jesus and his disciples if they yearned to be back up on that mountain – back having that overlook experience seeing the big picture, seeing that the world is glowing with God’s power.

I think most, if not all, of us have had these overlook experiences. Even at low elevations there are moments in life when we glimpse the big picture – when we see the world is glowing with God’s power.

Maybe it was falling in love, or the birth of a child. Maybe it was reconnecting with an old friend, or experiencing the joy of helping someone in need. Maybe it was asking for and receiving forgiveness. Maybe it was hearing a beautiful piece of music or looking at a night sky filled with stars.

All of these can be overlook experiences – times when we glimpse the big picture. The challenge is how to hold on to these experiences when we return to the messiness and tedium of everyday life.

And that’s where Lent comes in. Starting on Wednesday, when ashes on our forehead remind us of our total dependence on God’s power, we are given the opportunity to slow down, to be mindful, to pay attention, to sacrifice, to take on some new ministry or service.

Lent gives us the opportunity to bring the epiphanies – the overlook experiences – into our daily lives. Maybe that happens by coming to one of the quiet and simple weekday services here. Maybe that happens by living more mindfully – taking the time to appreciate the ordinary overlook experiences of our lives – the food that we eat, our health, our friends and family. Maybe when we see the sign “Scenic Overlook Ahead” we pull over and check it out.

The Epiphany season is drawing to a close and Lent is about to begin. That means all sorts of changes here at church and maybe in our lives. But, the truth is, all of the church seasons are designed for one purpose – to help us see the overlook experience that is life itself. To help us see that we live in a world glowing with God’s power – and to recognize God’s power uniquely present in Jesus – King of Kings, Son of God, sign of God’s abundance, and fulfillment of prophecy.