Sunday, February 26, 2017

"A Foretaste of Glory Divine"

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
February 26, 2017

Year A: The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

A Foretaste of Glory Divine
            We’ve been busy around here. Just this weekend alone, there have been a lot of exciting things happening here at St. Paul’s and over at Incarnation.
            On Friday night, we had a beautiful Black History Month celebration with our kids and kids from other churches singing so beautifully.
            And, this afternoon we’ll be back over at Incarnation to bless “The Lighthouse,” a home for people who have received asylum in the United States.
            And, of course, this week we have Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and JC Friday.
            There’s been so much going that it’s easy to lose sight of the “routine” ministries that take place here week after week: the Craft Guild gathering each Monday evening, the Altar Guild and the choirs going about their work to make our worship beautiful.
            I could go on.
            As most of you know, one ministry that we’ve been up to now for more than three years is our monthly healing service over at Majestic, the nursing home on Montgomery Street.
            I haven’t talked about this work lately – though we pray for the residents and employees of Majestic at all of our services.
            It’s not always an easy place to visit. Many of the residents are profoundly disabled, physically or mentally, and often both.
            Over the years we’ve been going, some of our regulars have noticeably declined and others have vanished.
            So, it’s hard, but, to my surprise, our monthly services over there have become an important part of my life, a gift to my spiritual life.
            Part of the blessing is that almost always Gail and Vanessa and I lead the service together.
            We’ve been working together for so long that by now we don’t really have to plan it out or even talk about it ahead of time. We know what works and what doesn’t.
            Gail has honed a repertoire of music that we sing most months. A few of the residents seem to know or remember the hymns and sing along – our “choir” – while others look on with appreciation, and others stare ahead blankly or snooze.
            This past Wednesday, however, Gail deviated from the repertoire, pulled out her copy of Lift Every Voice and sang that great old hymn, Blessed Assurance.
            “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine!”
            As sometimes happens, a woman who had seemed pretty much out of it perked up and she began to whisper the words along with Gail.
            And, at that moment, the old hymn came alive. The words became real.
            Seeing that old and sick woman, seemingly barely alive in this place of suffering, seeing her whisper those words, was a foretaste of glory divine, a foretaste of love defeating death, a foretaste of Easter.
            “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine!”
            Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, the last Sunday before we silence our “alleluias,” veil all the crosses, and put away the silver, the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent.
            And, on this Sunday we always hear the same gospel story, the story of the Transfiguration.
            It’s a story with lots of biblical echoes, reminding us of other mountaintop encounters with God, most especially Moses on Mount Sinai.
            It’s a story that reminds us of Jesus’ baptism when he heard the voice from heaven reveal that he was the beloved Son of God.
            We’re told Moses and Elijah are there, maybe representing the Law and the Prophets – Moses and Elijah who, according to tradition, had not died but were taken up into heaven.
            And, in fact, with Jesus’ face shining like the sun and his clothes dazzling white, the Transfiguration looks and feels like a resurrection story – like an Easter story, right?
            And, you know, that’s exactly what it is. It is an Easter story.
            There on the mountain, hearing the voice of God, seeing Moses and Elijah, there on the mountain, Jesus, along with his friends and disciples Peter, James and John, received a foretaste of Easter – a foretaste of glory divine.
            “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine!”
            And then, it was over - for now.
            At Majestic, after we finished singing the hymn, the woman who had been whispering the words faded away again, maybe still aware of us, maybe not.
            In the same way, the cloud and Moses and Elijah vanished.
            And, although Peter understandably wants to stay, Jesus and his friends make their way back down off the mountain. They begin the journey to Jerusalem, the journey to rejection and abandonment, the road to suffering and death.
            My hope is that even in the moments of despair, as Jesus was hanging on the cross, as the disciples fled in terror, confusion, and heartbreak, my hope is that, even for just a moment, they could remember and hold on to the foretaste that they had received on the mountain, the foretaste of glory divine, the foretaste of Easter.
            And, I have the same hope for us.
            We’re about to enter Lent, this time of self-examination, repentance, and sacrifice.
            Lent can be a beautiful time but it can also be a hard time.
            Often it’s not easy or comfortable to look into our hearts and look at our lives and see the ways that we’ve fallen short, that we’ve missed the mark.
            And, while the Church is moving into Lent, for a lot of people, including some of us here at St. Paul’s, it feels like it’s Lent all the time.
            I don’t need to tell you that evil and powerful forces are at work in our city and country, targeting, as usual, the scapegoats, the weakest and most vulnerable.
            There are gunshots ringing out every night in the southern part of our city, as our young men target and try to destroy one another, and hold whole neighborhoods hostage with their senseless violence.
            There are landlords making the lives of their tenants miserable and there are schools lacking basic supplies, sending the clear message that some children can and will be left behind.
            There are bomb threats being called into Jewish Community Centers, terrifying parents, children, and teachers – and vandals are toppling headstones in Jewish cemeteries.
            Government agents are rounding up people who may lack the right documents but who, let’s be honest, have usually lived and worked peacefully and productively among us for many years, often doing the work that American citizens just won’t do, earning a pittance and making others rich through their backbreaking labor.
            Just the other day in a Kansas bar, two Indian immigrants with all the right papers were minding their business having a drink when they were first verbally abused by a white man who then shot them both, killing one and wounding the other.
            And, transgender people, so often ridiculed and picked on, so often driven to suicide, are being targeted once again.
            I could go on. And, you could, too, I bet.
            Yes, we have definitely come down off the mountain.
            But, as we continue this journey together, this journey with Jesus into an often frightening future, let’s hold on to the foretaste of glory that we receive each time we come here to pray and feast and sing.
            This Lent, let’s hold on to the foretaste of Easter that Jesus and his friends received on the mountain, the foretaste of love’s victory over hate and life’s victory over death, the foretaste of Easter that I saw and heard over at Majestic, when an old woman came back to life and sang:
            “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine!”
            Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!