Transcription of the sermon preached
By The Very Reverend William Carl Thomas
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
February 19, 2012
At Saint Matthews Episcopal Church, Charleston West Virginia
Click here to listen to the sermon.
Through the years as I have encountered the scripture that we proclaim on this the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, the day when we as Episcopalians read the scripture of the Transfiguration, I realized that I have had a narrow entrance into it. I have entered into it from the phrase that Peter says, “Master, it is good that you are here. Let us build three dwellings (or three booths): One for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” I’ve always been struck by that fact that it’s Peter trying to capture the moment because it is pretty awesome. Jesus has been transfigured. He has been shown as to who he is, whiter than white. And so Peter is trying to do the best that he can as a human to capture it. So my joke has evolved over the years from being “Lord, Lord, wait a minute, “til I can put some film in the camera” to “Lord, Lord, wait a minute, the batteries are dead, I need to put some new batteries in my digital camera.” So you can see how he wanted to take a picture to capture what was going on.
But I’ve begun to realize that that is actually too narrow a place to start. It’s as if their senses, Peter, James and John’s senses were just totally overwhelmed. I mean inundated with new data, new images, new feelings, new thoughts. It’s like when an artist paints a beautiful painting or creates marvelous music: They’re tying to gain an entrance into something that they get a piece of, but, maybe, not all of it. But just enough to say, “I sense something.”
I want to give a sense of what it might be to be so overwhelmed. And this is going to be one of those generational references, I’ll have to explain it just a little bit. When FedEx, Federal Express, was getting started as a company, they ran an ad campaign in the 70’s and I think the 80’s, where they wanted to explain how fast their service was. So they found this man, named John Moschitta, who could speak, as I am going to do in just a minute: really fast! He could talk so fast that you would know that the package would get there, instantly, quickly, etcetera, etcetera. And he could cram into a sixty second advertisement almost twice as many words. And you could actually understand him. So we were kind of overwhelmed by how fast he spoke. And that got our attention.
Or another cultural reference from, gosh, dare I say, even the late 60’s. Some of you babies from then, can raise your hand. When the Smothers Brothers were on TV, they would run from time to time, and I’m pretty sure we could find it on YouTube: Mason Williams’ Classical Gas. He was an incredible guitarist. And it would be a wonderful piece, but what really made it set apart was the number of images they edited together to go to the guitar classical piece. And it would overwhelm you to trying to capture all of them. It would just blow by. This was before you could just pause your DVR and look at them. Okay. It would just go by and you would get overwhelmed by them.
Have you ever been to the Grand Canyon and stood on the edge? And either looked north or south, up and down: that is overwhelming. More than anyone can take in.
So I want to get a sense of what it must have been like for Peter, James, and John to be given a rare gift of something that would literally blow them away.
What begins to happen when you think about this, we have Elijah and Moses are there. Moses, I think, gives us an insight to what it’s like to the gift that Peter, James, and John were given. We know that Moses, this is a great scholar question, EfM folk listen up, that it’s attributed from some that Moses actually wrote the first five books of the bible. Which is somewhat problematic because his death scene is at the end of the fifth book. When he is up on the top of Mount Nebo, Moses is not going to get to go into the Promised Land. Frankly, all the people that went through the Red Sea, aside from maybe Joshua, are not getting to go. They’ve either died or: Forty years! Moses primarily because he stamped his staff a couple of times at the wrong time and didn’t listen carefully to God. But God gives Moses an incredible gift. On the top of Mount Nebo, Moses can see the Promised Land. It’s as if he’s been given a 360 twirl, and can see the full promise of everything God has in store. Moses can see the Promised Land. And then the people will go into the Promised Land: Overwhelming, and gift of love from God.
I believe, now, that Peter, James, and John were given a gift when they looked at Jesus, and they realized, perhaps by Pentecost, with the descent of the Holy Spirit, but they had the beginnings of an inkling: THAT JESUS IS THE PROMISED LAND. That was the gift God was planting in them. And now they come down from the mountain and they start to go on the walk towards Jerusalem. And they are going to be with Jesus when he dies. And he says to them, don’t tell anybody what you’ve seen until the resurrection. And then the understanding starts to come in.
If you recall, if you were here on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, I talked a little bit about, God says as Jesus comes up out of the River Jordan, after accepting a baptism he doesn’t need, he’s without sin, the clouds open up, and God says, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And I pointed out that there was a tie-in with that to the scripture we heard today. Because as the cloud which uncovers and goes away, and Elijah and Moses are gone, its just Jesus, God speaks again, clearly for Peter, James and John, and now us to hear: “This is my son, the Beloved, listen to him.” If you want to enter the Promised Land, listen to him. If you want the fullness and richness of all God has to offer you, LISTEN.
We know, as we read the history post-Moses, that the people chosen had a hard time listening. Heck, Adam and Eve had a hard time listening, too. Jesus, as Paul writes, is the new Adam, he’s going to correct everything. We, of course, as you will figure out, all have the same problem: I’m at the first of line working on it. As they go through their period with God, they say to God, “This confederacy idea, where we’re really supposed to talk to each another” (you can find this in Kings and Judges, they talk all about that in the Old Covenant, in the Hebrew Scriptures), they say, “We want a king, a king will tell us what to do.” And they get Saul, which doesn’t work out so well. They get David, which is kind of okay. Solomon does a pretty good job. Then it all goes pfffffsssst, not very good at all. And then, they get a good king in Josiah.
Now, one of the problems in the Promised Land, when Joshua took everybody through, even in the times of the Judges, even in the times of the Kings, there were other cultures there. And they were interacting with other ideas. And sometimes they would buy into them. And by the time of good King Josiah, they had so bought into them; you couldn’t tell that the temple was the temple because it had too much stuff in it that wasn’t what God would want. And they were doing a renovation and they knocked a wall down. And guess what they found: They found the books that Moses wrote, or supposedly wrote. They found the first five books, which had gotten lost. And they read them, and they realized what they had done as a people, how far they had fallen away from God. How they had not listened. And they tried to clean up their act. Clean the temple up. But here’s what happens again: Josiah leads them in battle. The good King Josiah, remember, not a lot of good kings, leads them into battle against an enemy. And Josiah dies. And eventually, they get enslaved. It’s another way of saying, their conversion was only an inch deep.
We have a gift coming up for us during Lent, which starts on Ash Wednesday, this Wednesday: To take a deeper look inside, and then to proclaim to ourselves “What does it mean to walk with Jesus, to Jerusalem, to his death, to his resurrection, and then to receive the power of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.” You see, we are people who are post his death, post his resurrection, post the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We are receptors of the gift that is being proclaimed to us today fully on the mountaintop. It’s been given to us, others have gone before to proclaim it to us. If we take a look at Jesus’ early disciples, the early apostles, the twelve that were finally pulled together just before Pentecost: We don’t know this for sure, but it’s pretty darn close to true, best as we know, eleven of the twelve died as martyrs, only one died in the comfort of his bed. But they died with that same Peace that comes without understanding because they knew they were fully in God’s love. They were, as we can claim, they were, they knew Christ and were making Christ known. It was a little bit like, at their death, they were like Elijah, being lifted up: There was no pain even though it was a painful death because they were clearly in the Promised Land; because they clearly listened; because they clearly were obedient.
This is what Jesus models for us in the Jordan River. This is what Jesus models for us on the cross. This is the gift that Jesus gives to us in the resurrection. This is the gift we receive in the power of the Holy Spirit. And all we need to do is remember to do it: two ears, one mouth, listen. Listen to him and we will find the Promised Land.
And the Promised Land is something that we proclaim in different words. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” The Promised Land becomes real when we share that same love that God shares with us in Jesus Christ. When we go forth to know Christ and make Christ known: when we listen to him.
I invite you in to a devout and holy Lent: To listen carefully to God in your life, to celebrate God’s love and to share it.
All these words I offer in the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.