Homily for the Last Sunday After the Epiphany, Mark 9:2-9
The disciples, when they followed Jesus up the mountain, were probably not looking for a life-changing experience. But let’s be honest, neither are many of us.
Who really has the time for a life-changing experience? Who among us has the capacity and the imagination these days? Let’s use a great modern word: who has the bandwidth for that kind of thing, with our schedules full to bursting and our spirits gummed-up with all the things we already know perfectly well?
In our lives we move so fast, with such seeming clarity of purpose, that we fail to see and hear important things that emerge right in front of us. The things that matter. The things that can disrupt our trajectory and set us on a different path – sometimes gently, and sometimes abruptly. The things that might just awaken us to a larger life, to the presence of God, to our own brokenness, to our own giftedness. Do we see these things when they appear around us? Are we ready to listen?
That seems to be part of the story of the Transfiguration: Peter and James and John are right beside Jesus on the mountain, they see and they hear, but do they really see and hear? The fact is, they very nearly don’t.
They almost miss it because the moment they see something that disrupts their understanding, they scurry for a familiar meaning – but since this is about the unknowable and mysterious God, anything familiar would only be misleading. The try to plug the transcendent into a story they already know, rather than listen as the new story unfolds.
How likely was it that one of the three disciples, seeing their teacher transfigured before them, turned to the others and said. I knew it! I knew this was what Jesus was all about it. Judging from the rest of the story, this isn’t very likely. It’s more likely that one turned to another and said Wait, I thought we were spiritual-but-not religious – now what’s all this about?
After the immediate shock of seeing Jesus shining before them, what do they do? They go straight to their comfort zone and begin to fit what they had seen – actually, they were trying to spin it in real time – into a story that was already familiar to them. Seeing Elijah and Moses, they said, “It is good for us to be here.” (Perhaps they said this was so that their presence would be reflected in the minutes). Let’s now create dwelling places. Let’s create structures. Let’s create vessels so that you – and Moses and Elijah – will always be where we know to find you.
Yet they begin to shift from their own narrowness to, if not an understanding, a new capacity for seeing when Peter stops talking and lets his heart take the lead. He stops talking and realized that he is scared.
This is one of those rare moments where fear is actually a helpful emotion. After Peter says that dopey thing about building three dwellings, we learn that he was terrified. Fear itself isn’t the point, but at least we can say that this was a real emotion. It got Peter out of his heard and into his heart, into a place where he could begin to see and hear what was unfolding right in front of him.
And so when they heard God’s voice – This is my Son, the Beloved, Listen to him,” the disciples began to listen.
This was not the Jesus they had known, and so it was not the Jesus they had expected. And they are not alone. This was not the nice-friend and wise-teacher Jesus. This was not spiritual-but-not-religious Jesus. Speaking of this today, C. Clifton Black reminds us that many of us “have lost any appreciation of Jesus’ divinity… It’s easy to regard Jesus as a sage, hero, scamp, or fool. Some among (us) hide out with the History Channel’s Jesus and never come out. (The Gospel of) Mark uncages a Jesus so tamed.” [i]
It is precisely the opposite of what the disciples try to do at first: they want to build dwellings which would have domesticated the holy. But Peter’s trembling heart led them out of their own cages. This is my son, the Beloved. Listen to him.
Listen to him. Are we listening? Are we so wedded to our stories that we miss the transfigured Lord right before our eyes? Are we moving so fast, and surrounded by so much noise, that we can hear neither the cry of our neighbors nor the still small voice of God?
You see, if Epiphany is about seeing, Lent is about listening, about turning off all the clanging and impatient channels so that we can better listen for God.
This is one of the reasons why in Lent we take on the simple discipline of giving something up: of letting go of something seemingly unimportant that holds an outsized share of our attention, and to then see what surfaces in the new space. This discipline matters, but that’s not the ultimate goal. The goal is freeing ourselves to see something we didn’t see before.
As you know I spent my childhood in the Roman Catholic church, where everybody absolutely gave something up for Lent. And we didn’t eat meat on Fridays, or at least the cafeteria would only serve fish…this can seem quaint to us as Episcopalians, but I think that’s unfortunate, because it tells me that we’ve lost the practice of fasting. That we have convinced ourselves that we’re too good for it, or maybe too smart for it. What a loss that is.
When I came to the Episcopal Church, I discovered at first that giving something up for Lent was an elective discipline, that some did it and some didn’t. Praise Jesus and the Reformation, I thought! And then I learned that some chose instead to take something on, some kind of discipline such as daily scripture study or creative practice.
I’ve seen some really lovely Lenten disciplines that folks have taken on, and even tried them myself. They can be wonderfully formative. But sometimes they feel a little like “Lent 2.0,” a way that we feel like we’ve improved upon the simple discipline of giving something up. I think in that case, we miss the point a bit.
But in the spirit of meeting Jesus, of listening to God and listening for our own belovedness, I want to make a pitch for the old school. I want to make the case for giving something up. And I don’t mean giving up things that don’t make me feel fulfilled – because that’s not quite the point – and I don’t mean giving up things that harm you or other people – because you don’t need to wait until Lent on that one – and I don’t mean giving up something nebulous like “judgmental thoughts” because good luck with that.
I’m talking about giving up Chocolate Cake. I’m talking about giving up soda. I’m talking about giving up TV or iced mocha latte or the radio in the car. I’m talking about giving up that delicious little detail that you love so much, even though it does no one any harm, and may genuinely make life a little better. Last year I gave up instant video – folks, that was hard! Two or three years ago I gave up sweets…also hard. Once when I was working in film production I gave up caffeinated sodas, and my career never recovered.
We say that these things don’t matter – and of course they don’t – but the act of abstaining shows me what I really value, and alerts me to my dependence upon things other that Jesus. I didn’t have any mountaintop epiphanies, but I did take one or two more steps closer to Jesus because I became more aware of what things – what voices, what foods, what demands, were monopolizing my attention, and keeping me from listening.
Giving something up helps me to realize what a gluttonous would we live in. We crave attention, we crave security, we crave money and power, we crave, we crave, we crave. And in a world that uses the words of Martin Luther King to sell pickup trucks during the Super Bowl, we need to be able to practice the holy act of finding the off switch, and then actually using it.
The point is not the cake, or the soda, or the instant video. We don’t become holier when we ditch these things. The point is seeing Jesus, the point is being awake and alert to his presence, and indeed to his transfiguration before us. Do we see? Are we listening? Do we scurry to fit what we see into our stories, or with enough silence and openness can we, like Peter, let our hearts begin to draw us up into the mystery?
My favorite moment of this story is the quiet after the prophets disappeared, after God had spoken and they were simply walking back down the mountain, the four of them, basking in the light of a changed world. Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
What will we see when we open our eyes? What will we hear when we stop to listen? When we take a break from striving and judging and positioning, and learn simply to abide?
When we stop to listen, we are well on our way to Jesus, well on our way towards union with God, towards transforming the world through our own belovedness.
Homily for February 11, 2018, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, The Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.
[i] C. Clifton Black, Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3561