Sunday, February 19, 2023

Epiphany Last, 2023: Guided beyond our limits

 Lectionary: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9 

Mountains, clouds, devouring fire, and dazzling light. There is so much symbolic language and drama in our gospel today! God's self-revelation to humanity is always dramatic, whether it's to Moses, the disciples, or us. This particular revelation is also a first. God has never revealed God’s self like this before or since. 

In today's gospel, Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up to a high mountain – the traditional location where

God is met and heard, as we saw in the reading from Exodus. Suddenly, their friend and rabbi begins to shine with a light so bright they couldn't look directly at his face. Jesus' dazzling white clothes and the brilliant aura emanating from him are traditional symbols for transcendence - the greatness of God, surpassing all created things, including humans.

The gospel writer is telling us that what happened on that mountain was an experience that goes beyond the limits of all possible knowledge and experience. In that transcendent moment, the veil between earth and heaven is lifted, and suddenly Moses and Elijah appear, and they are talking with Jesus. The two most powerful prophets in Jewish history, Biblical heroes who were long dead, are suddenly not dead, and not gone. They're right here and Peter, James, and John watch as their ancient heroes chat with their beloved rabbi.

Aware of the historical significance of this event, Peter offers to build a memorial (a traditional response to a moment like this) – but before he can finish speaking, he and the other disciples are overshadowed by the Spirit of God who takes the form of a cloud, just as on Mt. Sinai when Moses was given the tablets of guidance; just as Mary was overshadowed when she conceived the Son of God in her womb.

In today's story, however, what these disciples conceive is the beginning of understanding of a transforming truth – the truth that Jesus is not just another powerful prophet, great teacher, or miraculous healer. He is the Incarnation, The Son of God – fully human, fully divine.

Theologian Raymond Brown says that the transfiguration of Jesus on that mountain made Jesus "transparent to the apostles' gaze.” Seeing him glow in that unearthly light and hearing the voice from heaven claim him as Son and Beloved, the disciples now were beginning to understand what they hadn't understood before. They were becoming aware that all of their preconceived notions about Jesus, including their grand expectations of him as Messiah, suddenly seemed so limited, so small.

Overwhelmed, they fell to the ground, …overcome by fear. Then their gentle rabbi touches them and speaks peace to them saying: "Get up, and don't be afraid."

Opening their eyes, the world has returned to one they can comprehend. Jesus wasn't glowing anymore. Moses and Elijah were gone. The bright cloud of God's powerful presence was gone. It was just them again – Peter, James, John, and Jesus – on the mountain, alone.

As they begin their journey down the mountain to rejoin the others, the disciples are still in that groggy state of mind that happens when your brain is trying to make sense of something it can't. We can almost hear their unspoken thoughts: Did that just happen? Was it a dream? It couldn't have been a dream… can you have a group dream? Wait till we tell the others! Maybe they saw the cloud like the Israelites did when Moses was on the mountain. But Jesus warns them to tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.

The disciples' journey down the mountain marks the beginning of their new lives - transformed lives. The truth conceived in them begins to take root and grow.

The remainder of Matthew's gospel shows us how their new understanding is nourished and expanded by their teacher, Jesus, with lessons on forgiveness, the kingdom of heaven and who belongs to it, healing as a sign of the generosity and accessibility of God's grace, and the very difficult concept of servant leadership. They do as the voice from heaven commanded them: they alter their lives so that they can continue to listen to him.

It's a long journey for them. They constantly come up against the limits of their habits and thinking, and Jesus patiently guides them beyond those limits again and again. It is a comprehensive formation process, and it will be necessary to prepare them for the passion and terrifying crucifixion to come. It will also be necessary to sustain them after Jesus' resurrection as they go forth into the world baptizing and teaching in his name.

On this the last Sunday after the Epiphany, we begin our liturgical journey down the mountain and into the wilderness of Lent. During this season, we intentionally set aside time to confront the limits of our own habits and thinking as we make space in our busy lives for Jesus to guide us beyond our limits.

One of the limits we modern Christians constantly confront is our individualism. Throughout Scripture we hear about God's people, God's salvation of the whole world, and yet, we go about our lives as if salvation is about me, not us. But, as we hear in the second letter of Peter, the good news, the prophetic message we share is for everyone and lives in us - men and women moved by the Holy Spirit.

Another limit we are compelled to confront as we live into Black History month is our place in the shameful history of the enslavement and oppression of other humans. We, sitting here, didn’t do that and never would, but we continue to benefit from our forebears who did. In addition, part of our privilege is the ability to not know, and therefore not act, to ensure that the dignity of all people is respected in our world today.

Did you know, for example, that even today, “If you own a home in St. Louis or St. Louis County, there is a good chance you will find—buried in the legal paperwork that came with your house—a document... [with] a title like “Conditions and Restrictions” or “Uniform Restrictive Agreement,” [which] may… include the provision that the owner cannot “sell, convey, lease, or rent to a negro or negroes,” or that “no lot in this subdivision shall be sold to members of the African race.” Source. I checked my house deed and I encourage you to check yours.

I have linked samples of these below along with some articles, including one from the History Channel describing how these “discriminatory governmental and market-based practices stacked the deck against… African American home buyers for much of the 20th century, keeping them confined to decaying urban neighborhoods.” 

The important thing to know is that even though these discriminatory racial covenants violate the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, they remain to this day on the books as law in Missouri. We can change that – and the Webster Groves clergy association, of which I am a part, is working on it now. If you’re interested in joining this effort, please let me know.

On a recent trip to Ghana for a meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council, the Archbishop of
Canterbury, Justin Welby, said, “Our response must begin on our knees in prayer and repentance. … But our response does not end there. We are called to transform unjust structures, to pursue peace and reconciliation, to live out the Beatitudes in big ways and small.” Source

If we, like the first disciples, are to be made ready to be bearers of the Good News, we must allow ourselves to be guided by Jesus beyond all of our small, comfortable conceptions about God, ourselves, and our world. We must allow ourselves to be guided beyond the limits of our current understanding and experience. We must be willing to go down the mountain, work to transform unjust structures, and alter our lives, as men and women moved by the Holy Spirit so that we can serve faithfully for the glory of God and the welfare of all God’s people. Amen. 

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