Transformation, Last Sunday after Epiphany (A) – February 26, 2017

[RCL] Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2 or 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

It had been a long, multi-year mission with not much to show for it except threats from the rulers of occupied Israel and the religious authorities. Despite countless healings of the sick, large crowds coming out to hear him, miracles of feeding the hungry, they were still a small band of disciples. They surely wondered if the only reason people came out to hear him was for a diversion, and entertainment, a distraction from everyday drudgery. And maybe a good debate between the synagogue gurus and Jesus, just for fun.

And all that time they had wondered, seldom daring to ask, ‘Who are you?’

Now it seems like the threats and hatred are building to a crescendo, and Jesus wants to go up to Jerusalem. Surely he understands the danger to himself and to his small band of loyal followers?

But they keep following him, nevertheless. Pondering, bickering amongst themselves about who should be the greatest among them, and who should sit next to him in this kingdom he keeps talking about.

When Jesus invites three of his closest friends to come with him up on a mountain to pray, they willingly go, unprepared for what is to happen next.

Seeing Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus in a visionary experience, and then hearing a voice saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” is astonishing, in fact overwhelming. They fall to the ground in fear.

The experience of the Transfiguration is not possible to overstate. It comes to us full of meaning, as assurance of God’s affirmation of Jesus and our humanity. There is no need to explain it further. It is a singular experience given to all who seek to know who Jesus is, and what lies ahead for people of faith. Jesus radically recalls our humanity and affirms our nature with his divinity. The Kingdom of God has entered the world in human form, and we are called to witness to that Good News.

The reading from Second Peter describes the situation well: “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 16).

The Transfiguration and empowering Resurrection give the disciples the will to persevere, something bestowed on all of us in our Baptism (see page 308 in The Book of Common Prayer). The same God who presides at the Transfiguration of Jesus and promises us that one day we will be transformed into his likeness, baptizes us into the faith that promises the transformation of people.

While that is glorious and reassuring, it does not give us permission to close the doors of our hearts and minds while we sit around and wait for the return of Christ. Rather, it empowers us to live like people of conviction and redemption in a world badly in need of both.

If we are to participate in Lent as an exercise of self-examination and repentance, let that be acted out with kindness and grace. If we are to mark the coming period with fasting and prayer, let it also be a time when we set aside personal pleasures and work for the relief of suffering of others. If Lent is to be a journey to the Cross, let it be a journey where we allow ourselves to be taken to places and people as God needs us, for that will pattern our lives after Peter, James and John and the other disciples.

A woman from a small southern town recently visited her daughter in a major U.S. city. While there she participated in one of the women’s marches that took place across the world that weekend in January. She said she participated because she thought it would help her express her concerns about her own political beliefs. After the march she said she realized the experience transformed her. She now no longer feels anger and frustration, but hope and opportunity, knowing there are millions of people who share her hopes and dreams and are concerned about the welfare of others and the future of God’s world.

Will there be days of frustration and doubt? Yes. But the mission to proclaim God’s kingdom and to witness it however we are called to do so remains unchanged.

The Transfiguration is our mountain top experience. While we might like to remain there, we return to the world to assist in God’s project, which is nothing less than the redemption of the world through our Lord, Jesus Christ.

May this Lent be a time of renewal and grace for us all, and may it be filled with finding new ways and opportunities to witness to God who found in Jesus, his Son, all that is pleasing in the lives of men and women. That same God gives us the Transfiguration that becomes our sign of being changed into his likeness. Amen

Written by Ben Helmer. Helmer is a retired Episcopal priest who served small congregations in Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Arkansas. He was officer for rural and small community ministries for the Episcopal Church from 1999-2005.

Download the sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany.

Uncomfortable, yet unafraid – Last Sunday After Epiphany / World Mission Sunday (A) – 2014

March 2, 2014

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

The Last Sunday After the Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday, is also World Mission Sunday. How appropriate.

“Mission” is derived from the Latin word mittere, which means “to send.” It entered the Christian lexicon in the 16th century during the Age of Discovery and the expansion of imperialistic European power to the “New World.” However, the concept of mission – to spread the teaching of Jesus Christ – can be traced back to the first century and Paul of Tarsus. We are all familiar with Paul’s dramatic conversion story on the Damascus road. And it would be safe to say that that transfiguring encounter with God is what compelled Paul “to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory of Jesus and his love” – what compelled him to become a missionary.

Our gospel reading for this Sunday is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Jesus leads Peter, James and John up a mountain where he stands in conversation with Moses and Elijah – a symbol that the ancestors recognize Jesus as the one who has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. And the encounter seems all well and good until the voice of God speaks from a bright cloud, at which the three disciples of Jesus fall “facedown to the ground, terrified.”

Icons of the Transfiguration story show the three disciples on their hands and knees, cowering, crawling away and covering their faces. They are high-up, isolated and vulnerable. And although by this point in Matthew’s gospel at least one of them, Peter, acknowledged that Jesus was “the Messiah, the son of the Living God,” he and his friends quickly forgot about Jesus’ divinity upon realizing that they had no control in the presence of God penetrating their human realm.

They were being changed, and that change frightened them. Yet, ever so gently, Jesus looked upon his friends and said, “Do not be afraid.” And then carried them down the mountain into the midst of human squalor and need. They had seen that God was real, and could now go tell the story to people who needed to know.

Jesus called them to be uncomfortable, and reminded them to be unafraid.

So often, church folks, much like Peter, James and John, are stubbornly adverse to change. Whether the argument is about liturgy, or pew leaflets, or the church’s race and gender politics, there is ample evidence around the Anglican Communion that suggests we have become comfortable in our silos of privilege and tradition. A lot of us do not prefer change.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., described the world’s pervasive evils as racism, militarism and materialism, and to this we can add sexism, heterosexism and ableism, which is the discrimination against people with disabilities. These evils convince some of us that we cannot be too sure of God’s presence. We are persuaded, then, to control our environments as to not become overwhelmed or vulnerable. The limitations of our eyes and ears sometimes make the comprehensibility of God’s goodness impossible. So, routine becomes our god.

Routine, comprehensible and comfortable, becomes a means of protection from a constantly changing life. We erect structures of narcissistic might where we employ rituals to remind God to protect us and show us favor against a common enemy – it helps if the enemy looks different or loves differently, has less or knows less. Sometimes those structures and rituals are cultural, humble externalizations of how we communicate with God. Too often those structures and rituals are seemingly immovable symbols to keep out the “other,” whom we fear will steal our things, or praise God too loudly, or whose stories will force us to face our own brokenness, or remind us of our complicity in oppression.

Yet, Jesus calls us to be uncomfortable, and reminds us to be unafraid.

Unwillingness to change stands in direct contradiction to the very nature of the universe of which we are a part, and of which God is at the center. And it contradicts who and what we hope to become as followers of a metaphysically and physically transitory Christ.

Unwillingness to change stands in direct contradiction to the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19, to go and  “make disciples of all nations.”

Unwillingness to change is ultimately unchristian, because it is a selfish relinquishing of our responsibility as bearers of the Good News, which requires us to get up and get out.

However, in our gospel reading today, Jesus calls us to transgress our comfort zones and be transfigured, to be changed into the very likeness of God.

Jesus calls us to be uncomfortable, and reminds us to be unafraid.

The Episcopal Church has 25 young adults who have answered Jesus’ call to us to be uncomfortable and unafraid. The Young Adult Service Corps, a part of the Global Missions Office of the Episcopal Church, has young adult missionaries in 14 countries – South Africa, the Philippines, China, Italy, Haiti, Panama, Spain, Tanzania, South Korea, Cuba, El Salvador, Japan, Honduras and Brazil. These young adult missionaries give anywhere from a year to two years of their lives to the work of God. Many of these young people have never been to the countries where they now live and work. And many of them have little proficiency in the local languages and no experience with the local cultures and social mores. It is the perfect recipe to be uncomfortable, and thus the perfect place to be transfigured.

In partnership with organizations associated with the Anglican Church in those various countries, some of the work of these Young Adult Service Corps missionaries includes helping victims of domestic violence, teaching children who have been the victims of sexual violence, working in economic relief and development, working as student ministers to university students, and working as spiritual companions to seafarers who spend a majority of their year away from home, at sea.

And while many people think that missionary work is about going to some dark place and Christianizing a desperate people, the missionary often finds that she is the one who is being converted, changed, transfigured.

The missionary finds that she is called to do as God instructed Peter, James and John: to “listen.” And in her listening she learns to become one with the people, to get to the heart of things, to lose herself in love of and in service to the people she now calls her family and friends. And in that very coming together as one, she becomes a witness to the transforming and transfiguring presence of God.

The Young Adult Service Corps of the Episcopal Church is giving a generation of young people the opportunity to fling open the doors to their silos of privilege in order to build bridges and partnerships with God’s church all over the world – to do their small part in joining together the disjointed places of the family of God.

Jesus calls us to be uncomfortable, and reminds us to be unafraid.

Once we have been to the Mount of Transfiguration and blessed with the knowledge that we are one with the entire universe – at one with each other, nature and God – then we can’t help but to tell the story, walking as one constantly being transfigured. Indeed, the transfigured one dedicates her life to bringing about God’s peace on earth.

A Franciscan prayer asks God to bless us “with discomfort at easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships … with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people … with tears to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, starvation and war.”

Whether abroad or at home, once we’ve broken open the doors to our silos of privilege and tradition to encounter God’s transfiguring presence, it must become our mission, with God’s help, to descend the mountain and enter into uncomfortable places, to be a transfiguring presence in the lives of others.

Howard Thurman, a 20th century theologian and mystic said it best:

“There must be a matured and maturing sense of Presence … on the social, naturalistic and cosmic levels. … Modern [humans] must know that [they are children] of God and that the God of life in all its parts and the God of the human heart are one and the same. … Thus, we shall look out upon life with quiet eyes and work on our tasks with the conviction and detachment of Eternity.”

 

— Paul Daniels, II is a Young Adult Service Corps (YASC) volunteer serving as the Student and Young Adult Minister at the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George in Grahamstown, South Africa. He is from the Diocese of North Carolina

Last Sunday After Epiphany/World Mission Sunday (A)

March 6, 2011

Exodus 24:12-18Psalm 22 Peter 1:16-21Matthew 17:1-9

[NOTE: In celebration of World Mission Sunday, the following sermon is written as a first-person account by a missionary in Tanzania, Africa.]

I am a missionary in Tanzania. When people hear this, they usually have one of three reactions: “You must be a saint”; “I didn’t know the Episcopal Church had missionaries”; or “I’d like to do something like that someday” (often followed by a list of why they can’t).

Since today is World Mission Sunday in the Episcopal Church, I would like to respond to these reactions.

To the “You must be a saint” reaction, I smile and assure them that I am; and in the next breath I assure them that by virtue of their baptism they are as well. If I can do one thing in this homily, I would like to dispel the myth that the work of missionaries that serve in a global context is any more important or noble than any other Christian’s mission. If it were not for the faithful service of the people in the churches at home, I would not be serving in Tanzania. The outward journey first requires an inward journey. While I, and probably many of you, would like to have had a mountaintop experience like Moses and the disciples, I have not. God did not reveal Himself to me in any blaze of glory. My encounter with God was through the faithful work of the church at home – in Bible study, in prayer groups, in preaching, in the sacraments, and in the lives of the disenfranchised whom my church embraced. This inward spiritual journey provided the fuel for my outward journey. It has been observed that an authentic inward spiritual journey always results in an outward journey. The outward journey is to join Christ in the mission of becoming a new community, an unrestricted community, what Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the beloved community.”

To the reaction “I didn’t know the Episcopal Church had missionaries,” I admit that neither did I until I was in seminary. But indeed, at the present time there are 62 Episcopal missionaries in 25 countries around the world. Fourteen of them are in the Young Adult Service Corp and the remaining 48 are a mix of appointed missionaries and volunteers for mission. The Young Adult Service Corp is a one-year program for young men and women between the ages of 21 and 30. The Mission Personnel Office of the Episcopal Church, in collaboration with the sending dioceses, provides various amounts of support for missionaries serving in the field. My own Diocese of Atlanta helps support three long-term missionaries in Tanzania, not only with a stipend, but also with prayers and opportunities for relationships to be developed between parishes and individuals on both sides of the ocean.

To the third reaction, “I’d like to do that someday,” I take this to mean that the speaker thinks that being a missionary requires going to a different country. This is my opportunity to reiterate that all Christians are missionaries. One of my favorite seminary professors was fond of saying that God is a missionary God. God sent Jesus as mission incarnate, and Jesus sends each of us as the same. Each week we gather to worship, and just before we scatter into the world, our liturgy reminds us of our great “co-mission”: “Even as my Father has sent me, so I send you. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

Jesus’ mission was being the Light of the World. He illuminated for us the way to love and to care for others, especially the hurting, the hopeless, and the hounded. Our co-mission is the same. Peter and James and John were eyewitnesses to the Light of the World, but they were not allowed to stay on the mountain with Him. Their mission was to go back down into the valleys and plains reflecting the Light of Jesus in their everyday, ordinary lives. Our mission is also to be reflectors of the Light of the World wherever we are and in whatever we are doing.

Since today is World Mission Sunday, the church is focusing on those of us who are missionaries overseas. Our present model is not to be like the missionaries from colonial eras, but to be partners in mission. We go only at the invitation of a diocesan bishop who has contacted our national mission office requesting a person with skills in a particular arena. We do not go to dispense a culture or a set of infallible orthodox doctrines. We go to be in personal relationships, using our gifts – and often modifying them – to meet the needs of those whom we are serving. We go to enlarge our understanding of the gospel by seeing how God is being revealed in other places and people.

When my husband, Martin, and I first began on this journey seven years ago, we wrote that one of the reasons we wanted to go was to hear the gospel with fresh ears and to see with new insight. What has most profoundly touched us is hearing and seeing the deep joy of the Lord in the midst of suffering. It is transforming to be enveloped by a people whose joy springs from a deep well of gratitude. Every prayer begins with “Father, thank you.” In Kiswahili this translates as “Baba, asante. Asante, Baba, for protecting me through the night. Asante for the rain. Asante for Jesus.” Asante, asante, asante.

When two North Carolina volunteers visited Msalato Theological College last year, they had a student and his wife over for afternoon tea. When the volunteers raised their cups to take a sip, the student said, “Aren’t we going to pray first?” One of the women answered that they normally only give thanks before meals. The student pastor responded, “We give thanks for everything, even for a glass of water.” Baba, asante!

Not surprisingly, water is a favorite image for God here. As I write this in early February, it is the rainy season in central Tanzania, but there has been no rain for twenty-five days. If this continues for three or four more days, there will be no crops. Since 85 percent of Tanzanians are subsistence farmers, drought means famine and cholera outbreaks, and all the other sad things that go along with it. I will never forget the words of our former school chaplain who was working at my house when the first rain of the season began to fall. He ran to the window and cried, “When we see rain, we see food! Baba, asante!

One year when my husband and I returned from the Christmas holidays, this same chaplain came running down the path to the home of our next-door neighbors, missionaries from New Zealand. We could hear him calling out, “Can you give me a ride to Mvumi village? My children are starving.” In his hands he was carrying two small bags of maize, or corn, that he was desperate to get to his family who lived 50 kilometers away. Ugali, the staple food in Tanzania, is made from maize, and the rainfall, for a second year in a row, had been insufficient for the growing of it. After this heartbreaking incident, the staff began meeting at five o’clock every evening for the specific purpose of praying for rain. The drought continued unabated. One afternoon when some of us were lamenting the fact that our prayers had not been answered, this chaplain, the father of six, said, “Our God is great. Even if we die, He is enough.” Baba, asante!

It is our job in global mission to be a bridge between our beloved communities. In relating as eyewitnesses the stories of how the gospel is being lived out in other parts of the world, it is our hope that you will be encouraged and filled with gratitude in whatever circumstances you may find yourselves. These stories of our brothers and sisters remind us not to buy into the rhetoric of a culture of scarcity. These stories remind us that we serve a Jesus of twelve baskets left over. These stories remind us that we are all enlightened when we are mission incarnate to the hungers of every tribe and nation. With Peter, we say, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”

Thank you, our beloved community from home, for sending us. Baba, asante!

 

— The Rev. Sandra McCann, M.D., serves along with her husband, Martin McCann, M.D., in Dodoma, Tanzania, in the Diocese of Central Tanganyika. Sandy, a retired radiologist, is the communications director for Msalato Theological College. Martin runs a busy histopathology laboratory and teaches in the diocesan Clinical Officers’ School. You can read more about their work at www.mccannmission.org.

Through mission, Last Sunday After Epiphany/World Mission Sunday (A) – 2011

March 8, 2011

Exodus 24:12-18Psalm 992 Peter 1:16-21Matthew 17:1-9

Today’s readings all speak of mountains – high mountains, holy mountains, as the writers describe them – much like the high and holy mountains that surround the Episcopal congregations in the Ecuadorian Andes in South America.

Many of these Ecuadorian congregations are in indigenous communities that lie between 12,000 and 14,000 feet above sea level. Some of these high Andean indigenous communities have been part of the Diocese of Central Ecuador for decades, while several others began to seek out the Episcopal Church just in the last few years, as those communities invited the diocese (or church) to accompany them in their journeys of life and faith.

As was true in the beginning of this process or path, the communities’ invitation continues to include the desire for the intentional and continual presence of the church in their community life. Not only through the sacraments, which they see as vitally important, but also that the church truly be a companion in the natural cycles of life and death, of planting and harvest, of both joy and sorrow.

And these communities have expressed the desire not only to be accompanied, but also to accompany. They believe that they have a lot to offer as we walk together, from the life and faith of their own cultural and religious traditions, their indigenous worldviews, their spirituality. For example, as we grow together, these indigenous brothers and sisters believe that they offer the Church the gifts of an increased sense of community, of healthier and more holistic relationships with the rest of the creation, and of the possibilities for a better living-out of our interconnectedness.

There is a sense of mutuality in this as these communities and the Diocese of Central Ecuador together seek to offer themselves and accompany each other in ways that allow us all to be further transformed by the Holy Spirit, working through the gift of these relationships.

These Ecuadorian mountains and the relationships of the communities who live in them relates directly to today’s readings. Moses sets out with Joshua. Jesus asks Peter, James, and John to accompany him up the mountain. He seeks the company of the disciples and they offer him the gift of their presence, and he in turn accompanies the disciples later in their moment of fear. They share the path, the conversation. They listen together. They are all changed. Neither Moses nor Jesus walks alone.

Both Moses and Jesus are transformed, though not in a sort of vertical, isolated relationship with God alone – as if that were even possible. God’s revelation, and the response to it and path of transformation, is always mediated through God’s creation, both human and non-human: God’s law, written on tablets of stone; the mountain and the cloud that covered it; the presence like fire and the face shining like the sun; the voice that calls out; and the touch that overcomes fear.

God speaks and transfigures through the Earth and all she holds, through our inherent interconnectedness, and so often in relation to our own openness to this interrelationship and God’s Spirit within it.

Both Moses and Jesus are transformed, but not as solitary individuals. There is no private epiphany, no private transfiguration, no private transformation. They, and we, are transformed, transfigured, in community. As both Moses and Jesus grow into a fuller understanding of who they are in God and of God’s purposes for them, they do so in openness to both intentional and fortuitous interaction with others. They need these relationships.

And as we offer ourselves up more wholly to God, we know that we, as well, need these relationships. We enter into this season of Lent with the desire to be transformed, to walk within a fuller awareness of God’s purposes in the world and our place within these purposes.

And we enter into Lent also aware, at some level, that we have ways within us and within our societies that separate us from God and our neighbor, that move us away from God’s purposes, that uncouple us from the equity, justice, and righteousness of God spoken of in Psalm 99. We know that there are ways within us that separate us from that vital interconnectedness with God’s creation and the human and non-human communities within it; these relationships that we are called to walk within, to honor and nurture.

Saint Matthew tells us that, as Jesus is transfigured and speaking with Moses and Elijah, Peter suggests that they stay there. “I will make three dwellings here.” Peter could have many motives, but maybe one is the natural desire to make the experience of transformation into something more manageable, less unwieldy, more predictable; to own it in some way and enshrine or preserve something that is by its very nature fluid.

How much easier to build the tent, enclosing and containing the experience in some way, rather than to be that tent ourselves, organically housing the mystery and the love and the holy chaos that is God.

As Peter is speaking, God interrupts him. God tells the disciples, and tells us, that we must listen to Jesus; we must keep on listening to him. It is a continual process, not something that can be enshrined and then mechanically repeated.

An important way we keep on listening to Jesus is through each other; through our relationships with the world around us. We must keep on walking along the path, and to “come down the mountain,” as it were, listening and watching together as God reveals God’s self to us through God’s creation, and through each other as part of that creation.

Our call to listen to Jesus often means leaving our spaces of comfort; following the God who speaks from cloud, from mountain and earth, from the great diversity of creation and the cultures and peoples and perspectives therein; opening ourselves to see God’s purposes through different eyes and being transformed and renewed again.

The mission program of the Episcopal Church is a part of this communal call, this journey toward and within transfiguration. Through the many activities of the Episcopal missionaries – such as teaching English, working with refugees, medical ministry, sustainable rural agriculture, campus ministry, being bridges between churches in the global North and South – it is the embodied relationships that are nurtured “away” and “at home” that together help us to see God anew, to be further transformed, and that empower us all to seek and to serve God in God’s creation in ever more expansive and creative ways.

By the grace of God, mission work births and nurtures possibilities for transformed relationships and community, for new ways of being. In mission, paths open through which we can know ourselves and our God more fully. Through mission, through the community created in transfigured relationships, we grow in and live out together the love and abundant life that God desires for us all.

This week in the liturgical calendar, as we come down from the mountain and enter the desert, let us commit to entering more fully into this path of transfiguration, of walking it together. This walking together is itself an icon of the reign of God, visibly showing the world who God is. Through the lives of people and communities pursuing this path together, we show the world who God is just as Jesus did. We call the world to repentance just as Jesus did. We heal the world just as Jesus did. Through it, God transforms us all.
— The Rev. Chris Morck is an appointed missionary from the Diocese of Massachusetts. Chris has a joint appointment as the vicar at the Cathedral in Quito and as the support staff and Environment Program coordinator for the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI). Chris, his wife and their daughters have been serving in Ecuador since 2006.