Listening for God, Last Epiphany (C) – 2016

[RCL] Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]; Psalm 99

In the coming week, churches around the world will undergo a transformation of sorts, as the liturgical calendar moves from the season after Epiphany to the season of Lent. Our praise-filled shouts of “Alleluia!” will give way to Lent’s solemn petition, “Lord have mercy.” Many churches will retire their finest brass and festive hangings in favor of simpler and more contemplative fixtures. And the lectionary will lead us down from the mountaintop where the transfigured Christ is revealed in glory, through the valley of the shadow of death, and ultimately to Jerusalem where the cross and tomb await.

Lent weighs heavily on us. It urges us to recall the suffering and death of our Lord. So, in many ways, we arrive at this final Sunday before Lent with a mix of anticipation and anxiety, a combination of joy and dread. It is no accident, then, that every year on this Sunday, we hear again the story of Christ’s transfiguration on the mountaintop because, at the heart of this story, we find these all-too-familiar feelings: anticipation diluted by anxiety and joy thinned by dread.

Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus summons Peter, James, and John to the mountaintop. Without getting our contextual bearings, we may be tempted to believe that the chosen disciples happily agreed and gleefully followed Jesus without reservation. However, we must recall that just a few verses earlier in chapter 9, Jesus tells the disciples that he must undergo great suffering, be rejected, killed, and then rise from the dead.

“If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” As Peter, James, and John journey with Jesus to the mountaintop, they are forced to come to grips with the horrifying truth that Jesus, their beloved friend and leader, must suffer and die!

When they reach the top of the mountain, the Gospel tells us that Jesus was transfigured before them and Moses and Elijah appeared. As the disciples beheld their Lord, they realized that they were in the very presence of God. But even in this incredible moment of divine transfiguration, Peter could not forget what Jesus had told them before they came to the mountain.

“Master, it is good for us to be here,” Peter petitions, “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

At some level, most of us can’t help but sympathize with Peter. Who among us would knowingly submit our self or our loved ones to pain and suffering? Peter’s efforts to protect Jesus are undoubtedly acts of love and devotion – but they are also acts couched in Peter and the disciples’ need for safety and security. They had seen a glimpse of God’s glory in the face of Jesus, and they wanted desperately to hold onto it, to protect it.

But the moment that Peter gets into cahoots with James and John to try and hold onto and protect Jesus, is the moment that a voice from above breaks in, proclaiming: “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!”

And notice what happens next: As the disciples came down from the mountaintop, they didn’t rush into the closest town and tell the first person they saw about what they had just witnessed. They didn’t wait until Jesus wasn’t looking to talk about it. And they didn’t take to Social Media with the news. Luke’s Gospel tells us that they “told no one any of the things they had seen.”

Although most biblical scholars interpret the disciples’ silence as a mark of fear over what they had seen and heard—which is certainly a plausible explanation—perhaps there’s more than one dimension here. What if the disciples’ silence allowed them to be obedient to God’s command?

The disciples had heard God say, “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!” So instead of running and telling the world what they had seen on the mountain, what if they chose instead to obey; to be silent so they could listen?

In a world bustling with noise and chaos, where words and rhetoric are shouted with impunity, stirring up fear and angst, perhaps this is the word from the Lord that we need to hear.

Amidst all of the joys and heartbreaks of the world; in the face of all of the delight and despair that surrounds us; and despite all of the things we know and can never know, God beckons us, ever so gently: Listen.

Imagine for a moment, what the world might look like if we listened—not in preparation to respond, but in order to understand.

What might our politics look like if we listened more and argued less? What might our schools look like if we taught our children how to listen as intently and deliberately as we taught them how to speak and to write? And what might our churches look like if we listened intently for the voice of God from those who differ from us?

In his book, Bread for the Journey, the Catholic priest and theologian Henri J.M. Nouwen writes:

“To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept… The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”[1]

As our Lenten journey approaches, and the chaos of the world presses in with voices of despair clanging in our ears, may we remember how to listen. For it is in listening that we truly hear one another.

And it is in listening that we hear the voice of God.

Amen.

Download the sermon for the Last Sunday of Epiphany.

Written by The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina (Diocese of Western North Carolina). A native of Paris, Kentucky, he earned a BA in American studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. His published work includes essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching, appearing most recently in the Journal of Appalachian Studies and the Anglican Theological Review. 


[1] Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith (HarperOne, 1997).

To be sent out, Last Sunday After the Epiphany / World Mission Sunday (C) – 2013

February 10, 2013

Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)

Today, the last Sunday of Epiphany, is recognized every year as World Mission Sunday around the Episcopal Church.

The word “mission” comes from the Latin verb mittere “to be sent out”; mission is about being sent out. But what are we being sent out to do, and where are we expected to go?

The mission that we are all called into as Christians is the mission of God. This mission is most succinctly articulated in our Baptismal Covenant and in particular the last two questions of the covenant:

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

To which we declare, “I will, with God’s help.”

These two simple promises are excellent guides as we reflect upon what God is calling us to do, and how we should faithfully respond.

We are an incarnational church. When we internalize the understanding that God has created all humanity in God’s image and that we are all sisters and brothers in Christ, it is impossible to pass by somebody in need without feeling the call to respond. It is much easier to ignore suffering around the world when it is happening far away and when we do not feel connected to the people who are suffering. But when we sense a connection, when we realize that the person who is suffering is part of who we are, flesh of our own flesh, bone of our own bone, then the visceral desire to respond is much greater.

And yet we are all connected. At the beginning of time and from the beginning of scripture, we were all created from the same single point, which is God’s love. We are all children of God, and we are all created in God’s image.

Within all of scripture, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, there is a thread that describes how humanity has separated itself from God and from one another, and at various times in our history how humanity has moved back toward God and to one another through the witness of prophets and later through the incarnation of the Son of God into this world. The mission of God is fundamentally about this journey of reconciliation; the mission into which we are called to participate is God’s mission of reconciliation, reconciliation with God and reconciliation with one another. This is the essence of God’s call for us.

In the book “Les Miserables,” Victor Hugo writes, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” One could add that when we look into the eyes of another, especially one who is suffering, we also see the face of God. When we interact with others, when we honesty desire to nurture a relationship with another, then we feel an imperative to respond to their needs as they are drawn to respond to our needs. An important aspect in our response to God’s mission is that we are called to be in a mutual relationship with one another. Remember that in our baptismal vows we declare that we will strive to respect the dignity of every human being. We cannot respect the dignity of another if the relationship is one sided.

Since the beginning of time, people have responded to God’s love in different ways. Missionaries have travelled to all corners of the earth sharing the Good News of Christ to those who had not heard. Missionaries brought education and healthcare, they have healed the sick, clothed the naked, visited the prisoners, fed the hungry and built homes for those without shelter.

There have been those throughout history who have sacrificed good-paying jobs, a comfortable lifestyle and even their lives as they respond to God’s call to seek and serve Christ in all people. There still continues to be people who respond to God’s call by living across cultural, linguistic and economic boundaries as missionaries of the church.

We have young adults who give a year of their lives to work around the world in service. They work in the mountain province of the Philippines; they work with migrant workers in Hong Kong; they support a mission hospital in rural Lesotho, Africa; they are teaching music in Haiti; they are providing support for the social outreach of the Church of Southern Africa. Our missionaries in the Young Adult Service Corps program are making a real difference in the regions where they work.

We also have missionaries that serve for longer periods of time, developing programs and gaining a deep understanding of the language and culture as they share their gifts and skills to support our partners in the Anglican Communion around the world as doctors and nurses, as educators, as accountants and web designers, as administrators and advocates.

In more recent years we have seen the growth of short-term mission, with parishes and dioceses across the Episcopal Church engaging in mission and developing and nurturing relationships with sisters and brothers around the Anglican Communion. This development has provided an opportunity for many people to learn more about our neighbors far away, to learn how God is working in their lives and to respond to human need in a meaningful way.

Responding to people’s physical needs is very natural, and Jesus calls us to do it. But we should never forget that our first call is to be in relationship with others and to respond to God’s call for reconciliation. We are called to listen to one another’s stories.

After the terrible devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in the New York area at the end of October 2012, many church groups sent teams to help clean up. One particular group worked hard all day, cleaning houses, washing down fungus-encrusted walls and throwing out trash. An elderly woman who was helped was so proud of her neighborhood that she insisted the mission team should come and see the local park. Perhaps one of the most meaningful encounters of the day was when one of the group, a young teenager, went with this woman to visit the park and to listen to her story. For 15 minutes he gave her his full attention, a time for her to share her joy amidst the sadness of the loss of her home, and time for both of them to see Christ in the other.

We are not all called to travel across continents or to visit prisoners, but we are all called to love our neighbor as ourselves. Having faith in our own faith, trusting in God, as Paul states in Corinthians, “We have such a hope, we act with great boldness.” We should have that boldness that comes from the realization that we are all children of God and that God loves us all more than we can ask or imagine. Whatever we do, God will always be there with us, God will always love us and God’s arms are wrapped tightly around us.

“Doing” is important, but “being” is the very essence of mission. We are called to share the physical gifts that we have with others, and the disparity of wealth in this country and around the world is a tragedy that we should be addressing unceasingly. However, reminding others that they are loved and that they are not forgotten is also important and reaches to the very core of what God is calling us to do.

Whether we are helping in a food pantry in our local community, participating in mission trips across the world, or living amongst another culture for many years, it is the love for the other that is at the very core mission.

One missionary said that the best advice he ever received as a young priest was that he should always “love the people”; and that is what we are all called to do.

What are we sent out to do, and where do we go?

As Christians we are sent out to love God and to love one another, and we are sent out to the whole world. We are sent out to be with our neighbor down the street and our neighbor around the world.

 

— The Rev. David Copley is the Episcopal Church’s officer for Mission Personnel and team leader for the Global Partnerships Office. He was a missionary in Liberia and Bolivia and priest in the Diocese of Southern Virginia before accepting his current position.

Let our hearts be full of wonder and our souls be full of praise, Last Sunday After the Epiphany/World Mission Sunday (C) – 2010

February 14, 2010

Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)

At first glance, one might be tempted to think: “What do the readings from Exodus, Psalm 99, Second Corinthians and Luke – the readings for this Transfiguration Sunday – have to do with World Mission Sunday?”

The linked readings focusing on Moses’ intimate relationship with God and his shining face in Exodus and Second Corinthians, the psalmist’s praise to God for God’s mighty acts in history, and Luke’s story of the Transfiguration seem to have little bearing on the celebration of World Mission Sunday, let alone this year’s theme “World Mission and the Environment.” Yet, as with most of the most important things in our lives, we must delve below the surface to apprehend the depth of the meaning.

Instead of beginning directly with today’s lections, let’s begin with the portion of scripture that has been selected to underscore this year’s theme. The first and second verses of Psalm 24 read: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”

These verses remind us that everything that we see – and don’t see – in Creation, is God’s: plants, animals, people, planet, even bacteria and viruses. By extension, if all is the Lord’s, and we understand God to be a loving, caring deity, then we can begin to see where the connections might be.

Hold the words of Psalm 24 in your mind, and hear now the words of Psalm 99, verses 4 and 5:

“‘O mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.’ Proclaim the greatness of the LORD our God and fall down before his footstool; he is the Holy One.”

If all of our relationships draw from the understanding of God as a lover of justice and establisher of equity, then we are led to the conclusion that the just and equitable act is the one that is closest to the heart of God. And if all of the earth is the Lord’s, then we are, or should be, compelled to act as just and equitable stewards of the earth, on behalf of the Lord.

We all witnessed the discussions and debate of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Coppenhagen in December of last year. We heard the pleas of poor countries that stand to lose the most if we do not find a way to move from “purely national perspectives to global leadership” as UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon said. This is of vital importance to our world, and yet, we must understand it in the context of our faith, our ministry, our call, our mission.

We, as followers of Christ, send out missionaries to the ends of the globe, seeking to bring the light and love of Christ to those who need to see Christ’s effect on and through us. We move into poor parts of the developing world seeking to meet the needs of the people in many wonderful ways. Yet if we are about being just and equitable, if we are about the business of establishing networks and systems that remind all of the gift that we have in this world and in one another, if our mission and our missions are to be fully reflective of the glory of God, then we must be about transformation.

But before we go too far down the road of “transformation,” it might be good for us to deal with the reality of this Sunday’s celebration of the Transfiguration.

We are reminded of the otherworldly event that took place on a mountaintop while Jesus was praying and Peter, James, and John slept. In Luke’s account we are told that Jesus’ appearance is changed, his clothes become dazzling white and Elijah and Moses appear with him to discuss what is to happen in Jerusalem – his passion and death. Instructive for us in Luke’s account are God’s words to Peter, James and John: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” In other words, pay attention to what he says and does.

It is interesting that transfiguration and transformation come from the same Middle English root meaning “to change shape.” Transformation, linguistically, can mean “the process by which deep structures are converted into surface structures.”

Well, that fits now, doesn’t it? The depth of who Jesus is, is brought to the surface during the Transfiguration – his face, appearance, and clothes are transformed. Jesus’ face shines, and in Luke’s words, “They saw his glory.” Jesus is transfigured, that is, transformed showing the truth of who he is with a heavenly voice underscoring the visible evidence that Jesus is God’s son and that we are to listen to him.

It might be that you are still saying, “That’s all well and good for Transfiguration Sunday, but what does any of that have to do with World Mission?”

The connection comes in the transformational aspect of what our mission work can and does accomplish. We send faithful servants of the gospel into areas of the world where needs are high and hope is in short supply. When our efforts are successful, the mission partnership grows and becomes self-sustaining; communities and lives are transformed, and we are a part helping others – and ourselves – to more fully reflect God’s glory.

We are being called into new mission endeavors where our effective ministry will be in partnership with those whom we are sent to serve. We are being called into partnerships that seek to establish sustainablerelationships, out of which can grow new possibilities that can transform and transfigure local situations that can have global impact. We are being called into transformational ministries that are modeled after the best of relationships – expecting that each member has something of worth to offer the other.

By understanding the give and take of relationships, we can see the connection between our lives and how we must find ways to focus our resources on those things that, not only speak to the immediate need, but also take into account how the environment is affected and how the communities in which we are called to serve can sustain the benefits that are achieved.

In today’s reading from Second Corinthians, Paul reminds us of the transformational character of our lives in Christ:

“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

We know that we are called to be stewards of this earth. We know that we are called to serve others, especially the poor and oppressed. We know that we are to seek right relationships: with God, with each other, and with our earth. We know that we are to follow Jesus and imitate his attitude and actions: loving God completely and loving our neighbor as ourselves. We know these things, regardless of our particular political or religious positions. And if we know these things, then we are expected to act on them.

Friends, we are to be agents of transformation in a world that seems, in some corridors, to be resistant to transformation. Our current and future mission work just might need to include focused and intentional work to improve environmental conditions in those places where we are called to serve. We might also look to transform how we understand our call to mission, creating domestic mission teams who work to aid our foreign mission teams in terms of policy reform, and who make connections and build relationships that work locally, but think globally.

The wonderful thing about being called into the ministry and mission of Christ is that we have the chance to become those people that speak life and wholeness in a broken world, confident that our Lord – who made and sustains all life – is smiling on our efforts to be agents of transformation who shine with the light of Christ.

As we celebrate this World Mission Sunday and think of the Transfiguration of Jesus, let our hearts be full of wonder and our souls be full of praise. As our worship today lifts us to the height of heaven, why don’t we come down with faces unveiled and through our actions demonstrate that we have been with the Lord?

 

— The Rev. Lawrence Womack currently serves as associate rector at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, in Charlotte, N.C., and has served parishes in Baltimore, M.D., and Buffalo, N.Y. (as a seminarian). He is active in HIV-AIDS ministry and advocacy and proudly serves as a husband and father of three children. 

Close encounters, Last Sunday After the Epiphany/World Mission Sunday – 2007

February 18, 2007

Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36, (37-43)

Today’s readings take us into “close encounters” with God – the kind that don’t seem to happen too often, but when they do, they are the ones that change us. In an instant of a transfiguring experience we can fully grasp who we are and what we can create. Today’s gospel reminds us to search our past to find times when we have already experienced transfiguration, and calls us to be open in the present to transfiguring experiences in unexpected places and times.

In the natural world, the metamorphoses of tadpole to frog, of caterpillar to butterfly, of acorn to oak tree, of bulb to tulip, depend on a complex and miraculous combination of factors coming together: genetic, environmental, seasonal and more. What’s amazing about these natural processes of transformation is that each being’s biological potential has already been programmed by God into their very genes.

Consider the growth of a bulb into a tulip. Before it is planted, it doesn’t look like much at all, something like a Spanish onion. Yet so much of what is essential to what it is to become is already lurking inside of this inanimate lump. With the right combination of soil, water, light and weather, there will be a moment when it is transformed from something that seems to sleep under the ground into something that lives and breathes above the ground. It is in what seems to be only an instant that we notice this change. It is a change that is not a subtle one, but one that is compelling, one that causes us to double take, to catch our breath. Our imaginations are captivated because there is deep down a reordering of what the world is and what God intends for it to become.

These sudden changes can happen to us, too. Think back to a moment in your own life when you had a mountain-top experience, when you felt that you suddenly knew God better. It might have been in a place that was a getaway for you. Did you feel the temptation to stay in that moment, as a moth is attracted to a flame, as Peter did? Recall how that experience changed you.

Today is the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany, a season of light, with stories of ultimate light, the shining light of God’s presence. It is also the Episcopal Church’s observance of World Mission Sunday, a yearly reminder for all of us to reclaim our common calling as missionaries sent by God into the world to bring healing and reconciliation.

In today’s gospel, Christ came to reveal a new and different way. The story is not just about showing the divinity of Christ; even the greatest figures from the Hebrew scriptures, Moses and Elijah, acknowledge his authority – Moses representing the Law, Elijah representing the Prophets. It is about so much more – about the possibility of the transformation of ourselves and our world that can so easily be missed.

There are two important clues Luke gives us that this is the meaning he intends. First, note how the passage begins: “about eight days later.” It is highly unlikely that this is a factual reference. Instead, it is Luke’s way of signaling that what comes next will speak of a new week, in other words, a new order, a new creation. As we all know, the story goes that God made the world in seven days. Now here on the eighth day something even more amazing and wonderful is about to happen.

Second, Christ is transfigured, but, as this happens, he talks of his departure about to take place in Jerusalem. “Departure” is the English word you may have heard in your translation of the gospel, but the Greek is “exodus.” It connects Israel’s liberation from Egypt to God’s liberating us through Christ’s suffering. A new exodus, a new departure, is about to become a possibility, one that will free us from the bondage of sin and death.

Instead of a departure into an unknown darkness, we will be drawn into God’s own amazing light, into a new reality. When the voice from the cloud says, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!” we know God in a new way. God will always be with us in all the wildernesses, exits and departures that we will find in mission – not high up on the mountain, but back down on the plain where ministry happens. This was not the usual mountain-top experience you would write about in a journal, with a beautiful sunrise, gentle breezes, being with friends and quiet time with God. The subject of this mountain-top experience was death.

What happened when the disciples went back down to the plain? How did they communicate what they saw and heard to those who had not been up on that mountain? How did they share the experience with the disciples who had stayed below? How do we communicate transfiguration or other mountain-top experiences that God gives to us?

Luke tells us that the disciples “kept silent” about the transfiguration and “told no one any of the things they had seen.” Maybe that’s our clue. Don’t run off at the mouth about it or tell people that they “should have been there.” Maybe we are better off telling the story of the transfigured Christ when we serve the people who appear in our path, those who are desperate for release from the things that seize them, maul them and scarcely leave them. This is God’s invitation to us to become companions in transformation, partners in God’s mission of reconciliation.

Perhaps the glow of God on our lives will disturb the people around us, but now we have witnessed with the disciples an ultimate revealing, an extreme Epiphany. With Paul’s encouragement that he shares with the church in Corinth, we can acknowledge and embrace our transformed lives: “we do not lose heart.” We see the glory of God as if reflected in a mirror (in Paul’s age, most mirrors looked like worn-out brass doorknobs), being transformed more and more into the image of God. In God we become a new creation, made for mission. So instead of staying on our mountain-top, let us find ourselves back on the plain, working among the crowd that needs us so much.

 

— Thom Chu serves as program director for Ministries with Young People at the Episcopal Church Center.