Sermon for the last Sunday after Epiphany
This is final Sunday before Lent begins, and we’ve just read the story of the Transfiguration from the Gospel according to Luke. This particular story has migrated around the lectionary a bit; in Anglican circles it has been customary to observe the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6, but the story was also appointed to be read on the second Sunday in Lent. In Lutheran circles, the tradition has been to observe this last Sunday before Lent as Transfiguration Sunday, and as the connections between Anglicans and Lutherans strengthened we began to follow their pattern. I tell you this to make a point: “tradition” is not a fixed thing. There is flex and change and movement in the tradition… or at least there should be, otherwise we get stuck in the “but we’ve always done it that way” of traditionalism.
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Telling this story on this night admittedly makes a good deal of sense. In Matthew, Mark and Luke it is right at this point that Jesus begins to speak openly about his own death; that he “sets his face to go to Jerusalem” as Luke writes (9:51). It is also this moment of revelation for those three disciples who share in the experience. After boldly yet rather blindly stumbling around behind him for chapter after chapter, Peter, James and John have this glimpse of who and what Jesus truly is. It is a strange text in which we share with these characters a mystical experience. They go up the mountain with Jesus, and they see in his face something they’ve never seen before. Suddenly he stands in the company of Moses—symbolizing the Law—and Elijah—standing for the prophets. They see him, in other words, in full harmony with the tradition of old; not breaking it down or dismissing it, but fulfilling it.
You watch Peter dancing around trying to figure out what to do—“let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—and then the scene transforms, as a cloud covers the top of the mountain and a voice proclaims “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And then it’s over, and back down the mountain they go, doing their best to “listen to him”… but as you well know they’ll still fumble around to get it right. I suppose that for us as we begin to move into the wilderness season of Lent, the challenge is also to glimpse this image of glory and then in our own stumbling ways to “listen to him.”
Let me talk a bit about Lent; what it means and what you might do with it. Lent is an invitation to move voluntarily into desert or wilderness terrain, and to do so for forty days. The forty days are meant to echo the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness right before he “went public” in his ministry, which itself echoes the forty years that the freed Hebrew slaves spent in the Sinai desert. Now when Jesus went into the wilderness he was very much on his own, and it was a time of intense prayer and fasting. Whatever you and I might do with this season, it is bound to be a rather pale echo of that kind of intense experience, right? I mean life goes on; there’s work that needs to be done, studies to be attended to, kids to be cared for, dogs to be walked. The day-to-day, including both the mundane and the life-giving things… it just needs to happen. And then you come back on Sunday evening, you open the menu and see the desert-themed liturgy card, and you say, “Oh right, it’s Lent…” The music will have a different feel, we won’t sing or say the word “alleluia” until Easter arrives, the liturgical texts will have a more confessional feel… and then it’s Monday morning, and the day-to-day is back.
Which is why the practice of adopting some Lenten practice can be really significant. The liturgy for Ash Wednesday sets out the traditional practices: “self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and reading and meditating on the word of God.” It sounds all very dour and serious, doesn’t it? The bar seems to be raised awfully high, but there must be somebody somewhere who follows all these practices; maybe monks? As for me, I’ve got a huge term paper to finish, or tickets to a concert, or a spring break ski trip planned or, or, or…
All the more reason to embed a Lenten practice into the season. You can choose to give something up—to fast from something—be it coffee, red meat, dairy, dessert. Why would I do that? For one thing, in the Bible fasting simply is connected to prayer. But it is also something that daily will remind you of being in a different season, and every time your stomach grumbles for red meat or your taste buds positively crave a little bit of chocolate, you become mindful of that space. You can, of course, also “fast” from things other than food. People have “fasted” from Facebook, television, shopping at the mall, or buying things on Amazon. With considerably poignancy and insight, last year Pope Francis challenged Roman Catholic Christians to give up indifference for Lent, reasoning that “whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.” Isn’t that worth thinking about?
You can also take something on as a discipline. The Ash Wednesday liturgy refers to “reading and meditating on the word of God,” and for many people some additional practice of daily scripture reading might well be the thing. Or maybe you pick up a book of daily reflections for the season, and commit yourself to actually doing those readings! One of the most powerful Lenten experiences I ever had was to write letters. It was the year that I had turned 50, and I decided that I would identify some of the people who had really shaped and formed me; mentors, a couple of my high school teachers, a few friends. Over the season I wrote nine of those letters, printing them off and dropping them in the mailbox; no email for this stuff. They were for me expressions of my contingency, of this strong sense that I had not “made” myself. I have needed you, I basically said. You are part of what I now am. Thank you.
That Ash Wednesday liturgy also refers to “almsgiving”, which is different from ordinary Sunday offerings or charitable giving. It has to do with recognizing a very particular need, and then day by day setting aside a bit of money to help meet that need. Our refugee fund sponsorship team has made some alms boxes for people to use this year. You can place it somewhere visible in your home, and commit to putting a bit in every day. If you’re involving children in this, maybe they put in a dime or a quarter. Or maybe you forego that second cup of coffee, and put in the two or three dollars you’ve just saved. Again, it is a simple daily practice, but maybe one that helps to push indifference to the side.
Whatever you decide, do remember that the forty days are interrupted by the six Sundays that come within this period, Sundays always being resurrection days or “little Easters”. You probably don’t want to turn it into a binge day—all these people coming to church with stomachs bloated from all the chocolate or eyes glazed over from spending the previous ten hours glued to a screen. But it is a day to relax the discipline, and then to come to break bread at the table.
As I’ve said in other years, it may be that your life is already in a kind of wilderness or desert season; it may be that you’re already experiencing things as dry, arid, and tough-slugging. Maybe this year, that is more than enough. Just know that others in your church are testing the desert through these Lenten disciplines; that in a way, others are looking to come alongside you in a metaphorical wilderness.
I want to close by offering you a poem for the season. Written by Malcolm Guite, and set for publication in a new collection slated for release later this year, it is about the deep Winter and the promise of Spring, but it is also about Lent and Easter, death and resurrection, desert and return. It is called “Because We Hunkered Down.”
These bleak and freezing seasons may mean grace
When they are memory. In time to come
When we speak truth, then they will have their place,
Telling the story of our journey home,
Through dark December and stark January
With all its disappointments, through the murk
And dreariness of frozen February,
When even breathing seemed unwelcome work.
Because through all of this we held together,
Because we shunned the impulse to let go,
Because we hunkered down through our dark weather,
And trusted to the soil beneath the snow,
Slowly, slowly, turning a cold key,
Spring will unlock our hearts and set us free.
©Malcolm Guite, used with permission
From the forthcoming collection Parables of Paradox
“I invite you therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent,” knowing that on the other side “Spring [Easter] will unlock our hearts and set us free.