The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Time for traveling on

Last Epiphany A
Matthew 17:1-9


In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Each year these are the lessons that we hear on the last Sunday before Lent begins - lessons about the Transfiguration. The Feast of the Transfiguration actually happens in the summer - on August 6th, but it makes sense to revisit this feast now, just before Lent begins. Because it’s not just about the Transfiguration itself - the event of Jesus radiating with the glory of God - but it’s about moving on - moving out into the world. It’s about leaving the place of comfort and holiness and moving into a world that can too often feel entirely unholy.

For many Christians, Lent is an uncomfortable time. And it’s meant to be that way. Lent is about facing the unholiness in the world around us and even in our own lives and souls. And through that, we come out on the other side, to bask in the joy of Easter - of Resurrection; of forgiveness; of new and renewed relationship with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit.

But for us to be able to truly wrap our minds around the miracle of the Resurrection and the joy of forgiveness, we can’t take them for granted. We must know their complementary characters: death and sin.

One of the special places of my youth was Mt. Sequoyah, Arkansas. It’s just outside the small city of Fayetteville, Arkansas in the state’s far northwest corner. It’s one of those “you can’t get there from here” kinds of places. No one just stumbles upon Fayetteville or Mr. Sequoyah. But I had a lot of wonderful memories there. My father had to go there once a year for a conference, and my mother and I usually went along. But I also went from time to time on my own for various church youth events.

Because we moved around so often when I was growing up, I always had a kind of malleable understanding of the word home, and Mt. Sequoyah felt like one of my homes. It was there, at youth events, where I had some of the most profound spiritual experiences of those years. I came to see it as a place where I could reliably feel close to God.

A dull sadness would fall over me whenever it was time to leave. I always knew that the “real world” was waiting for me at the bottom of that mountain. My friends wouldn’t understand what I had experienced - real community; real peace; real presence.

If I had been given the choice, I might have stayed. I might have been Peter.

Have you ever been there? Have you ever been to the mountaintop, and seen the world in a little bit of a clearer way?

It reminds me of that famous speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. on the eve of his assassination. He calls on the experience of Moses as a metaphor for the mountain he’d been climbing for so long. But he knew that it wasn’t enough to merely stand at the mountaintop and to see that glory. He had to travel on. Whatever that might mean.

The glory of the Lord may be clearest on the mountaintop, but the gospel is lived in the streets. So we’ve got to travel on, too.

For Christians, Lent is the “traveling on” time.

We spend a lot of time celebrating in the church. God is so good, how could we not? The Holy Eucharist - what we’re doing right now - is rightly called a “celebration”. As that great old hymn says it, we “come with joy to meet [our] Lord.” And we also celebrate all of life’s milestones together here - in baptisms and weddings, in holidays. We celebrate together when our children graduate from high school and college. Even when one of our own passes from this life to the next, we celebrate our time together even as we mourn, because we know that the choirs of angels and saints of the ages celebrate their homecoming.

Though we have a lot to celebrate, we should be careful to keep from acting as if that’s all there is in the world. We should be careful to keep ourselves from getting lost in the celebrations to the degree that we find ourselves turning a blind eye to everything that’s off of the mountaintop.

Like Peter, we might wish to just build dwelling places here on the mountaintop. But we can’t. We have to travel on. Not only because we’re called, but because staying on top of the mountain just isn’t honest. The glory fades. If we act as if it hasn’t, we’ll miss out of the ways that God lives in all the other aspects of our lives, and the dishonestly will bankrupt our spirits.

Over the next few weeks the church will be changing. The words that we say will change, and so will a lot of the things you see. The goal of these changes is to disrupt us. It’s meant to make us step out of our normal routines and to examine our spiritual lives a little differently. It may feel uncomfortable at first. Just remember that that’s okay. We’re traveling on. Like Peter, James, and John, Christ is calling us, too, off of the mountain and into the streets.

You may decide that you want to adopt a Lenten discipline to help bring you into the “streets” of your soul throughout this season. Sometimes people give up something that brings them joy for a while - like chocolate, or wine, or meat. Sometimes people use it as an opportunity to give up something that’s been holding them back - like smoking or using foul language. I always like to use Lent as a time to take on a spiritual discipline - perhaps adding something new or different to my daily prayer life, or bringing back something that has slipped away with time. Sometimes I commit to taking a retreat, or focusing myself for a specific time of discernment about some issue in my life.

But whatever you do, I urge you not to think of this as a kind of Christian version of the “New Year’s Resolution”. Whatever you decide to adopt as your Lenten discipline, the thing itself isn’t the point. The point is redoubling the role that your faith plays in your life each day. The point is to walk down the dark and winding streets of your soul, and to find that God lives even there - not just on the mountaintops.

The glory that we once knew may not always shine as vividly as it once did, but it is glorious nonetheless. In that same speech on the eve of his assassination, Dr. King also said, “I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”

Things may seem dark for the next few weeks, but look for the glimmer of God’s presence. Look for the glory. It’s there all the time. Even in the darkest night. God is there even when we feel most distant. Amen.

2 comments:

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I think you were there with Megan when little Cloe was watching us burn the old palms on Shrove Tuesday for Ash Wednesday and said, "Look! There are stars in the ashes!"

Yuppa.

Well done, Jon.

Now, I think, as part of my Lenten Discipline, I'm going to commit myself to attend a Girlyman performance in Cambridge. Wanna join me?

Jon M. Richardson said...

:)))) Thank you for reminding me about that. Miss Chloe had a way for putting her finger on things, didn't she :)

Still need to double check my calendar (it's never where I need it when I need it... This house is too big!) but I'm ALL over Girlyman! We're gonna have a LARGE time! :)