Last Sunday Before Lent (Year B) 14 February 2021; 10 am Live-streamed Ante-communion
Transfiguration Sunday Homily Delivered at Trinity Episcopal Church
The Rev. Fr. Tony Hutchinson, SCP, Ph.D.
2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9 God, take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. Amen.
Light and fear: it’s in all the scripture passages today.
The Gospel sees Jesus shining bright before his closest friends. The light shining from the face of Jesus overwhelms Peter. “Let’s build three small shelters commemorating this!” he says. We shouldn’t hold the odd reaction against him, says the narrator—he was, after all scared out of his wits.
Paul in the Epistle says that people are blinded from seeing the light of the Gospel, the brightness of Christ, because of their lack of trust. That what the word translated as “unbelievers” means: they lack trust in God. Again, fear blinds us to the light.
The Psalm says “Out of Zion, in its beauty, God discloses himself in brilliant light.” Surrounded by a raging storm and a fire devouring everything before it, God’s appearance pulls his people into a courtroom where only God’s Hasidim, can stand. The word means those devoted to him, the kind ones. Their fear has been overcome by shared trust and commitment: when the scripture’s shorthand says these gentle ones “have made a covenant with me and sealed it with sacrifice,” this means they have had a relationship of mutual goodness, promises, and care between them and God, one involving serious self-giving. Here, love and trust casts out the fear that would have blinded them to the light.
In the Hebrew scriptures, the great prophet Elijah gets ready for his last trip. The younger man he has mentored all these years, Elisha, asks to go along for the ride, afraid the old man is going to disappear. When anyone reminds Elisha that this is after all Elijah’s last trip, Elisha does not want to hear. He is afraid to face up to his mentor’s passing. Elisha’s afraid he won’t measure up and be able to fill the old man’s shoes. When Elijah gets to Jordan, that symbol of endings, new beginnings, death, and new life, Elisha insists on going on with him, and true to form, Elijah performs one last great marvel. He takes his coat and smacks the water with it, dividing it into two, and the two men walk across on dry ground. “Now I really am leaving,” says Elijah, “What is it you want?” Afraid of his own inadequacies, Elisha wants twice as much of whatever it was that made Elijah the prophet he has been. “Wow! That’s a steep order! If you face up to reality and actually see what’s coming, you might just get what you ask!” When the fiery whirlwind comes, Elisha, having to taken to heart his mentor’s encouragement, sees the whole thing and receives Elijah’s cloak: he has indeed grown to fill the shoes left by his legendary mentor.
There is a subtle message in Mark’s telling of the transfiguration story. Three times in that Gospel, facades are ripped away and the refulgent beauty of God revealed: in each scene, Elijah appears in some form, and a voice declares that Jesus is the Son of God. In Mark’s story of the baptism, John the Baptist, elsewhere called “Elijah” by Jesus, baptizes him, and the heavens are ripped open, revealing the descent of the Spirit and the voice of God: “This is my son, the beloved.” In his story of the Transfiguration, the everyday looks of Jesus disappear as he is revealed in blindingly brilliant light. God’s voice again says, “This is my Son, the beloved.” Then, at the crucifixion, the crowds mistake Jesus’ call to God, “Eloi,” as a call to Elijah. The Temple curtain is ripped in two, and the centurion supervising the judicial murder of Jesus, seeing him expire, says, “This was God’s Son.” The truth of who Jesus is truly is revealed in each scene, but in the crucifixion, it is not about stage props of blinding light or refulgent beauty we see in the baptism and the transfiguration. Here Jesus is revealed not in shining glory, but dark horror and suffering. Seeing beyond and behind the ugliness of Jesus’ death, we recognize that the centurion’s words can only be verified for us by God speaking in our own heart. Refulgent beauty lies behind the horror; we at times cannot see it because of our fear.
Today is the last Sunday after Epiphany before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. It is called transfiguration Sunday, after the Gospel reading. But all of these texts talk about transformation and transfiguration: change that we all must undergo if we are to come to recognized the light, love it, and not be blinded by it.
Sisters and brothers, know that God loves you and accepts you. If you have fear, it stems from not accepting this essential fact. Fear blinds us, makes us crazy, and distorts us. We become twisted and the world becomes broken. But as Leonard Cohen says in his song “Anthem,”
Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack in everything That's how the light gets in.
Loving Jesus is about facing the truth. It is about losing our fear. It is about being open to sudden astounding moments of clarity. It is about seeing the love and refulgent beauty of God even when we are faced with darkness and horror.
As we prepare for Lent, I invite us to look at the areas where we are blind. The most direct way is to find what deeply upsets our balance and joy, and then ask what it is in us that makes us so vulnerable here. This is a practice commonly used in counseling and direction. Jesuits call it an examination of conscience. Twelve Steppers call it a moral inventory. It is best done with a friend, a spiritual director, or ideally a "discreet priest."
Ask yourself, “what is it about me that causes me to be so upset or undone by this action of others or situation?’ I think that if you ask yourself that question and observe carefully and honestly, you will find that fear it at the heart of most of our problems.
A simple example might be: I get upset when my “fairness” button is pushed, when someone, especially someone I’m responsible for, suffers from unjust treatment. What is it about me that upsets me so in this? I think it is because I am afraid that I do not do enough to uphold fairness. I am afraid of people thinking ill of me. I am afraid of thinking of myself as one of the oppressors. I am afraid for my social- and self-esteem.
Again: what is it about me that lets this situation set me off? Why does it upset me? What fear is at the heart of it?
Letting the light in through the cracks, being open to sudden epiphanies, recognizing the refulgent beauty of God even in hardship, letting ourselves be changed from glory into glory as we bathe in the light coming from Jesus’ face, all this starts with recognizing our blindness, identifying our fear. Once we have identified them, it will be time to let Jesus gently overcome them.
In the name of Christ, Amen.