Last Epiphany B
February 11, 2018 New Beginnings Church, North Little Rock, Arkansas
My husband’s father, Bob, calls. He is experiencing excruciating back pain and can barely walk. My husband and daughter are in Greece. I get off the phone and seek the advice of colleagues who perform tests, and then I go with Bob to a specialist. As I impatiently and nervously wait, a lone older woman in the waiting room briefly reminds me of all those who do not have friends or family to call and must wait for long hours in emergency rooms in pain before answers come./
The specialist says that my father-in- law has advanced metastatic cancer to the spine. The medical team starts Bob on a trial protocol. Two days later on my way home from church, I realize the hospital has been paging me. My father-in-law is in intensive care and has had a reaction to the new drug. My husband and daughter rush home from Greece. Bob is put back on a more standard treatment for his cancer. Our oldest son, Rob, takes a leave of absence from graduate school and moves back home to help care for his grandfather. Six months later Bob falls and breaks his hip. We can no longer care for him at home and go through all the decisions of nursing homes and assisted living that many of you have faced. Each day presents a new unfamiliar, often exhausting challenge of how to minister to someone we so dearly loved.//
The disciples in our story today also have faced one new challenge after another. They are exhausted by the nonstop demands of the crowds. Recently they were sent off to cure and heal the sick. They have an amazing run of success and return to tell Jesus all about it. But when he takes them for a well-earned respite, more crowds interrupt them. The weary disciples beg Jesus to send the crowd away, but we all know what happens next—"fish sandwiches” for 5000, or probably 15,000 if we add in the women and children.
The next day doesn’t feel much like a vacation either because Jesus starts telling them about his upcoming suffering and death, something they might expect as well. We can’t blame them for missing the rising part on the third day. Heidi Neumark says, “when you think you are heading for the dungeon, anxiety and panic tend to block out everything else.”1
Eight days later they are still in no shape for mountain climbing, even to pray as Luke’s gospel mentions prayer as the reason for this ascent up this steep mountain for Jesus, Peter, James, and John. You know the disciples are wondering what is so special about praying on top of this mountain?/
If I am honest, on most days, attempts to pray/ are a steep uphill climb on weary legs. If I make it, it is only thanks to my many faithful companions beside me in community,/ as it must be for yourselves, those who are part of this faithful community at New Beginnings, as well as the communion of saints, past and present, that support all of us and pray with and for us.//
On top of the mountain, Jesus is doing all the praying. Peter, James, and John can’t keep their eyes open, according to Luke’ account, which connects the disciples’ humanness on the mountain of transfiguration and their inability to stay awake later at Mount of Olives. Suddenly, just as sleep is about it overcomes the three, a brightness startles them. Their eyes open wide. Jesus, who must have reached the summit slightly before them, now shines with a brightness they have never seen. His clothes become “dazzling white as no bleach on earth could make them.” I can’t resist saying, maybe 1000 times brighter than the recent Tide commercials for the Superbowl!/ The disciples have an unforgettable experience of seeing the divinity of Jesus./ They also see two other figures as well talking to Jesus. Mark identifies the two men as Moses and Elijah who speak in Luke’s account to Jesus about his departure that will be accomplished in Jerusalem. “The word departure comes from the Greek word for exodus, referring not only to the trip down the mountain and into Jerusalem, but also to Jesus’ death.1” Moses’ presence brings to mind the exodus of the Jewish people through the Red Sea from Egypt, and suggests that now Jesus will accomplish a second exodus, leading God’s people safely through the waters of death to resurrection, as Moses had parted the Red Sea and lead his people safety to the promised land./
But this dramatic change in appearance from man to God,/ is lost on the three disciples. They are terrified. Peter expresses the confusion of his stunned companions by suggesting that they arrange to stay on the mountaintop, make dwellings or monuments to all three even though they still may have a partial awareness of Jesus’ real divinity.1///
On tops of a mountain we see the world differently. In the Hebrew Bible mountain summits are stages for crucial events. Noah lands on Mount Ararat. Abraham nearly kills his son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah. God gives Moses the ten commandments on Mount Sinai, and today we hear about the transfiguration of Jesus on an unnamed mountain.2
We all have had those mountaintop experiences of seeing God in our lives, even if it is through a glass darkly./ Yet, truthfully,/ most of our transfiguration experiences occur below /at the bottom of the mountain, / where we daily work and play, /where theological bones take on flesh, and flesh becomes divinity, / That is where we will most see the transfigured face of God.. in places where premature babies are born and thrive, where loved ones and patients’ appearance change as they return to life from near fatal illnesses, where addicts and alcoholics find recovery, where we forgive those who have harmed us, and we are forgiven; where we forgive those who have not accepted us as the gender God created us to be, where we see God in the face of a homeless man or woman at a traffic stop, or in our neighbor who irritates us, or in the slow and tired checker at our local grocery/, times where for a brief moment/ we see as a real person, we see Christ in one another.
A priest friend, Pat Murray, believes that perhaps Jesus, God, is transformed all the time, but only at certain times can we see the likeness God in each other, perhaps most often when we live in the present moment and in difficult times when we are experiencing “altitude sickness.” ///
We all take turns taking Bob for his many treatments. As I look about the crowded waiting rooms, again for a brief moment I think of the very ill who do not have family to support them. How do they get here? How do they survive and keep coming back?/
At one visit, Bob is too weak to dress himself after his examination. I see our son, who looks so much like his grandfather at an earlier age, / dress Bob, / pull up Bob’s baggy trousers, / tighten his belt/ and lift Bob up to stand. / The young and the old man hug each other./ I see the look they give to the other; one, the look of loving surrender, the other, the look of a loving servant. / They see the face of God in each other. / They each are transfigured in front of each other at the bottom of the mountaintop. /
Transfiguration also occurs the night Bob dies as he is cared for this last time by both of his grandsons. Bob lies in his nursing home bed/ unable to speak/ but his face shines like the sun as he radiantly,/ continuously/ smiles at his two grandsons he so dearly loves/ as we sit at the bottom of the mountain and he begins his ascent. /
Today, if we listen carefully, we can still hear the voice that interrupts Peter: “Listen to him,” we are told. Listen for dear life. Listen to words of forgiveness and mercy, promises of paradise, words we will too soon hear from the cross. Listen without ceasing, on the edge of glory/ and on the brink of death. We have heard this voice before at his baptism, “Here is my only begotten son with whom I am well pleased, listen to him.” Listen on this hill, but also listen later on another hill when darkness closes in.1////
“When cures and healing are beyond our powers, when the shine on a loved one’s face comes from tears reflected in the fluorescent lights of intensive care, / on such days remember to put yourself inside this very story, listening for the voice that urges us to stop and listen for his Voice. When you are overcome with weariness and difficulty, remember to look for the transfigured face of God in all those you will meet/for the Beloved, the Son of God, the son of Man, will always be there beside us and will shine in the darkness,/ and the darkness will never,/ ever overcome it.1”
1Heidi, Neumark, “Altitude Adjustment,” Christian Century, p. 16, February 6, 2007.
2Thomas Jay Oord, Christian Century, January 17, 2017.
Joanna Seibert joannaseibert.com