A Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany
Year C – 10 February 2013
John Edward Miller, Rector
About eight days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”–not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
[On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.]
– Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]
O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Last summer, my son and I spent two weeks together on a cross-country journey in a rugged little SUV. Because John had done this drive several times he was my guide from start-to-finish. My input was limited to a few choice destinations and encouragement as he went online each night to find a suitable hotel in the next locale. He was an excellent guide – so good in fact that Lewis and Clark would have been envious. Even though we moved steadily toward the northwest before taking the plunge down the west coast to Los Angeles, our route did take a southwesterly dip for a bit. John wanted me to seeUtah’sMonumentValley. And I am so grateful that he led me there. We rode quietly into that ancient place, awed by the color, the rock formations and the panoramic vistas. By late afternoon on that first day among the monuments, we arrived at Arches National Park. John and I studied the maps and selected a hike to one of the red sandstone arches formed eons ago when powerful seas carved out canyons and left towers of red sedimentary rock.
The one we chose to visit is called Delicate Arch, a large stone arc that rests upon a flattened spot at the peak of a long, steep incline. Once we accomplished our ascent, we realized why this was stone formation was so named. It was delicate-looking, despite its mass and size. The impression it made was visually majestic and literally breathtaking (or at it was for me – John hardly broke a sweat). The arch crowned a mountaintop, making it a place of transcendent beauty. People arrived after a demanding climb, and then sat quietly. For all of us it served as a natural sanctuary, a holy place framing a life-changing moment on high. I loved my time there; it was tempting to want to stay, but we didn’t. There were miles to go before we could sleep.
In the fall, I composed a poem about our mountaintop sojourn while on retreat at Shrine Mont.It is a reflection piece, depicting for me the magnitude of the event, and its lasting effect on John and me. When I wrote it, I was in the Shenandoah Valley at the foot of a mountain in Virginia. I had come down from the Utah summit, and I was engaged in the work that lies at the base of all mountaintops. This is the poem:
A delicate arch of stone
stood against an azure sky
red rock formed by sea and sand
reached heavenward from the earth
then curved, descending toward the same ground
completing a circle’s half, however improbable
we climbed together, son and father
waterless, with Utah sun pounding our bodies,
two miles above the trailhead it beckoned
up an inclined plane of granite, always upward
walkers in tandem breathing thin air
youth wearied but unfazed, the aged ached
panted for breath, felt heart pounding, pouring out sweat
only to have it evaporate quickly, leaving skin cooler
The arch was worth the walk
reminding the pair of primeval power
of tides and erosion, gravel and boulder
washed as in a gully, carved out by wind and water
Its magnificence inspired awe
gorgeous color, shape, and sweep
God’s arch, a universal symbol seeking completion
Our desire brought commitment, perseverance, hope
We became one in mind and heart
Closer than before – ever before
Today is the last Sunday after Epiphany. In past weeks we have been peering through lenses that reveal the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry. Now we pause to sum up these sightings with a spectacular moment of truth. Luke’s gospel invites us to follow Jesus’ lead, joining his inner circle of disciples – Peter, James, and John – on a trek to the top of a holy mountain. At the summit, we witness a dazzling scene that will set the course for Christian life. We see the manifestation of God’s real presence in the life of Jesus Christ. On the mountain Jesus is transfigured – his garments became radiant white. In this light we also see two other figures standing with Jesus. Even though our eyes are weary from the walk upward, the two others come into sharp focus. They are Moses and Elijah, and they are talking with Jesus about his departure – the drama that will unfold in a week of passion in Jerusalem.
This was the epiphany of epiphanies. It was clear, at least for a moment, that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets. All who witnessed this vision were awed; no one wanted it to end. Peter spoke for his companions, naming their shared desire. “Master,” he gasped, “it is good for us to be here! Let us build three booths – one for you, one for Moses, an one for Elijah!” Luke tells us that Peter didn’t know what he was saying when he blurted out this wish. My sense of that comment is not that Peter was childish or impetuous in speaking his mind. I’ll wager that all of us would have wanted that kind of clarity to last. Everything had come together; all of life made sense for a brief, shining moment. Who wouldn’t want to hold on to that perfect picture? I think that Luke was telling us something else, namely that there was more to be revealed about Jesus. And that would involve suffering, death, and resurrection – events that have the power transform the world, including people like you and me, if we will take up our cross and follow him – back down the mountain to the flatlands where compassion and service are crucial.
While Peter was speaking, a cloud (that is, God’s glory) enveloped the band of disciples. Realizing suddenly that they were on holy ground, they were terrified. A voice from the midst of the cloud addressed their fear, saying, “This is my Son, myChosen; listen to him!” Like a sonic boom, the voice shook them to attention. The quaking disciples blinked, looked around, and saw no one there with them but Jesus. They remembered those words and that voice. It was the voice of the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, who had pronounced those same words at the beginning, when Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan. “Listen to him!” said the voice. “Take him seriously. Honor and respect what he says and does, for he is my beloved Son, myChosen.”
Luke’s account declares that the disciples’ reaction to this epiphany was to keep silent about these things. Matthew’s version says that, “when the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” For me that simply spells out the reason for their silence. The disciples were stunned. Ministry is costly; serving others involves personal risk and sacrifice. Jesus understood, but he did not want his followers to be ruled by fear. So he beckoned them to come forward and join him for the hike down the mountain – back to reality. He had an appointment in Jerusalem; there was much to tell them and to show them along the way. Jesus had work for them to do – the many tasks of ministry.
Jabari Craddock (a.k.a. “J. B.”) was the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Richmond Youth of the Year in 1993. Last Thursday evening he returned toRichmondto emcee the 2013 distinguished youth awards program. I had the privilege of attending this inspiring event, and found J. B. to be a radiant personality, exuding warmth, humor, style, charm, wit, and wisdom. He kept the program going and kept the couple of thousand attendees seamlessly entertained and informed. J. B.’s return was for me the highlight of the evening – it eclipsed even the thrill of listening to young people articulate the hopes and values. And that is saying a lot, because the six finalists for the $30, 000 in scholarships were spectacular. Everyone was a winner, even though one would emerge as the final honoree. Still, J. B. is the one who fascinated me.
He hailed from the South Richmond Club, and he cheered every time he made a mention of his old home base. J. B.’s beginnings at that branch of the club were as modest and humble as his surroundings. When he arrived the club was housed in a garage, with little or no accoutrements. But that didn’t matter. What counted, he said, were the relationships. He met people who cared about him and his life. These relationships with compassionate adults and older youths who had gotten their future into focus deeply affected him. He bore down and began to care about himself and others. After graduating with honors from George Wythe High School, J. B. entered the Virginia Military Institute, where he learned more about himself, about discipline and honor, and about the world that would open up to him. After graduating from VMI, he enlisted as an officer the U. S. Army, serving two deployments in Iraq, and earning the Bronze Star in 2010 for meritorious service in combat operations. J. B. continued his military commitment with the Army National Guard. Last May, he graduated from the North Carolina Central University School of Law inDurham, North Carolina. Currently he is successfully pursuing a career as a junior executive in the insurance business with USAA, based in San Antonio,Texas.
J. B. Craddock is a shining star for the Boys and Girls Clubs. He has overcome many obstacles in his life journey, and has climbed a very steep slope toward a rare summit. He has pursued and experienced success after success. Hard work and determination have paid off, adding finishing touches to an already attractive young man.
He could have let all of this go to his head. He could have decided that all of this was owed to him, or that it was his for the taking. But that is not his style, and it is not what a person of his character and conscience can do. Heady success can be precarious; pride often goes before a fall. J. B. knows that, I think. And he knows where he belongs. Those relationships, you see, the ones that cared for him in the beginning, are his real models of maturity. He came back down off the mountaintop, choosing to care for the youth of the Boys and Girls Clubs, so that they could benefit from support and guidance as he had. J.B. has always said that his mother gave birth to him, but it was the Club that raised him. To me that’s grounding in what matters most.
J. B. serves because he was served. He received the gift of love, and he is busily giving back, loving his neighbor as himself. His commitment to the boys and girls may cost him. His coming back to serve and to beckon others in their upward climb may involve a loss of career momentum, or even a return to the locale, or the club, that raised him up. But he knows that the path he is taking leads to what is good and honorable and true, come what may. That much is sure.
The moment of transfiguration sheds light on the meaning of Jesus. On the mountain we know who he is – for us and for the world that he loves. The cost of that love is stunning, and it gives us pause, for we know who we are called to be. We are heirs of our baptismal covenant, keepers of our brothers and sisters, respecters of the dignity of every human being. That is a tall order – one that none of us is sufficient to fill. But God is sufficient; his grace makes love the impossible possibility. His voice transcends our fear, and grounds us, saying, “Listen to him.” That is enough to make disciples out of the likes of us. Amen.