A Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany

We have a mischievous expression in my family. It’s a phrase we use when one of us says or does something completely surprising—and you see something in someone that you never knew was there. The expression is: “Well, you don’t know everything, do you?” It’s a playful protest that while we think we know each other like a book—there are and always will be a few pages we somehow missed. There’s more to know about each other and this world we live in than we thought.

The Christian doctrine of revelation—in a more thoughtful way—says much the same thing. It’s a teaching that says, “You don’t know everything, do you?” The world around us, the people in our lives, even the God we worship and serve, we sometimes speak of and act as if we know like a book. Well, surprise. We don’t know everything!

Revelation means that something which was formerly hidden, and something we couldn’t have figured out on our own has been unveiled. A curtain has been drawn back to reveal something which was there all along, and something we can’t have known unless God himself shows us.

Let’s say that you know a man (let me interject to say that the man I’m going to tell you about is a real person but it’s no one here; at least not that I know of because I don’t know everything). So, there is a man who you know is a surly, grouchy curmudgeon. And to the human eye and ear he is. He doesn’t seem to have much good to say about anyone. He’s suspicious of what makes people tick and thinks by and large people are no darn good. He never gives money to any charitable organization because he thinks they’re all run by pie-in-the-sky do-gooders and that the recipients of charity usually only have themselves to blame for their misfortune. He opposes flowers on the altar as frivolous, and he doesn’t like expressions of affection.

One evening, you go to visit a friend in the hospital. On the way to her room, you stop in front of the large windows to look into the nursery at the newborns. Through the glass, you see the door at the back of the nursery open and a nurse comes in. The door remains open for a while. And looking through the door she’s just opened, you see into the room beyond. And there seated in a rocking chair, you are startled to see, is the old curmudgeon himself, gowned, with a newborn baby in his arms. You see the old man’s lips moving, his eyebrows arched, his whole face an open door of wonder. You can see that the man and the newborn only have eyes for each other.

A nurse stops beside you, sees what you are looking at and says, “Do you know Mr. Smith?” Yes, you do, you say, realizing in the same instant that maybe you don’t know him as well as you had thought. “That man is a saint,” the nurse says. “Do you know that he has been coming here every week if we need him for the past six years. He’s one of our nursery daddies. He holds the babies born to moms suffering from addiction. He helps them get through their first days and nights.” And then the door closes.

“Well, you don’t know everything, do you?”

When Jesus was transfigured on the Holy Mount, the door of God’s heart is opened, and the veil drawn aside. And we see that the love with which the Father holds his Son, is the same love that holds us like him too, the same love, like a shining light that the dark can never overcome. This light is God’s word of love that says, “we don’t know everything.”

Because when we get afraid, what we think we know is that we are all alone in this world. What we think we know is that if we don’t look out for ourselves, that no one else will. What we think we know is that ‘might makes right’ – always has, always will. What we think we know is that we’re not good enough for God’s loving kindness. What we think we know is that there is some darkness that the love of Christ cannot pierce.

The moment of God’s transfiguring love is his no! to all these propositions. Revelation is God’s light crashing into our darkness.

Recent scenes of the devastation and suffering in Gaza brought to mind a PBS special from many years ago about the life of Mother Theresa. During the worst fighting in the Lebanon of three decades ago, Mother Theresa came to Beirut to visit one of the Missionaries of Charity homes located there. But the convent was in a no-man’s zone where fierce fighting was taking place. In one of the scenes in this documentary, Mother Theresa is seen meeting with the American diplomatic envoy, Philip Habib. She is explaining through a translator that she will be visiting this particular convent the next day. Habib says with all due respect that she may not go as it’s too dangerous. Mother Theresa responds by saying that she had already prayed to the Lord Jesus for a ceasefire and so not to worry, she will be fine. Habib protests that this cannot be. It is too dangerous. We think we know what will happen if you try to go there.

The next day, there is an eerie quiet throughout much of Beirut, including the no-man’s zone where Mother Theresa will visit. And she does. A convoy of cars makes its way through cratered streets to the convent. Inside, Mother Theresa makes a tour and greets the sisters. She takes each sister’s head into her hands and touches her forehead to their forehead, and lingers like that, unhurried, going from sister to sister.

Upstairs is a large room set up like a hospital. We see the sisters going about their rounds, caring for the patients, who are the sickest of the sick, the poorest of the poor. They have been discarded as unsavable in the harsh triage of scarce resources which is a war zone. Some will live. Some will die. All will be cared for.

In one of the beds, which is really more of a large crib, is a full-grown man—at least in terms of his age. But his body failed to grow properly, and he resembles one caught halfway between a child’s body and an adult’s body, with nothing in proportion. In the background, you can hear gunfire returning and distant explosions. The camera shows him reacting with a wild, terrified expression, unfocused in blind terror. His body trembles uncontrollably. His head thrashes from side to side as if looking for an escape. One of the sisters comes to his crib-side and puts her hand on the man’s heaving, bony chest. She leans towards the man, her lips moving with words we cannot hear. Her eyes are intent on the man’s eyes. She rubs his chest to calm him. She is trying to call him back from the dark place he is lost in. Gradually the man’s tremors subside, and his terrified eyes soften and begin to focus till he finds the sisters eyes looking at him. He locks onto her eyes, and as the gunfire increases in intensity in the streets, coming nearer, they continue to gaze into each other’s eyes, as the man breaths easier and easier and easier.

In the midst of a crazy frightening world, he only sees her. They only have eyes for each other. Can you see them? What we think we know is that here are two more ‘little ones’ swept into the dark. But as the veil is drawn aside, we see that the Father’s heart is open still, embracing that moment with the love he has for his Son.

The light that comes in that dark place cannot be overcome.

On the Holy Mount of the Transfiguration, Jesus stands as the door opens between heaven and earth. Standing between Elijah and Moses, he will shortly hang dying between two unnamed thieves—drawing the dark of all we think we know into his redeeming light. When the moment of revelation has passed, Peter and James and John look up and see only Jesus. Only Jesus. God-with-us who only has eyes for you and for this world he loves. Amen.

The Rev. David H. May