SERMON Last Epiphany A 2 23 20
Moses went up the mountain and stayed forty days in today's Hebrew Bible reading. He awoke one morning feeling poorly. "What's the matter with you this morning?" God asked Moses. "I have a splitting headache," Moses replied. "Here," God said, "take these two tablets."
Actually the passage where Moses comes down the mountain after God gives him two tablets appears quite a bit later in the book of Exodus. But today we have Moses and Jesus on the mountain at different times. Jesus, as we read earlier, had a face that shone like the sun.
A friend posted on Facebook last week a picture of their wedding a couple of decades ago. They were joyful and her face was shining. In response to a comment, she said she needed some powder. My impression was they'd just had an encounter with God in their wedding ceremony and they showed it. I got that idea from today's Gospel. My friend responded that she grew up with the rhyme, "Good morning to you, good morning to you, we're all in our places, with bright shining faces."
This lines up with what I said recently, quoting Canon Nora Smith of the diocese, that if a church wants to attract a bright eyed priest they need to be bright eyed themselves. Does this or do shining faces have anything to do with God? Our disposition may be partly our nature but it is also partly a function of how we choose to look at things. We can feel glum and hangdog and look it. Or we can decide to generate within ourselves that sense of delight in life we would always like to possess or at least manifest. A reminder like the rhyme can do it.
A reflection on our connection with God also will do it. When we consider that this is the day God made we tend to be more positive and open to hopeful ideas than if it's just SOS--same old stuff. Or same stuff, different day. Eagerly anticipating the day God made also can enable us to enjoy a holy encounter.
When Moses and Jesus took their trips up the mountain in today's readings we know they anticipated an encounter with the Almighty. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible we read of Moses' face shining following an encounter with God. But not in today's reading. What we do understand is that prior to the section we read this morning Moses took a large number of the elders with him up the mountain and they saw God. And they saw that "...Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness..." Then Moses continued up the mountain alone to receive the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone. And Moses was on the mountain forth days and forty nights. Although there are no shining faces there is the awesome appearance of God and the splendor that surrounded him.
We can infer from this that the people who accompanied Moses up the mountain were impressed. But we also know that later, while Moses was on the mountain alone those forty days, the people forgot all about Moses and they forgot all about God and they made graven images of other gods.
That is not the case in the Gospel trip up the mountain today. We know that at this point of his ministry Jesus was not the leader of the people that Moses was. Jesus took Peter and James and his brother John with him rather than a delegation like Moses brought along, which appeared in the verses of Exodus just prior to today's Hebrew Bible reading.
Jesus was joined on the mountain by Moses and Elijah, the holy men of the Hebrew Bible, affirming for his disciples his godliness. Peter's reaction, admittedly humorous to us, was one of a person in shock, whose default behavior was to act as if, "Sure, this is normal, I know what to do..." and he proposed building shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.
But the cloud and the voice and the directions from the mouth of God dispelled that fantasy. God claimed parenthood of Jesus and told Jesus' followers to listen to Jesus. And then
POOF! Everything actually did go back to normal.
Recollection of the transfiguration later softened for his followers the sting of Jesus' crucifixion and death, letting them know of his immortal holiness and even forewarning them of his sad earthly fate. For us it does those things and concludes the season of Epiphany and points us toward the season of Lent and then Holy Week and Easter.
We know this will start Tuesday with the Shrove Tuesday supper, followed by Ash Wednesday observations, the imposition of ashes at the 12:15 Healing Service and with the full Ash Wednesday liturgy at 5:30 pm. Once in the season of Lent we stop using Alleluia, we stop singing the service music in church, we stop opening the service with "Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and blessed be his kingdom, now and forever," turning instead to "Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins, His mercy endures forever." We enter this season of penitence and fasting looking forward to Easter, but while waiting for Easter we live in Lent for seven weeks.
Lent is known as a season of sackcloth and ashes, a season of seriousness and sobriety. About the only aspect of that formula I actually endorse is sobriety. I happen to believe that we can be faithful, we can anticipate God's presence in our company every day, and that we can be bright-faced even in Lent thanks to our faith.
In fact the other feature of Lent we all know is that it is a season of sacrifice. In the old days, when nearly everybody smoked, people would give up smoking. Or drinking alcohol. Or chocolate. More recently the focus has shifted to assuming different behaviors, more charitable ones, than we exhibit normally. Like being cheerful instead of dour, charitable instead of suspicious, generous instead of cheap. Or being kind instead of harsh or cruel, calm instead of anxious, open minded instead of closed minded, welcoming rather than shut down. We give up a disagreeable feature for a favorable one.
This list I just read brought to mind an article I read a couple of weeks ago about the serious problem of people not coming to church. I mention it because, obviously, a person could adopt a program of being in church every Sunday and maybe even a Wednesday or two instead of being irregular. That would indeed be a fine Lenten practice.
But what the article said which I took to heart is that the frequency with which people stay away from church is growing. People find other things not only to do but they find other things to prioritize. And they prioritize these other things above church. And when that happens a few times it becomes easier and easier until church is just something we fit into our schedules at our convenience.
Now I do not wish to equate faith and church. One is possible without the other. But the Christian faith is not possible without community and community is not possible without participation. And participation in Christianity is called church. You see where I'm going with this.
Lent is a fine time to re-evaluate our priorities, to consider what it is that we are giving priority to and whether we actually intend to order things as we do.
Maybe we need to put it in our calendar so we remember to organize our Sunday around getting to church. Maybe we need to organize an afternoon or evening service on the weekend for those who work or- gasp! - recreate on Sundays. Maybe we just need to re-read the Baptismal Covenant and consider how we're doing at that.
Because I can tell you I see shining faces among this congregation at the end of the service. We are brought home in worship to our deepest inner desires, to their fulfillment in the knowledge and love of Jesus, to the understanding that God is on our side at all times.
We may be in awe of other distractions, we may be held hostage by responsibilities and demands we can't avoid. But let's remember when Jesus said he sought for us all to be one he didn't have Facebook or You Tube in mind. Amen
A sermon preached on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 23, 2020,
at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie, NY, by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector