Readings for the Last Sunday after Epiphany:
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
This sermon was preached at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church on Sunday February 14, 2010.
About 1700 years ago, a Roman emperor imprisoned a kind-hearted priest for secretly conducting weddings for young Christian couples. The emperor felt that weddings limited his supply of young male soldiers and that married men were too distracted by their wives to be worthy of his army. The kind-hearted priest, on the other hand, felt that weddings were a sacred time when two people came to see each other as holy as the veil between them was lifted. In the Jewish tradition, the center of the wedding takes place when the husband and wife say to each other not “I love you,” not “I promise to cherish you,” not “Let’s live together,” but “Harei at mekudeshet li” which means, “You are holy to me.” The priest was willing to go to prison in order for young men and women to start seeing each other as holy. Sadly, this priest was beaten and stoned and finally beheaded by order of the emperor.
Today, we are invited to uphold the priest’s work and sacrifice by learning how to see one another as holy, not only our spouses or partners or significant others, but everyone. And how do we do that? How do we lift the veil between us that prevents us from seeing each other’s holiness? Today’s Gospel offers us some profound answers.
Years ago, I attended a Greek Orthodox Church service on the day of the Feast of the Transfiguration. I remember the priest saying that it was not Jesus who changed on the mountain but it was the disciples’ vision that changed to see Jesus as he always was (and is), beaming with glorious light. Something happened to the disciples on top of that mountain that allowed them to see the holiness of Jesus that was always there, but was always obscured to them because of their limited vision. As the Holy Spirit dwells in us, that same holiness also beams on our faces. We just often fail to see it. So how can the Gospel help us?
First, the Gospel invites us to join Peter and his companions on a hike up Mount Tabor. “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” Several days ago, with three of my buddies, I hiked up to the East Peak of Mt. Tamalpais, where we read some Emerson, snacked on trail mix and Hershey’s chocolate and almost touched the clouds as they gently rolled by. On the summit, I inhaled deeply the fresh mountain air, which Emerson calls “the cordial of incredible virtue.” I felt like I was standing on the lips of the earth as they were kissing Heaven. And I felt a deeper connection to my friends after hiking up some steep trails together, taking turns carrying our packs, taking some wrong turns on the trails, sharing our snacks and stopping at times to catch our breath and glimpses of the bay between the veiling clouds. We spent some time in prayerful reflection on the summit and I did not need anyone’s clothes to turn dazzling white to know that I was with three holy friends.
Nature has a mystical way of opening our eyes to the holiness in each of us while also opening our eyes to the holiness of the Earth itself. Part of seeing the holiness in our children and in our children’s children is by learning how to care for and protect the Earth that they will inherit. We can learn to be creative about caring for the Earth while also enjoying its benefits by mountain climbing or hiking, activities that Jesus knew would prime his friends for their holy encounter. If we go out and drink the “cordial of incredible virtue,” we ourselves will be more attentive to each other’s holiness.
The Gospel also challenges us to let go of our presumptions and prejudice. “Just as [Moses and Elijah] were leaving [Jesus], Peter said, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’” The Gospel explains that Peter did not know what he was talking about. He was probably nervous and felt like he needed to take control of the situation. He clumsily suggested building a tent to shelter these three glorious prophets and then found himself interrupted by a terrifying cloud that overshadowed him and told him to “Listen!” Peter’s attempt to station the glory of God into his own manageable size was thwarted by an overwhelming glory that left him speechless. (And leaving Peter speechless was no easy task!)
We often find security in putting each other in boxes. And this is a great way to miss the glory of God that dwells within each individual. Here, Jesus’ disciples provide a great example on how to not see each other’s holiness. Stereotyping, prejudice, racism, sexism, classism are all examples of putting each other in boxes and being horribly blind to our holiness. Yesterday, the Episcopal Church honored the first African-American Episcopal priest Absalom Jones, whose courageous life still calls the Church to pray for freedom “from every bond of prejudice.” Today’s Gospel echoes this same call.
The Gospel also calls us to listen: “Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’” Listen. My favorite adage is “God gave us one mouth and two ears so that we listen twice as much as we talk.” Here, God tells Peter to stop talking, stop filling the silence with nonsense and to listen. Instead of trying to make sense of the situation by squeezing people into our limited perceptions, the divine voice invites us to be open and listen so that our vision might be expanded, expanded enough to see the Transfiguration in all of us.
Finally, the Gospel invites us to practice silence. “And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” All major faith traditions uphold silence as a discipline essential to spiritual growth. The Buddhist sacred text, the Dhammapada says, “If you can be in silent quietness…you have reached the peace of NIRVANA.” The contemporary Christian contemplative Thomas Keating says, “God’s first language is Silence. Everything else is a translation.” Mahatma Gandhi said, “Speak only if it improves upon the silence.” And the great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said, “Nothing in all creation is so like God as silence.” Part of the reason why Jesus kept telling his disciples not to go out and spread word of his miracles was because he wanted them to practice silence. In order to see each other’s holiness, we need to be familiar and comfortable with silence, which creates a divine space for growth and expanded vision.
So if we go outside and enjoy nature, if we let go of our presumptions and prejudice, if we stop talking for a moment and listen to each other and if we uphold silence, we will improve our vision and our capability of seeing God’s glory beaming in each of us. And I’m not just talking about those who are close to us, though that’s a good place to start. I’m talking about everyone, even those who we think are far from holy.
The kind-hearted priest who was imprisoned and beheaded by the emperor saw everyone as holy, even the prison guard who kept him locked up. The priest continued to open peoples’ eyes to holiness even on the day of his death. According to the legend, the priest gave the prison guard’s blind daughter a letter that miraculously healed her of her blindness. The priest signed the miraculous letter with his name and with a phrase that continues to open people’s eyes to love and holiness even to this day. He wrote, “From Your Valentine.” This priest, known today as St. Valentine, died on February 14th and we can honor him today by opening our eyes to see the holiness in everyone, in ourselves and above all, in Christ, who is the One who unveils our faces to see the glorious Transfiguration taking place, everyday, in all of us. Amen.