2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2
This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Crockett CA on Sunday February 7, 2016.
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, understood weddings as a sacred time when two people came to see each other as holy as the veil between them was lifted. In the words of the New Zealand prayer book, marriage is a time when two people “become awake to each other, aware of each other, sensitive to each other’s needs.” And 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.” This kind-hearted 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, this week and perhaps during this upcoming season of Lent, we are invited to uphold the priest’s work and sacrifice by learning how to see each other 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 helpful and profound answers.
Years ago, I attended a Greek Orthodox Church service on the day of the Feast of the Transfiguration (which is in August). 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? How can the Gospel help us practically to see each other as holy as we draw near to the season of Lent?
First, the Gospel 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 and fix 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 of how to not see each other’s holiness. Stereotyping, prejudice, racism, sexism, classism are all examples of putting each other in boxes and being tragically blind to our holiness.
This is the kind of spiritual blindness that Jesus talks about in John 9, which is the subject of my dissertation. I have been thinking about spiritual and physical blindness recently. Last Sunday, I preached in Sausalito on St. Brigid, one of the most beloved saints of Ireland, who healed one of her religious companions of blindness so that she could enjoy the colors of a beautiful sunrise. After being healed and looking at the sunrise, the companion turned to Brigid and said, “Close my eyes again, dear Mother, for when the world is so visible to the eyes, God is seen less clearly to the soul.” And later this week, the Episcopal Church celebrates one of the most prolific authors of hymns, Fanny Crosby, who was blind since she was a little girl. She said, “It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me…If I had a choice, I would still choose to remain blind…for when I die, the first face I will ever see will be the face of my blessed Saviour.” It seems that many who live with physical blindness have a spiritual vision that many of us who can physically see lack. One way that we process all of the visual information that bombards us daily (especially today if we watch the Super Bowl and all the creative commercials) is by compartmentalizing everything into categories of beautiful and ugly, attractive and unattractive, us and them. Although this categorizing can be helpful and often necessary, it can also severely limit our spiritual vision and block out the glory of God, which refuses to remain stuck in any box or category or human construct. Of course I’m not saying that blind don’t do this, but they do perceive reality in a different way; and with their other senses heightened (especially hearing), they may be more open to experiencing the glory of God around them and in other people.
And speaking of hearing, the Gospel today also calls us to listen: “Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’” Listen. One of my favorite sayings 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 Christian contemplative Thomas Keating says, “God’s first language is Silence. Everything else is a translation.” 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 let go of our presumptions and prejudice, if we stop talking for a moment and listen to each other and if we practice 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 (next Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent) and we are invited to honor him this week and throughout Lent 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.