"Elijah with Moses"-A Sermon for the Last Sunday of Epiphany, Mark 9:2-9
So perhaps a month or two ago, I was in a board meeting for All Saint’s Episcopal Day School, where I serve as a Trustee. And we were reflecting on some progress we were making as a school, after some hard but good decisions we had made as a board were beginning to bear fruit. Well, in the conversation one of the older, wiser members of the board, a man named Chris, who is himself retired after many years serving as a Head of School in serval places including St. Stephen’s here in Austin, made a comment…a comment that sort of struck a chord with me. He was saying that he felt the future of the school was in good hands…for the board was populated with engaged, energetic, young trustees. He then began to sort of look around the table and mention them by name…Matthew and Lisa Diane and Lauren…and then he got to me and paused…and he said something like…well, Miles, I guess you are on the fence…I suppose we could include you among the younger ones…and we all had a sort of awkward laugh.
Now, I love Chris…he wasn’t trying to put me on the spot…and he was right. Though I might still feel young, surely young at heart…feel like I am still figuring life out, learning who I am, what I am capable of, and discovering my gifts as a priest and person…for being and becoming is surely a lifelong pursuit…the truth is I am now beginning my middle forties and have worked in the church, if including seminary, for over two decades. I am no longer the green, naïve, fresh face among my clergy colleagues. I suppose I am actually mid-career…quickly sliding into the second half of things…or at least firmly in the middle third, with much good and formative experience as a priest and person under my belt. The gray beard and how I feel in the gym are dead giveaways…reminders that in some way I stand in the middle, or even just beyond, the middle of my life. And despite the fact that I might cringe, a bit, at that truth…and despite the fact that our culture, broadly speaking, tends to glorify youthfulness…to a fault in my opinion…you often hear expressions like 30 is the new 20 and the such…despite these inclinations and voices…I am coming around to the idea that there is much that is good that comes with age and experience. That standing in the middle of life is a blessing…that allows one to look back and look forward…to learn from the past, use those experiences and learnings to do good work for God and for others…to be a wisdom bearer and teacher and mentor…while at the very same time knowing that I have much wisdom still to gain and much to learn from life and from others in the future. Each new day, I am happy to say, still feels fresh and adventurous…a life full of infinite possibilities…time remains to make mistakes…seek forgiveness…make amends…learn new tricks…and begin again.
And I actually think this insight is sort of timeless…meaning whatever your chronological age…whatever your life experience to date…whether you consider yourself young or old…we always, in a sense, stand in the middle…between yesterday and tomorrow…we can all learn from our past and look forward to new and exciting adventures in our future. We are always a work in progress…always being and becoming. We all have gifts and experiences to bring from our past to help shape our future…and, at the very same time, we have future learning and experiences still to be had that help make sense of the past…and the chance to become better, wiser, kinder future versions of ourselves. So, the future remains entirely hopeful. And I think we see something of this gift of being in the middle of life…or whatever our actual age…the gift of having this middle of life sort of perspective…in today’s gospel lesson.
Today, we revisit, as we do on the last Sunday of the Season of Epiphany each and every year, the story of the Transfiguration. This year we hear Mark’s version of the story…and like Matthew’s and Luke’s versions…this story sort of stands at the middle of Jesus’ earthly ministry…if not chronologically…then surely symbolically. After several years of healing the sick and brokenhearted, setting people free from anything that seeks to hold them in bondage and keep them from the life they deserve…and preaching the Good News, for all who have ears to hear, that God knows each one of us intimately and loves each one of us entirely…that God desires to partner with each and every one of us in making lives full of meaning…lives that participate in the remaking of this world into the very image of love…after several years of this world shaking, life transforming ministry…Jesus comes to this mountain top moment in his life…this moment of transition, if you will, that includes both looking back and looking forward…this middle sort of moment. For this mountain top moment, begins to shift Jesus’ focus from his past ministry of healing and teaching to his future journey to the cross and empty tomb…from loving and caring for those who surrounded him in the first century…a particular time and place and group of people…to the future and timeless work of defeating sin and death for all time and all people…again the cross and the Easter that follows.
Jesus climbs the mountain, with a handful of friends and witnesses, to look back and to look forward. The mountain almost stands like a vertical line drawn right through the middle of the time line that is Jesus’ life. Mark tells us that Jesus is transfigured at the top of the mountain, that his cloths become a dazzling white…Jesus in all of his future Easter glory…Jesus in his resurrection body…a foretaste and vision of his greatest of all adventures that still lies before him, in his future, a journey into the very depths of death and then his glorious return to life…an adventure that because of Jesus…lies before each of us as well. For in Jesus’ own death…death itself and all that accompanies it, human imperfection and brokenness, is utterly defeated. And in Jesus’ own resurrection…three days later…new and abundant and forever life is established for all that God has made…every atom…every cell…every star…every person…even you…even me. This is the future we see in Jesus own transfiguration in that mountain top moment.
But…but accompanying Jesus, in this future looking moment, is the past. It would be easy to look past the fact, that Jesus’ friends who accompany him on his trip up the mountain, witness two others standing with Jesus even as he is transfigured into his future glory…Moses and Elijah…two pillars of our spiritual past, two superstars from our ancient Jewish heritage…Moses who represents the law and Elijah who represents the prophets. And one could see this moment…sort of like a torch being passed from the old to the new…even somehow diminishing the past…letting it fade out of the picture…soon gone and then, over time, even forgotten. But, I for one don’t think this is point of Moses and Elijah’s presence. I think instead this moment, as these three celestial superstars stand together, the old and the new, suggest that we are to always hold together in our hearts and minds both the past and the future. We are to be people with a middling sort of perspective wherever we are in our own life’s journey. People who live in the middle of the tension between law and grace…past experience and future potential.
For, Jesus’ fulfills the law in the perfect love-life he lived and exemplifies for us, and he is the culmination of the prophet’s dreams and vision for God’s work of setting our world to rights…but he does not come to replace, diminish, or get rid of either. For those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it…and those who live without hope for a different sort of future, a future in which God will be all in all and love finally and forever wins, are threatened to be crushed, or at the very least, find themselves lost in this present darkness. For those without vision perish and those without hope become discouraged and stuck. We need the law given in the past, and most profoundly defined for us in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount…for it orders our life shared together…providing accountability, boundaries, and gentle disciplines…that we might respect one another…for God’s loving commandments move us all, individually and collectively, more and more into the people and place that God is calling us to be and become. And we need the prophets, who remind us, sometimes in ways that are even uncomfortable, to recommit ourselves to the particular good practices, defined in God’s law and Jesus’ teaching, that habituate the life of love that God calls us into. So…we really, really need the past. And we, also, need the future resurrection promise we see in our Transfigured Lord that engenders in us hope…hope for a future life suffused with God’s love…that gives us the strength we need to walk into it.
I recall a moment when I was, genuinely, a very young priest. It was my second diocesan council ever…so about 14 years ago…in Tyler. And we were debating on the floor of council changes to our canons to bring our Gay and Lesbian brothers and sisters fully into the sacramental life of the church. And it was contentious…and that is an understatement. And in the midst of the debate, a priest got up to speak…and he stood up and said this…there are only two things in the middle of the road…road kill and yellow lines. And I suppose he meant either those who are irrelevant or those who are cowards. And I can’t tell you how much I disagree. For me, those who are willing to stand in the middle and look back to seriously consider our past…both the harm we have caused and the great wisdom found in the church’s traditions, mothers, and fathers on whose shoulders we stand…and those who are willing to stand in the middle and look forward toward a hope filled, transfigured sort of future, in which we more perfectly paint a picture that demonstrates the height, width and breadth of God’s love for everyone…these sorts of people are surely relevant and are very, very brave.
So today, I believe the gospel is compelling us to join Jesus on the mountaintop in the middle of his journey, and the middle of our own, somewhere between baptism and heaven, whatever our age may be…to bravely look back and look forward. To learn and be more perfectly formed by the past, that being our own past experiences, the good and the bad, and be formed more perfectly by the practices and gentle disciplines of our church shaped over the centuries, like prayer and worship and study and hospitality and service. All the while, also looking forward, with hope, for the new adventures to which we are being called that will surely continue and further our life long journey of being and becoming…empowered by the promise of transfiguration, and the Easter that makes it entirely possible, to fully live into the hope filled future that awaits. Amen.