"On the mountain to pray"-Sermon for the Last Sunday of Epiphany, Luke 9:28-43a
Each Sunday in the life of the church, toward the beginning of our worship service, we pray a prayer called the Collect of the Day. This prayer, which comes from our Book of Common Prayer, is used by all Episcopal Churches…so whether you are worshiping this morning in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC or Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, CA…or any Episcopal Church in between…small or large…rural or urban…new or old…we all share the same Collect, which is, in part, why we call it a Collect…for it is our collective prayer as Episcopalians. And found within it are collected up the themes of the day rooted in the particular scripture readings the lectionary assigns and the particular season of the church year we are currently living in. I have always felt like this is one of the gifts or blessing the Collect provides…it lifts us up together as a whole church into the very presence of God…as we share the same, simple prayer.
And, in particular, the Collect assigned for today…the last Sunday of the Season of Epiphany…which we prayed together at the beginning of this worship service reads, in part, “Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of [Jesus’] countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.” And though each Collect prayed throughout the year is unique and highlights its own themes, their intention, all of them without exception, is to draw our lives heavenward…to place our souls…our hearts and minds…in the presence of the divine. And in doing, as today’s Collect states, to be strengthened, by intentionally dwelling in the very presence of love, to bear our cross and be transformed into a living likeness of Christ from glory to glory. For God intends us to gloriously shine like the sun…like the bright sun shining at the noonday and the bright shining son of God, whose glory radiates with blinding luminescence equally on the mount of Transfiguration, the hill of Golgatha where he dies on the violent cross, and the garden tomb where the women, his friends, first see him raised from the dead.
Like Jesus, we are made to shine, when in our own mountaintop moments and when we walk through valley of the shadow of death. We are made for glory’s sake…that is for the glory of God’s love, which shall never be overcome, a light shining through us and out into the world…into the lives of all those who cross our own paths…most especially those who are used and abused for the unjust gains of others…those separated from the one’s they love…those made to feel inglorious and unseen. For as our own glorious, God-given, light shines from us to them, the fire within them may be reignited and God’s glory within them may renew its profound luminescence…for they are just as weak and strong…as broken and holy…as unredeemable and redeemed…as deserving and capable of shining with the glory of God…as anyone of us.
In his sermon “The Weight of Glory”, CS Lewis writes, “Our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honor beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.” Which is to say, we are, again, made of glory. It is our truest heart’s desire…to stand inside some door where the God of love is present. For I believe our greatest fulfillment and purpose is found exactly when we enter into God’s presence…there we are strengthened…made fully alive…our lights are fully charged…to be able to bring that light within us right into the midst of the darkness of this world…right into the lives of those who need our light most.
Indeed, this glory will only be fully known and experienced in the fullness of time…on the other side of the door that is death. But I believe, in my inner most being, that even on this side of glory…God’s presence dwells…and is entirely available to us. When I was in campus ministry, our primary worship service was on Sunday night. And I liked to remind the college students in our ministry, that God was just as present with them on Saturday night in their reveling on 6###sup/sup###street, as he was with them on Sunday night in All Saints’ Episcopal Church. I mainly did this to see them squirm…or at least I hoped it might lead them to better decisions that my own when I walked in their shoes. But really, most of all, what I was trying to say to them…as a word of encouragement…was, of course, that God’s presence is everywhere…always with us…he’s got the whole world in his hands…and each person and each moment contained within it…even you, even me. And, indeed, I hope this fact might impact how we live, who we are, what choices we make, and how we love the people we are standing with in the present moment we are standing in now…and each that follows.
However, I also I recognize that there is great value, great spiritual edification, in setting aside intentional time and holy spaces, like this space and time, to connect with God the great lover of our souls. And, I also recognize that there are moments in our lives, usually almost always unexpected, when we should be particularly attentive to the fact that God is, indeed, with us. And today’s gospel lesson points out at least two such experiences to us today…one on a mountain top…the other, quite different, a moment more akin to the valley of the shadow of death, in a situation of great fear and suffering…caused by a profoundly sick child and a parent desperate for his child’s health, safety and restoration.
So, to begin with the mountaintop…what might that be for us? Well to begin with perhaps you remember the reason stated by Luke, in today’s gospel lesson, for the trip up the mountain. Luke writes, “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” People often speak of mountain top moments and experiences of spiritual transcendence and deep connection with God…and my experience is that these moments typically begin with great intention. Jesus didn’t climb the mountain to work off breakfast…he went up the mountain to pray. Likewise, our own moments of communing with the divine…of significant spiritual growth…often begin with a choice…a good one…to attend a retreat, to enter spiritual direction or counseling, to join a class, to say I am going to go to church every Sunday in Lent, to begin each morning in prayer, to go on a pilgrimage, to learn a new prayer practice and then actually practice it…and you get my point. And it should be no surprise that when we decide to be in God’s presence…we find ourselves in that very place…in God’s presence. And, further, that the experience has change us in some way for good and for God. For in doing so we are filled with nothing less than the glory of God that then radiates out of us…to the care and blessing of those who need the light that shines within us.
The second maybe less obvious, but I believe no less true, moments when I believe we should be entirely attentive to God’s presence among us is when the bottom falls out…when the light of hope is being extinguished by the power of pain, the brokenness of human life, the works of death, disease, and darkness. In those moments, that we all face, even if they look differently for each of us, I think more than just looking for God…we, like the father of the child suffering with seizures in our gospel reading, should cry out for God’s faithful presence. For the Lord God is our Good Shepherd, who is with us in our various valley moments of darkness and pain and dislocation and fear and confusion. God is with us offering strength and direction and healing and hope…I believe with all of my heart…most especially when we need it most.
A parishioner once told me that following the death of a spouse in the prime of his life that people were asking her if she was angry at God…questioning God’s presence and existence and love in her life. And she responded no…that God…God’s hope and loving sustenance was all she had left. And, she leaned on God each day…sought after God and found him in the midst of her own grief…to move forward in her life…to begin to be filled again with light, in the midst this darkest of moments…so that the glory of God’s light could shine for her own children…in their darkness and sense of profound loss…those who most needed God’s glorious light that shined within her. It has been my experience over and over again, that when willing to seek God’s glory in the midst of great suffering, that the light is there…God is present right there…and hope is born again and faith is renewed…and we are changed from glory to glory.
As we experience our own mountaintop moments and as we bear our own crosses, the light of God’s countenance shines bright offering the strength we need to take our very next step into the glory we are made for…strength to strength…glory to glory…in the life of perfect service that we live now and that awaits us in the fullness of time. We are made for glory…to shine like the sun at noonday and the son of God…not for ourselves alone…but for all those who need to see the light of God’s love shining bright in our own lives that helps dispel their own darkness.
So, let us yearn to be in the presence of God…to both cry out to God and find him in the midst of pain and loss and to climb the metaphorical mountain that is intentional time and space to sit in the sweet presence of God who is living love…that we might discover, and more so, be and become, the glory, shining with the splendor of the sun/son, for which we are indeed made. Amen.