The Sunday Sermon: Transfiguration

Jeff Martinhauk preaching at pulpit

The Rev.Cn. Jeff Martinhauk
Transfiguration B, February 14, 2021
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
Mark 9:2-9

We meet Peter today on the mountaintop after he and Jesus have been in the villages of Caesarea Philippi, and Peter has just scolded Jesus for openly teaching that he would have to be crucified.  Jesus rebuked Peter quickly, making clear that Peter did not yet have the right idea of who Jesus was and why he was there.

Shortly thereafter, we find Jesus up on this mountaintop.  The image Peter sees is much closer to the Jesus that he has been longing for: a Jesus draped in glory, side-by-side with powerful figures from the Jewish tradition.  “It is good to be here,” Peter exclaims, “Let’s build some way to stay here so we don’t have to leave.”

He doesn’t get to stay for long, though, and so they descend: the Jesus in dazzling glory is to be kept hidden behind the curtain of the mountaintop clouds as they focus their attention towards another mountain.

And that is one of the mysteries of this day, this celebration of Transfiguration. Lent is framed with these two mountaintop experiences; the one we have today with transfiguration, the other in about 40 days at Golgotha, with Jesus on a cross.

So one of the questions I think this text today asks of us is: what is it that Peter is longing to hold on to on that mountain in the clouds?  And what might that say about what we long to hold on to, as we move from today, down the mountain, and into the journey towards the other mountaintop of Golgotha?

The journey that goes from this mountaintop here to that mountaintop there in Golgotha is a journey of love.  It is the journey of the one who is willing to go down out of the position of glory willingly, to leave the place of comfort and power, to descend down from that mountaintop to go among the most poor and the most frightened and the most vulnerable.  Why?  Because he loves them.  And for the sake of that love he will offer himself, he will give himself up.  He leaves that mountain top to be lifted up and given away on another mountain for the sake of love for them.  For us.  For all of us.

Wednesday, of course, we will begin the season of Lent.  This year it will look a little different.  Every year since I have been a part of the cathedral I have spent Ash Wednesday on the streets of San Diego with so many of our members, imposing ashes on people I have been unlikely to meet in any other circumstance.  I remember one year being outside the courthouse and hearing the stories of person after person beset with the most unimaginable immigration challenges; of family separation and tragedy.  Ashes to Go has been such a humbling way to begin the Lenten journey because it drags me off of the mountaintop like Peter and into a focus on looking for Jesus out there, on finding Jesus beyond the grasp of my own knowledge.

It just happens that today is not only Transfiguration Sunday, but it is also World Mission Sunday.  World Mission Sunday is a time when the church comes together to focus on the global impact of our call to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” (BCP, p. 305). 

There is a lot to unlearn and relearn about mission.  I know growing up we had “missionaries” who were usually people we sent off to far away lands, and I didn’t really know what they did.  The word missionary conjures up a whole history of colonialism and its racist and white supremacist past in our tradition.  The word “Evangelism” is almost heard as an affront in some Episcopalian circles.

But we are learning.  Missiology and mission is now defined much more broadly than that.  The mission of the church is its lifeblood, not something for someone else to do to other people far away.  The mission of the church is the reason why we are here.  Defining Episcopal Evangelism is the focus of the ministry of both our Presiding Bishop and our bishop diocesan.

And its really good news:  Evangelism– the mission of the church, really- is just the continuation of that love story!  This man Jesus who came down that mountain for love left us this message: to love one another.  To go out and talk to others about this message of love- to make disciples of the commandment of love out of everybody, to show each other and all of humanity what love looks like based on the love we have come to know in this Jesus: in words, in acts of service, in mercy.

So how can we find more of Jesus so we can share more fully in this story?  How can we move down the mountain into the story of love, the story of the one who loves us?

First, you have to know your own story.  I know we like to say that we don’t leave our brain at the door, and that is really important so that we can use things like science and reason with our faith.  

I want to suggest that if we want to be vital at mission we also must not leave our hearts at the door.  The story of Jesus is a love story!  It is a drama.  It is not an exposition.  Knowing your own part of that dramatic story is really helpful so that you can start to gauge where you are and are not comfortable sharing that story with others.  Ask yourself questions like, “when was a time I felt loved,” or “when have I really felt like I was a part of a group and how did that happen?”  How do you name God at work in those places?

Being comfortable with your own story, you may be ready to engage with others.  This is where Episcopalians in particular start to get squirmy and saying things like, “I evangelize with actions” or “the clergy are ordained to do this.”  Well of course actions can be signs of this love story but words are really important too; and we are all commissioned as ministers and evangelists in our baptism– not just the clergy: “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”  “I will, with God’s help.”

This is a skill and takes some practice.  I find it helps if I start by practicing talking about these more intimate questions first with those around me, and after I have some comfort at my skill with them only then do I try to extend that practice to those further afield.  We still need to be mindful of pandemic precautions, so right now evangelism requires creativity.  When restrictions ease, we can explore some exercises together, like neighborhood prayer walks, and paying special attention to newcomers even as we so want to spend time with folks we haven’t seen in so long.

Learning from our forebears, neither missionary work nor evangelism is about proselytizing or telling someone what to believe.  It is about listening.  It is about looking for the story of love at work in the world, and maybe making an invitation to go deeper.  It isn’t about getting more people to come to church, although if our motivation is truly about helping people find this great love story in the world, we may find that people are hungry for what we offer at church so an invitation to join what we do may be appreciated.

This world right now is in a very particular place.  People everywhere are trying to make sense of this unique situation we all find ourselves in.  People are hungry for a way through this.

People of the Jesus movement: We have a story to tell!  As we come down off of the mountaintop with Peter, as the days lengthen and begin to shine more light on this world, as we turn to head towards not only Golgotha but eventually towards new life even with vaccines giving us new hope, I leave you with two questions:

  • Is there anything keeping you from coming down the mountain to the people that need to hear the story of love from you?  
  • And how will you tell the story of love to a world longing to hear it?

Sources Consulted:

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