The Happy last Sunday in Epiphany. Here at church, we like to conclude Epiphany in two ways, one is to have a Mardi Gras- type celebration where we can splurge a little before the fast that begins on Ash Wednesday. And we will do that later today. And the second way we mark the end of Epiphany every year is with this story of the Transfiguration which is always the last Gospel before Lent.
Today we hear of this moment when Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain and before them he is changed and Moses and Elijah appear and God’s voice comes down from heaven. It is a pivotal moment in the lives of these three disciples, Peter, James and John. And perhaps you wonder why it was that Jesus took these three up the mountain because surely everyone wanted to go up the mountain with Jesus.
One explanation I read this week was that perhaps Peter, James and John went up with Jesus because they are his friends. We know Jesus had many disciples and had many followers, but he must also have had friends. Peter, James and John were among the first disciples to be called, so surely they must have had a bond and a relationship which was very special.
And as we think about it this morning, I wonder- do we consider ourselves to be friends with Jesus? Does that term friend make sense as we think about our own relationship with him? I remember when I was in the ordination process years ago, you have to go through all of these interviews where people ask you a ton of questions to determine whether or not you are going to be a good priest, or at least not a crazy priest. So they asked me things like – what’s your prayer life like? And what’s your favorite scripture? And I remember one person asked me are you friends with Jesus? And up to that point I had been answering the questions pretty well, but then that question threw me off because I didn’t really know what to say about whether or not I’m friends with Jesus.
But it is something worth thinking about. Because when you are friends with someone you have a relationship, and it’s a relationship that’s built on trust, and built on the fact that you enjoy each other’s company and you are happy to be with your friends and they support you. And when it comes to our relationship with Jesus Christ, I can think of nothing better than to be happy in his presence and know his support in our lives, just like any good friend.
The ideal relationship with Jesus is not one where he’s way up there as the divine Lord and Savior and we’re way down here looking up to him. But the relationship is best when we are side by side trying to figure out life together. That’s what I want my relationship with Jesus to be, us journeying and trying to figure things out together. And then from time to time me just falling into his arms for help.
And so Jesus today brings his friends on a journey, because he wants to show them, of all people, this profound truth. He wants to show them who he really is. Their relationship with him is so important that he has taken them to this holy place, which the Gospel calls a high mountain, and the Collect for this morning calls a Holy Mountain. And there he wants to take their relationship to a new understanding.
And as you probably know, mountains in the Bible do not belong to the geography of the world, but they are part of the geography of the soul. And the geography of the soul includes deserts and wilderness, which we will hear about during Lent. And it includes mountains. One goes up to mountains and one looks up to mountains because there you find access to God. God lives everywhere, God dwells everywhere, but God is particularly found in the mountain. In our first reading, Moses receives the 10 commandments on the mountain. In Psalm 121, the Psalmist looks up to the mountain to find help.
And so Jesus naturally, when he wants to lead his friends into a deeper and more profound experience of God, he leads them up the mountain. And there on the mountain, there is this change where Jesus’s holiness and his divinity and his belovedness are confirmed there in the eyes of his friends. And of course you have to assume that Peter, James and John already know that Jesus is holy. They have been traveling with him. And see what he does. And they know he is special.
But there’s knowing and then there’s knowing. It’s one thing to know a truth in your head and another thing to know a truth in your heart. And religion, which is what we are practicing right now, religion is not so much about what we carry of God up in our head. Religion lives in the heart. God and Jesus Christ live in the heart and the experience and the embodiment of our lives and struggles where on a regular basis we come to find the knowledge of Christ. And as it says is Psalm 139, such knowledge is too wonderful for me. And this is how we know God.
I can stand before you and tell you all about the most amazing sunset I saw the other night –it was red and pink and orange and it was beautiful and it touched me so much. And I can describe it to you. And you’d be like, yeah, that’s nice. And I ca show you a picture I took of it on my phone. And you can say – yes it is pretty. But it’s my experience. And you don’t carry that experience of the sunset within you. It’s my sunset, no matter how much I share it with you, until you have seen and experienced it for yourself.
When Peter, James and John witness the transfiguration and they see Moses and Elijah with Jesus and they hear the voice of God coming down from heaven, they experience Jesus, and he becomes for them their Jesus. He is their living presence of God made flesh and incarnate, in a way he had not been before. It’s the same way that at the beginning of Epiphany three wise men go to see baby Jesus, following the star, and when they get there they fall on their knees and be becomes for them their Jesus. Because of that experience.
Epiphany began with three people experiencing the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and it ends with three people experiencing the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. And so we can see, perhaps, that this is what Epiphany is all about, realizing God for ourselves. Not just in our heads but in our hearts. And not in a vague and abstract way but as part and parcel of who we are
Recently I was reading the book Tattoos On the Heart by Father Gregory Boyle, and in it he shares a wonderful example of an Epiphany. Father Boyle works in Los Angeles with young men who are in gangs. And he writes that one day he was in the Central Juvenile Hall visiting a young man named Omar who was 17. Omar had spent probably half of his 12 years in gangs and had been arrested countless times. And Father Boyle went to visit Omar regularly and he knew him well.
And one day, he writes, he was visiting Omar and after a while Father Boyle had to go so he got up. And Omar asked: where are you going? And Father Boyle said: I have to say an anniversary mass at the cemetery for a homie- a gang member- I buried a year ago. And Omar was quiet. And after a moment, Omar asked the priest, how many homies, how many gang members, have you buried who were killed, you know, because of the gangs. And Father Boyle said 75. Omar said, wow 75, and he shook his head in disbelief. And quietly Omar asked, when’s it going to end? – thinking of the violence and thinking of his participation in this life.
And Father Boyle bent down to Omar and took his hand and he said to him: my son, mijo, it will end the minute you decide. And after a moment, Omar looked at him and said, then, I decide. And the priest said, It’s that simple. It has always been that simple.
I think Omar knew in his head that this change in his life was possible and he could walk away from the gang any time, but he didn’t know it here, where it really matters. He did not own that truth. It wasn’t until he had this epiphany up there on that mountain which is the Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles that he could see the truth for himself.
We don’t go up that mountain with Jesus every day. But the opportunity is always there. As we think about change and what it takes to change human behavior, it’s not just enough to give people information and tell them what they should do and what they shouldn’t and how they should live their lives. We live in an age of information, and we can tell all the stories we want of beautiful sunsets and the power of Jesus and the love of God and the importance of justice, but unless these things translate into experiences and moments of Epiphany, and unless they are owned in the heart, it’s just data.
This week we heard the news of a mass shooting at Michigan State University, not that far from where I grew up, and I was reflecting on how it is that another disgruntled man walks into a public place and kills a bunch of innocent people with weapons he purchased fairly easily.
And the question always arises, when is it going to end. It’s the same question Omar asks Gregory Boyle. And it is the same question that was asked by people in Sweetwater Tennessee, and Louisville Mississippi, and The Bronx New York, and Corpus Christi Texas, and Peyton Colorado, and Stockton California, which are a few of the places where mass shootings have killed innocent people just in February. And the question is always when is it going to end?
Most people are horrified at this slaughter and will do whatever it will take to stop it, but not everyone. Sin continues. Looking at our own lives, surely there are things that we do that we know we should not do. Sin continues. But grace abounds. And what gives me hope is that the experience of the Epiphany changes lives. We’ve seen that again and again. I’ve seen that. You’ve seen that.
And the experience of Epiphany is not just a matter of converting the hearts of Peter, James and John, and touching the lives of Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchior. But it is for everyone. That high mountain and holy mountain exists somewhere in the middle east, but it also exists in the Juvenile Correctional facility in Los Angeles, and it exists in places where mass shootings really do change people’s thoughts about Gun safety, which happens.
And that exists whenever we, as a sinner, discover we are not happy about what we are doing and we vow to amend our lives, and we do. And that mountain exists in places like this, right here at our altar. And right here in our scriptures. And right here in our prayers. For the desire of our Lord Jesus Christ is never ending, and he will never stop trying to lead us further into his love. And he will never stop asking us to let him in.
This Wednesday as we receive Ashes and prepare to enter a holy Lent, my prayer for us is that we will see that through the power of God our lives can be transfigured and our world can change. I believe that. And every encounter with the living God leaves us a little better, and leaves the world a little safer, and makes people a little nicer. And that together we move toward a better tomorrow knowing that it will be so, with Christ. For he is God’s beloved, and we should really listen to him.