The Very Rev. Tom Callard – February 14, 2021
So it’s February, and we have passed two key events which come every year at the end of every January, which are the Cathedral’s annual meeting and, importantly, my birthday. And always, at the end of January, we come into February and we quickly approach Ash Wednesday and then Lent and then it’s 40 days until Holy Week and then Easter. And it’s spring and it’s warm and there are bunnies and flowers.
And in my mind every February, once you hit this month, you keep going and hit the ground running until finally it’s spring. That’s the key to getting through February. It’s just going forward, knowing that every day the light is getting just a little bit stronger. You may not even notice it, but it is. And every day the average temperature is getting just a little bit warmer. And you may not even feel it, but it is. And every day, more people are getting vaccinated and the number of covid cases are falling, and it may not even seem like it, but the tide is turning on the pandemic. Which is why we have to keep wearing masks and keep getting vaccinated!
February is a month of slow almost imperceptible changes, but there are changes. It’s a month when you’re still in the dark, but there is a reason to have hope. Because before you know it, you look up and it’ll be Easter.
I wonder, have you ever worked as a temp? I worked for a few years as a temp while I was in my twenties. I worked for an agency that would send me to different places including, for a couple weeks in December, I got sent to a local mall to be Santa Claus. This was at the West Side Pavilion in Los Angeles. Who knew that Santa Clauses in malls were often temps?
And being Santa Claus was fun. It was way more fun than the other temp jobs that they sent me to where I would be in an office all day, eight hours a day, stuffing envelopes. For some reason this one temp agency I worked for had a lot of jobs where all you did was stuff envelopes. And so from 9 to 5, except for my lunch break and two fifteen minute breaks, I would take a paper from this stack here and then put it in an envelope here, and then put the envelope in a box over there. It was this paper, that envelope, and then that box, again and again.
And I learned two things from doing jobs like this. The first is that I’m more of a people person than an envelope person. And the second is that you don’t look up. Because once you look up, you look at the clock. And once you look at the clock, you realize that it’s only been five minutes since the last time you looked at the clock. And it erases any illusion you might have about how quickly the day is passing, and how much closer you are to going home. Because after what seems like an hour, you look up and you see that it’s only been five minutes, and you just feel deflated, especially when you’re a people person and it’s a job with envelopes.
So you learn not to look up. You just keep going on. Which is the state of life, unfortunately, for so many people in so many situations. Temping in an office is one thing, but think of all the people in their lives who have learned not to look up for all sorts of horrible reasons. Because there are things out there that they don’t want to look up and see. For example people who are being abused or mistreated who have learned just to focus on what’s in front of them. So you don’t look up to see your abuser, or the horrible domestic situation in your life, or you don’t look up to see your job which you cannot stand or those parts of your life which you would rather not think about.
I think of people who are at war. Soldiers who are fighting, who can’t afford to look up for one second. Or people whose houses are being bombed. I remember a story some years ago of a refugee child from Syria whose village had been attacked by their government with bombs and chemical weapons. And the child was being interviewed and basically said – you just learn not to look up. You run from place to place as things are falling all around and people are trying to kill you.
There are lots of good reasons not to look up in this world. Probably as many reasons not to look up as there are to look up. Lots of good reasons not to be hopeful or positive or expect things from the future.
Psalm 121 says I raise my eyes up to the hills. But what’s the point of raising your eyes if those hills contain nothing, or those hills contain things that are horrible, or things that you just don’t want to see. Why look up? What is there to look up to?
Imagine it’s February forever. It’s cold forever. It’s dark forever. This pandemic never ends. You look up and all you see is this darkness. And maybe that’s been your February this year, or maybe it’s been your pandemic experience. And maybe it’s how you feel now about things like your finances or your future, or the general state of the world.
But what does our faith say? How does the Bible encourage us to believe in something more? Well, today we have two examples. One of the most profound images from the Bible is from the story in our first lesson today, from 2nd Kings. It is the story of the prophet Elisha standing there, looking up as his mentor Elijah is carried off into heaven by a chariot.
For the Hebrew people, this moment of Elijah being carried up into heaven signifies a transition from one great prophet to another. Elijah passes his manel and his power to Elisha. And so Elisha receives this power, and the first thing he does on his own is to stand there and watch as his friend disappears up into heaven.
And this moment signifies something so important for those who practice Judaism, the moment of Elijah’s ascent. Because from the second Elijah goes up to heaven, there is this promise that he will come back down. And when Elijah returns, the belief is that he will announce the arrival of the Messiah, and bring with him this new age. And in the new age there will be peace and prosperity and an end to war, and the fortunes of the people will change for the good.
The belief in Elijah’s return is such a big part of the Jewish faith. During the Passover Seder, the custom is to set a place at the table for Elijah so he has a space to come back to where he can join the community. People actively pray for him and think about him coming back. And so in a sense, the faithful of today stand just like Elisha did thousands of years ago, looking up to heaven knowing that there is, without a doubt, a reason to look up. And something to look up for.
It’s not looking up to see that the time in your temp job has barely passed. It’s not looking up to see that there is someone out there who wants to hurt you, or kill you, or damage you. It’s not looking up at the beginning of the day and saying – what a horrible day this is going to be. Wondering how you’re going to get through.
Rather, it’s looking up on a day in February and knowing that the end of the winter is on the way and it’s going to be lighter and warmer and soon there will be flowers and bunnies. It’s looking up with faith, knowing that whatever the present circumstances of life are, the promise of God is always for something more.
So in their faith, Jews could live through the destruction of the temple, because they knew that Elijah would return. They could go through the persecutions and the challenges at the hands of those who hated them, because they knew they could look up and expect something better. They could go through the history of antisemitism and discrimination and even survive the Holocaust.
Because, like Elisha, the faithful can stand directed toward something that is up there and out there, looking toward more. And that makes all the difference for how we live in this present moment. It shapes the present moment. Faith in the future shapes the present moment. And like the coming of the spring, faith holds as a matter of fact that one day Elijah will return with the Messiah and all will be better.
Faith is when you look up and see something good. Even if when you look up you don’t see anything good. It’s that moment in the midst of the struggle, in the midst of the pain, in the midst of whatever it is you’re going through, when you know that it will all be okay.
And as Christians we are invited to look up in the same way. Our Gospel today is all about this invitation for Peter and James and John look up and see Jesus before them and hear the voice of God telling them that Jesus is beloved and he is special and he is important, and that he has been sent to be with them and to save them. This Gospel today is a moment for us that affirms that Jesus is there, it is a pronouncement from God saying that from this moment you disciples, and all you who follow me, will never have to look up to that mountain to see nothingness again. For Jesus is there.
Because within us we have little power to help ourselves. Because within us we have little strength. Because we carry within us little insight into how life is and little sense of what’s going to come next. Because like Peter and James and John, we need direction and guidance and reassurance, Therefore, Jesus comes to us to tell us that we can always look up and find him. And that the struggles we face now, whatever they are, are nothing compared to the glory that he holds right before our eyes.
Jesus is transfigured into something we can touch and taste and see in our lives, Jesus presents himself today so that in those moments of our lives when we need him, when we feel alone, and when we are sure we cannot go on, we just look up and see. There he is. We stretch out our hands and he fills them. We bow down our heads and he blesses them. We asked to be lifted, and he lifts us.
And faith is the surety of that presence, knowing that it’s out there. Just like we know that in a few months it will be spring.
You know pigs cannot look up. They cannot raise their heads. That’s one of the sad truth about the lives of pigs, of which there are many sad truths. Pigs did not evolve with this need to look up and scan the trees. They were not created with this sense of opening themselves to God by lifting their heads in wonder and opening their arms in joy. The god of pigs, whatever that might look like, is down here in the immediacy of their dirt and mud and food and slop.
But since the first human being was created, since the first child looked up and said to her mother “pick me up,” we have been part of something greater. We are part of something out there and up there and all around us and before us. And we have been given reason to hope. Because we are connected with that thing, which is God, which is Jesus, which is our eternal mother and father, which is the promise of something now and something more to come. We have been given hope.
And so this week, as we prepare for Ash Wednesday, I invite you to finish this season of Epiphany with one last epiphany, which is one last realization of the hope of Jesus in your life. I invite you to look up and see.