Today is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, and what a privilege it has been to hear one another’s “Epiphany moments”–moments when we have seen a little differently, when we’ve said “aha…so…” You remember that Epiphany begins with the arrival of the Magi at the home of the infant Jesus, after their long journey inspired by a star, and ending up in a place quite beyond their expectations. As T.S. Eliot imagined it, what they found was both a birth and somehow a death, a death of being comfortable in the old dispensation, as he put it.
Epiphany moments. We have searched and found lost loved objects zipped into sofa cushions, just as Jesus told the story of the woman who searched her whole house for a lost coin, and when she found it, rejoiced and threw a block party; just as we searched for close to three years and finally found just the right person to be our next pastor; and we rejoiced. And just as a wedding ring and engagement ring were found after days of searching, even in the snow, even where we had looked before. Epiphany moments. The realization that grief is really about love, that even if we have a short time with a person, the love is what lasts. An Epiphany moment. The way our loved ones, even though they have died, have a way of “showing up” in the timing or repetition of events. Epiphany moments. The acceptance that squirrels need food too, so we can limit the energy we expend to make sure we’re only feeding the birds. Epiphany moments. The surprising agreement of a rowdy middle-school student when a teacher says, “You’re better than that,”and the reply came “You’re right.” Epiphany moments. A remark by a friend when we’re rushing and fretting, to “Slow down” and how, amazingly, that does seem to help. Epiphany moments. The openness of a child walking around the tables at a restaurant, waving fingers and saying hello. Epiphany moments. The durability of the greenness of Christmas, even after the season has ended. Epiphany moments. Connections with grandchildren across time zones and generations. Epiphany moments.
While there have been glimpses of God–Epiphany moments– in the portions of Mark’s gospel that we’ve read so far–in the baptism of Jesus, in his healings, in his casting out of demons, in his teachings, today’s story opens the window and blasts the radiant glory of God through Jesus so that the three disciples with him are left with no doubt. A really big Epiphany moment. We have leapfrogged from that dense first chapter of Mark’s gospel to the middle of it and to its literal highpoint–”up a high mountain apart”. Jesus’ mission and message and ministry have been building up to this point, and from this vantage point, not only where they’ve come from but also where they’re going can be seen. This is a moment to absorb and remember in the difficult days ahead, a high point and unquenchable light to take with them into the deep valley and darkness that would follow.
It’s hard for us in this hyper-rational day and age to know what to do with stories like Elijah’s being taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire or Jesus’ conferring with Moses and Elijah on this mountaintop, his face and clothing dazzling beyond belief, the voice from the cloud saying, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” Is this fake news or real news or something else altogether? Biblical scholar John Pilch reminds us that over 90% of human cultures take these kinds of visions and experiences of alternate realities seriously. [The Cultural World of Jesus, Year B] If it’s true, as research suggests, that most of us use only about 10% of our brain’s capacity, one wonders just how many of these experiences we’re missing out on, not seeing, because in all our wisdom, we can’t believe there’s anything there to see. We don’t have “eyes to see,” as Jesus so often urged his followers to have.
Madeleine L’Engle opens up an understanding of what the disciples saw that day on the mountain–
Suddenly they saw him the way he was,
the way he really was all the time,
although they had never seen it before,
the glory which blinds the everyday eye
and so becomes invisible.
This is how he was, radiant, brilliant, carrying joy
like a flaming sun in his hands.
This is the way he was–is– from the beginning,
and we cannot bear it.
So he manned himself, came manifest to us;
and there on the mountain they saw him, really saw him, saw his light.
We all know that if we really see him we die.
But isn’t that what is required of us?
Then, perhaps, we will see each other, too.
“He was transfigured before them,” Mark says, “and his clothes became dazzling white.” Luke says, “The appearance of his face changed,” and Matthew writes, “He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun.” Mark, in his hurry, just says, “he was transfigured before them and his clothes became dazzling white.” No time for details like faces.
“He had a face,” as Frederick Buechner reminds us. The brilliant 20th c. Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas said that the only thing that really converts people is “an encounter with the face of the other.” We, of course, cannot go back 2000 years and encounter Jesus’ face, but Buechner writes,
“Like you and me he had a face his life gave shape to and that shaped his life and others’ lives, and with part of ourselves I think we might turn away from the mystery of that face, that life, as much of the time we turn away from the mystery of life itself. With part of ourselves I think we might avoid meeting his real eyes, if such a meeting were possible, the way that at certain moments we avoid meeting our own real eyes in mirrors because for better or worse they threaten to tell us more than we want to know.” [The Faces of Jesus]
“They saw him as he really was–is– all the time.” Full of glory, full of God, the same Jesus who walked beside them on dusty roads, who laughed, and wept, who got tired, who escaped to be by himself and God whenever he could. They saw him as he really was, all the time. The glory of God, a human being fully alive. They just hadn’t had eyes to see before. So, we might ask, Was it Jesus who was transfigured or changed, or was it the disciples, their eyes, their ability to see, that had been changed?
In a remarkable conversation that took place at NYC’s Riverside Church last week, sociologist and author Brene Brown and Black Lives Matter activist Deray McKesson talked about having the courage to show up for hard conversations, like the hard conversation our nation needs to have about race. It was a conversation in real time, that is, Brene and Deray did not have talking points that they merely delivered to each other. They were engaged in genuine dialogue, actually listening to one another, asking questions to further understand each other’s perspectives, to learn more. In fact, one of the essential qualities of having these important, hard conversations is to be as passionate about listening as we are to being heard. Those of us who are white need to have the pain and struggles that we have taken seriously; but we also need to not take up all the space in the room with our issues. We need to passionately, non-defensively, listen to the experience of others who have very different experiences than we do.
Another quality of these hard conversations is empathy, which is the antidote to shame, Brene said–#Metoo. We do have to listen empathetically to the pain of others, who must take our pain seriously as well. Too often, though, we don’t see the pain or experience of others because we don’t want to see. Or we might avoid meeting our own real eyes in mirrors, as Fred Buechner says, because “for better or worse they threaten to tell us more than we want to know.” So we avoid really listening to, or looking into the eyes of another, because they may tell us something that will change our lives forever–like, it is a privilege not to take race seriously. Like, how many assumptions we make because of the color of our skin, and what a privilege that is. [If your daughter injures herself before the prom, can you be sure you can find a band-aid at the drug store that will match her skin color? ] “Sometimes I wish my eyes hadn’t been opened,” a feminist song from the 1970’s sang. “How do you get people to see what’s invisible for them and easier for them not to see?” Brene Brown asked. “How do you get everyone to see what’s invisible to them when seeing it is an invitation to pain?”
There is another conversation taking place in our nation today about what’s visible and invisible. It’s about last November’s election says about us. Is the racism, the anti-immigrant sentiments, the coarseness, the mocking of differently-abled people, the denigration of people and whole agencies, is this all just an anomaly or deviation? Is it a reaction to what has been building up over many years of the unravelling of collective norms and institutions, an economy that has left too many behind, and more specifically, a “whitelash,” as Ta-Nahasi Coates calls it, to 8 years of an African-American President? [ in One Nation after Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disilusioned, the Desperate and the Not-Yet Deported, by E.J. Dionne, Norman J. Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann] Or, as others contend, is this who America really is, just seen more clearly now. Is what we are seeing now what many of us who have been privileged chose not to see, but which has been all too clear for marginalized communities? That, as one writer put it, we are “a nation whose defining narrative is Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism and the supremacist culture of whiteness that serves to protect it”? [ in Faith and Resistance in the Age of Trump, ed. Miguel A. De La Torre] Is this what we have chosen to regard as invisible because seeing it is too painful?
An Epiphany moment reveals the glory of God in the midst of the ordinary. It makes visible what we in our busyness and blindness have experienced as invisible, until we are given eyes to see. The glory of God may be a hard truth for us. What we do with that knowledge, that vision, is then our choice, as individuals, as church communities, as nations, as citizens of planet earth.
The disciples saw Jesus transfigured up there on the mountaintop, shot through with God, the way he really was all the time. And they saw that he was not alone. Moses and Elijah, the great prophets and mystics of the tradition, were there beside him. Jesus, too, was–is–part of a community. We are part of that community as well.
“This is my beloved Son,” the voice from the cloud said. “Listen to him.” Listen to him when he tells you that there is pain in the valley. That there are hard things ahead. That the forces of Empire do not tolerate anyone talking about another kingdom, even the kingdom of God.
“The appearance of his face changed.” “He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun.” “They saw him as he really was all the time.” What if we saw each other that way? With faces that shine with the glory of God, since, as Genesis tells us, each of us has been made in the image of God. It is the face of the Beloved–in Jesus’ face, whatever that looked like, in the face of those we can only see as “other,” in the face of people we love, in the face in the mirror. “Take pains to see it,” Frederick Buechner urges us. “Like the faces of the people we love, it has become so familiar [Has it?]that unless we take pains we hardly see it at all. Take pains. See it for what it is and, to see it whole, see it too for what it is just possible that it will become: the face of Jesus as the face of our own secret and innermost destiny: The face of Jesus as our face.”
Jesus was transfigured up on that mountaintop, so that we might know that even though it is invisible to us most of the time, God’s glory is all around us, even when so much of “reality” seems to be crushing and obscuring everything that is holy and life-giving. The disciples’ eyes were transfigured and changed up on that mountain too, giving them “eyes to see.” So may we be given eyes for glory as well. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark