March 6, 2011
Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany
March 6, 2011
The Rev. Leslie E. Chadwick
2 Peter 1:16-21
My husband was horrified. I’d just come to the end of a short story by Flannery O’ Connor that I’d been reading out loud to him. My husband, knowing that I hate scary movies, had settled in for a nice romantic comedy. The story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, is anything but that. It begins as a hilarious portrait of a superficial elderly Southern woman on a trip with her son’s family. Because of the grandmother’s foolishness, the family has a car accident and encounters a criminal named the Misfit. The humor in the story comes from the shallowness of the grandmother and the misguided philosophical reflections of the Misfit. At the end of their conversation, the Misfit muses, “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead…and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing someone or…doing some other meanness to him.” As the Misfit agonizes about this choice, the grandmother’s “head clears for an instant.” For the first time in the story, she thinks of someone other than herself. For a moment, she is neither afraid nor tense. She sees the Misfit as a human being and murmurs, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She reaches out and touches him on the shoulder. The Misfit responds violently. But he concludes, “She would have been a good woman,…if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Flannery O’Connor, a devout Christian, is a masterful writer and storyteller not because of the shock value in her stories. She’s a great writer because she knows that life is a mess. People are a mess. She knows that like the grandmother, people are petty, prejudiced, self-absorbed, and unable to see what’s important much of the time. However, at key moments even the densest of us are given visions of how things are supposed to be, glimpses into God’s kingdom. In those key moments both things are true. The messy reality of our lives. The hurt we inflict on each other, the violence of the world, the smallness of ourselves. And the glorious reality of God’s kingdom: where all things are in their proper order. For a moment, we know in our deepest being what the mystic Julian of Norwich famously sums up: “all shall be well. All manner of things shall be well.”
In his thirty three years, Jesus has seen much of the pettiness, prejudice, self-absorption, and violence of the world. He knows that life is a mess. People are a mess. In the past three years, he has collected a band of followers that are some of the densest, least consistent people on earth. Peter is a prime specimen. He begins to walk on water, notices the strong wind, and sinks. In the passage just before today’s gospel, Peter’s head clears for an instant; he proclaims to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Then Jesus tells him that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer, be killed, and on the third day be raised. Peter’s mind returns to human things, he forbids Jesus to go, and Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!” In today’s gospel, Peter trudges up the mountain with James and John, feeling winded, but exhilarated by his special invitation to be with Jesus away from the others. Suddenly in mid-thought Peter stops in his tracks. Jesus looks different than Peter has ever seen him. His “appearance changes from the inside out, right before [Peter’s] eyes.” “His face [shines] like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white.” Moses and Elijah appear, talking with Jesus. Peter is not lucid enough to think, “All is complete and in order: Law, Prophets, Messiah—God’s kingdom on earth.” He is not wise enough to be silent and take in the moment. Instead, he “babbles” (Peterson) as if trying not to wake from a good dream: “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah…” Before Peter finishes speaking, a voice from heaven says again what Jesus heard at his baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” And the moment is over.
This moment does not help Peter to listen better the next two times Jesus brings up the subject of his suffering and death. It does not prevent Peter from denying Jesus three times. But it sticks in Peter’s mind as a vision of how things should be. Of how things will be. And after Jesus is raised from the dead, Peter and the others tell their experience as part of the story of who Jesus is and of how things will be. Jesus knew and the disciples learned that in human experience both things are true. The messiness of human life and the glory of God’s kingdom. The two experiences are not separate, one neatly preserved on mountaintops, and the other stuck and mired in the grey reality of daily life. Moments of realizing who Jesus is, beholding him as the Christ, infuse our ordinary days with holiness; these moments give us strength and courage to walk the way of the cross.
We, like the disciples, learn that walking the way of the cross means keeping the vision of Jesus as the Christ alive in the reality of daily life. Walking the way of the cross means to give and love generously without hope of getting love in return, (and in fact expecting resistance and hate). We are able to do that because we have seen in Jesus who God is, and we know in our deepest being that all shall be well. I know someone for whom that truth became clear during a sleepless night last week. She awakened at 3 AM filled with dread at all of the things in her life that were a mess, including a neighbor who had been angry with her for some time. She felt desperate in her fear and anxiety to fix the situation. She fell back into a fitful sleep; sometime just before daybreak, she had an incredible dream. In the dream, it was no longer winter, but spring. The neighbors, including the angry one, were gathered on her lawn (which was much greener and more expansive than it actually is). Another neighbor assured her that all would be well. After the neighbors had scattered, the angry one stayed behind, allowed her to give him a hug, and played briefly with her child. When she awakened, she knew in her deepest being that all would be well. She might not see such reconciliation in her lifetime, but she knew that the vision was true. She felt freed to act not out of fear and anxiety about the mess, but out of faith in the vision that all would be well. She was free to act with love in concrete ways no matter what the outcome.
On this last Sunday of Epiphany, this Sunday of the Transfiguration of our Lord, we stand on a precipice. We see that spring is coming, Easter is coming, and all shall be well. When we go down the mountain today, we will walk the way of the cross with Jesus. We walk straight into Ash Wednesday, into the reminder that we are dust. We walk straight into Lent, into the wilderness. But we walk not in fear, without knowing where we are going; we walk in faith, knowing that the one we follow is the Christ and that the way of the cross leads to eternal life.
Let us pray. Thank you, God, for showing us Jesus as the Christ by the light of Scripture, by the power of dreams, and by the moments of sheer grace when our heads clear for an instant and we see what’s most important. Help us to act not out of fear or anxiety about the messes in our lives, but show how to act out of faith in the vision of Jesus as The Christ. We behold in him your kingdom that will come, your kingdom in which all things will be well. Your kingdom in which all manner of things shall be well.