The Last Sunday after Epiphany | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 27 February 2022 | Luke 9:28-36

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God of shining glory revealed on the holy mountain.

Good morning, friends! Welcome to the last Sunday of the Epiphany season. This is our final gleam shining from this season of light and visions before we move into the holy darkness of Lent. This Sunday is like one last glance back at the brightness reflecting off the river before we turn and walk off to make our way through the wilderness. It’s like the bright sunset we get to see before the night falls.

As we celebrate this last light of Epiphany, I want to start with a special thank you to our student group for helping me start to wrestle with our scriptures for today. Daniel and Patrick and Leah and Justin and Michael helped me with this last Sunday during youth formation time. 

We had some great conversations together about holy mountains and shining faces and being weighed down with sleep. We wondered what Moses’ veil looked like, and we noticed we’re all walking around with masked faces too these days. We wondered what it means to say something without knowing what you’re saying, like Peter does.

We also did scripture tableaux of the Old Testament and Gospel readings. We picked different characters to play and tried to stage ourselves in place to represent one moment in the story.

And when we did that, we noticed that our Gospel story is a really chaotic collection of characters. There weren’t enough of us in the room to play everybody—partly because you need people to sit out and look at the tableau to tell you what they see, and partly because Patrick decided on a riveting performance as the Holy Mountain itself instead of playing one of the people. (Well done.) But we’ve got Jesus, and Peter, and John, and James, and Moses, and Elijah.

And then there’s the mountain. And then there’s the cloud, and the voice that speaks from the cloud. We realized when we tried to make our tableau up in the youth room that this Gospel is a complicated, crowded scene.

It’s a really strange intersection of communities. We have people from the community that Jesus is building—the disciples. We might remember from our Gospel a few weeks ago that Jesus called Peter and James and John from fishing in Galilee to walk with him. Since then, they’ve been traveling and eating and preaching the kingdom and learning from Jesus together.

And then we have Moses and Elijah, who represent very different communities and times. Moses was called by God to lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt. He talked with God on Mount Sinai and gave God’s laws, and he led the people through the wilderness. Elijah was a prophet of a different era; he saw visions and did wonders and brought God’s word to the people and called kings to account.

Both Moses and Elijah were important figures in Jewish thinking in Jesus’ time—Moses represented the Law, and Elijah represented the Prophets. Law and prophecy were two key ways that God had related to God’s people and formed them into communities that knew who they were and what God called them to do together.

So at the Transfiguration, we see this confluence of communities—the Law, the Prophets, and this new Gospel group of disciples. And Jesus is at the intersection of it all. Jesus is in continuity with what has come before. He’s in community with Moses and Elijah as they all speak together on the mountain. And yet he’s also starting something new. He’s also part of this fresh community he’s built with fishermen and tax collectors and wealthy women and disreputable women and political radicals and good solid religious folk all somehow building something together.

And this confluence of communities is beautiful and chaotic at the same time. It’s holy, and it’s a holy mess.

Jesus’ glory is revealed on the mountain. The disciples get to meet their heroes from ancient times. The voice from the cloud declares Jesus chosen. The divine light shines forth and dazzles. And at the same time, we have a chaotic crowd of characters who come from different times and places and bring vastly different views of how God moves in the world.

And in the same scene, we have people nearly falling asleep. And we have people spouting off who don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s a whole mess. And sometimes this is what it’s like being in community now.   

People get weighed down with sleep, like the disciples. We get tired and dragged down; it’s part of being human. And when we’re in community, we all get weighed down with sleep at different times. Some of us are nodding off when others of us think it’s time to look up and see the most glorious vision. Some of us are revved up to do the next part of the work when others of us feel like we just need a nap. We get out of sync with each other; there’s tension.

And when we’re in community, sometimes people don’t know what they’re talking about, like Peter in the story. Peter wants to build three shelters; it seems like a good idea to him to make camp like that on the mountain. But the narrator says he doesn’t know what he’s saying.

Luke doesn’t tell us exactly why building shelters is not the move here, just that Peter suggests it and doesn’t know what he’s saying. And the problem of people who mean well yet don’t know what they’re talking about sure is familiar for us as we build community together.

These are normal trials and tribulations of every community: sometimes we get weighed down with sleep and we don’t what they’re talking about. And those of us who have tried to walk in community for very long have probably experienced these dynamics from all sides: Sometimes we’ve been frustrated with people who don’t know what they’re talking about; sometimes we’ve been the ones to give guidance and help a group find its clarity amid the chaos.

And other times, we’ve realized we’re the ones who didn’t know what we were talking about, and we’ve had to quiet down and learn something new, and maybe we’ve had to say we’re sorry. I definitely have. If we’ve been doing the work of community long, we’ve seen “didn’t know what they were saying” from lots of different angles.

It’s the same thing for being weighed down with sleep: Sometimes we’ve been the ones trying to wake everybody up to see the beautiful light of morning, to do the next exciting thing, to follow the next calling. And sometimes we’ve been the ones pulling the covers over our head, hitting the snooze button again, and just wanting to stay in one place and not have to look at anything new. I’ve done both of these for sure, and lots in between. This is the kind of messiness and tension that’s normal when we try to walk together.

But just because it’s normal doesn’t mean it’s easy; and I think the pandemic has made these challenges of community even harder for us.

In these pandemic years (it’s just about 2 years now) I’ve felt a lot more weighed down with sleep than usual. And the exhaustion has been so, so much worse parents and for kids, for folks in more precarious health, for folks who work in healthcare, for folks who don’t have the resources to have as many choices in managing risk. It’s been such a tiring time.

And we’ve also had a whole lot of not knowing what we’re talking about, as we’ve had to learn so much as we went along. Early on, we sanitized every single thing and didn’t wear any masks, “not knowing what we said.” Once upon a time, we hoped this would all be over by Easter… Easter 2020, “Not knowing what we said.”

And for us as a church, this has been especially challenging because we’re doing community in a unique way. We’re trying to make decisions as and for a whole group rather than just one person or one household at a time. And we make those decisions with very different priorities and very different processes than a business or a government.

We have conflict and tension here about when to mask and when to sing and what we think we can do together safely enough. And that’s okay. It’s hard, but it’s okay—it’s part of what it means to walk together instead of each going our separate ways.  

So many of the things I read give great advice for making pandemic decisions based on your own personal risk level as restrictions lift, but not so much about how to move through this as a community where so many different needs and wants and risks are in balance. Community is hard to do, especially the ways that we do it as a church, and especially in a pandemic. There’s nothing else quite like this.

And yet, community is where the revelation happens. When we pray together, when we go up to the mountain together, we see Jesus revealed in glory among us. When enough of us manage to stay awake at the same time, miraculous things happen. This is where we find dazzling visions of who Jesus is, and of who we can become.

It’s a mess—people are falling asleep at all the wrong times, and people are saying all the wrong things, so loudly. (And sometimes it’s me who’s falling asleep at the wrong time and blurting out the wrong thing! And that’s almost worse somehow.) It’s a mess. And we might sometimes ask, “Who even are all these people, and why did we think it was a good idea for them to be in the same place?”

But, friends, it’s Jesus who brings all these chaotic characters together, including us. It’s Jesus who invites us to the mountain to pray. It’s Jesus who calls us into the terrifying cloud where the divine voice speaks, and it’s Jesus who calls us into the holy mess of life in community.  

And we see Jesus among us in this community. We come together to pray and to share visions and hopes. We hear the Law and the Prophets and the Gospel from each other, and not just when we’re reading scripture together, but also in vestry meetings, also in service, also in telling life stories over a cup of tea or on a walk.

Older folks and younger folks learn from each other here. We work through disagreements. We support each other in grief. We share joy. We help each other to follow the light of God’s abundant love, the light revealed in Jesus.

This is what we’re about. This holy mess is where transfiguration happens and we see Jesus in glory. It’s where our own transformation toward Jesus’ likeness happens. It’s where visions shine forth. And there’s nothing else like it.

This Gospel is our last dazzling glimpse of Epiphany’s light. This is the vision we get to take with us into Lent. We see Jesus shining, on a mountain, in the middle of a ragtag group of people who get sleepy and talk too much and don’t quite know what’s going on. Jesus’ glory is revealed there on the holy mountain, and Jesus’ glory is revealed here in our own gloriously messy, beautiful, transforming community.

So with our Collect today, I pray that we behold the light of Christ’s countenance by faith together, and that we are changed into Christ’s likeness from glory to glory.