The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
March 3, 2019
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
When I tell someone that I need to work on a sermon, I often hear this in reply: “Just pull out an old sermon. No one will ever know.” Of course, I respond, “Sermons are tailored to a specific time and context as well as a specific audience. Repeating a sermon doesn’t work too well.” Also we have a three-year lectionary, so only certain feasts have identical Scripture readings every year. The Last Sunday after the Epiphany focuses on the Transfiguration of Christ, and while the lessons differ from year to year, the story is essentially the same. With the impending snow storm yesterday, I have to admit, I was a bit tempted.
So I opened my sermon from last year from the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. It was February 11th, three weeks after Fr. Patrick left to go to his new assignment in Wisconsin. I talked about the raw emotion that Peter, James and John must have felt when they went up the mountain and they saw Jesus transfigured before them in dazzling white. I described a few mountain-top experiences I’d had in my life, and made this passing comment, and I quote, “I’m not an emotional guy – crying isn’t something that I do very often.”
I literally laughed out loud and how utterly false that statement is. As any of the acolytes who can see my face during everything that goes on up here would tell you… I can hardly get through the Eucharistic Prayer without fighting to hold in a tear! But last year, I clearly felt that I could say that I rarely cry with integrity.
What has changed in a year’s time?
This time last year, I felt a lot of anxiety. Both the Vestry and I were uncertain of whether the bishop would allow a priest who had only been ordained a little over a year to lead the oldest parish in the diocese, a parish that hasn’t been able to make its full assessment payments to the diocese in years. Was I even cut out for this work? Let’s just say that I had more than one sleepless night. As the months went by, I think I began to realize that it was doing neither me nor you any good to be anxious about things we can’t control. Maybe I realized that I should practice what I preach when I say “Trust in the Lord.”
Another thing that’s changed over past year is that I’ve generally gotten to know you and you’ve gotten to know me. Between weddings and funerals, baptisms confirmation classes, and time spent in coffee hour, text messages and phone calls, hospital visits and drinks at the bar and lunches in downtown Kansas City over my bank lunch hour – we’ve generally gotten to know one another. So, in a sense, it may be that I’m just more willing to admit to you that I cry now that I’m comfortable with you.
One more giant change that happened overnight was the liturgical workload. I mean, I knew what the service schedule of this parish looked like on paper last year, but it didn’t hit me until a few weeks ago when I had to turn in my annual report to the bishop. In 2017 – year before last – I celebrated 39 Masses and preached 29 sermons. In 2018, I celebrated 132 Masses and preached 111 sermons. Preaching a sermon, particularly on a Sunday, generally means spending several hours with a Bible and perhaps study materials each week. And celebrating that many Masses meant that had consumed our Lord sacramentally more frequently and regularly than ever before.
Serving as your priest over the past year has resulted in some mandatory time on the mountaintop.
But as anyone who watches the news knows all too well, forced mountaintop experiences aren’t always tied to positive outcomes. There are many church leaders – bishops, priests, deacons, Protestant ministers, lay leaders – who spend a lot of time with Jesus in all of his dazzling brightness on the top of the spiritual mountain, but then come back down to the valley and do awful, horrible things.
The truth of the matter is this: in order to be able to spend lots of time on the mountaintop in Jesus’s transfigured presence without self-destructing, one must be grounded in the basic spiritual disciplines of the Christian faith. People don’t generally live on mountaintops – Peter’s suggestion to build dwelling places on that mountain must have sounded awfully silly. We climb mountains, we spend a bit of time there, but we come back down and spend the vast majority of our lives in the valley.
It is no accident that the Church has us read this text just before Lent begins. We are about to enter a specific and intentionally valley – the desert with Jesus as he is tempted in every way, and ultimately prepare for the sorrow and suffering that is to come on Good Friday. During Lent, we focus not only on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, but spiritual disciplines in general. The more and more time we spend with the Lord in everyday, habitual spiritual practices like praying Morning and Evening Prayer, receiving Holy Communion regularly, perhaps even digging deep into the recesses of our souls and making a private confession – the more time we spend with the Lord and in community with one another, the more we long for the spiritual mountaintop experiences, and the more likely it is we can withstand being in Jesus’s dazzling white transfigured presence without self-destructing. The more we practice the basic spiritual disciplines, the more aware we are of the Lord’s presence in and around us. And then, without even realizing it, we slowly find ourselves being more attuned to the Holy Spirit’s movement around us, and we’re more equipped to join with Her in bringing reconciliation and healing and wholeness to a lost and broken world.
The past year here at St. Mary’s has been one of the best years of my life. For the reasons I’ve mentioned, and probably many reasons I can’t even name, I feel comfortable admitting to you and to myself that I’m a cry-er. As we enter into this new phase in our relationship with one another, I also need to admit something else to you: I sometimes struggle with the daily spiritual disciplines I ask you to engage in. When I ask you, “How is Lent going for you?”, beyond giving me a hopefully authentic response, I am asking you to ask me the very same question. Frankly, I need the accountability, and sometimes you need to see a bit more authenticity from me.
As we enter into Lent, and as we enter into this new relationship with one another as priest and congregation, let us re-commit ourselves to following Jesus Christ together. Let us recommit ourselves to daily putting our baptism – to daily dying to self and being raised to newness of life. Let us recommit ourselves to intentionally developing good spiritual habits in the grittiness of everyday life, and let us recommit ourselves to keep coming back to this place with this church family to receive God’s unconditional grace and love in the bread and the wine – to receive the strength we need to say yes to the Lord when we feel alone in the valley. Amen.