The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
February 19, 2023
What are you giving up for Lent?
That was a question that I heard during my teenage years around this time of the year from my then Roman Catholic stepfather. I was a very uptight, self-righteous Southern Baptist kid, and let me tell you, Lent was one of the more irritating aspects of Roman Catholicism to me, perhaps partly because my stepfather always gave up something seemingly trite like chocolate or potato chips. How is that a sacrifice that leads you closer to Jesus? Lent represented everything about dead ritual that I thought needed to go.
Since then, I’ve experienced Lent twenty times over, and it has grown on me. A lot. The Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving have forced me to grow spiritually, but they are not easy. They are difficult – on purpose! – and usually bring with them some spiritual twists and turns in the wilderness.
As we prepare for 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness of Lent, we hear Matthew’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor as well as the much older story of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. These two glorious mountaintop experiences were essential in preparing those present for the arduous task ahead of them: for Moses and the Hebrew people, for their forty-year journey through the wilderness begins; and for Jesus and the disciples, for the painful journey of the terrible last days of Jesus’ earthly life. As we begin our Lenten journey to the Cross, we hear of these mountaintop experiences in all their glory and wonder if God will give us what we need to deny ourselves and take up our cross for these long forty days and forty nights.
The truth of the matter is that denying ourselves and taking up our cross isn’t just something we do during Lent. Just before this story in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Aaron, by choosing to be baptized, this is the life you’re choosing to willingly to take on. In a moment, amongst other things, you will promise to renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God, and to follow and obey Jesus as your Lord. In the waters of baptism, you will be buried with Christ in his death. Thanks be to God, you won’t stay dead. St. Paul says, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” To Moses, God appeared as a devouring fire. And before the sight of the disciples, Jesus was transfigured with his face shining as the sun and his garments white as light. Today, Aaron, you will encounter the very same God in the waters of baptism and be reborn by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Beginning with baptism, the Sacraments of the Church are a continuation of God’s incarnation in the world in the baby in the manager at Bethlehem. In the Sacraments, God is made manifest to us, not as a devouring fire or transfigured in garments of white, but through water and oil. In bread and wine.
Aaron, when you join us at the altar and make your first communion, know that the same Christ who stood on Mount Tabor with his face shining as the sun is the same Christ who will enter the very depths of your body and soul. He who is at the right hand of God will manifest himself in this most Holy Sacrament as really and fully as if he were visibly here. We take and eat of his sacred Body and Blood as truly as St. Thomas touched Jesus’ hands and put his hand into his side. When he went up on the holy mount, his face shone as the sun and his garments were white as light. By faith, this is what we see in the consecrated bread and wine, despite everything looking as usual to the passerby. In the simple creatures of bread and wine, God conveys to our bodies and souls his own gracious self as food for the journey, giving us the grace we need to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him.
While self-denial is a daily aspect of Christian life, it is intensified during Lent. Through intentional prayer, fasting, and giving to those in need, the Church invites us to we get back to the basics of our spiritual lives and in a sense retrain ourselves how to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. As I have for the past few year, I am giving up both chocolate and potato chips in thanksgiving for my stepdad who kept up many of the routine religious practices that have become so dear to me, and yes, I am also giving up something more substantive and sacrificial. If any of the last twenty years is an indication, I will fail at some point, and as we will all say in a moment, when I fall into sin, I will repent and return to the Lord with God’s help, especially through the strength and assurance of the Sacraments of the Church: through the grace I received at my baptism, and through the routine spiritual disciplines of frequent confession and absolution and frequent reception of Holy Communion.
Dear friends, let us celebrate with joy Aaron’s entrance into the household of God and the beginning of his new life of grace, and renew our own baptismal promises. And let us come to this altar with wonder and delight and awe, as if we were standing on Mount Tabor before the transfigured Christ. As we receive Our Lord into the depths of our being, let us hear anew the voice of the Father saying how much he loves us and that he has adopted us as his sons and daughters. And let us us begin our Lenten journey this Wednesday confident that God, in all of his dazzling glory, will sustain us with the love and grace we’ve received on this holy mount through the temptations of Lent, through the suffering of Holy Week and, and lead us to the glory of the resurrection at Easter. Amen.
 The italicized text is a paraphrase of language in John Henry Newman’s Sermon 9: https://www.newmanreader.org/works/parochial/volume4/sermon9.html
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!