The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Church
One of the greatest joys of being a priest is that I get to be with people at poignant moments in their lives. Looking back over the past six years, I can think of so many of these moments with many of you, including hospital visits, painful conversations after a job loss, walking with folks through their last days and being with them when they die. Equally poignant are joyful occasions like the baptism of a new Christian, or the blessing of a new home, or the witnessing and blessing of a marriage.
At poignant moments like these, the meaning of the gospel and the nature of God sometimes become clear to us in ways that transcend ordinary experience. In these and other mountaintop moments, we may discover a purpose or a calling that casts a radiant light over the rest of our lives.
In the Transfiguration of Jesus, we, like the disciples, witness such a moment in the life of our Lord. In this crazy scene we get the entirety of the gospel: echoes of Jesus’ baptism, his passion predictions, his fulfillment of the Law and prophets; his death, resurrection, and ascension, as well as his coming again in glory. On Mount Tabor, with Jesus “wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening,” as the opening prayer puts it, God the Father identifies Jesus as his son, and tells the disciples to listen to him in what had to be a tender, poignant moment between Father and Son. In this moment, Jesus’ purpose and calling become clear.
In the second reading, we hear St. Peter’s thoughts about his experience on Mount Tabor not long before his death, likely a poignant moment for him. He says, “I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, since I know that my death will come soon…we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” In other words, “As long as I’m here, I’m going to say this until my dying breath which is coming soon: we didn’t make this stuff up. This really happened. I was with Jesus when he was transfigured.”
In echoes of the night before Jesus’ passion in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter can barely stay awake with Jesus while he is praying. Barely awake, Peter and John and James sees him in all of his transfigured glory. Peter’s response is to try to memorialize the moment and build permanent dwellings for everyone, as if anyone sane would think it’s normal for someone to propose living on the top of the mountain. We can’t blame Peter for wanting to freeze time and live in that powerful moment forever. But people don’t generally live on the tops of mountains. We climb mountains, but every time, we come back down and spend most of our time in the valley.
My sister and brother-in-law (who happen to be here today) just celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary living out of a van in Alaska for two weeks. Following their travels on social media gave us all a glimpse of the glory they saw there, including a sea otter munching on fresh crab, a group of humpback whales bubble-net feeding, killer whales, sea lions, harbor seals, bald eagles, puffins, and a variety of other birds. I’m sure the pictures don’t do justice to the beauty and wonder they experienced. After an amazing two weeks, they are back in the valley in Kansas, with the cares and concerns of everyday life including going to work, and paying the bills, and taking the kids to all sorts of events. Their time on the mountain changed them in ways that will affect them for the rest of their lives. Whether it’s going to Alaska or making a personal retreat at a monastery or at a milestone moment with your priest, the memories of these mountaintop experiences help sustain us during everyday life in the valley.
If you’ve been around for six years, you’ve heard me talk about my own mountaintop experiences, usually not on this feast as it rarely falls on a Sunday, but when today’s gospel is appointed on the Sunday before Lent. The first time I preached a sermon on the Transfiguration of Jesus was on February 11, 2018. Fr. Patrick Perkins, 20th rector of St. Mary’s and my boss, had just left two weeks earlier to begin a new ministry at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. As the #2 priest who was also a full-time banker, I was anxious as the way forward for St. Mary’s and for me was unclear. Both the Vestry and I were uncertain of whether Bishop Marty would allow a priest who had only been ordained a little over a year to lead the oldest Episcopal parish in Kansas City, a parish with so few resources that we hadn’t been able to pay our assessments to the diocese in many years. Like now and like most of our history, the Eucharist was celebrated daily. My first instinct after Fr. Patrick announced his departure was to cancel the daily mass because I was leery that I would have the time to keep up this practice, even with the help of Fr. Bob and other priests. To say that I was an anxious mess is an understatement.
It was not too long after I preached that sermon that Fr. Larry and Mary came along, and then a year later, Fr. Sean, and the daily celebration of the Eucharist continued as it always had. Looking back, I’m very glad I didn’t give in to my anxious instincts, because in the midst of the anxiety any parish feels when there is a transition in leadership, it was the Eucharist that sustained us through it all.
We have the memories of our mountaintop experiences to help sustain us in the valley, but memories can fade. When Moses and the Hebrew people were wandering the wilderness in the desert for 40 years, God provided manna from heaven to sustain them on their journey to the Promised Land. Centuries later, Jesus connects this manna with himself in John chapter 6 when he says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh… This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
During this time of transition between rectors, let your mountaintop experiences here at St. Mary’s and beyond help sustain you. But even more importantly, come to Mass, for God longs to give you his grace and love in the bread of heaven and the cup of the salvation. Fed by that holy food and drink, God will give you the grace you need to continue to welcome the outcast and care for the stranger, to care for each other, and to pitch in around here. If your standard practice is to come to church and then head on to the next event, I encourage you to “press in” to this community during this interim period and get to know people, whether it’s at coffee hour, or the Dinners for 8 ministry that recently started, or at the pub after mass on Wednesday evenings. Week after week, day after day, in Spirit-filled community with one another, in this most holy sacrament, God will grant you the grace and wisdom you need call a skilled and holy priest to be the 22nd Rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.
Dear friends, in a moment, when you approach this altar as, like me, you likely have many times before, 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, food that, unlike our fading memories, will sustain us to everlasting life.  Amen.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!