2 Kings 2:112; Psalm 5016; Mark 9:29
Here’s a Sunday puzzler for you. What kind of art can be viewed in this Cathedral without actually looking at the work of art? Does anyone have an answer to this riddle? I know you’re thinking, “Wait, wait, don’t tell me.” Any guesses? What? That’s right! It is the stained glass, of course.
Every morning the light enters through the Cathedral windows and dabs of light are reflected on the walls like an aurora borealis dancing with stone. And if you look, you can even catch glimpses of God’s light breaking through. Now that’s a lesson to behold.
Because Epiphany is all about learning to receive and, in turn, to share God’s light in the world. So the question before us today is this: In a dark and troubled world faced with challenges, how do we live in light? How do we live in God’s light?
This morning we hear a strange story of Peter transfixed as Jesus changes to light atop a mountain peak. Now mountains in the sacred geography of the Bible are places of revelation, that thin place between heaven and earth where mere mortals can touch God. And we know that Jesus wants to teach his disciples something very important, so he leads them up the mountain. The verb used for leading them up the mountain, in the original Greek, is a very weighty word. It could be literally translated as “Jesus carried them up the mountain” as a pack animal carries a burden and, if truth be told, Jesus is carrying a burden and so, too, is Peter.
A few days ago in a moment of courage Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah, but then Jesus tells him that his journey to Jerusalem includes suffering, death, and astonishingly resurrection. Peter refuses to listen to anything about suffering. It seems that Peter has very selective hearing. So now, six days later, during this peak experience up on the mountain, Peter is only too eager to convince himself that there will be no vulnerable cross-bearing Christ but rather a Messiah of majesty and light. Peter is afraid, and he doesn’t want to lose Jesus. So Peter—a take-charge, alpha-man—comes up with a plan to build beautiful dwellings to house Christ in all his incandescent glory. Peter, who has appointed himself as architect and chief administrator, plans to memorialize this moment, yes, by trying to contain God’s light. It’s as if Peter wants to shrink-wrap that light to preserve it forever. But God, the master builder, makes a very dramatic appearance and says no to Peter. “No, you may not stay up on this mountain, building containers to constrain my glory. You must listen. You must listen to my beloved Son and you must follow.” What Peter’s example tells us is that in times when we find ourselves in uncertainty and in darkness and in suffering, we want to contain the light for fear that we might lose it. Like Peter we want to preserve it forever, for fear that the light will run out, as a child on a warm summer night, catching fireflies in a jar. But we know what follows. Held captive in a bottle, denied oxygen and the freedom of its natural habitat, the firefly expires, its light extinguished.
There’s a story that reveals something of this dilemma that we all face. It’s the account of a real life mountaineer. In his book Three Cups of Tea, we meet Greg Mortensen who is grieving the loss of his dear sister, Christa, who died at the age of 23 of an epileptic seizure. An experienced mountain climber, Mortensen reckoned that if he could climb K2, the second highest mountain on earth and the most dangerous to climb, that he could manage his grief. He could memorialize his sister forever by leaving a necklace on the mountain as a remembrance. But the climb went terribly wrong. Alone on a glacier, he was separated from his party and from his pack with his supplies. With nothing but a think blanket, a water bottle, and one protein bar, he began to search for his way back, giving up on reaching the peak. He lost his way, not once, but twice and many days later on the brink of death, he woke up in an impoverished hut in a remote village, wrapped in the finest of silk blankets. Things weren’t going as planned. In this strange and isolated place, seemingly on the edge of nowhere, his host offered him a cup of sweet tea, and then a second. Mortensen said later, if he had known at the time how extravagant that gesture was, how precious the commodity of the sugar water was, he never would have taken the second cup of tea. But as the title of the book suggests, by the third cup, his fate was sealed. The village chief, Haji Ali, says, “Here in Pakistan, we drink three cups of tea. The first, you’re a stranger; the second, you become a friend; the third, you join our family. Mortensen, struck by the compassion shown to him in this remote Pakistani village, resolved to return one day and to build a school.
A decade later, and not without great challenge and hardship, Mortensen has built not 1 but 55 schools in desolate territory lorded over by the Taliban. And although his attempt to memorialize his sister by depositing her necklace on K2 failed, it seems God had something else in mind. Mortensen did not set out to make a difference, but rather to be obedient to a promise to build a school. And through such obedient following, rather than trying to manage or contain all the goodness of life and light, he simply was set free to respond and to follow. And in so doing the much hoped for memorial for his sister shone more brightly than he could have ever imagined. And it empowered the children with knowledge, children once destined for terrorist inculcation who now have dreams of peace and prosperity. We’re not all Greg Mortensens. But that’s not what God intends for us. God has created each of us to reflect in some unique way God’s light and life in the world. And more often, but not always, it is in the small, ordinary occurrences of life that we are touched by wonder and transfiguration occurs. It is there that we are sustained and grow and change.
Here’s a great example of that. A few Sundays ago, between services, as I made my way to the entrance to the Cathedral, I came upon a small girl entranced by the reflected life of the stained glass windows dancing upon the limestone walls. It danced in green and red and yellow and blue and it was as if God were painting the Cathedral with light. She reached out her hand and touched the stone bathed in color, and she began to trace its light and its movement, and she was so immersed in this light that she seemed to glow from within.
Startled by the sight, I, like Peter, didn’t know what to do. I began to move toward her so that I might speak to her to try to grasp something of that astonishing glory that she was experiencing. But immediately I felt this heavy weight pressing me back. It was as if God was saying, “No, do not try to manage this, do not try to contain this moment. Behold, but do not hold it. This is too holy to disturb.” So when I stepped back I saw that I was not the only one there. There were several other onlookers who gathered around her spellbound, and none more so than her bemused parents. And as the girl gently traced the color upon the glittering stone, it seemed as if she were touching God and the room was drenched in deity. It was all the light that I needed for one day and the moment stayed with others as well. I heard a few people mention it the next day. One said, “It was enough light to lighten my step. God provided exactly what I needed at just the right moment.” We all need such wonders to help us see that which we could not see before. They are not ours to hold, but they are ours to behold. We all know those experiences, a brilliant sunrise, a baby’s smile. It’s as if, as the poet Goethe says, “Beauty runs on light feet.” Behold, but do not hold. And in that beholding, we are told our way.
“This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”
When we truly behold we have an opportunity to listen to Jesus, and he tells very simple things: feed the hungry, soothe the suffering, love your enemies, make peace. In so doing, we find how to live in the light, even in a darkened and troubled world.
That great prophet and peacemaker Desmond Tutu says, “There is no suffering that cannot be transformed and redeemed. God is an expert at dealing with chaos. God created order out of disorder, cosmos out of chaos. God is transforming this world, even now through us, because God believes in us and God loves us and nothing can separate us from that love, from that love of God in Christ Jesus, nothing. And so, when we share that light and that love with all of God’s family,” Tutu says, “there is no tyrant who can resist us, no oppression that cannot be ended, no hunger that cannot be fed, no wound that cannot be healed, no hatred that cannot be turned to love, no dream that cannot be fulfilled.” Beloved, God is in this holy place and God is calling each of you to the unique greatness for which you were made, to become who you truly are, transformed into the likeness and light of our Lord.
So as you go forth today, give yourself the gift of Epiphany experiences, because when we behold the light, God gives us more and more. God is calling you to a life of greater promise and possibility, to be open to meeting God in the most ordinary yet unexpected of places. Where will you next see God? Where will you next touch God? Behold!