Last Sunday After Epiphany / World Mission Sunday
Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9 [RCL]
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Today’s readings all speak of mountains – high mountains, holy mountains, as the writers describe them – much like the high and holy mountains that surround the Episcopal congregations in the Ecuadorian Andes in South America.
Many of these Ecuadorian congregations are in indigenous communities that lie between 12,000 and 14,000 feet above sea level. Some of these high Andean indigenous communities have been part of the Diocese of Central Ecuador for decades, while several others began to seek out the Episcopal Church just in the last few years, as those communities invited the diocese (or church) to accompany them in their journeys of life and faith.
As was true in the beginning of this process or path, the communities’ invitation continues to include the desire for the intentional and continual presence of the church in their community life. Not only through the sacraments, which they see as vitally important, but also that the church truly be a companion in the natural cycles of life and death, of planting and harvest, of both joy and sorrow.
And these communities have expressed the desire not only to be accompanied, but also to accompany. They believe that they have a lot to offer as we walk together, from the life and faith of their own cultural and religious traditions, their indigenous worldviews, their spirituality. For example, as we grow together, these indigenous brothers and sisters believe that they offer the Church the gifts of an increased sense of community, of healthier and more holistic relationships with the rest of the creation, and of the possibilities for a better living-out of our interconnectedness.
There is a sense of mutuality in this as these communities and the Diocese of Central Ecuador together seek to offer themselves and accompany each other in ways that allow us all to be further transformed by the Holy Spirit, working through the gift of these relationships.
These Ecuadorian mountains and the relationships of the communities who live in them relates directly to today’s readings. Moses sets out with Joshua. Jesus asks Peter, James, and John to accompany him up the mountain. He seeks the company of the disciples and they offer him the gift of their presence, and he in turn accompanies the disciples later in their moment of fear. They share the path, the conversation. They listen together. They are all changed. Neither Moses nor Jesus walks alone.
Both Moses and Jesus are transformed, though not in a sort of vertical, isolated relationship with God alone – as if that were even possible. God’s revelation, and the response to it and path of transformation, is always mediated through God’s creation, both human and non-human: God’s law, written on tablets of stone; the mountain and the cloud that covered it; the presence like fire and the face shining like the sun; the voice that calls out; and the touch that overcomes fear.
God speaks and transfigures through the Earth and all she holds, through our inherent interconnectedness, and so often in relation to our own openness to this interrelationship and God’s Spirit within it.
Both Moses and Jesus are transformed, but not as solitary individuals. There is no private epiphany, no private transfiguration, no private transformation. They, and we, are transformed, transfigured, in community. As both Moses and Jesus grow into a fuller understanding of who they are in God and of God’s purposes for them, they do so in openness to both intentional and fortuitous interaction with others. They need these relationships.
And as we offer ourselves up more wholly to God, we know that we, as well, need these relationships. We enter into this season of Lent with the desire to be transformed, to walk within a fuller awareness of God’s purposes in the world and our place within these purposes.
And we enter into Lent also aware, at some level, that we have ways within us and within our societies that separate us from God and our neighbor, that move us away from God’s purposes, that uncouple us from the equity, justice, and righteousness of God spoken of in Psalm 99. We know that there are ways within us that separate us from that vital interconnectedness with God’s creation and the human and non-human communities within it; these relationships that we are called to walk within, to honor and nurture.
Saint Matthew tells us that, as Jesus is transfigured and speaking with Moses and Elijah, Peter suggests that they stay there. “I will make three dwellings here.” Peter could have many motives, but maybe one is the natural desire to make the experience of transformation into something more manageable, less unwieldy, more predictable; to own it in some way and enshrine or preserve something that is by its very nature fluid.
How much easier to build the tent, enclosing and containing the experience in some way, rather than to be that tent ourselves, organically housing the mystery and the love and the holy chaos that is God.
As Peter is speaking, God interrupts him. God tells the disciples, and tells us, that we must listen to Jesus; we must keep on listening to him. It is a continual process, not something that can be enshrined and then mechanically repeated.
An important way we keep on listening to Jesus is through each other; through our relationships with the world around us. We must keep on walking along the path, and to “come down the mountain,” as it were, listening and watching together as God reveals God’s self to us through God’s creation, and through each other as part of that creation.
Our call to listen to Jesus often means leaving our spaces of comfort; following the God who speaks from cloud, from mountain and earth, from the great diversity of creation and the cultures and peoples and perspectives therein; opening ourselves to see God’s purposes through different eyes and being transformed and renewed again.
The mission program of the Episcopal Church is a part of this communal call, this journey toward and within transfiguration. Through the many activities of the Episcopal missionaries – such as teaching English, working with refugees, medical ministry, sustainable rural agriculture, campus ministry, being bridges between churches in the global North and South – it is the embodied relationships that are nurtured “away” and “at home” that together help us to see God anew, to be further transformed, and that empower us all to seek and to serve God in God’s creation in ever more expansive and creative ways.
By the grace of God, mission work births and nurtures possibilities for transformed relationships and community, for new ways of being. In mission, paths open through which we can know ourselves and our God more fully. Through mission, through the community created in transfigured relationships, we grow in and live out together the love and abundant life that God desires for us all.
This week in the liturgical calendar, as we come down from the mountain and enter the desert, let us commit to entering more fully into this path of transfiguration, of walking it together. This walking together is itself an icon of the reign of God, visibly showing the world who God is. Through the lives of people and communities pursuing this path together, we show the world who God is just as Jesus did. We call the world to repentance just as Jesus did. We heal the world just as Jesus did. Through it, God transforms us all.