March 3, 2019 - Rev'd. Kevin Corbin Smith
The Last Sunday After the Epiphany
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ever since I was ordained over twenty-five years ago, I have experienced a bizarre phenomenon. On occasion, we sing the Sanctus adapted from the one composed by Franz Schubert. It’ S130 in the Hymnal. And it’s gorgeous, four-part harmony that lifts the soul. (John plays the first part) Right. That’s it. Well, for nearly thirty years, and I’d never admitted this to anyone for a long time, when the Schubert Sanctus was sung I would swear I could hear another set of voices singing besides those I could hear in the Church. It seemed to me that those from another realm, those on another shore and in a greater light were singing with us. But while it was quite a moving experience and a lovely thought, I suspected it was a nice idea my mind had concocted and left it at that.
Then my father died in May of 2004. He was never what one would call devout. My good Methodist raised worried about his salvation after he had died. I would just roll my eyes. Anywhoo....I returned form the funeral and went back to work. A few months later, I was working as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Andrew’s up on 80th and I-5. I used to call it Mr. Andrew’s because they were SO LOW CHURCH! One Sunday we sang the Schubert Sanctus. And as I bowed at the appropriate place and the music began and the singing started, again I would swear that I could hear those from beyond accompanying the voices of the living. But what caught my attention was, in the midst of this gorgeous harmony, was a drone! HOLY, HOLY, HOLY LORD, GOD OF POWER AND MIGHT,” this offkey monotone sticking out like a sore thumb. And it was no one standing with me at the Altar. It was Dad! Tears came to my eyes, not out of sadness nor grief, but because I now knew that what I thought was my imagination was real... probably more real than reality itself.
Now, I don’t tell this story to promote my own sense of personal holiness. I’m neither a holy man nor special. The fact is that these things happen all the time. I suspect that if those of us in this Church this morning were truly honest with ourselves, we’d be able to harken back to at least one of these experiences in our own lives. However, we don’t talk about them anymore. With the onset of modern science and technology, our culture has made such things laughable, relegating them to the realm of fables and silliness. If something can’t be sensed by one of the five senses, it’s imaginary. It’s not real. It’s a mental anomaly that needs a psychiatrist and a fist full of meds.
At the same time, a serious study was done by Morton Kelsey, a sociologist of religion, in which he polled a large number of American Roman Catholic lay people asking if they had ever had a mystical experience of some kind. Seventy-five percent responded affirmatively. When further asked if they’d ever reported or consulted with their parish priest about such phenomena, they responded, in the negative. When asked why, nearly all of them responded, “Well, I wouldn’t want Father to think I was crazy.”
We no longer have imaginations adequate enough to make this stuff up. Our 20th and 21st Century definition of what is real and reality have not grown, but shrunk. Even within our faith communities, such phenomena are relegated to the ways we used to talk about human sexuality: with silence. The fact that this study took place in America is significant. America is a predominantly Protestant nation. Catholics of whatever variety be it Roman, Anglican or Orthodox, understand at least that such things can take place. However, the Protestant Reformers relegated such things to the world of fantasy and superstition. If something couldn’t be explained by the five senses, it was heretical.
What these phenomena tell us as people of faith, and the mystics of all the Great World Religions report the same phenomena, is that we have these experiences that we cannot compare with anything else in our experience. We experience most things and can compare them, at least subconsciously, to something in our memories. But these phenomena fall outside of that realm. We don’t know what to do with them. However, what the mystics tell us is that these events are what humans refer to as “holy.” They are moments where the thin veil that separates our reality from true reality, separates life from death, separates the temporal from the eternal. And we are given the gift of glimpsing ultimate reality – that which is absolute truth – the realm where God resides and from which God observes us and reveals the Divine Self to us. And we only get glimpses, fleeting visions of this reality because our human minds and imaginations are infinitely too small to take any more than that or our brains would explode.
These phenomena as well as Jesus and the Hebrew Prophets, and the Lamas and the Imams and the priests and shamans of many faiths tell us that world in which we live is a shadow of what is real. That’s why it’s so easy for us to get lost. The plain on which we are born, live and die is to varying degrees an illusion because our experiences are filtered through the human mind. Our histories, our memories, our experiences become the filter through which we interpret reality. And our histories, memories and experiences are a mixed bag that blur our vision and reality is skewed.
James and John climb up Mount Tabor with Jesus which is located about ten miles west of the Sea of Galilee, about 120 miles north of Jerusalem, 60 miles south of Beirut as the crow flies. They have no idea what awaits them. All they know is that they’re going there to pray. Finally, they get to the top, pull up their prayer shawls, begin swaying and offering their midday prayers. And, then, before their eyes, the veil between this world and the next is lifted and Jesus is seen as he is in reality. And standing with him are Moses, the great Law giver, and Elijah, the greatest of the Hebrew Prophets each of whom lays the mantle of his ministry on Jesus giving him the authority of the Prophet of the New Torah, the giver of the New Law. James and John are given the gift of seeing through their illusion into the ultimate reality of the universe – a fleeting glance that allows them to understand beyond words at the core of their being – who Jesus really is.
It seems that their fleeting glance may have been a nanosecond too long because I their inability to fully comprehend what they have witnessed, they start getting frantic building little shrines to Jesus, Moses and Elijah. And while they’re piling up the stones, the veil again is lifted and they hear, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!" And the veil closes. The breeze picks up a bit. James and John put down their stones. Jesus smiles and says to them, “Let’s start for home before it gets dark.” Neither disciple says a thing. But all three know.
The Gospel tell us that James and John said nothing about this event probably until after the Resurrection because only then did they have something to which to compare it.
Because Holy Mother Church understands that both we and she live within the illusion, she calls us to the observance of a Holy Lent. She calls us look beyond the illusion of this world and take a fleeting look
once again at the ultimate Reality of the Universe which we call God, to see God without the illusions we assign to the Divine.
We humans do stupid things from time to time of varying degrees of stupidity. It’s not because we’re evil or depraved as the Protestant Reformers would have us believe – and which myriads of people accept as divine truth. Fortunately, as Anglicans, we don’t do guilt. But we do acknowledge that our own stupidity gets in the way of living life to the fullest. Humans, by nature, perceive their reality by what they experience. And when we do something stupid, other humans yell at us, or blame us, or reject us even though Jesus tells us to do otherwise. The negative reactions of others take their toll on us especially if they come from someone we perceive as an authority – such as a parent or a teacher or a role model – which results our feelings of shame and regret and lack of worth. And if not checked, these experiences can suck the life out of us. They can lead us down a dark road filled with fear and self-loathing, filled with hate not only for ourselves but for everyone else including God. These experiences lead us not into reality but rather into the most ultimate of illusions because they reflect or project upon God what we have experienced from other people, reflections and projections which, as the hymn says, God will not own.
What James and John, and the Roman Catholics who were polled, and the mystics of many times and traditions, and you and I experience during those fleeting moments where the veil is lifted is the vision of the very self of the Being we call God. For a brief nanosecond, we make contact with the source of all compassion, all love, all truth which is incapable of judgment or condemnation because they are not of the divine makeup. But a nanosecond is all it takes. And we are transfigured by the vision of what is truly real. Yes, we do stupid things, the fact of which we are bombarded on a daily basis by way of various technologies. Yes, we get lost. Yes, we damage ourselves and each other. There is no doubt about it. And yet that nanosecond shows us that none of that changes who we are in God’s eyes. Our visions clear and the illusion is broken. Our projections of anger and vengeance disappear, and shame and guilt and hate and self-loathing vanish. And for one, brief moment we see ourselves and each other as God sees us; as the only way God CAN see us.
This is why the Gospel for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany is always the account of the Transfiguration because it points us in the direction of what Lent is all about. Yes, Lent is about sin and stupidity. No, it’s not about guilt and shame. Guilt and shame are not the remedy for sin and stupidity. If it were, there would be no sin nor stupidity. There’s more than enough guilt and shame in our world without making us feeling even more guilty and shameful about it. The remedy for sin, the thing that stops us from doing stupid things is seeing ourselves as God sees us. When we see ourselves as God sees us, then the veil is lifted, and our sin and stupidity are transformed by the power of love. When the illusion that we must live within the shadow of guilt and shame is lifted; when the illusion of our own self-loathing has the light of ultimate truth shining it square in the face, we are transformed; we are transfigured; the illusion that God cannot abide our sin just becomes silly and we are filled with a sense of joy and peace, the true remedies for sin and stupidity.
So, begin your preparation for a truly Holy Lent. Remember those events in your own life when the thin veil was lowered and you were gifted with a glimpse of true reality. Remember also that while God’s true reality exists on the other side of that veil, that God dwells among us in our own reality. Remember that God became one of us, and lived a human life and died a human death – a death which was and is broken forever. Remember the One whose death and resurrection have broken the bonds of illusion and even the veil between life and death itself: the one we know as Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.