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Sermon for February 23, 2020: The Touch of Heaven (The Rev. Walter Ramsey):

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

You may not know it but I come from a mixed family background. Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and in the middle – Episcopalian. The Lutherans in my family referred to the Episcopalians as Catholics that never learned Latin while the Roman Catholics just considered the Episcopalians as simply Protestants. I think I remember the Rector of St. Michael’s saying we have a lot to learn from both. Of course, it was around 1952 and I was just a young boy.

Despite differences in polity and theology one of the things that all three branches of the Jesus movement have in common is that they are all liturgical churches. We all follow pretty much the same liturgical year with liturgical seasons. The same liturgical colors and the same three-year lectionary or readings. In the liturgy, the church ritually portrays through movement site sound and smell, if incense is being used, biblical and traditional understood acts of our salvation. By our ritual gestures — this “body language” — we unite the physical and mental/spiritual aspects of our worship of the Lord and express our unity with God with our entire being.

The first Christmas midnight mass I remember was in 1952. I was eight years old and in those days the mass was in Latin and all the splendid singing was provided by a choir. It was at the Cathedral in Houston and the thing I most remember was the Sanctus being sung by the choir that sounded like angels and the billows of incense rising up above the altar illuminated by the lights in the ceiling and the bells being rung gave this young boy a vision of the throne of God. When the Sanctus ended the Bishop continued his Latin droning of the consecration my vision returned to ordinary bread and wine.

My experience at that Christmas mass long ago always brought to my mind today’s Gospel in which we witness an extraordinary event in the life of Jesus—one that shows his closest followers who he really is. We, the church calls this event the Transfiguration of Jesus.

The Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated August 6 but we the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement use the same readings on this last Sunday after Epiphany. The Episcopal dictionary of the church explains it this way: “As an Epiphany story, the Transfiguration provides one of the most distinctive and dramatic showings of Jesus’s divinity.” Light is thematic of the season between Epiphany and the beginning of Lent. Jesus takes Peter James and John up to the pinnacle of a high mountain and while they wait, Jesus is transfigured, and his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. Jesus is then visited by Moses and Elijah, (the law and the prophets) and the three of them had a conversation.

How wonderful it is to have the ordinary peeled back long enough to glimpse the wonder of God’s grace! Now Peter decides to interrupt Jesus in conversation to thank him for bringing him, James and John to be with him and asked if Jesus would like him to build three shelters or sukkot for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. I can identify with Peter as most of us probably can that we’re in a situation where we feel useless or left out we feel we need to do something and besides he may have thought they were going to be there for quite a while.

Some have suggested that what Peter is referring to is the harvest festival of Booths or Sukkot, but that is in the autumn, but Sukkot does reflect some of what Peter is feeling. Sukkot is a Jewish festival and one of the biggest holidays celebrated by Jewish people all over the world. It is a weeklong festival that combines family, religion and their native country together. Typically, Sukkot is an eight-day long harvest festival. Unlike more well-known holidays such as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah where people ask for forgiveness of their previous wrongdoings and fixing relationships, Sukkot is an occasion to celebrate pure happiness and joy.

I little doubt if we were there pure happiness and joy would also sweep over us. Just then as Peter was laying out his plans for the booths the sky lit up and a voice thundered “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him, I am well pleased; listen to him!” That is what God proclaimed at Jesus’s baptism, as well as what Blessed Mary told the stewards to do at the Cana wedding feast. The three disciples then fall prostrate on the ground in the attitude of worship and fear. The magnificent presence and commanding voice of the Holy One of Israel threaten to overpower those who encounter them, but to the disciples overwhelmed by the presence and voice of God, Jesus reaches out his hand, touches them, and reassures them: “Do not be afraid” (1)

This is the way that God comes into the world: not simply the brilliant cloud of mystery, not only a voice thundering from heaven but also a human hand laid upon a shoulder and the words, “Do not be afraid.” God comes to us quietly, gently, that we may draw near and not be afraid. God’s glory is majestic and so far beyond our capacity to receive it that we can take just as much of God’s glory as a human hand can hold and give.

People often suggest that Jesus was shining brightly because he was divine and that this was a vision of his divinity, which would otherwise have remained secret. But in Luke’s account, Moses and Elijah are shining as well, so it can’t mean that. Moses and Elijah aren’t divine. And in any case, Jesus himself had said, earlier in Matthew’s gospel, that all God’s people would shine like stars in God’s kingdom. For the New Testament writers in general, in fact, humanity itself is a glorious thing, and Jesus’ perfect humanity provides the model for the glory which all his people will one day share.

Some would say God is much too much to be contained within the walls of a church. Of course, they are right. Some would remind us that God is so great that neither the earth below nor the heavens above can hold God. Absolutely, this is all true. God is certainly so great that God can never be contained in something as small as a crumb of bread or a sip of wine. We may nod our heads, yes; but we must hasten to add: furthermore, God is so great, so majestic, so glorious, that God stoops to come to us in a crumb of bread and a sip of wine, just as much of God as a hand can hold.

God loves us and desires that we be with Him in glory. The touch of the hand of Jesus was probably the most re-assuring of this in the event. We who worship and serve God have Jesus’ word, “Do not be afraid.” And later, “Where I am, there you shall be also.” we are God’s light and his healing and reassuring touch to the world when we serve the poor and destitute, house and protect refugees visit prisoners and comfort the dying and console those who mourn. —When we love our neighbors as ourselves.

(1) Bartlett, David L.. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition. (2) Wright, N.T.. Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28 (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 13). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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