Homily for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (Richmond, VA)
Virtual Worship in a Time of Pandemic
Last weekend, I had the delight of spending time with our newly elected and continuing Vestry members for their retreat. I have to tell you…the enthusiasm and dedication of these leaders is so inspiring. Over the course of those two days, I even began to forget that we were in little Zoom boxes as we freely shared our hopes and ideas while coming together for learning and planning and prayer. Our computers and iPads and devices may be our medium for connection, but community is the heart of this parish.
It’s like that these days whenever we worship together at St. Mark’s, too. I mean, I know in my head and can see with my eyes that we are each in our separate spaces, logging in together at the appointed time complete with children, cats and dogs making their serendipitous appearances. I have to toggle between screens to see all of your individual faces the closer it gets to 10:30. But now that we have been praying and talking and loving each other across distances for these many months, the honest truth is that when we enter into worship together, I don’t even notice the confines of my computer screen anymore. I just see you…this parish…the heart and soul of St. Mark’s.
I was pondering this week about this as a transfiguration moment that we’ve been experiencing right here in our virtual worship. We had a long climb up a high mountain when this global pandemic struck last year. Each of us initially approached the idea of virtual worship a bit differently: fear, hesitation, confusion, frustration, longing, curiosity, hope. There’s probably some thoughts and feelings you all have had that I didn’t name out loud, too! I had some familiarity with this thing called Zoom at that time, but nowhere near the fluidity that I’ve learned in the months since. I’ve lived into the call of being your “Minister of Zoom” and like any call, I’ve been bewildered and overwhelmed at times, but I’ve grown into it, too. We are engaging in connections together now in ways I wouldn’t have dreamed of a year ago. What strikes me, though…and this is why I refer to it as a transfiguration moment…is that we have climbed this mountain following Jesus and we are seeing the light of who we really are: the gathered members of St. Mark’s, the Body of Christ.
In our Gospel lesson today, we enter the passage with the disciples making their journey: Peter, James and John being led up the high mountain by Jesus. I can imagine their own feelings of fear, hesitation, confusion, frustration, longing, curiosity and hope all along the way. Then, arriving at the mountaintop, they encounter the dazzling reality of the presence of Christ, in the ethereal company of Moses and Elijah, the embodiment of the law and the prophets. I’m amazed that Peter could speak at all. But when he did manage to speak, his expression was a perfect framing of our human response to being overcome and overwhelmed: we cry out in our need for steadiness and equilibrium. We don’t always understand the depths of what we are saying, but there is often truth even within the seemingly ridiculous. As someone who understands cognitive overload in the midst of stress, what I hear Peter saying is, “if we could just slow down and stay here together a little longer together, then maybe…just maybe…we could have a chance to take it all in, and I’d start to feel at peace.” Peter, like all of us, craves equilibrium.
What happens next, though, is not equilibrium. Peter’s desire for physical and mental reprieve is met with more cognitive disruption: instead of tents of comfort there is a cloud of unknowing. I’ll have us take note that it is within that place where senses are totally overwhelmed and all that remains to do is trust, is when the disciples on the mountain with Jesus hear God’s call clearly. The voice of God speaks to them in the language of relationship, an echo of Jesus’ baptism: This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to Him.
On that mountain, there was nothing else to do at that moment except to listen. And when the narrative of the transfiguration draws to a close, the disciples, we are told, saw only Jesus. The treasure in this story…the truly good news…is that we are given the knowledge of what happens when all our overwhelming transfiguration moments take place: we see only Jesus.
I had a memory flash into my mind this week, one that I hadn’t thought about in a long time. It was at least 10 years ago now, and the parish I attended at that time was planning their summer vacation bible school which served many families both of the congregation and the community. I was up for helping, but I couldn’t make the planning meeting. So, I told our Christian Education Director to count on me to fill any hole she really needed help with. I was counting on something like, “help out with arts and crafts” or “prepare snacks.” She called me after the meeting, excited to tell me that she’d nominated me to be the lead teacher for the preschool classroom. I think at that moment, I might rather have climbed a high mountain all by myself. I mean, I love children but let’s face it, I’m an adult educator for a reason. A large group of preschoolers was definitely outside my comfort zone…and the whole idea of leading such a week-long adventure made me lose my sense of equilibrium. She must have seen my shock and disbelief, but she didn’t offer me an easy off-ramp. She had been very prayerful about this, and I knew her…so I knew that. She kindly and pastorally said something like, “You are giving of your time and talent to create a beautiful, spiritual foundation for these children; and my prayer is that one day…maybe not even right away, but some day…you’ll look back and realize it was a beautiful gift for your own spirit, too.”
Let me say, without pulling any punches, it was a challenging week. A choir friend offered to be the second adult teacher with me, and we became closer than ever as we put ourselves to this task neither of us were sure we were up for. We ended up with 18 preschoolers…let me repeat, 18 four and five-year olds, all in one room… and pulled in some extra helping hands from among our youth. The first day, I counted it a win that it only took us two hours to clean up the classroom after the ruckus was over, given what it looked like when we started. The second day, we used our choir skills and learned a whole bunch of simple songs to sing together to keep everyone engaged, and introduced a quiet time with some soothing music; two of the youth helpers fell asleep, even if the preschoolers didn’t. By day three, I knew everyone’s name and who really needed the extra 1:1 our youth could offer, and there was a bona fide art project on the theme to take home. Then, on day four, we managed to get our hands on a donated play pool on a hot summer day and everyone got to “fish for people” and splash each other… that was the first day without any tears, whatsoever. And, we learned that water outside makes for a much easier clean up. By Friday, I sat down for our last story time and 18 kids piled onto me. The quietest and shyest one among them sat on my lap and helped me turn the pages as we read about Jesus and the disciples.
I can’t say that I felt any less bewildered or exhausted at the end of that week, even when everyone else went home. If I had a tent, I might have just crawled in and slept. It was a few weeks later, I ran into one of the children with her Mom at the neighborhood pool. And all of a sudden, that littlest and shyest one who had sat in my lap and turned pages ran over to me and hugged me and said, “I know you…we fished for people and read Jesus together!”
All of a sudden, I remembered the VBS director’s prayerful prediction and felt so deeply grateful. Because all that I could see in that tiny face was Jesus.
You see, our transfiguration moments are not always picture-perfect. Sometimes, they are uphill climbs putting ourselves to work in the spaces where we are needed, whether or not we think we’re up for the job. And sometimes, we are led on the journey all the while hoping just to make it to the summit…not even knowing what we’ll find when we get there. Our epiphanies don’t always come in the moment when we are awe-struck by the experience. Sometimes transfiguration is happening all the while our human senses are overwhelmed and finally, all we can do is listen. We may not have the right words to express our experience. We may not have our bearings at all, and we may just yearn for shelter and rest.
God hears us in these moments and in the vastness of that cloud of unknowing, sets our sights on the Beloved. And in the end, all that we see is Jesus.
So, my friends, my prayer for each and every one of you today extends from the one that was given to me all those years ago. I extend upon you the blessing of transfiguration moments. As our Wardens and Vestry and ministry teams do their prayerful work, may all you see is Jesus. As we continue our virtual worship until we can be together in person, may all you see is Jesus. As we do the hard work of making decisions about that transition with love, may all you see is Jesus. As we move prayerfully into our Lenten devotions, may all you see is Jesus. And may you know that as you listen to God’s call and respond in love…perhaps one day in which you least expect it…the radiance of Jesus’ love and grace will be made known to you. And all that you will see is Jesus.