“It’s not that good works are over-rated…”

Sermon for Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Feast of the Transfiguration

Icon of the Transfiguration, Greek

Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty.
From the Collect for the Feast of the Transfiguration

It’s not that good works are over-rated, but sometimes our focus on doing good works can lead us to forget that, sometimes, Jesus simply desires that we just be with him.  It’s easy to think that being a Christian is about working and accomplishing and doing good for Jesus, and it’s easy to overlook the fact that maybe, sometimes – or maybe even a lot of the time – Jesus wants us simply just to be with him, and – as today’s Collect says – to just “by faith behold the King in his beauty.”

The Transfiguration by Duccio DiBuoninsegna

I can see how we might come to think that being a Christian is all about working and accomplishing and doing good.  By the time Peter, James and John saw Jesus transfigured on the holy mountain, they had seen Jesus cure the sick, heal the lame, open the eyes of the blind, proclaim good news to the poor, feed the hungry and cast out demons.  Were they not paying attention, they might readily conclude that following Jesus was all about working and accomplishing and doing good, and that if they were to follow Jesus, they – like Jesus – must become accomplished in and have a zeal for healing and teaching and preaching.  But the Feast of the Transfiguration reminds us that following Jesus may also mean an invitation to go with him “up the mountain,” not in order to do more or accomplish more, or even be renewed in order to do and accomplish more, but simply so that we might be in a place where Jesus can more fully show us his glory.

Queen Margaret of Scots Helps the Poor

As I look through our calendar of saints, I see plenty of saints who did extraordinary works for God:  Elizabeth of Hungary and Margaret of Scotland were two monarchs who gave sumptuously to the poor; Constance and her Companions, the so-called “martyrs of Memphis,” ministered to the people of Memphis during a yellow fever epidemic; John Wesley was a missionary who rode on horseback through Georgia; Florence Nightingale was nurse; and Martin Luther King, Jr. was a civil rights leader.  These extraordinary saints were those who – while they may have been “up on the mountain” from time to time, too – are best remembered for their extraordinary work.  Our calendar also contains saints whose lives seem to be devoid of much work and “worthwhile” human accomplishment:  Julian of Norwich, the 14th century anchoress, lived the bulk of her adult life in a small room off of a small parish church in a small town in the east of England; Abba Antony went off into the deserts of Egypt to live as a monk; Evelyn Underhill was a mystic who spent much of her day in prayer; Nicholas Ferrar was the founder of a 17th-century experimental monastic community.   And that’s just our own Episcopal Calendar.  I recently learned of St. Sharbel Makhluf, a 19th century priest in the Maronite church of Lebanon, who spent his days in prayer as a hermit and was recently canonized by the Roman Catholic church.   And time would not permit to tell of the dozens of orthodox saints, some of whom literally lived “on the mountain” in the monasteries of Mt. Athos in Greece and at Meteora.  It is not for their extraordinary “work” and accomplishments that these men and women are considered saints; they are saints because they heard and responded to Jesus’ call just to be with him.

Monastery of the Holy Trinity, Meteora, Greece

Jesus may not invite all Christians to “go up the mountain;’ indeed, it was only Peter, James and John who were with Jesus on the mountain.  Plenty of Christians – like the other nine disciples who were yet down below – may find their vocations primarily, if not exclusively, in serving and doing good and making this world a better place – and God knows this world needs those other nine!   But there are some disciples – including, no doubt, some of us right here at Trinity – whom Jesus may be calling “up the mountain,” to enter more deeply into a place of just being with Jesus.  Jesus is probably not calling us to be “on the mountain” to the extent of Julian of Norwich or St. Sharbel Makhluf, but perhaps he is calling us to be there more often than we are now.   As we respond to Jesus’ call and go with him “up the mountain,” we can begin to help satisfy Jesus’ desire just to be with us human beings, whom he has created, whom he calls “friends,” and to whom he wishes to more fully show his glory.

I wonder if any of us sense a call from Jesus to come with him up the mountain, to “by faith behold the King in his beauty.”  I wonder, what might it look like for us – if we feel so called – just to be with Jesus?  And I wonder, too, how Jesus might feel, if we were to spend more time just being with him.

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