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The Last Sunday after Epiphany (Transfiguration); Matthew 17:1-9

I want to tell you a folk tale from Eastern Europe, but it could be from anywhere, even here.

A young man is sitting under a tree outside a village, waiting for Mary, a young woman from a neighbouring village, coming for a dance. He thinks,
     “Waiting, just waiting is really boring!
And immediately, there’s a dark, handsome stranger who says,
     “You could use the gift I want to give you.
The young man has been taught not to take gifts from strangers, and starts to say so, but the man interrupt,
     “I want to give you something that might be useful.
and takes out a large, ornate, gold pocket watch.
     “I already have a watch, I don’t need another one,
says the young man.
     “Ah, but this is a magic watch. Whenever you are wasting time and bored, like you obviously are now, you just turn the hands of this watch ahead until you’re at a more interesting time, and you don’t have to waste the time in between.
(Now, most of us would tell this crank to take a hike, but this is a folk tale, remember, and so,) The careful young man asks,
     “How much is it?
And the dark, handsome man says,
     “No charge; just your pleasure in using it will be my reward,
hands him the watch, and walks away.

     “If only Mary were here,
thinks the young man, and turns the hands of the watch, and sure enough there she is. The dance is wonderful, and after they say good-bye, he walks home.
     “I wish we were together again,
he thinks, and no sooner thought, he turns the watch ahead to his next time with Mary, which was just as wonderful. But this ends too, and he is alone again.
     “I really like her,
he thinks,
     “We are going to waste so much time, I wish we were already married.
And he turns the hands, and there he and Mary are, dancing at their wedding feast.
It was a great feast, lasting three days, but then they moved into their little hut on a farm where the young man was the hired hand, with the daily routine of working the land, taking care of animals, saving to buy a farm of their own, and making a home together.

After a few weeks of that the young man thinks,
     “I wish we didn’t have to go through all this boring grind. I know, I’ll skip ahead to when we’ve bought our own farm, and have had the first of our children.
And he turns the watch hands, and there they are, in the bedroom of their own farmhouse, with Mary holding their newborn baby daughter.
The baby cried all that first night, and no one got any sleep. The baby cried the second night, and every night, and he hated the interruptions to life that an infant brought. As he worked in the fields one day, the now no longer quite so young man thought,
     “I can’t take this, I’ll just jump ahead a bit. Let’s see, I’ll go past all the babies. And to be honest, I never found small children interesting. And teenagers can drive parents crazy, why don’t I jump ahead to where all the kids are working and Mary and I have the farmhouse to ourselves again.
And there they were, all their daughters married and all their sons working for others, and he and Mary again able to have time together, and enjoy their life on their large and prosperous farm.

Well, to shorten it, he found a house without children boring, so he jumped to having grandchildren. Then work became a drag, so he jumped to when his oldest son managed the farm, and he could just sit in the sun and enjoy the days. He wanted to see his grandchildren married, and jumped to that, and again to his first great-grandchild. But while he was turning the hands of the watch to see that great-grandchild go to school, it stopped turning, and he was lying in a bed, with many sad-looking people around. There was a very aged Mary holding his hand, and his children and their spouses, and the grand-children … and a priest!

     “I must be dying,
he thinks. And,
     “I can’t die yet, I haven’t lived very long! I’ve only really lived a handful of years. I want to go back, back, back, right to the beginning.
And he tries to turn the hands of the watch backwards, but they won’t turn that way. He tries harder, and finally the stem breaks off in his hand.
He is back under the tree, holding a button he had twisted off his shirt, with Mary just walking down the path. And there the story ends; or begins!

Our church began another church year about 2 ½ months ago, at the beginning of Advent. We began to retell, again, the stories of our faith; tales about a child born to save the world, the wonder of the birth of Jesus at Christmas, the marvels of the gifts of the Magi at Epiphany; the prophesies of Simeon and Anna at the Presentation in the Temple, announcing that the child of Christmas was God’s awaited anointed Saviour. We heard of the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, his baptism, his preaching and teaching, his gathering of the disciples, his teaching of the ultimate law of love in the Sermon on the Mount. We have jumped from high point to high point in the life of our Lord.

Today we come to the ultimate high point. We see Jesus, transformed, his face and clothes shining, dazzling white. We see Moses and Elijah, symbols of the Law and the Prophets, with Jesus. And we hear God speaking about his Son, his Chosen One, and we are told by God to listen to Jesus. Today we see Jesus as, “the only Son of God, …, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” Each of our Sunday stopping points in the life of Jesus since Advent would be worth lingering with, an experience to be prolonged, but especially today. We too might say, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” We too might want to build some dwellings, to preserve the experience, to remain on the mountain top.

But the mountaintop experience ends, and eventually we must come down to the reality of ordinary life. The excitement and wonder of Christmas and Epiphany too are coming to an end, and this week we begin the long Lenten journey with Jesus that leads from the mountain of the Transfiguration to a cross on Golgotha. It is very tempting to skip all of that, to refuse to experience the journey to the cross, and jump to the Resurrection we know is also ahead. It is a human thing, to avoid the dust and ashes of Lent, and jump to the fire and water of Easter. Like the young man of my tale, it’s very tempting to turn ahead to the “good stuff” and miss the boring and unpleasant bits between.
But that’s not what the Church year is about, it’s not what life is about, it’s not what being Christian is about. The Transfiguration story shows us that; after the disciples had seen Jesus as he really is, the experience ends, and if you read a few verses further, they come down from the mountain, and life goes on as they continue to Jerusalem. There, the salvation of the world is accomplished, not on a mountaintop, not in a glorious, shining Transfiguration, but on a cross on a garbage dump!

By now you know that our Rector and I, once in a while, get theological inspiration from rather unusual sources. Today, I turn to that great philosopher, Jimmy Buffett. (If you don’t know him, he is a professional beach bum and singer-song writer with dozens of CDs, from which he makes a very nice living, and has parlayed that into a chain of high-end low-life restaurants, as well as the brewing of, in my opinion, bad American-style beer, and making automatic margarita slushy machines.) In one of Buffett’s songs, “Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On” we find these words:

“I bought a cheap watch from a crazy man, Floating down Canal, It doesn’t use numbers or moving hands, It always just says NOW!
According to my watch the time is NOW, Past is dead and gone; Don’t try to shake it just nod your head, Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On!”

So it is with our spiritual life. Our salvation is worked out now, in the time of this mortal, ordinary, sometimes boring life. Spirituality is not something that happens at the high spots of life, or only at the good parts of the church year. The struggle of growth towards God always takes place now, here, in tens-of-thousands of ordinary, everyday acts, in many unrehearsed, unthought, seemingly minor and boring things we do every minute, every hour, every day.

Of course, spiritual growth, conversion, salvation, call it what you want, can come in extra-ordinary, dramatic ways. Some, if not all of us, have had spiritual mountaintop experiences. But we would be wrong to restrict spirituality to that. That would be wanting to live our spiritual life only at the high spots. Worse, it would be restricting the ways God can enter our lives. It is much more likely for most of us that we work out our eternal salvation in the ordinariness of day-to-day life. The mountaintops are there to give us glimpses of the possibilities. But they are not our spiritual life, they keep us going when those lives are dull and routine, when we find salvation in the daily, boring, often unpleasant grind of life. When we breathe in, breathe out, and move on!

Let me go back to my folk tale. I might have added, that after the stranger walked out of sight, he vanished in a puff of foul-smelling smoke!

The story of the Transfiguration reveals to us the glory of the resurrected Lord, and teaches us that we cannot expect to experience this glory in our lives each and every moment. In time, we must leave the mountain and return to everyday life, and work out our eternal destiny in the ordinariness of our human lives. What greater pleasure could we give to that which opposes God, call it evil, Satan, the devil, whatever, what greater pleasure could we give God’s opponent, than to not live through the ordinary events of each day, and to remain on the mountaintop for ever. It’s no wonder the dark stranger said he’d get all his reward just from the pleasure of seeing the young man use the magic watch.

Today we have seen the glory of the Son of God, revealed to us on a mountaintop. Today the Son of God comes to us and feeds us with his very own body and blood. We are right in saying, “It is good for us to be here.” But this experience too must end, and we must leave here, and return to the world, the ordinary, boring, sometimes unpleasant world, and there, strengthened by this experience, find eternal life. The time for that is always NOW!

Copyright ©2023 by Gerry Mueller