Most of you are probably unaware that, by law, a priest is given four weeks out of the year to be away from his parish. Three of the four weeks we are vacation, which is why you haven’t seen Fr. Ev for a while. He’s using up all three weeks of vacation in one shot and won’t be back until a week from this coming Friday. Priests need to be able to get away from the rat race of parish work in order to be the servant-leader God has called us to be. So we pray for Fr. Ev’s safety as he is on vacation and that I, your acting pastor, not screw things up too much while he’s gone.
A priest is also expected to spend one week of the year in retreat. I still remember visiting with the Archbishop before I came here to Ames and telling him that I had spent my last retreat alone in my camper praying over the Bread of Life discourse from John’s gospel. He sort of laughed until he realized I was serious. And then this very seriously look came over his face and he said that a young priest needs a directed retreat. From then on, I vowed to find a place where I could have a directed, silent retreat. The strange thing was how God did that for me.
When the campus ministers were planning out the events we were going to facilitate, one of my responsibilities was to take a group of students to a monastery in Northern Missouri called Conception Abbey. I had already taken my directed retreat with my good friend, Fr. Bob Hart in Hawaii, so I assumed this retreat would be more for the students than for me. But, in the course of that week, I found myself changed. Even though I’ve shared this from this pulpit before, I almost didn’t come back at all. I found a depth in my spirituality there that I had never experienced and certainly didn’t expect to experience while playing chaperone to a group of college students. I found quiet and peace and, in the process, found a new depth in my relationship to God.
That’s what I find so believable about this celebration of the transfiguration. Jesus takes his inner sanctum, the three leaders among the leaders, the apostles to the apostles if you will, off by himself on a mountain. I can just imagine Peter, James and John thinking all along the way that this is a waste of time. They could be going to any number of towns to heal their sick, feed their hungry, and preach about the kingdom of God but, instead, they are taking a Sabbath rest on a mountain. What a waste of time. Yet, in the midst of this waste of time, Jesus is transfigured, changed, into his glorified self and we see him with the two Old Testament figures that represent the Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah. It is the glorified image of Jesus not destroying the law and the prophets but fulfilling what they said. Peter’s first thought is that he needs to do something, he needs to build them a tent and preserve this glorified experience. But, just like David in the second book of Samuel was refused to build a temple for God, so Jesus forbids Peter from doing building them a structure. Peter had to come to understand what Paul would later articulate to Timothy, “He saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design…” Peter, James and John weren’t earning this vision of heavenly glory. They were given it freely by Christ whose cross would alone earn it for them.
Sometimes, I worry that we give the false impression here at St. Thomas Aquinas that you need to earn your salvation through good works. We have numerous social justice activities for both resident and student parishioners and we spend a lot of time talking about doing service projects. I get concerned that people believe that Christ’s victory over salvation is insufficient, that we need to earn the forgiveness of our sins and glorified life offered to us in Christ instead of seeing it freely given to us. Yet, even the most socially just, most good work oriented philanthropist cannot be saved without knowing Christ, without being invited on the mountain to see Christ’s transfigured glory. We work because God has called us to live a life of love. However, this Sunday we are reminded that, just as important as a life of service is a life of prayer. We all need to take time each day to be drawn away from worldly concerns to be caught up with Christ on the mountain. Maybe we can’t find a monastery to do that and there will, undoubtedly, be experiences on retreats that will especially fulfill that need each of us feels. Yet, each day, we need to experience the God that makes us fall prostrate and reveals to us the identity of his son.