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The Sacrament of Friendship

Sermon 6 August 2023 Transfiguration Pamela Hosey Long

When this passage opens, it’s just a week after Jesus has told his disciples that there are dark days coming. Earlier, he said that the Son of Man would undergo great suffering, be rejected by the religious leaders, and be killed, but on the third day he would be raised. Then Jesus takes Peter and his other two close friends to a mountaintop to pray, and while he is in prayer his appearance changes. His clothes seemed to glow, his face completely “transfigures”, and suddenly the disciples see two men whom they recognized as Moses and Elijah,… talking with their teacher.

What did the two prophets say to him? Moses and Elijah were speaking of Jesus’ departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. In other words, they were giving him a preview of upcoming events, …. his suffering, death and resurrection.

And although the text doesn't say this specifically, I think their reason for coming was to encourage him, … to lay out the plan for him, and maybe to give him a pat on the back--sort of the way we might say today, "You got this, bro."

And in this moment Jesus’ was “transfigured,” … his face began to glow as Moses’ face had done, after his encounter with God on Mt. Sinai. So although Peter, James and John missed the message at the time, Moses and Elijah knew what was in store for Jesus, and they were there to give him strength. As two friends who have been through similar ordeals, … they were there to bear his burden with him.

This is a very human thing. Something I've found out about the early astronauts in the Mercury and Apollo programs, is that those who had already been to space were always at the launch pad on launch day, to give encouragement and strength to those who were about to go up for the first time. Even though the astronauts always went through rigorous physical and mental training for their missions, the outcome was still uncertain each time they climbed into the capsule. They needed the encouragement of those who had flown those missions before them, and had come back successfully.

Of course, many folks say the appearance of Moses and Elijah was meant to symbolize the Law and the Prophets, and to connect Jesus’ teaching into the Judaic tradition. Probably true. But I don't think they were there just to put on a Mardi Gras tableau, illustrating theological concepts like Law and Prophecy. I think they also meant to bring the human man Jesus what some have called the Sacrament of Friendship.

That’s something you and I didn’t learn about in confirmation class. When we think of sacraments, we tend to think of those things that are clearly enumerated in Scripture or that developed in the history of the Church—sometimes we think in terms of the two Sacraments Jesus instituted, Eucharist and Baptism, and the others that were developed by the Church. We think about things that happen in the Church on Sundays, symbols and actions through which God’s grace flows into us.

But for many centuries the Church didn’t have a set list or a set number of sacraments—rather, the Sacraments were thought to be any of a number of ways in which God reaches out his hand to us, and we respond by reaching back to him.

So friendship might be one of those ways that God makes himself available to us—in the words, and gestures of a friend, … through whom God’s mercy, healing and life flow into us.

So I think this was what Moses and Elijah were doing—bringing Jesus the Sacrament of Friendship, because he needed a word of validation--you're on the right track, son.

In my case, I have several close friends who have become this Sacrament for me—friends who have followed me through the discernment process, and who are clergy role models such as Mary Ann Garrett, a friend that I visited in Mexico while she was a missionary in Oaxaca, who pointed me to Latin American theologians.

Actually, I had several great-grandfathers and uncles in ministry, but I didn’t really grow up in the church, so their witness wasn’t really available to me. I first encountered the Risen Lord in my teens, and was baptized in the Methodist church at 16. Despite my family's objections, I was active in youth, choir, Wesley Foundation at Auburn, and then into my adult life, where I enjoyed participating in the handbell choir. Going through a painful divorce, I sought help from a close friend who happened to be an Episcopal priest, and I was confirmed in her church in Mobile. She was certainly a Sacrament of Friendship to me. It was this church that sustained me through some very dark hours, including an amazingly close call with ovarian cancer.

Unfortunately there are a lot of people who disagree with what I do, and sometimes that grieves me.

But there are other voices who have encouraged me, and lifted me up in prayer. And because words of encouragement at difficult times have been so important to me at critical times in my life, I read today’s Gospel in a different way than I had in the past. This time, the importance of experienced friends, those who had trod the path before me, became really clear.

God has given us friends as sacraments, to be a word of grace to us when those difficult times come. But He’s also given us saints, for those times when friends are thin on the ground. For me, these are the Blessed Mother, Oscar Romero, Ignatius of Loyola, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Brigid of Kildare. Friends who have completed their journeys and are cheering me on from the finish line. When I need them, I read their words, meditate on their lives, imagine how their choices can illuminate my own. I can hear all of them saying, "You go girl. You got this."

The sacrament of friendship exists, because God knows we need others to come alongside of us from time to time; we need to cheer one another on, to listen to one another’s questions and concerns, to carry one another’s burdens, to be the vehicle through which his grace flows from him into us.

Just as important, we need to BE a Sacrament as well, to use our eyes, our hands, our arms, to touch and heal and embrace. Maximilian Kolb, a prisoner in Auschwitz who gave his life for another prisoner, said that a single act of love makes the soul return to God.

God’s grace is so abundant that we haven’t even SEEN yet, all the ways in which our Sovereign God has imagined for his love and health and strength and power to flow to us--Graces and Sacraments that are abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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