My brother-in-law hosts an annual squirrel hunt at his family’s ancestral deer camp outside McGehee, Arkansas (which also happens to be the town in which my father was raised). I have attended this hunt several times, though I have yet to shoot at a squirrel. I cannot imagine eating such a tree-dwelling rodent, Arkansan though I am, and I won’t hunt what I won’t eat. The annual gathering isn’t really about hunting at any rate. It’s mostly about playing poker, telling tall tales, and staying up later than the moon.
One year, after considerable evening revelry, my brother-in-law’s brother-in-law on the other side, Kenneth , saw something move at the corner of the campsite. Like lightening, Kenneth bolted to the edge of the clearing and grabbed at something in the brush. When Kenneth stood up and turned around, he was holding by the tail in his outstretched arm an armadillo. Kenneth grinned like the Cheshire cat, and we all laughed. But slowly, Kenneth’s smile faded. His triumphal stance became awkward. His arm got tired. And I could see the question flash across his face: “What do you do next, once you’ve caught a wild animal by the tail?”
This is, I believe, a question similar to the one Simon Peter asks himself upon the Mount of Transfiguration today. And he answers poorly.
Today, Peter, James, and John see Jesus revealed in all his glory. They witness his transcendent power. They encounter him alongside Moses and Elijah. And Peter wants to grab Jesus and hold him. He sputters a plan to build booths in which to house the Lawgiver, the Prophet, and the Messiah. But Peter’s smile quickly fades when God above rebukes him and tells him to be quiet.
This is an accurate interpretation of the Transfiguration story. Indeed, it’s one I’ve preached in various ways, countless times. I’m tired of it. I’m tired, generally, of the depiction of the disciples as faltering, bumbling rubes. Sometimes, I fear, we accentuate their foibles in order to make ourselves look more enlightened, competent, or faithful by comparison, as if we’d have fared better than Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration. I mean, after all, what would you do—what would any of us know to do—if you caught the Son of God by the tail?
As we read the Transfiguration story on this last Sunday of Epiphany, I’m more interested in the fact that Peter, James, and John are on that mountain in the first place. Why have these three been granted the privilege of seeing the transfigured Jesus?
In Luke’s telling, Peter, James, and John are the first three disciples, the very first people, in the words of the Gospel, to “leave everything and follow Jesus.”[i] And of the disciples, it is Peter who, a week and a day prior to the Transfiguration vocally declares that Jesus is “the Christ, the Messiah of God.”[ii] Yes, along the way they stumble—who doesn’t when encountering something wholly unexpected and unprecedented in life?—but when the time comes for Jesus to remove the veil, to commune with God and with the pivotal figures in salvation history whose work Jesus is to complete, Jesus chooses the three who have been with him since the beginning—who have followed and struggled and questioned and wondered—to walk up the mountain and bear witness.
In the middle of today’s passage we read the sentence that, for me, makes all the difference: “Now Peter, James, and John were weighed down with sleep, but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory.”
Sleep—in scripture, in myth, in story—is more often metaphorical than literal, and here it is surely so. We deprive this story of its potency if we assume that the hike up the hill has led the disciples to need a nap. The drowse that weighs upon Peter, James, and John is their unavoidable human tendency to forget, redefine, and explain away the wonder of what they are encountering in Jesus as they follow him across the Galilean countryside: The miracle of one day becomes the curious coincidence the next. The earth-shattering vision of God’s kingdom gets domesticated in warm and fuzzy, “feel good” religion. Self-giving participation in God’s purposes devolves into a jockeying for preference or esteem. Sleep is the lulling of Gospel hope, by fear, fatigue, or comfort, into something less. Sleep leads us to believe the Gospel is just a dream.
It’s no surprise that sleep weighs on us, since it weighed on the three closest to Jesus himself. The surprise is, rather, that the sedative fails to overpower Peter, James, and John. Today, they stay awake, and because their eyes are open, they see Jesus’ glory. They stay awake.
This is the final Sunday in Epiphany. This is Holy Scripture’s last salvo to open our eyes, to spur our wakefulness, to drop the veil and reveal to us the utter wonder of grace and glory of God.
How do Peter, James, and John do it? How is it that they stay awake when the world’s lullaby is so intoxicating? The answer is in the radical commitment of their response to Jesus’ call. Peter James, and John, Luke tells us, leave everything to follow Jesus. Or, as another faith tradition puts it, the incarnation of God can only be seen in this world by those who adore God, who seek to enter into him, who may, admittedly, stumble, but who stumble while attempting to be devoted to God in love.[iii] The disciples see God, because their eyes are open. They expect to see.
The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning understands as much in her poem “Aurora Leigh.” She alludes to a different epiphany, not the Transfiguration but the burning bush of Moses, but her insight is the same:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
After today, Jesus and the disciples travel toward Jerusalem. Things become more difficult. Challenges mount. Risks increase. Danger crescendos. All the time, Peter and the others have the option of closing their eyes, of falling asleep to the truth, of drifting back into their Galilean world and forgetting the glory they have seen.
Next, we enter Lent and leave Epiphany behind. We will impose ashes and remind ourselves of our fleeting mortal lives. This is important to do, but we will run the risk of mistaking ourselves as only dust, and this world as devoid of the incarnation of God. Even our Lenten observances, whatever they are, must be pinches that quicken our attention, that jolt us awake, that feed our adoration of the God whose glory is all around us. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be lulled from the wakened wonder of Epiphany into a drowsy Lenten sleep, lest our closed eyes miss a glimpse through the porous veil.
On Wednesday morning, I had just finished typing the opening illustration of today’s sermon, about the squirrel camp and Kenneth and the armadillo. It’s a story I’ve never publicly told before, ever. In fact, I’ve never made mention of any armadillo in any sermon. The genre, you might say, is new to my repertoire.
Within thirty minutes of writing that illustration, my secretary Nelda walked in to my office and handed me a box that had just arrived in the mail. The box was from Bob Capra, the church organist at my first parish in Memphis. I’ve not seen Bob in nearly a decade. I’ve not spoken to him in almost as long. But as soon as I saw the address on the box, I got chills. “Nelda,” I said, “I know what’s in that box. I’m going to read you the story I’ve just typed, and then I’m going to open that box, and you are going to be amazed.
I read the story to Nelda out loud. I opened the sealed box. And Nelda almost fainted. You see, long ago Bob Capra and I had a running joke about the northern migration of armadillos being a sign of the Apocalypse. If one of us found an armadillo trinket on our travels, we’d bring it home to the other one as a gag gift. I’d had no contact of any kind with Bob in years—not so much as a postcard—and when I opened that box in had within it, on that singular morning of all mornings, a stuffed armadillo.
Wonders small and large. Hints of grace and glory. The world’s crammed with heaven and afire with God, for those who see, who stay awake.
[i] Luke 5:11
[ii] Luke 9:20
[iii] This is Krishna’s explanation to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, as related in Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, 203-204.