Transfiguration B: Veiled Glory

 

Fog on mountaintopOLD TESTAMENT: 2 Kings 2: 1-12

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

At the beginning of this passage, we’re given the hint that Elijah will soon be taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elijah has up until now been the key prophetic voice through the region. Now that he is about to depart the scene, the stage is set for the choosing of Elisha as his successor. Elisha is depicted as refusing to leave Elijah’s side. He is obviously very committed to him. He is determined to follow him to the end. It is obvious that Elisha is not being led into this mission unknowingly. He clearly knows what he is being asked to do.

Elijah’s mantle, which he uses to part the waters, is a symbol of his authority and power, the equivalent of Moses’ rod. The implication is that his power resembles that of Moses’. Once they have crossed the Jordan, they are now in the region where Moses had died, where long ago, a mantle had also been handed over. There Elisha asks for a double-portion (an allusion to the legal right of a first-born son). It used to strike me that he was being a little demanding or greedy. Here he essentially asks for twice the wisdom that Elijah had, twice the authority, and a double helping of Elijah’s spirit. Perhaps he was just so unsure that he was prepared for the job that he was about to be asked to do, that he felt he needed this added affirmation. Perhaps in an odd sort of way this was not a case of Elisha feeling entitled but, rather, humbled at the very prospect of what he was being called to do and who he was being called to follow. Perhaps he thought that he was “half” the person that Elijah was.

The whole idea of the chariots and the horsemen almost a resemble a sort of war. In Israel’s ideology of holy war, the Lord’s celestial hosts fight along with and on behalf of the terrestrial hosts, the armies of Israel. It hints at the type of ministry that Elisha will have. The tearing of his shirt indicates a traditional expression of grief. Seeing Elijah leave was like seeing the body of a loved one go; this was real. The mission was now his. One could read this as a time of transition in Israel. The great prophet Elijah was no longer around, having been taken up into heaven. But you could also read it as a time of continuation. The prophetic role is still firmly in place.

We can understand why this text is included in this week’s lection choices. After all, Elijah will once again make an appearance in the depiction of the Transfiguration account that we will read from the Gospel According to Mark. But, really, this is more a story about Elisha and the way he is transformed into one who is faithful to God and to who God has called him to be. It is a lesson to us about our own calling to be transformed, to be transfigured, into who we are meant to be. Elisha wanted desperately to hold onto Elijah, to hold onto his leader, his mentor, his friend. But part of transformation is about letting go and letting newness and recreation happen. For years, Elisha had been doing ministry, working in the midst of the shadow of Elijah. The shadow now was gone and it was Elisha’s turn to walk into the light. Even in the midst of his honest and human grief, he had to go on. He had to take the reins. He was prepared, he had been given the resources that would need, whether or not he knew it.

The truth is that this is not a story about prophetic succession or the passing of mantles. It’s not about Elijah and Elisha; it’s about God. That’s what true leadership is, when you think about it—to lead others to where they need to be rather than to lead them to where the leader thinks they should go. Sometimes being a great leader means stepping aside and passing the mantle to someone else. It makes us realize that transformation doesn’t just happen on an individual basis but, rather, is woven into the community of faith, into the hearts of all of those who have the humility and the strength to take a part in the play.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What is your thinking on how Elisha felt about this calling?
  3. What does this passage say about leadership?
  4. How could this passage speak to us today?
  5. How do you see transformation in your own life?

  

NEW TESTAMENT: 2 Corinthians 4: 3-6

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

Here Paul is responding to questions about whether or not God has hidden part of the Gospel from view. It is a response, once again, to those who are trying to discredit him. After all, if the things about which he spoke were real and believable, don’t you think others would know this? Don’t you think it would be obvious? Why in the world has God hidden the Godself from plain view? He contends that it was not done for manipulation but, rather, that it simply seems that way because some are indeed blinded to the good news. He claims that there is still a veil that prevents some people from seeing Christ for who Christ is.

He links the creation of light with the light that emanates from Christ. Light, glory, and glow are all ways of expressing God’s presence. There’s a lot here about seeing and veiling. What does it take to see through the veil? And why is there a veil at all? Why didn’t God just make it more obvious to us? Maybe that’s the point. It IS obvious unless one is blinded by the bright lights and “gods” of this world. It IS obvious unless one has quit looking toward it because one has already figured out what he or she thinks they see. It takes a change of vision, a new way of seeing. Paul claims that the message is clear. It is just up to us to see it.

Now this is one of those passages that could easily be misused. I don’t think this is about assigning roles or separating “believers” (those who “see”) from “unbelievers” (those who don’t). We don’t all of a sudden miraculously “see” God and everything falls into place. It is a journey. Seeing is something that is an act of faith. Learning to see is the whole point of our journey of faith. It would be ludicrous for us to claim that there are never times on our journey when we miss seeing the way we are supposed to, when our own desires and our own fears and our own perceptions of God get in the way of the God who comes to us each and very day. But there are also times when we do see it, when the clouds of this world part if only for a moment, when the veil becomes thin enough for us to feel and know the Presence of God that has been there all along. The Celtic tradition would call them “thin places”, places where the “veil” that separated the earth and heaven, the ordinary and the sacred, the human and the Divine, becomes so thin, so translucent, that one gets a glimpse of the glory of God. It is those times and places in our lives where God’s Presence becomes almost palpable and where we cannot help but be transfigured into what God calls us to be. Perhaps it is those times when we don’t just think about God but rather create space enough for the sacred and the Divine to penetrate our lives and our flesh in the deepest part of our being.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How is this Scripture sometimes misused?
  3. What gets in the way of our “seeing” Christ?
  4. What are those “thin places” in your own life?

 

 GOSPEL: Mark 9: 2-9

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

In the big scheme of things, we’ve gotten to this point pretty fast. Here it is—a child born into anonymous poverty and raised by no-name peasants turns out to be the Son of God. He grows up, becomes a teacher, a healer, and capable of hosting large groups of people with just a small amount of leftovers. Then he asks a handful of people to become his followers, to help him in his mission. They leave everything they have, give up their possessions and their way of making a living, they sacrifice any shred of life security that they might have had, and begin to follow this great person around, probably often wondering what in the world they were doing. And we’ve essentially read through all of this in a matter of a few months since early December. And then one day, Jesus leads them up to a mountain, away from the interruptions of the world.

Now, this is sort of interesting. There is no proof of an actual geographically-charted mountain. It is presented as if it just rose up, uninterrupted, from the terrain, as if it is rather a part of the topography of God. Even for people, such as myself, who cannot claim a single, stand alone, so-called “mountain-top experience” that brought them to Christ but rather came year by year and grew into the relationship…even for us…this IS the mountain-top experience. And there, on that mountain, everything changes.

The clothes that Jesus was wearing change, taking on a hue of dazzling, blinding, white, whiter than anything that they had ever seen before. And on the mountain appeared Elijah and Moses, representing the Law and the prophets, the forerunners of our faith, standing there with Jesus. Peter wanted to build three dwellings to house them. For me, that’s sort of an interesting part of the story. Dwellings…I guess because that would keep them here, essentially bound to our way of living. Dwellings…to control where they were. Dwellings…to somehow put this incredible thing that had happened into something that made sense, to bring it into the light of the world where we could understand it. But, instead, they are veiled by a cloud and from the cloud comes a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!” “Listen to him!” And then they were gone and Jesus stood there alone.

The Greek term for transfiguration is metaphorphosis. It means, literally, to change into something else. That is what this experience does for the disciples and for us. It changes us into something else. The account of the Transfiguration of Jesus seems to us that it should be the climax of the Jesus story. After all, how can you top it—Old Testament heroes appearing, God speaking from the cloud, and Jesus all lit up so brightly that it is hard for us to look at him. But there’s a reason that we read this on the last Sunday before we begin our Lenten journey. In some ways, it is perhaps the climax of Jesus’ earthly journey. Jesus tells the disciples to keep what happened to themselves, if only for now.

Going back to what we said earlier, this is, of course, the ultimate in thin places. The light is so bright it is blinding. God’s glory is so pervasive that we cannot help but encounter it. And these Old Testament characters? They show us that this is not a one-time “mountain-top” experience. It is part of life; it is part of history; it is part of humanity. Rather than everything of this world being left behind in this moment, it is all swept into being. It all becomes part of the glory of God.

And then the lights dim. There are no chariots, Moses and Elijah are gone, and, if only for awhile, God stops talking. And in the silence, Jesus starts walking down the mountain toward Jerusalem. From our vantage point, we know what happens there. And he asks us to follow and gives us all the portions we need to do just that. And we can. Because now we see the way to go. Let us now go to Jerusalem and see this thing that has happened.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does the term “mountain-top” experience mean for you?
  3. Once again, we are talking about “seeing”. They saw Jesus because they were looking for him. What does that mean for you?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. (Marcel Proust)

 

Learn to see and then you’ll know that there is no end to the new worlds of our vision. (Carlos Casteneda)

 

A faith that moves mountains is a faith that expands horizons. It does not bring us into a smaller world full of easy answers, but into a larger one where there is room for wonder. {Rich Mullins}

 

Closing

 

The journey to Bethlehem was much more to my liking. I am content kneeling here, where there’s an aura of angels and the ever-present procession of shepherds and of kings who’ve come to kneel to the Newborn to whom we are newborn. I want to linger here in Bethlehem in joy and celebration, knowing once I set my feet toward Jerusalem, the Child will grow, and I will be asked to follow.

 

The time of Light and Angels is drawing to a close. Just when I’ve settled contentedly into the quiet wonder of Star and Child, He bids me leave and follow. How can I be expected to go back into darkness after sitting mangerside, bathed in such Light?

 

It’s hard to get away this time of year; I don’t know how I’ll manage. It’s not just the time…the conversation along the way turns from Birth to Death. I’m not sure I can stand the stress and pain; I have enough of those already. Besides, I’ve found the lighting on the road to Jerusalem is very poor. This time around, there is no Star…

 

The shepherds have left; they’ve returned to hillside and to sheep. The Magi, too, have gone, having been warned in a dream, as was Joseph, who packed up his family and fled. If I stay in Bethlehem, I stay alone. God has gone on toward Jerusalem.

 

Amen. (“Looking Toward Jerusalem”, from Kneeling in Jerusalem, by Ann Weems, p. 14-15.)

Epiphany 5B: Spending Time With God

Spending time with godOLD TESTAMENT: Isaiah 40: 21-31

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

Many scholars claim that at Chapter 40 in the Book of Isaiah, we cross a significant boundary. The Babylonian victory over Judah and Jerusalem is now presupposed and Judah has shared in that defeat. This is now the time when the “former things have [truly] passed away.” The passage begins by appealing to what Israel already knows. It is a reminder of what the Creator God has been doing since the beginning of Creation. It is a basic notion in their understanding of God that God’s ongoing creative activity asserts that things are always moving, always headed toward the way they are supposed to be.

But the image of us as grasshoppers is not meant to denigrate us but rather to remind us that Creation is bigger than anything that we can possibly be or imagine. We are only a small part of the whole. So, for the writer, “who are we to question the vastness of God?” Even though Assyrian rule is probably firmly in place here, there is a reminder that no sooner do they put down roots against Israel that God will put them away with what can be conceived as terrifying power. We remember from earlier passages in Isaiah that an entire generation in Isaiah’s lifetime had their ears shut and their eyes closed. This is the beginning of a new generation and the writer appeals to them in the strongest possible terms: to listen and see and know again, for God’s word does not require assent to remain true and abiding. It stands forever. So, our faith allows us to live in two orders of Creation—the already and the not yet, but always strengthened by the master Creator of them both.

Now understand that it was not that the earlier generation did not have God present; it was that they failed to hear, receive, and heed the Word that God put forth. In other words, our ears must be opened to hear aright. Each generation must be taught to hear and see God. God is the only one capable of “flipping the switch”, so to speak on how the world works. We have to be open to what God does and be prepared to hear and see it.

As an aside, it might just be a play on words or images, but did you know that grasshoppers have five eyes? They are able to see everything in what could be described as panoramic view. That’s sort of interesting, given the comparison of humanity to grasshoppers, to insinuate that we have the capability, if not the sensibility, to see all there is within the perspective of where it is. Perhaps what most gets in the way is that we think we have already figured everything out.

And yet God continues to persevere, holding us when we need to be held, leading us when we need to be led, and perhaps waiting, oh so patiently, for us to notice it all. And when we open our eyes and open our hearts to all that God holds for us, our future is ours. But are we, too, patient enough to wait for it to come? In all truth, we live in a world order that is slipping away. Maybe not tomorrow; maybe not for centuries; maybe not even for eons, but slipping away nevertheless. We are fleeting. But the everlasting God has promised that if we just open our lives and our hearts and our eyes, we will see and know that an everlasting order waits for us. But it’s different; it’s not the one in which we live. And, really, hasn’t that been said from the beginning? What we have now is not ours. We’re not meant for it. But, oh, the future one that waits for us…it is ours. It is home. And nothing is impossible.

 

This story is taken from “The People Who Could Fly”, a sermon by Otis Moss, III, 12/31/2006, available at http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/moss_5012.htm:

 

There is a story that I am told has been passed from mouth to ear somewhere along the palmetto dunes of South Carolina, a story passed down from West Africa to the North Atlantic. It is the story, a unique story, of the people who could fly. Depending upon whom you’re talking to, it is a little bit different, depending upon who is telling the tale.

The story takes place in St. Johns Island, just off the coast of South Carolina, as Africans who had been mislabeled slaves are toiling in the hot sun. They are working so very hard to pick cotton. There is one young woman and beside her is her small boy, maybe six or seven. She’s working in the fields and she has such incredible dexterity that she is able to pick cotton with her right hand and caress the forehead of her child with the left. But eventually, exhausted by working so hard in the fields, she falls down from the weight and the pressure of being—in the words of Dubois—“problem and property.” Her boy attempts to wake her very quickly, knowing that if the slave drivers were to see her the punishment would be swift and hard.

He tries to shake his mother, and as he’s trying to shake her, an old man comes over to him. An old man that the Africans called Preacher and Prophet, but the slave drivers called Old Devil. He looks up at the old man and says, “Is it time? Is it time?”

The old man smiles and looks at the boy and says, “Yes!” And he bends down ands whispers into the ear of the woman who was now upon the ground and says these words: “Cooleebah! Cooleebah!”

At that moment the woman gets up with such incredible dignity. She stands as a queen and looks down at her son, grasps his hand and begins to look toward heaven. All of a sudden they begin to fly. The slave drivers rush over to this area where she has stopped work and they see this act of human flight and are completely confused. They do not know what to do! And during their confusion, the old man rushes around to all the other Africans and begins to tell them, “Cooleebah! Cooleebah!”

When they hear the word, they all begin to fly. Can you imagine? The dispossessed flying? Can you imagine the disempowered flying? Three fifths of a person flying? The diseased flying? The dislocated flying? They are all taking flight! And at that moment the slave drivers grab the old man and say, “Bring them back!”

They beat him, and with blood coming down his cheek, he just smiles at them. They say to him, “Please bring them back!” And he says, “I can’t.” They say, “Why not?” He said, “Because the word is already in them and since the word is already in them, it cannot be taken from them.” The old man had a word from West Africa, cooleebah, a word that means God. It had been placed into the heart of these displaced Africans and now they had dignity and they were flying.

 

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What parallels for our time do you see?
  3. What most stands in our way of “hearing” and “seeing”?
  4. How much more do you think we’re capable of hearing and seeing than we do?

 

NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Corinthians 9: 16-23

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

Well, in case it seems like we’re walking into the middle of a discussion, this passage is actually a continuation of the veritable “meat saga” that we read last week. Paul anticipates a possible misunderstanding in what he had said earlier and he counters by denying that he is only saying these things so that he benefits more from his position. Paul understands that he did not just “decide” to preach the gospel but rather that he is entrusted with a commission, or a calling. He does not take that to mean that he is due any wage or benefit. Paul sees himself as a “slave” to God, one who has been renewed and revitalized. He is in it solely for the purpose of spreading the gospel of grace.

Paul is not “giving up” his freedom or his free will but is rather choosing not to exercise them in certain circumstances. That is a very different understanding of freedom and is interesting given our understanding of the Gospel as “setting us free”. St. Augustine said this: In Christ’s slavery, there is freedom indeed. But it’s hard to get our heads around. Paul does all things and becomes all things for the sake of the Gospel, showing his understanding of the dynamics of community in the life of faith.

In Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr says that “we have defined freedom in the West as the freedom to choose between options and preferences. That’s not primal freedom. That’s a secondary or even tertiary freedom. The primal freedom is the freedom to be the self, the freedom to live in the truth despite all circumstances. That’s what great religion offers us. That what real prayer offers us. That’s why the saints could be imprisoned and not lose their souls. They could be put down and persecuted like Jesus and still not lose their joy, their heart, or their perspective. Secular freedom is having to do what you want to do. Religious freedom is wanting to do what you have to do.

Perhaps freedom is having the ability and the wherewithal to be who we are called to be by God. It is not the freedom to become enslaved to the things of this world, thereby giving up our freedom. The thing that we are called to do is the thing we HAVE to do. It is the thing that we must do to be who we are. That is the freedom God gives us—to be who we have to be and to empower others in the world to do the same. Therein is the hope of Christ.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does Paul’s view of “freedom” mean to you?
  3. What does “freedom” mean in our society?
  4. How does that affect our notion of “reward”?

 

GOSPEL: Mark 1: 29-39

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

It is evident here that Jesus’ reputation is swiftly increasing. Right after they left the synagogue, the first healing episode occurs inside a house. Jesus cures the woman, who then serves him dinner. The next thing you know, all of a sudden the “whole city” (Really? A WHOLE city—like, ALL of Houston?) shows up begging to receive some of what Jesus is offering. You can imagine a hoard of townspeople crowding around the door of the house. And it says that he cured many—not the whole city, interestingly enough—but many.

But keep in mind that for the writer of the Markan Gospel, Jesus did not come to win the adulation of the crowds by working miracles but rather to claim the authority and identity of the Christ, which, for this writer, includes the cross itself. The crowds apparently begin to represent a problem for Jesus. He did not come to settle into the town as a local healer, but to preach the Gospel throughout the region. So he leaves Peter’s house in the darkness well before dawn, returning to a deserted place to pray. For the writer of this Gospel, it was clear that Jesus comes to do God’s will, not to seek his own advantage or popularity.

But, of course, Jesus is eventually “hunted down” by Simon and his companions. You can imagine it: “Come on, Jesus, everyone is looking for you, everyone needs you…what are you doing out here by yourself when there’s so much work to be done.” (OK, I think this is rather humorous!) Jesus’ answer? (Wait for it!) “OK, then let’s go somewhere else.” (GREAT answer!) Because after all, his mission was to spread the Gospel not get “bogged down” in answering every need of the town.   What a great lesson this could provide for us! Jesus did not feel the need or the compulsion to be “all things to all people”. He rather had what could be called a “big picture” view of what the Gospel meant. I mean, after all, the whole world order was changing, remember?

There’s a lot that this passage holds. It’s a lesson about Sabbath time; it’s a lesson about prayer; it’s a lesson about understanding others’ needs; it’s a lesson about who Jesus was. Or maybe it IS a call to see the “big picture”, to know in the deepest part of our being that even in the midst of chaos and disorderly fray, even in the midst of too many people expecting too much of us, even in the midst of those who misunderstand who we are, we, too, can be lifted up with wings like eagles and be taught how to fly. We just have to see it. The Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, is only partially about what Jesus can do for us. Mostly it’s about who we can become with Jesus by our side.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does this say about answering God’s call?
  3. What does this say about the totality of the Gospel?
  4. What could we learn from Jesus’ reactions?
  5. What “big picture” scenes are you missing from your life?

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences. (Susan B. Anthony)

We are what we repeatedly do. (Aristotle)

 

One of the saddest lines in the world is, ‘Oh come now—be realistic.’ The best parts of this world were not fashioned by those who were realistic. They were fashioned by those who dared to look hard at their wishes and gave them horses to ride. (Richard Nelson Bolles)

 

Closing

 

Holy God—in this precious hour, we pause and gather to hear your word—to do so, we break from our work responsibilities and from our play fantasies; we move from our fears that overwhelm and from our ambitions that are too strong. Free us in these moments from every distraction, that we may focus to listen, that we may hear, that we may change. Amen. (From Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, “That We May Change”, p. 61.)