Transfiguration A: Transcendence

Fog on mountaintopOLD TESTAMENT:  Exodus 24: 12-18

Read the passage from Exodus

According to tradition, the Book of Exodus is known as “the Second Book of Moses”.  The major themes of Exodus are identified as liberation, law, covenant, and presence.  The presence of God is exceedingly important.  God’s presence is seen as life-giving glory being concretely present in the world.  The assumption is that God yearns to be present, but that requires a community of generous faith, emptied of the worldly culture around it, which gives its best skills, disciplines, and goods for the housing of the holy.  The main theme of the passage that we read is communion in the presence of God.  This is prior to the making of the covenant.  We just have to bask in God’s overwhelming and exuding presence. The preceding verses have God inviting Moses back up the mountain.

Now…some background…in the understanding of this early community of faith, God was not to be seen.  God was the great I AM, one whose name could not be said, one whose power could not be beheld, one whose presence could not be seen. (It is in some way a better way to think of God—“lost in wonder and awe”– than the way we often view God as a great vending machine ready to tend to all of our wants and needs!  After all, it seems that it would be harder to take the great I AM for granted!)  But here, if one saw God, one died…But here God was!

So Moses goes farther up the mountain.  (Now remember too that for these ancient Israelites, the mountain was a source not only of grandeur, but also of divine revelation.  Mountain tops were sacred places.) He is with Joshua, who really plays no part.  It is noted that perhaps the narrator of the event is looking forward to that time when Joshua would be his successor and tries to legitimate that role.  But, finally, Moses is alone and, alone, walks into the cloud.  (Now keep in mind their understanding of seeing God. Their assumption would be that Moses was going to die.—Look at the language…”devouring fire). But here he waits in complete obedience to be addressed and to receive.  Think about this…to those in the world, to those standing and looking up at the mountain, God’s presence resembles a “devouring fire”, something that destructs and devours everything in its path, clearing the path before it.  God’s presence comes in and changes everything…and that is painful.  But, it says, Moses entered the cloud.  He goes where no one has ever gone before.  He leaves the zone of humanness and enters the sphere of God.  And then he stays.  No one thought he would ever return—consumed by that fiery inferno.  For God to come here, Moses must go there!  The truth is, Moses probably got a whole lot more of God than he every really wanted.

The Hebrews understood that no one could see God and live.  They were right.  No one can see God and remain unchanged.  We die to ourselves and emerge in the cloud.  We, too, probably don’t want “all of God”.  We’d rather control the way God enters and affects our lives.  But remember the words of the Isaac Watts hymn:  “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

 

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. How would our understanding of God change if we thought of God as the “Great I AM”?
  3. What keeps us from realizing that God’s presence changes everything in our lives rather than merely affirming who we are?
  4. (OK…this is an odd question)…Do we really want as much of God as God is willing to share with us?  Do we really want a God that is “so amazing, so divine” that a relationship with that God “demands my soul, my life, my all?”

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  2 Peter 1: 16-21

Read the passage from 2 Peter

Although this epistle is often presented as the work of the Apostle known as Simon Peter, most scholars attribute it to an unknown author writing under the name of Peter.  (Keep in mind the tradition of honoring someone by using their name—this is not plagiarism!)   So this letter is looked upon as pseudonymous.  There doesn’t seem to be any real indication that even the first and second letters of Peter were written by the same author.  They vary quite a bit in style and form.

The recipients of the letter were apparently undesignated churches once addressed by the first letter of Peter as well as some of Paul’s epistles.  The writer was prompted by a presence of false teachers who had convinced weak or new Christians to accept their doctrine that claimed that Christ’s presence and coming was a myth.  To them, God was transcendent and unconcerned with humanity.  The idea of God coming and living in our midst was something that they just couldn’t fathom so they preached against it.  This went against the Apostles’ teaching of living a holy life while one waited for the glory of the coming of Christ; in other words, while one waited for what we humans had already figured out it would look like when God comes.

In the passage that we read, the author refutes this whole incorrect belief with a proof from eyewitness testimony from those who witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration.  This whole problem came about because, in the minds of those in that day, God had not been true to God’s word of Christ’s return.  They thought it was going to be the next week or the next month or certainly by now!  It was easy to turn it into a myth.  (And, I suppose, remains that way for some people.)  But the writer encourages its hearers to remain faithful and build up their own faith.

The truth is, our faith is not a belief in what is said or taught but, rather, a belief in what is.  It is not a faith of following what is said or what is known but in listening to what is, to the God who calls us even now and walks with us down the mountain into the unknown.  It is believing in a God who walks with us into Life.

 

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. What does the concept of Christ’s return mean for you?
  3. What gets in the way of your seeing that come to be in your own life?

 

 

GOSPEL:  Matthew 17: 1-9

Read the passage from The Gospel According to Matthew

The Greek for “transfigured” is, here, metamorphormai, or “to undergo a metamorphosis”.  In our terms (think of a butterfly—that’s sort of our “go to” symbol.), that means a change in form or character.  Here, Jesus glows with a transcendent glory reserved only for heavenly beings, which implies that he belongs to the divine world or at the very least was being showered and consumed by the very Divine.  The Gospel writer of Matthew depicts Jesus as being together with Moses and Elijah in a scene of transcendent glory, showing Jesus in continuity with the fulfillment of God’s work portrayed by the Old Testament.

As we read in our Old Testament reading, the heavenly voice and presence comes from the cloud.  Matthew has this same image of the cloud.  Peter’s response seems odd to us, almost as if he misses the whole point. (And probably makes us a bit uncomfortable with our own reaction!)  It sounds like he’s trying to control or contain the Christ.  But keep in mind that it was a response from his Jewish understanding.  He was offering lodging—a booth, a tent, a tabernacle—for the holy.  But he needed only to listen.  That is the proper response to such incredible holiness.

And somewhere in the depiction, Moses and Elijah drop out of sight.  In Old Testament Hebrew understanding, the tabernacle was the place where God was.  Here, in this moment, this changes.  Jesus stays with them alone.  Jesus—not Moses, not Elijah–IS the tabernacle, the reality of God’s presence in the world.  The disciples descend down the mountain into the world, full of pain and suffering and injustice.  But God’s presence remains with us.

In the Old Testament passage that we read, Moses descended the mountain with the law; in the depiction of the Transfiguration of Christ, Jesus descends with his own life and body given unto all.  Fred Craddock describes the account of the Transfiguration of Christ as “the shout heard round the world”, the glorious announcement of what happened in Bethlehem years before.  It IS the final Epiphany.

It says, though, that the disciples descended from the mountain.  That is the key.  We are not called to some sort of removed piety.  We must return to the world.  The Transfiguration leads directly into Lent.  Jesus descends and walks toward Jerusalem.  The Transfiguration leads us to Lent and at the same time gives us a taste of Easter glory.  But those who are present are told not to speak of it.  There is something about this that would never have been understood until it was placed in the context of what was to come next and, for now, we know more than those disciples what that is.  Jesus has gone onto Jerusalem.  Our response must be to follow—even into what we know.

 

After a person is baptized in an Episcopal Church, there is a prayer said for the newly baptized, which concludes like this:  “Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.”

The gift of joy and wonder in all your works.  We’ve lost many things over the years. Joy and wonder are two of them. It’s just so hard to conjure up wonder. As a parent, one of the parental goals I have for myself is to raise two girls with a sense of wonder. So, I take them to museums and cathedrals, and point out the intricacies and nuances of what they’re seeing. When I speak of God to them, I not only tell them that Jesus is their friend and with them all the time (which is good), but also that he made the sun, the moon and the stars. And manatee. And flamingos. And Cheetos.  OK, I definitely leave out the Cheetos…

 

As a priest, I try and conjure up for the parish I serve similar awe of the power of God, the minute and amazing details of the scriptures, and the movement of the Holy Spirit through the history of humanity and the Church.  Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I don’t. I’ve had too many experiences of taking youth into a grand nave of a wondrous, storied, cathedral or abbey… only to find them more interested in looking at their shoes and incoming text messages.  Those moments hurt my heart.

We had a clergy day a few weeks back with Mike Gecan, the author of “Going Public.” He talked about going into his child’s Kindergarten class and seeing a bulletin board illustrating what the students wanted to learn in school that year. Most of the statements were like, “behave,” “learn to sit still,” “follow the rules,” “listen to the teacher better.”

One child said “I want to know why the ocean shines like fire.”  Holy smoke.  I mean HOLY smoke! Now that the kids mentions it… I want to know why the ocean shines like fire too.  There’s a kid who has the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.

We can say a lot about the Tranfiguration. And given it’s prevalent use in the lectionary from year to year, we get to say a lot about it.  But, if there’s ever a “WOW” moment in Jesus’ earthly ministry, this is it. Jesus took his three chosen disciples up on a mountain to do many things. One of them, was to blow their sandals off.  And, whatever shortcomings they have, and however paltry Peter’s words are, they at least do the appropriate thing and fall on their faces before the Presence of the Glory of God and His Son.  This is an intimate encounter, for only a few, on an un-named mountaintop. And so, I have to believe that this isn’t just a historical tale of one of Jesus’ afternoon excursions, but is a model of Christian life.

We are to look around and search for those places and events where God knocks our socks off. And we’re to fully soak in the WOW of the moment. And maybe even fall on our faces.  It reminds us of God’s power and glory and splendor. And it reminds us of our appropriate, faithful, response: worship.  And, once we experience wonder – and help others do the same – maybe we can put the incoming-text-message-machines down… and experience joy too.  Why does Jesus shine like fire? Let’s see for ourselves, and invite others along.  When is the last time you let God blow your socks off? (From “A Garden Path”, a blog by R.M.C. Morley, available at http://www.rmcmorley.com/a-garden-path/2011/02/last-epiphany-a-shining-like-fire.html, accessed 1 March, 2011.)

 

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. What does this depiction of God’s presence mean to us?
  3. In what ways, then, should we see the presence of God, or Jesus, differently?
  4. What effect does that have on how we view our own practices of faith?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

People only see what they are prepared to see. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

All over this magnificent world God calls us to extend [God’s] kingdom of shalom—peace and wholeness—of justice, of goodness, of compassion, of caring, or sharing, of laughter, of joy, of reconciliation.  God is transfiguring the world right this very moment through us because God believes in us and because God loves us.  What can separate us from the love of God?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  And as we share God’s love with our brothers and sisters, God’s other children, there is no tyrant who can resist us, no opposition that cannot be ended, no hunger that cannot be fed, no wound that cannot be healed, no hatred that cannot be turned into love, no dream that cannot be fulfilled.  (Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream)

Change your ways, give yourself a fresh coat of paint, convert yourself.  Do all this, and you’ll find the cross before it finds you. (Thomas A’ Kempis, The Imitation of Christ)

 

Closing

 

A Prayer for Transfiguration Sunday

Let’s go up the mountain.  Let’s go up to the place where the land meets the sky where the earth touches the heavens, to the place of meeting, to the place of mists, to the place of voices and conversations, to the place of listening:

 

O God, We open our eyes and we see Jesus, the months of ministry transfigured to a beam of light, the light of the world, your light. May your light shine upon us. We open our eyes and we see Moses and Elijah, your word restoring us, showing us the way,
telling a story, your story, his story, our story. May your word speak to us.  We open our eyes and we see mist, the cloud of your presence which assures us of all we do not know
and that we do not need to fear that. Teach us to trust.  We open our eyes and we see Peter’s constructions, his best plans, our best plans, our missing the point, our missing the way.  Forgive our foolishness and sin.

 

We open our eyes and we see Jesus, not casting us off, but leading us down, leading us out – to ministry, to people. Your love endures forever. We open our ears and we hear your voice, ‘This is my beloved Son, listen to him!’ And we give you thanks. Amen

(Prayer by William Loader, 02/2001, available at http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/TransfigurationPrayer.htm, accessed 1 March, 2011)

Lent 5C: Meeting Jesus Now

mary-anoints-jesusOLD TESTAMENT: Isaiah 43: 16-21

To read the Old Testament passage

This passage centers on the promise that God is going to do a new thing and calls Israel (and us) to be on the lookout for the fulfillment of that promise. In our culture, we are continually bombarded with predictions of the “end of the world”, warning of a time to come that is filled with gloom and despair. But, really, how can you read this text and fall into such a look at the future? The crux is that God is indeed going to do a new thing. It will be a time when the former things will not be considered, a time when all of Creation will come together and finally be the Creation that God had formed from the beginning. It is a message of hope, rather than gloom and despair.

But implicit in this passage is the call to look for these things, to make oneself aware of what is to come. In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann reminds us (when talking of this message to Israel) that “they will have no joy, no public justice, no corporate repentance, and no family humaneness until the community received a newness it cannot generate for itself.” It is a call, then, to look to God, to look to what God promises and what God is doing and not try to “fix” it ourselves.

Here, the passage begins with a reminder of what God has done and then, as if immediately, the hearer is told to forget about those things, to not dwell on what did or did not happen, to let it go. Perhaps what is about to come will be so much better than what we presently see that it will indeed make us forget the “former things”.

Remember the background of the context of this passage. This chapter is the fourth chapter in what we have come to call “Second Isaiah”. The time is probably the end of the exile, the end of a time of great communal loss and despair and one that is definitely shaping their identity and how they see God. At this point, they had lost everything—homes, land, their way of making a living, even their very sense of who they were before God and as a people. They couldn’t help but ask questions that still reverberate for us today: Where was God? Why had God let this happen? What kind of future did we really have waiting? But into this despair, God comes and promises hope. It is a reminder to them and to us that God is always there, whether or not we are in a position to be aware of God’s presence. In Feasting on the Word, Kristin Johnson Largen says that “From this verse, we know that Isaiah’s message to God’s people will be a word of encouragement, a word of consolation, and, most importantly, a word of hope, and from the thirty-nine chapters that preceded [Second Isaiah], we know that it comes to a people in dire need of a good word from the Lord. No wonder the great Hebrew scholar Abraham Heschel calls the proclamation of Second Isaiah ageless, saying “No words have ever gone further in offering comfort when the sick world cries.”” (Kristen Johnston Largen, Feasting on the Word, Year C., Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Fifth Sunday in Lent” (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 122-124.)

God is indeed a God of new life. It is our own call to look beyond the past and dare to hope, dare to believe in the restoration of life and of Creation that God has promised. We Christians sort of have a “hind sight” view of the recreation that God can do. We Lenten journeyers who walk toward the cross this season know how the story turns out. It is our own call to let the past go and to open the tombs of our lives…if nothing else, just to see what God can do, just to see what wonderful surprises God has in store for us. It is a call to open our eyes so that we don’t miss the signs of resurrection that are everywhere. It is a call to “come and see this thing that has happened”.

 

  • What is your response to this passage?
  • What things in our lives make it difficult to be hopeful?
  • In this Season of Lent, when we walk to journey to the Cross, what message of personal hope does that mean for us?
  • What signs of recreation, of “resurrection”, if you will, do you see in Creation when you allow yourselves?
  • How does this speak to you in the midst of this Lenten journey?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 3:4b-14

To read the Epistle passage

This passage begins with Paul boasting about his own life and his own self. In fact, he sort of presents his resume’, as if he is quashing any readers or onlookers who might consider themselves above him. And then, just as quickly, he deflates himself. He essentially now claims that whatever good (or bad) that he’s done in the past is nothing in terms of his knowing Christ. We need to understand that Paul is not tossing away his past. He still claims it—good and bad. It is part of who he is. But he uses it to put it all in perspective. For him, the things that he valued in the past are no longer as important to him. (And the things that he regretted in his past are no longer in his way either.)

Paul now realizes that whoever and whatever he claims to be is because of God through Christ. The promise of new life is what now urges him forward in his journey. He, admittedly, is not there but he sees his journey as one of faith and one of life with Christ. This also sort of disputes those who claim that the “prize”, the “goal”, the “reward”—whatever they choose to call it—is because of who they are or what they’ve done. According to Paul, it is nothing WE do; rather, it is something that God does for us. Our journey, then, is a journey of faithfulness in the hope that God has promised.

This is also a treatise on faith itself. Paul would claim that blindly following rules of the religion is not what brings one closer to God. That would be a belief that loses perspective, that lets the rules and the understandings get in the way of one’s faith. Paul is not claiming that he is better than others because he is better-versed in the faith; if anything, he is disputing that very claim.

In this Lenten season, we are called to strip ourselves of those things that get in the way of our faith, that impede us on our journey toward that oneness with God. Paul is reminding us that included in that is a call to let go of our past, let go of the “I” that we’ve built ourselves up to be, and let go of the understandings that frame how we view God. It is a call to open ourselves to God’s movement in our lives and God’s guidance on this journey that we call faith. We’re all in this together. We’re all the same, journeying toward God, guided by God, thirsting for God. Tony Campolo tells this story in one of his online sermons:

Where do you meet Jesus? Well, first of all I contend you meet Jesus in suffering people. If you look deeply into the eyes of suffering people, you will have this eerie awareness that the same Jesus that died on the cross is staring back at you. Mother Teresa learned that, and I’m learning that.

I was walking down the street in Philadelphia and a bum came towards me. I mean a dirty, filthy guy. He was covered with soot from head to toe. You couldn’t believe how messed up he was. He had this huge beard and there was rotted food stuck in the beard. As he approached me, he held out a cup of McDonald’s coffee and said, “Hey mister, want some of my coffee?” I looked at his dirty, filthy personhood and said, “Thanks, but that’s okay,” and I walked by him. The minute I passed him, I knew I was doing the wrong thing, so I turned around and said, “Excuse me. I would like some of your coffee.” I took some of the coffee and sipped it and gave it back to him. I said, “You’re being generous. How come you’re being so generous today?” And this bum looked at me and he said, “Because the coffee was especially delicious today and I think that when God gives you something good, you ought to share it with people.” I didn’t know how to handle that, so I said, “Can I give you anything?” I thought that he would hit me for five dollars. He said, “No.” Then he said, “Yeah, yeah. I’ve changed my mind, there is something you can give me. You can give me a hug.” As I looked at him, I was hoping for the five dollars! He put his arms around me and I put my arms around him. And as I in my establishment dress and he in his filthy garb hugged each other on the street, I had the strange awareness that I wasn’t hugging a bum, I was hugging Jesus. I found Jesus in that suffering man.

Whenever you meet a suffering person, you will find that Jesus is there waiting to be loved in that individual. That’s why Jesus said, “In as much as ye do it unto the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do it unto me.” You cannot reach out to a person in need, you cannot embrace somebody who’s hurting, you cannot minister to somebody who is in desperate straits without having that eerie and wonderful awareness that Jesus is coming back at you right through that person. If there is anything that Mother Teresa would have taught us, that’s what she would have taught us. (Tony Campolo, “Knowing God”, 30 Good Minutes, October 26, 1997, available at http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/campolo_4104.htm, accessed 17 March, 2010.)

 

 

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What are the things that we today hold out as “better”, those things that make up who we are and perhaps get in the way of our relationship with God?
  • The first century “boundary marker” for faith was circumcision? What is our twenty-first century “boundary marker for our faith?
  • Are there things on your “resume’” that make faith a challenge for you?
  • What happens to us and our relationships when we let things like that come into play?
  • How does this speak to you in the midst of this Lenten journey?

 

 

GOSPEL: John 12: 1-8

To read the Gospel passage

The Gospel passage occurs in all four canonical Gospels. But it is never told the same way twice, illustrating once again that the Bible was not written as an historical narrative but rather a way to connect us to God and to each other. The Gospel writers place the event at different times and the woman herself is not always named. But the fact that costly perfume is extravagantly poured on Jesus is always the same.

This passage from the writer that we know as John (which is also read on Monday of Holy Week every year) follows the raising of Lazarus in Chapter 11. Lazarus, Martha and Mary’s brother, had died and Jesus raised him. It marks a turning point of the Gospel. This would be the last straw. It is the event that marks Jesus for death. It’s really unclear whether or not Lazarus and his family knew that. It’s probable that neither they nor the disciples did. But Martha and Mary are so grateful for what Jesus has done and so glad to have Lazarus back, that they invite him to dinner. They pull out all the stops—best dishes, best linens, and cook up a feast. In the midst of the celebration, Mary rises and gathers a jar of expensive oil. Pure nard WOULD have been worth an awful lot of money in that time. It was hard to come by and was reserved to anoint the deceased. You could speculate that the oil has been purchased for the preparation of Lazarus’ body. She breaks the seal and pours it out extravagantly over Jesus’ feet. The fragrance filled the house. She then, of all things, unbinds her hair (improper in mixed company) and wipes her hair over Jesus’ feet.

Well, it was too much for the disciples. They claim that the oil could have been sold and the money given to the poor. In other words, it is as if they were claiming that Mary was wasting the oil by pouring it on Jesus’ feet! The truth was that Mary got it. With deep gratefulness and deep love, she anointed Jesus for his death. Perhaps she knew what was to come. Perhaps she understood it as a distinct possibility. And in the anointing, she, too, enters the Passion narrative. She understood what it meant for Jesus to be sitting there. She did not worry about rules, or what was right, or what was proper. She gave herself over to being truly present in this moment with Jesus.

I’ve often thought that some of the language used or implied here is telling. Mary took…and poured…and wiped…(Sound familiar? Later, Jesus would take the bread, pour the wine, and wipe the feet of the disciples.) Her act was not, of course, a sacrament; but it WAS sacramental. She understood and entered the love that was Christ. She made that love visible (an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”, so to speak).   She became part of Jesus’ journey to the cross. And in that moment, the house becomes a cathedral and the meal becomes a Eucharist in memory of the living Christ.

Where do we find ourselves in this story? Jesus has begun the walk to the cross. Are we standing on the sidelines watching the events unfold as if it is some sort of prepared video stream? Are we holding back those things we have because the cost is just too great? Or are we waiting to see what the person next to us will do? Each of us is called to take, to pour, and to wipe. Each of us is called to become a living sacrament of Christ’s love. Each of us is called to walk with Christ to the cross. Each of us is called to embody that close a relationship with the living Christ. Each of us is called to see, to hear, to smell, to touch, to feel, to laugh, and to love with the depth and passion of Christ. Because, you see, that is the only way to experience that lingering fragrance of Christ that is still in the air.

 

  • What meaning does this hold for you?
  • What does it mean for you to live a sacramental life or be a living sacrament of Christ’s love?
  • What does being “truly present” mean to you?
  • What does this mean for you on your Lenten journey?

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

“Theologically, I don’t think you can see the future. Traditional Judaism sees that as arrogance—it’s like picking God’s pocket.” (Dan Wakefield, Creating From the Spirit)

 

If you own something you cannot give away, then you don’t own it, it owns you. (Albert Schweitzer)

 

All action ends in passion because the response to our action is out of our hands. That is the mystery of work, the mystery of love, the mystery of friendship, the mystery of community…And that is the mystery of Jesus’ love. God reveals [Godself] in Jesus as the one who waits for our response. (Henri J.M. Nouwen, ”From Action to Passion”)

 

Closing

 

There is a long list of threats around us: terror, cancer, falling markets, killing, others unlike us in all their variety, loneliness, shame, death—the list goes on and we know it well. And in the midst of threats of every kind, you appear among us in your full power, in your deep fidelity, in your amazing compassion. You speak among us the one word that could matter: “Do not fear.”

 

And we, in our several fearfulnesses, are jarred by your utterance. On a good day, we know that your sovereign word is true. So give us good days by your rule, free enough to rejoice, open enough to change, trusting enough to move out of new obedience, grace enough to be forgiven and then to forgive.

 

We live by your word. Speak it to us through the night, that we may have many good days through your gift. Amen. (Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2008), 83.)