Corrie and I lived on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere for five years. Actually, it was in middle Tennessee, and it wasn’t technically a mountain but the Cumberland Plateau but it was usually referred to as the mountain, and it had sacred significance for many as it was the home of Sewanee, the University of the South, a university affiliated with the Episcopal Church with one of the church’s theological seminaries. The Cumberland Plateau rises high above the countryside of middle Tennessee and when you are one of the bluffs on a clear day, there are spectacular views of the valley below. Having grown up on the flat land of Northwestern Ohio, I couldn’t get enough of those vistas. Continue reading
How are you all doing? Hanging in there? At least February is over even if winter is still around. We Wisconsinites are hardy folk, We pride ourselves in not being thwarted by a few inches of snow or sub-zero temperatures. But let’s be honest: a forecast of -10 tonight? I’m sure we’re all waiting for spring, or wishing we were somewhere warm and sunny. Last night, we drank Sicilian wine, ate Sicilian food, watched a TV show set in Sicily. It only made things worse.
As this winter continues, I feel myself dreading the Season of Lent. I feel like I’ve been in the middle of a spiritual discipline which is simply surviving winter. I’m not sure I’m ready to take on something else. But here we are on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany with Ash Wednesday only a few days away.
Because Ash Wednesday is so late this year, we seem far removed from the joyous celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany, the manifestation of God in Christ seems more a faint memory than lived experience. So it may be appropriate that on this Sunday each year, we experience another jolt of glory as we read the story of the Transfiguration.
Each gospel writer tells the story somewhat differently, reflecting their different emphases and their different understandings of Jesus. So for Luke, the first thing that we notice is the reason Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain—to pray. Matthew and Mark only observe that Jesus took the three of them to be off by themselves.
We have seen this emphasis on prayer before. Just a few weeks ago, I pointed out that Jesus began his sermon on the level place after going up to the mountain to pray with his disciples.
Thcere’s a similar moment a few verses before today’s gospel reading. Luke reports that one time, Jesus was praying, with only his disciples near him, and he asked them the famous question, “Who do people say that I am?” We might think what ties these three instances together. In the first, prayer precedes Jesus revealing himself to the disciples and the crowd by teaching them. In the second, he asks the disciples about his identity; in the third, God reveals Jesus’ identity, “This is my son, the Chosen, listen to him.”
These three different episodes in which Jesus reveals himself or in which his identity is revealed, have much to say to us. We might ask how we expect to encounter Jesus Christ, how we understand and experience him, what assumptions we bring with us. Do we expect preaching and teaching, a confession of faith, a miraculous experience? What satisfies us, what convinces us, what changes us?
There’s another important theme here. The story is full of imagery that looks back to the Hebrew Bible and forward to the resurrection. For example, the words that Luke uses to describe Jesus’ appearance are the exact same words he will use when describing the appearance of the angels at the empty tomb—the dazzling clothes appears in both places. But the ways in which this story points backwards in the biblical tradition are even more striking.
It’s not just the presence of Moses and Elijah, which 21stcentury readers might assume is only the gospel writers’ attempts to add to the drama and spectacle. Moses and Elijah were important figures in Jewish speculation. Both had mysterious deaths—Deuteronomy tells us that when Moses died, God buried him, and no one knows the location of his tomb. In the case of Elijah, he didn’t die at all but was carried off to heaven by chariots of fire. Because of this mystery, Jewish apocalyptic thinking focused attention on the return of both figures.
But their presence may be accounted for in less dramatic fashion. Moses, the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet were two key figures in the development of scripture and Jewish identity—Luke repeatedly tells us that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, so their presence here are a reminder of Jesus’ continuity with the tradition that came before him.
There’s another theme that connects back with earlier tradition and with Moses. Luke tells us that the Moses, Elijah, and Jesus “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” It’s an odd turn of phrase in English that takes on surprising significance in the Greek, for the Greek word used is “exodus.” With this, Luke is reaching back to the story of God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the promised land, a journey they were on in today’s reading from Exodus. In doing so, he is laying the foundation for his interpretation of the events of the cross and resurrection—like the Exodus Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection liberates us from our bondage to sin and death.
But there’s another departure, or exodus here. The voice from heaven says to Jesus’ disciples, “This is my Son, my Chosen, Listen to him.” Jesus and his disciples will go down the mountain. In Luke’s gospel this is the introduction to a lengthy section, from 9:37 to 19:28, which takes place during Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Having spent most of the preceding section of the gospel teaching in his home region of Galilee, Jesus now sets out on that final journey, towards his exodus.
Equally important, these 10 chapters are made up of material that is almost entirely unique to Luke, that is to say, it is material that doesn’t have parallels in Matthew or Mark. It includes some of Jesus’ most familiar and beloved parables: The Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, for example. When the voice commanded, “Listen to him” it speaks to us as well as to Jesus’ disciples, commanding us to pay attention to what Jesus is teaching us.
We are about to enter the season of Lent and our focus as Christians turns toward Jerusalem, the events of Holy Week, the joy of Easter. It’s easy for us in this season of repentance to focus on our sins and shortcomings, to view the 40 days of Lent as a season of struggle, fasting, time in the wilderness. While Exodus in the biblical tradition did include such themes, much of it took place in wilderness, it was much more than that. It was a celebration of freedom and God’s mighty act of delivering God’s chosen people from oppression in Egypt, and it looked ahead to a promised land, a future of freedom and plenty.
In Luke, the cross and resurrection are God’s mighty acts of deliverance of us from our bondage to sin and death. Our repentance in Lent opens us up to the joy of God’s forgiveness and the overwhelming power of God’s grace. May this coming season be for all of us a time to experience God’s forgiveness and the joy of God’s love.
As most of you know, last week I was on a silent retreat at the monastery of the Society for St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA. For four days, I worshiped, prayed, and ate with the brothers and other retreatants, most of whose names I never learned because of the silence that was observed most of the time. It takes me a while to adapt to that setting but the routine of the daily office that begins with Morning Prayer at 6:00 am and ends with Compline at 8:30 pm helps me adjust to a different pace and rhythm of life, and to refocus my energy and attention on God.
On Thursday evening, as I sat in the Romanesque style chapel waiting for the beginning of Evening Prayer, the beauty of the space, the thoughts of the monks chanting, and the incense that was billowing up into the rafters made me realize what a unique place it was, and how fortunate I was to be able to spend almost a week of my time there. I thought to myself, “It is good that I am here.” For a moment, I wondered what it might be like to worship there everyday, either as a monk or as one of those few laypeople who come to almost every service. Beautiful spaces, beautiful worship that engages all of the senses can help us experience the divine and deepen our relationship with God. Such worship restores, transforms, and revives us. Continue reading
So from the ground we felt that virtue branch
Through all our veins till we were whole, our wrists
As fresh and pure as water from a well,
Our hands made new to handle holy things,
The source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed
Till earth and light and water entering there
Gave back to us the clear unfallen world.
We would have thrown our clothes away for lightness,
But that even they, though sour and travel stained,
Seemed, like our flesh, made of immortal substance,
And the soiled flax and wool lay light upon us
Like friendly wonders, flower and flock entwined
As in a morning field. Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
And nowhere? W as the change in us alone,
And the enormous earth still left forlorn,
An exile or a prisoner? Yet the world
We saw that day made this unreal, for all
Was in its place. The painted animals
Assembled there in gentle congregations,
Or sought apart their leafy oratories,
Or walked in peace, the wild and tame together,
As if, also for them, the day had come.
The shepherds’ hovels shone, for underneath
The soot we saw the stone clean at the heart
As on the starting-day. The refuse heaps
Were grained with that fine dust that made the world;
For he had said, ‘To the pure all things are pure.’
And when we went into the town, he with us,
The lurkers under doorways, murderers,
With rags tied round their feet for silence, came
Out of themselves to us and were with us,
And those who hide within the labyrinth
Of their own loneliness and greatness came,
And those entangled in their own devices,
The silent and the garrulous liars, all
Stepped out of their dungeons and were free.
Reality or vision, this we have seen.
If it had lasted but another moment
It might have held for ever! But the world
Rolled back into its place, and we are here,
And all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn,
As if it had never stirred; no human voice
Is heard among its meadows, but it speaks
To itself alone, alone it flowers and shines
And blossoms for itself while time runs on.
This coming Sunday is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, “Transfiguration Sunday.” As I begin my sermon prep, I found this stanza from a poem by Mark Jarman:
I want to believe that he talked back to them, his radiant companions,
And I want to believe he said too much was being asked and too much promised.
I want to believe that that was why he shone in the eyes of his friends,
The witnesses looking on, because he spoke for them, because he loved them
And was embarrassed to learn how he and they were going to suffer.
I want to believe he resisted at that moment, when he appeared glorified,
Because he could not reconcile the contradictions and suspected
That love had a finite span and was merely the comfort of the lost.
I know he must have acceded to his duty, but I want to believe
He was transfigured by resistance, as he listened, and they talked.
Read the entire poem here: Transfiguration, by Mark Jarman (1982)
Today, August 6, in the church’s calendar is the Feast of the Transfiguration. It’s one of the major feasts of the life of Christ and because of that, when it falls on a Sunday, it supersedes the regular lectionary readings for the day. That explains why we are reading lessons from Exodus, 1 Peter, and the Gospel of Luke, rather than the Gospel of Matthew and the readings from Genesis and Romans we’ve been having.
It creates something of a problem for the preacher because there’s another Sunday each year when we always hear the story of the Transfiguration, the Last Sunday after Epiphany (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday). So it was only a few months ago that we heard Matthew’s version of this story. That we read this story each year on the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent is appropriate because the themes of this story are a fitting transition between the season after Epiphany and the beginning of Lent and reflect the story’s position in each of the synoptic gospels. It comes immediately after Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ, after Jesus’ first prediction that he will be crucified and his invitation to his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him. Luke deepens the connection between transfiguration by stating, just a few verses later, that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” In other words, after this mountaintop experience, Jesus begins his final journey that will end on another mountaintop—Calvary—with his crucifixion.
There’s another detail in the story that points ahead to the crucifixion. There’s only one other time that Luke says the disciples fell asleep. On that later occasion, as he faced crucifixion, Jesus asked his disciples to stay and watch with him while he prayed. Luke tells us that after praying, Jesus came back to them and found them sleeping, “because of grief.” This time, the disciples were “weighed down with sleep but they stayed awake and saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.”
Whatever positive spin we might put on the disciples’ behavior here is likely negated by Peter’s response to seeing Jesus with Moses and Elijah. He says, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make booths…” No doubt, you’ve heard sermons criticizing Peter’s response, his lack of understanding, his desire to prolong the experience. But there other ways to think about it. “Booths” is an allusion to the Jewish Feast of Sukkot or Tabernacles, which was in part a commemoration of the Hebrew experience of the Exodus.
And there are all sorts of echoes of Exodus here. Not just in the presence of Moses, the location on a mountaintop. There is also the presence of the cloud and the bright light, which were associated with experiences of divine revelation, including at Mt. Sinai. The word “Exodus” also appears, in Luke’s description of what Jesus talked about with Moses and Elijah—his “departure”—the same Greek word, eksodon is used. In the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish tradition, “exodus is one of the primary examples of God’s mighty acts on behalf of God’s chosen people, and it’s likely that Luke wants his readers to understand Jesus’ departure or exodus in similar terms, as God saving God’s people.
It may be, then, that Peter’s desire to erect booths is not an example of his misunderstanding, but that he wants to worship in this place, to be present with Jesus here, to learn from all three of these men. While the primary point of this story is about Jesus, a confirmation of his ministry, his calling, his identity as the Son of God, the Chosen One, this story may also be about discipleship, about following Jesus.
Jesus took his three favorite disciples, in Luke, the first three disciples he called, Peter, James, and John, up this mountain to pray. They had been with him all along his journey. They had seen his miracles, listened to his teaching, his first prediction of his suffering and death, and his call to them to take up their crosses and follow him. Now on top of this mountain, they saw his glory and wanted to prolong it. Whatever it meant, whatever they experienced, there was more to do; they could not tarry, but the four of them went back down the mountain and soon began that last, fateful trip to Jerusalem. And they kept silent about all that they had seen that day.
We, all of us, are called to follow Jesus. We are called to be his disciples. In our complicated world, with our complicated lives, it’s never quite clear what discipleship means. Is it enough to come to church from time to time and worship, to experience the beauty of God, to catch sight of God’s glory, if only momentarily and partially? I was speaking this week with an elderly couple who are unable, because of health issues to attend Grace. They expressed their deep sadness about missing services, for it was not just the community they lacked, it is the experience of awe and transcendence that they miss, and can find in no other place in their lives.
Worship, the experience of God’s glory is an important part of following Jesus but there is more to discipleship than that. When Jesus came down the mountain, he returned immediately to his ministry of teaching and healing, of proclaiming and bringing into being, the reign of God. And that is precisely what we are called to do as well. Our experience of God’s glory transforms us as well as we do those same things proclaiming the coming of God’s reign, and in our actions and lives, being agents and examples of God’s glory in the world.
The mount of Calvary looms over the mountain of Transfiguration; the cross casts its shadow on Christ’s transfigured face. Our observance of the Feast of Transfiguration occurs in a divided city that has experienced unprecedented violence in recent months. We have seen, as I’m sure you know, 10 homicides already this year, tying the record for the most murders in a year in Madison. Our city is more divided than ever. Our elected leadership is quarreling over what to do in response to this crisis and community leaders are frustrated and angry. Meanwhile, residents of the neighborhoods most affected by the violence are living in fear everyday and mourning the deaths of friends and family.
We, most of us, watch the news reports, read about them in the papers or on social media, but few of us have experienced the ripples of that violence ourselves. Oh, we may know where the events occurred, we may have stopped at the gas stations or convenience stores where incidents took place, we may even live within earshot. But most of us live in a completely different world. There’s a map on Madison.com that plots all of the significant incidents of gun violence in the city since May. Only one of the some 50 total occurred in the downtown, near westside or near eastside. It’s another piece of evidence showing how divided our city is.
As followers of Jesus, called to share the good news of the coming of God’s reign, called to break down the barriers that divide us, we are called to be agents of Christ’s reconciling love in this world. A group of us, the Creating More Just Community task force, has been engaging on issues of racism and inequality for the last several years. We are working on a new initiative to build relationships with our neighbors across the street at the Capitol, and shared information about that effort with you last week.
Now, I am calling us to engage in that reconciling work in our city. The violence we are witnessing is a symptom of something much deeper, of hopelessness and despair, of broken families, broken lives. In the coming weeks, I will be taking part in conversations with clergy and community leaders to see how we at Grace can work with others to heal our divisions, to bring an end to violence, and to spread the glory of Christ’s love in our city.
We have come to end of the season after the Epiphany. It’s been a long season this year—this is the 8th Sunday, so Christmas, the birth of Jesus, the coming of the Magi, all of that is little more than a distant memory. Still, in this long season, we have been reflecting on all of the way in which God shows Godself to us, in Jesus Christ as well as in the glory of creation. The season always ends, in all three years of the lectionary cycle, with the story we just heard, one of the gospels’ versions of the transfiguration. Continue reading