Prayers for Pastors, Transfiguration

An infinity of epiphanies ~ a prayer on Transfiguration

Holy One,
you give us an infinity of epiphanies.

Peter, James and John knew Jesus:
the lines on his face,
the timbre of his voice
the length of his stride,
the color of his hair.
Did the mountain change Jesus?
Or did it change them?

An infinity of epiphanies you give us.

Jesus lit up the town by spitting in the mud
and giving a born-blind man sight.
Who could deny he was more than ordinary?
The sin was in not seeing him.

The sin lies in not seeing you.

It seems so simple.

Why do we need an infinity of epiphanies?

Why can’t we see?

We are caught up in traditions,
ready to hold still, to shelter in place,
afraid to tell the world the Good News.

Send us back down the mountain to serve you.

Colored light bathes the interior of Saint-Julien in Brioude, France., from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
Colored light bathes the interior of Saint-Julien in Brioude, France., from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

We are blinded by the rules we have made,
by the way we’ve always done things,
by resistance to new life.

Wash the mud from our eyes and let us see.

Light of the world,
open our eyes
to the infinite epiphanies to come.

(See this Sunday’s texts: Revised Common Lectionary; Narrative Lectionary.)

2 Kings 2:1-12, Transfiguration

The Company of Prophets

(Or, “The Captivating Phrase About Which I Did Not Preach.”)

What do you suppose it’s like to be in the company of prophets?

I know the point of the 2 Kings 2 passage on Transfiguration B is to remind us of the story of Elijah and the special nature of his relationship with God. It’s to remind us why he’s on the mountaintop with Moses and Jesus and why it should matter to Peter, James and John to see him.

But I keep rolling those words over in my mind, and even aloud, “the company of prophets.”

I’ll confess right now, I did no research on the phrase or the time or the people, although I’m sure that would be interesting. It’s the phrase itself that won’t let go of me. Suppose as the church we were called to be the company of prophets? Suppose we are meant to be transformed from regular citizens into prophetic voices?

This causes all kinds of problems for most American Christians. We are comfortable in our churches and like the way we’ve always done things. We don’t want to, for heaven’s sake, upset anyone, because we’ve internalized the advice given to Thumper:

But I imagine the company of prophets did not live by any such rule. And in the current climate, when the very name of our faith, Christian, is being used and, dare I say it, misused by those who think “nice” means turning the calendar back to a fictional past in which women devoted themselves exclusively to pregnancy and child-rearing, we don’t dare to be silent.

Over the weekend, I led the service remembering the life of a church member who lived to be 101. Born at a time when you placed a phone call, if you had a phone, through the operator, he lived to be someone whose cell number is saved in my iPhone. He was also born in a time when women had no voice at the polls yet, nor did they have a voice in many of our churches.

It happens that I baptized his great-granddaughter while serving in my first call at Small Church. She is now a poised young lady of seven. Her mother shared this story with me. Young E wanted to know why her family attends Small Church rather than the Catholic church where her other grandparents are members. Her mother explained that in the Catholic church women are not free to stand up and proclaim the Gospel. Young E responded, quite reasonably, “That’s not fair!!!” 

She gets it. And she gives me courage that there will continue to be a company of prophets to keep proclaiming the ways humankind confuses what matters, in our relationship with God and with others.

Last week, a senior member at my current call wrote a letter to the editor of the Portland paper, expressing frustration with an editorial cartoon claiming that there will be no marriage equality until the older generation dies off. 

I deeply resent the Steve Meyers editorial cartoon in the Feb. 5 Maine Sunday Telegram.
It implies that we older people are (1) all homophobic and (2) unable or unwilling to learn about and appreciate the differences in people and their lifestyles. I find that insulting.
Many of us as children or young adults had little knowledge of or contact (that we knew of) with the homosexual population. Now that homosexuality is out in the open and we have become acquainted with gay people, we realize that they are the same as everyone else and should have the same rights and privileges as everyone else. At least, some of us do.
I don’t think that we, the older population, are any different from everyone else, either. Some are against gay marriage and some are for it. To paint us all with the same brush is to depreciate our value as singular human beings.
Priscilla Brobst
(age 75 and still evolving)
North Yarmouth
Membership in the company of prophets is not age-sensitive. You only have to be willing to speak the truth, whether or not it’s nice in other people’s eyes. 
I’m not always that brave.
But Priscilla and Young E give me courage that there is still a company of prophets to be joined, to open our eyes to the prejudice we paper over by being “nice” and “polite,” and to remind us that in the realm of God we are neither old nor young, slave nor free, gay nor straight, male nor female, your race nor my race, but one human family in which the prophetic word is still needed, the Good News that God actually cares about all of us.
And that, in fact, asks a lot of us. And I’m afraid that right now the loudest self-proclaimed Christian voices don’t share that sentiment. They want a world as much like their version of the Old Testament as possible. If you think that means Ozzie and Harriet’s world, I commend to you a thorough reading of Genesis and Exodus and Leviticus and Numbers. I beg you to actually read your Bible so you know what people are talking about as well as the speakers know it themselves.
I ask you, and I ask myself, to think outside the book, the box of tradition, the ways of your grandparents, even, and remember that prophets go up against the establishment to make clear where the establishment is getting it wrong. 
Prophets move us forward to a new understanding, not backwards to an old way of doing things. 
I ask you, and I ask myself, would we join the company of prophets?
Here’s a pair of prophets I admire:

Mark 9:2-9, Sermons, Transfiguration

Listen to Him!

(A sermon for Transfiguration Sunday Year B–February 19, 2012–Mark 9:2-9)

I’ve been to the top of a mountain – more than one, actually, but I’m thinking of one in particular. Nearing the summit, I came up over some rocks that formed steps and saw that the rest of the climb was all rock. There was no more earth, only stone and sky.

I stopped.

The sight of what I had to cross to get to the actual top frightened me. There were no handholds, no trees or shrubs. Just great big rocks.

I couldn’t breathe right. My heart beat too fast. I wanted to turn back. I wondered if a person could just sort of crawl the rest of the way. I looked back over my shoulder and saw the downward view and didn’t like it much better. I only had another 20 feet to go and from there a person could step up onto the highest point, another enormous (though it didn’t seem that way at the time) solid ledge of ancient stone.

The place, the situation, none of it felt real to me. The hours of hiking – and this was the tallest mountain I had ever hiked – all disappeared, and I no longer felt the motivation to get where I was going, because mostly I felt terrified.

It’s possible I said some things that sounded silly, even foolish. I don’t remember them exactly, but
I believe words came out of my mouth suggesting that I would be risking my life were I to go those last 20 feet. Yet there were other hikers sitting comfortably at that distance, eating sandwiches carried up in their backpacks, enjoying the sunshine and taking in the view.

Yes, I said some foolish things.

Usually if you just let me keep talking, I can get down off the figurative ledge myself, and that’s what happened after a few minutes. Eventually I took the step up and over to the big expanse of stone. I never did take the last step up to the flat place, but I was close enough. I experienced the view, all 360 degrees of it, taking in the other peaks of the White Mountains all around.

I think that was the day I came to understand why people used to believe you were nearer to God on a mountaintop. That day awe – well, fear, actually – overcame my exhaustion. I trembled. I marveled. I felt so hard I could not think.

It wouldn’t have surprised me at all, though I might have wished for something to hold onto, if suddenly some great figures from my faith history had appeared on the mountain top. Really, anything seemed possible. But I suspect I would have been just as unable to speak an intelligent word in their presence as Peter was in the presence of Moses and Elijah and the Voice from the Overshadowing Cloud declaring,

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7b, NRSV)

But let’s back up and start the hike from the beginning, because this story crops up in the lectionary as unexpectedly as the mountain appears in the lowlands of Judea. We’re at the mid-point of Mark’s gospel. Jesus has been healing and teaching and traveling all around Galilee, but people don’t understand who he is. Remember in the stories we’ve read the past few weeks, from Chapter 1 of Mark, it’s the demons that recognize Jesus as God, not his friends.

Six days earlier, Jesus had a heart-to-heart talk with his disciples, because even though he had miraculously fed a giant crowd, they were still worried about where they would get bread, and even though he had healed a blind man, they still could not see.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. (Mark 8:31-32a, NRSV) “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34b)

So, they’ve been told, but it’s safe to say they don’t understand. Six days later, Jesus takes the three he holds the closest, Peter and James and John, on a hike up a mountain, and there they see he is definitely not like all the other guys.

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

We chuckle a little about Peter, and the foolish thing he said that day. What would possess him to want to build dwellings for Jesus and Moses and Elijah? Maybe the elevation affected his thinking. (After all, he was a fisherman. He was used to living at sea level.) Maybe he was awe-struck, dazzled by more than the brilliant whiteness of Jesus’ clothes. Maybe, just for a minute there, he understood who Jesus was. If he did, it’s no wonder he babbled. It’s a wonder he could speak at all.

Here at the center of Mark’s gospel we get the only story in this gospel that shows us a supernatural Jesus. In Mark, he never reappears after his death. There is no Resurrection appearance, only an empty tomb that terrifies the women, just as this strange and spooky moment with long-dead Moses and Elijah terrifies Peter and James and John.

Still, the appearance of these famous dead people gives the disciples a sense of what Resurrection will be: a visible event intended to show that this life is not all there is. By God’s grace and power, existence goes on beyond death.

It’s not Jesus who needs this mountaintop experience. Nor does he say anything quotable while in the company of Elijah the Prophet and Moses the Law-Bringer.

But the Cloud Voice is insistent: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

It’s the disciples who need to see Jesus in this company. It’s the disciples who need to hear the voice from the cloud. “Listen to him!” It’s “six days later”…six days after Jesus got serious with the disciples. Six days after he told them something not nice at all. Six days after he prophesied and didn’t sugarcoat it.

The Son of Man will be arrested by the authorities and put to death…and in three days he will rise. He asks them if they have what it takes to carry their own crosses. He wonders aloud, do they have what it takes to follow him?

“This is my Son the Beloved.” They are the same words spoken at Jesus’ baptism, but there is more. “Listen to him.”

That day on the mountain, I imagine he hoped his closest friends would come to understand him better, but they didn’t, not yet. He had to tell them to keep the whole thing to themselves. For once, they listened, because all they had to do was keep quiet about something they couldn’t have explained anyway.

“Listen to him.”

The Voice from the cloud instructs them to listen to Jesus over Moses, who represents the Old Testament Law, and Elijah, who represents the Old Testament Prophets. In this moment, God affirms what we’ve been hearing from the first chapter of Mark. Jesus is a new authority on humankind’s relationship with God, and he describes a new way of being faithful that transcends accepted rules and rituals.

“Listen to him.”

Oh, dear. Do we want to? Because we have our own rules and rituals, our own law and prophets in 21st century America, and Jesus seems as radical by comparison as he did 2000 years ago in Galilee. Forget about climbing the mountain. Jesus is calling on the disciples to walk up a terrible hill with him, carrying the weight of the cross on their shoulders, prepared to lose their lives right beside him.

And I wish I could tell you it’s just a story for them, for that time, a desire he had only for the Big Twelve or the Special Three, but in truth being faithful requires us to prepare to do the same thing. Following Jesus will sometimes put us on a hard road, carrying the weight of his hopes for us. Following Jesus will mean speaking the truth about God’s embracing, forgiving and sacrificial love to a world that
mostly didn’t want to hear it then and mostly still doesn’t want to hear it now. Following Jesus will often cause us to lose the lives we expected to have.

“Listen to him.”

It’s not as simple as it sounds.

I remember thinking, foolishly, that coming down the mountain would be much easier. I had no idea the new and exciting ways my legs could hurt or how stiff they would get as soon as I stopped moving. The high of being at the top became a memory, just as it did for Peter and James and John. But the story they couldn’t tell anyone transformed them, once they understood it. They lost their old lives and gained new ones, leaving behind their bumbling to become the founders of our faith.

For each of us, there is a new life waiting, a transformation into the person Christ calls us to be. Are we willing? It can happen, if we’ll listen to him. Amen.